Litro #142: Mexico

Contents:

Foreword by Diego Gómez-Pickering

Letter from the Editor by Jennifer Clement

Pigeon by Chloe Aridjis

The Crab’s Back by Natalia Toledo

The Nest by Daniel Krauze

The Street Seller’s Song by Samuel Noyola

Every House Learnt How to Burn by Sara Uribe

Constantinople’s Jacket by Álvaro Enrigue

Crab by Luis Miguel Aguilar

Fedra and Other Greeks by Ximena Escalante

The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection by Aline Davidoff

 

This is only a taster of our Mexico issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.





Pigeon

She tried to straighten her thoughts, give them some order and linearity, and when that didn’t work she tried to imagine herself elsewhere, on a mountain or coast far from the city, rather than on the Central line with its erratic movement and office-bound passengers and the prickly silence of those torn from sleep. She and her mother had been lucky to find seats; at that hour the tube was nearly full, a geometric overload of skirts and suits, and wherever she turned she saw freshly combed hair and painted faces and newspapers and briefcases all vying for space.

“You know, you could have died.” Her mother lowered her voice in the hope that none of the other passengers would hear.

“Well the point is, I didn’t.”

“You nearly did.”

“I’m cold.”

“Don’t you have a sweater in your bag?”

“I gave it away.”

“You gave it away?”

“This morning. To one of the nurses.”

With something close to nostalgia, N. thought back on the small room she’d just left behind, its itchy grey blanket and sweat-faded sheets, and the dent in the wall, courtesy of a former patient, in which her own fist had fit perfectly. Now that she’d left she found herself missing the kind female voices that roused her each morning, voices that for a few seconds invoked the promise of a new life, voices she preferred to that of her mother’s. And she thought back too on the strange dreams she’d had, dangerous and ornate, dreams unlike the ones outside. And then the wallpaper: red and white stripes connecting floor to ceiling, heaven to hell. There was a window, always locked, but as a view N. preferred the walls and the ceiling since they didn’t present any mocking beyond.

In the seat in front of her sat a boy wearing headphones. She hadn’t heard any music in five weeks, she realised, not a note. As soon as she got home she would listen to… everything. Thousands and thousands of songs. She’d go through them all, one by one, day and night, an endless carousel of memories, welcome and unwelcome, round and round, that melodic loop of acceptances and rejections, tiny triumphs and huge disasters. In the clinic, what she’d feared the most was the loss of her memories; now, she was willing to keep them all.

“Which sweater was it?

“Hmm?

“Which sweater?”

“Just a sweater.”

“I hope not one of the nice ones I bought you last month.”

She shrugged.

“They won’t be on sale again. You won’t have one like that again.”

She shrugged a second time.

“She must have been a very nice nurse to deserve a sweater like that.”

“Yes, she was nice and kind and brought me tea whenever I wanted.”

“Shouldn’t they do that anyway?”

“Well, they don’t.”

Her mother shook her head and mumbled something to herself, as if running a few mental maths, trying to assess whether she had possibly, in this latest guilt venture, been taken for a ride.

N. looked down at her hands, which had nearly recovered their delicate form. There’d been a point when she hadn’t recognized them, they were so purple and swollen she feared they would break off and drift away, the palms puffy and indistinct, a fortune-teller’s nightmare. And then she wondered, as she rubbed them together, what had happened to her gloves, a beautiful pair her grandmother once knit, dark blue with grey borders. They’d begun to feel tight so she’d stowed them away, but where? Well, it didn’t matter, what was gone was gone. Just as long as no one touched her records, the only belongings N. swore to herself she would never sell off. This past year everything, pretty much everything, had gone up in smoke, part of an amazing alchemical transformation of base metal into gold.

She couldn’t help but keep an eye on the doors. Instinct. Each time they opened and closed at a station, an opportunity came and went.

At the next stop two men clutching paper bags from McDonald’s got on. The carriage filled up with the tantalizing smell of french fries.

“I’m cold and I’m hungry.”

“I’ll make you something when we get home.”

“That’s ages away.”

Her mother looked up at the map on the wall. “Only twelve more stops.”

“And then the bus.”

“There shouldn’t be traffic at this hour.”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t take a cab.”

“A cab would’ve cost the same as a day at the clinic.”

“Then think of all the money I’m saving you by leaving now.”

“I just hope Dr. Reid knew what he was talking about when he said you were ready to come home.”

Coming home: once upon a time, quite a while ago now, this phrase was like a magic potion, but the word ‘home’ had now been attached to so many spaces, it’d lost all currency. Each year it had referred to somewhere else, to a different scenario, a different roof, a different set of faces: the rented flat in Bow, the rented flat in Seven Sisters, the family house in Mexico before her mother went off with the Englishman, and of course the string of clinics where she’d been sent after the first so-called intervention.

At Oxford Circus half the carriage disembarked, leaving room for the dozens of passengers who clambered on. Nearly everyone found a seat and those who didn’t grabbed onto the bright red poles and handrails as the tube began to pull out of the station. N. rubbed her arm and thought back on the handsome new patient who’d arrived at the clinic two days earlier. She could still visualise him perfectly, ambling down the corridor with his combed-back hair and long-sleeved turtleneck, no track marks visible, only the familiar scent of melancholy. It was his fourth time there, the nurses said, and they doubted it would be the last. He’d looked over in her direction once or twice, at least she thought he had… If her mother hadn’t arrived so early that morning they might have spoken.

“Twitch, twitch, twitch,” her mother interrupted the reverie. “Twitch twitch twitch. I thought they’d ironed all the twitches out of you.”

“I set some aside for the journey home.”

Yes, her mother had tried. But only for a few months and not hard enough. Her attempts were half-hearted, mechanical, and she’d been careless – forgetting to dispose of expired medication, leaving earrings and banknotes within view, passing on phone calls that should have been screened: endless temptations for the easily tempted. She hadn’t tried as hard as some of the other mothers, at least according to the stories people shared, and she certainly hadn’t been very present in the early days, when N. had desperately needed her.

It was at Chancery Lane that the pigeon flew in, right into the carriage in a clean diagonal sweep, a whisk of all four seasons compressed into one. It was a large pigeon, slate grey with reddish eyes and white-tipped wings, and it entered at the last possible second before the doors banged shut and the tube recommenced its journey.

One moment it had been on a vaulted platform with friends, the next, it found itself alone with the other species inside a closed space in motion. Almost immediately, with the first awkward movements of the tube, the bird turned into a dervish of feathers, panic and confusion. People ducked and dispersed yet it still managed to graze a few heads and shoulders. Two startled young women rose from their seats and hurried to the opposite end of the car. Someone waved a handbag.

The pigeon flapped this way and that and N. caught a glimpse of its underwing, of an inverse serenity, light powdery grey. Each stroke of its wings released a slight breeze, the breeze of hundreds of flights across the city.

“Ssssss,” someone hissed when the bird came too near.

After about a minute or two of useless histrionics, the pigeon seemed to calm down and landed on the floor with a thick, clumsy thud. It surveyed the area and then headed enthusiastically in the direction of the men with bags from McDonald’s. One of them stamped his boot and muttered something in a foreign language. The pigeon backed off.

N. and her mother watched on. The other passengers watched too. No one spoke, no one moved. All eyes were on the bird.

At St. Paul’s, a station N. rarely used, a woman with a dark ponytail got on and took an empty seat near them, straightening out her skirt as she sat down. The woman pulled a novel out from her bag, cracked the spine wide open, and turned to the first page. When the pigeon pecked at something near her feet, she simply moved them a few inches to the left without looking up from her book.

When had she last read? She couldn’t remember. She’d started countless books, of that she was sure, novels and biographies and even some poetry. But despite the warm glow that came out of the pages she would doze off before long and find herself, hours later, with the book in her lap or at her feet, and she’d put it aside and pick up the next one, and this too, she realised, was an endless carousel, though instead of a whole variety of memories the main memory the books brought back was of herself as a student before she dropped out of university, and of her prodigious concentration, remarked on by everyone, and her proud rows of 10’s.

Swoosh, swoosh. The pigeon was back in the air and had begun flapping more frantically than ever. It circled a pole, zipped down the carriage, zipped back near where N. and her mother were sitting. People would hastily make way for it, clearing a path for its desperation, but it didn’t want to see. At one point mid-tunnel it flew into a darkened window and was thrown to the floor for a few seconds before resuming its flight.

At the next station N. grabbed a sports section that had been left behind and tried to usher the bird out but it grew even more flustered and headed in the opposite direction just as the doors were closing.

“He prefers it in here, where it’s warm,” someone said. No one laughed.

At Liverpool Street a serious-looking man in a pinstriped suit strode on and sat directly across from them, the aroma of McDonald’s replaced by the confident reign of cologne. The man was hefty, with cheeks bearing the flush of countryside and pale blue eyes that with one glance sized up the other passengers. He set down his briefcase, wedging it between his polished black shoes, and unfolded the newspaper he had under his arm. Soon all N. could see were shoes, large knuckles and knees and the outspread wings of the Financial Times.

“By the way,” her mother turned to her, “We’ve decided you’re going to Mexico for a year.”

For the first time since her last fix, she was aware of the blood circulating through her body.

“A year?”

“You’re going to live with your father. We’ve discussed it and agree it’s the best option.”

“I’m happy here.”

“You know you’re not. This is your last chance.”

There’d been many last chances; she was nearing the end of her supply.

“What will I do there?”

“You’ll live with your father and start thinking a little more seriously about the future.”

“Of course, the future…”

Little by little, it had come to represent nothing more than a shadowy road lit by fireflies, lined on either side by the silhouettes of people and possibilities that would remain just that: silhouettes.

The woman reading the novel let out a small cry. The pigeon had flown past a little too close, brushing her cheek. In a delayed response she waved a hand in front of her face and leaned back as far as she could but there was no need, it had already flapped away. A grey feather zigzagged to the floor.

“Three more stops,” said N.’s mother.

It was shortly after she said this, N. would never forget, that the pigeon flew right into the centre of the Financial Times. Without blinking, the man in the pinstriped suit lay down his paper and within what seemed like a fraction of a second, grabbed the bird – the whole carriage was now watching – and with his fat knuckles snapped its neck. It was a clean snap, expertly done, as if he’d been snapping birds’ necks his entire life.

One second the pigeon had been tense and aquiver, the next, an immobile lump of grey. Whatever its journey across the city had been, it ended here. The man deposited the corpse on the empty seat next to him, picked up his paper and continued to read.

The act was met with silence. Everyone simply stared at the dead bird, just stared and stared, as if pooled together the intensity of their gaze might resurrect it.

For a few seconds N. fought the impulse to pick up the pigeon and take it outside to bury – the sanitation people would surely just toss it in a bin – but the thought of touching the thing made her queasy. She imagined what it would feel like to hold the feathery corpse, still warmed by its recent life force, and wasn’t sure what was more overpowering, her distress at witnessing such brutality or the guilty flicker of revulsion she’d begun to feel.

As if in quiet defeat, the pigeon’s head lay to one side like the emblem on a fallen coat of arms. Its eye had almost immediately turned white, or perhaps it was the eyelid that had closed, and its legs, already stiff, looked like little pink twigs that could easily break off.

N. turned to look at her mother, who continued staring at the bird, willing her to say something, anything. But no, she kept whatever she was thinking to herself, hands in lap, fingers interlocked.

At the following station, which was open air, the businessman folded his paper, picked up his briefcase and stepped out. The doors of the tube took a few moments to close, and as they stuttered N. gazed out at the sky and the platform and the spaces in between, seized by the urge to grab her bag and run for it, in whatever direction opened up to her. But she remained in her seat and with one strong tug unzipped her jacket, for the temperature inside the carriage suddenly felt very warm




The Nest

In the house where I was born and grew up, the final unexplored frontier, the last stronghold of the old west, the ultimate wild territory was my father’s study, a narrow annex attached to the rest of the property, with olive-coloured walls and moth-eaten furniture, that he used to sequester himself away at night and drink when we lived beneath the same roof and which, after he abandoned us to go to Cancún to work as the manager of an “all inclusive,” my mother filled with chairs, tables, sofas and bookcases, as if that chamber were a mouth she had to muzzle. Then she closed the door, locking it with a key, and didn’t speak of her husband again.

The house belongs to my mother. She inherited it and she decorated it, with the compulsive attention of the unemployed, choosing identical sheets for our beds, the same tapestry wallpaper for all the walls, and baskets full of plastic fruit for the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. If my brother or I took just one of those fruits and moved it from its position, my mother noticed in less time than the blink of an eye and took us to task. Where did you put my peach? What have you done with my lemons? That melon goes upside down. The pineapple goes in the other basket.

My father left without taking anything with him. I always imagined his flight in fast motion, as if it were part of a caricature, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. A few months after abandoning us, he sent a letter in which he asked our forgiveness for not having said goodbye, assuring us that this new work opportunity would benefit all of us and promising to visit us in February, the off season. Months later we received another letter, congratulating us because soon we would have a little sibling. He had just met his new wife, he told us. Come and visit. You’ll like her, you’ll see.

My mother didn’t touch this subject, but my aunt Elda lost no time in offering her opinion. First he goes off with that slut from work, he knocks her up, and then invites you to Cancún, is that right, Sergio? she asked me, as if I knew what she was talking about and had also drunk four tequilas. Those are chingaderas, my boy. On your heads if you go to see that cynic.

We didn’t go to see him, nor did we talk about the matter between us. My brother began to sleep in my mother’s room, on the carpet on one side of the bed, whereas every afternoon I snuck into the study through the window and, more than delving into the things my father left behind, I inhabited that space as if it were mine. I kept comics, my homework notebooks and sweets in my knapsack, and tried to entertain myself there, among the mountains of furniture and appliances.

I never managed to last more than ten minutes before running back home. At twelve, I was certain that something malignant dwelled in there and that the only way to face it was to have an accomplice who accompanied me.

I convinced my brother to venture in there with me during a family meal one Sunday afternoon, while my mother and my aunts played cards and drank in the living room. Elda’s two daughters, her newborn baby and a two year old girl who had not learned how to talk, slept in my room, and the daughter of the recently-divorced Beatriz had gone on a trip with her father. My brother and I were the only children in a house where the adults paid no attention to us and we were forbidden to watch television. Bored, I challenged him to go into the study with me.

Four years younger than me, my brother was always stick-thin and stuttered, with the sharp features and nervous gestures of a squirrel. He was a boy wracked by incomprehensible fears. My mother couldn’t leave him alone in the car for more than a minute without him beginning to whine like the teakettle, not even the juiciest bribe managed to convince him to get onto the swings, and he wouldn’t eat anything but roast beef and rice with ketchup. I also had fears (what boy of twelve doesn’t?), but they weren’t as obvious nor as absurd as his. He cried when he was left alone; I asked my mother to get out of my room and leave me alone. He trembled in fear the moment he placed one foot on a carousel; I got into the first car of the roller coaster. He refused to try anything new; I asked for a double portion of giblets – even if afterwards I went to the bathroom to throw them up in secret.

Where are you going, kids? Elda asked us when she saw us heading toward the garden. She clutched a small crystal horse in her hand and played cards barefoot, the soles of her feet grey with dust.

We’re going to climb the jacaranda, I answered. My mother looked away from the game and asked my brother to put a sweater on. She asked me to take care of him when we went out. Don’t force Carlitos to climb if he doesn’t want to.

The jacaranda, denuded and dying, was two metres tall. Perhaps it would have grown higher if the garden, a muddy space hardly larger than our bedroom, would have allowed. Behind it, through a narrow hallway where my mother kept the pruning shears, a shovel and a pitchfork, was the study.

Why do you tell lies? my brother asked me, stuttering, as if asking a question were an aggression.

They don’t care what we do, I answered him, without looking him in the face, while I pushed the cold glass of the window inwards.

Barely inside, my brother tensed all his muscles, beat his hands against his chest and began to whine: let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky clear of clouds, and the light that filtered through the window revealed a thick patina of unsettled dust. The room had the smell of a public lavatory, barely disguised by the scent of a chain smoker.

Did you piss yourself? I asked my brother, although I knew that the scent of urine was too persistent and rancid to have come from him. He patted his crotch. Of course not, he said, his tongue stumbling on the consonants.

We walked between the furniture along the route that I had opened, myself, on those afternoons on which I escaped from the house to go to the study to eat sweets and read comics. I asked him to be careful, time after time, as if the objects around us were still in use: a torn wicker armchair, a wardrobe with the doors open, plastic bag after bag filled with clothes, and, on the floor, under one leg of the desk, my father’s college degree, in Accounting, with his hair gelled back, his cheeks clean-shorn, and his eyes wide open, possibly surprised by the camera’s flash. I didn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. My father always laughed, he was always telling jokes, tickling us; he was always disguised as a smiling dad.

Did you hear that, my brother asked. I placed my index fingers to my lips and asked him to be quiet. I listened to the distant murmur of my mother and her sisters chatting in the living room as they played and, then, I heard a short, sharp squeak, the acoustic equivalent of a pinch. The moment we became quiet, the squeaking multiplied. It sound like a choral tantrum. In miniature, the sound reminded me of my own brother, crying like a little girl because my mother had forgotten to come pick us up from school.

He begged me not to look for where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I put my shoulder to the wall, facing the chair where I always sat, full of crumbs and candy wrappers, and with an effort I pushed it toward the middle of the room. Suddenly, the squeaks became clearer. What was crying was there, inside or beneath the leather armchair, just one metre from us.

I slipped into the gap that had opened between the back of the chair and the wall, I crouched down on my knees, stuck my hand in between the ground and the bottom of the chair, rested my cheek against a spongey mat and peeked at what was under there.

I pulled back immediately, so quickly that I banged my neck against the wall behind me. What is it? What is it? What is it? my brother asked, also moving back like a crab, his foot breaking the glass frame of the diploma.

Come and see, I told him. Take a peek.

I don’t want to.

Don’t be a sissy, dude. Come on.

I let him pass by, so that he was closer. Then we crouched down at the same time. This time I didn’t stick my hand inside the chair, out of fear that those things might bite me. I only stretched out my index finger and pointed to the mound of tiny little bodies, all pink and skin, piled one on top of the other on a bundle of paper and cotton. Each the size of my pinkie, the animals moved in restless spasms, with a repulsive clumsiness. They didn’t look like newborn animals but instead creatures in their final throes, about to die.

What are they? he asked me, placing the palm of his hand over mine.

I withdrew my hand, pulling away from him. What do you mean what are they? They’re rats. What else would they be?

We need to tell Mom, he said, standing up.

What for? You want her to yell at you for coming in here?

My brother assured me that rats were dangerous. They infect you with rabies, he said. That’s what Michael, his only friend, had told him.

They’re just babies. They’re not going to do anything, I told him, trying to calm him down, but I couldn’t convince him. He climbed out through the window and headed straight into the house. When I reached him, he was in the middle of recounting the anecdote. Exaggerating, like always, my brother swore to my mother that the nest was immense, that there were hundreds of rats, that the entire place reeked of animal excrement.

I thought that my mother would get mad when she discovered that we had gone into the study that she herself had locked with a key, but apparently the nest was a more urgent problem to deal with than the mischief of her sons. Elda went to my bedroom, to check on her daughters, while Beatriz and my mother left their cards on the table and went out into the garden.

We followed them towards the study.

My mother opened the door, followed by her sister, who pinched her nose shut with two fingers. Jijos, Beatriz exclaimed, those damned rats have already gotten into everything. You can tell just from the smell.

I accompanied them inside, happy not to be alone and, above all, happy that the most boring afternoon of the week had turned into a hunting expedition. My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. He remained outside, standing beneath the jacaranda, as if he were hugging himself.

I’ve seen them now, my mother said, peeking under the chair. Sergio, go to the kitchen and bring back a broom, a dustpan and a plastic bag, OK?

Excited, I obeyed. I returned with my hands full, stumbling against the broom my mother had asked for. My brother remained outside, while Beatriz and Elda shifted the furniture around the armchair.

What are you going to do? I asked them.

My mother spoke. We’re going to stick them in the bag and throw them out into the street, she told me.

The operation consisted of four stages. First, Elda and Beatriz moved the armchair away from the wall. Then, my mother put the dustpan on the floor and swept the nest toward it. Finally, she lifted the dustpan and dumped its contents into the bag. From the moment my aunts pushed the first piece of furniture, the little things didn’t stop squealing, sounding increasingly more pitiful with each cry. As my mother took the bag out to the garden, I saw them moving backlit against the plastic, indistinguishable from each other, like an amorphous and pulsating mass. I didn’t stop smiling, but I began to feel disgusted.

Elda, grab the shovel, my mother said.

The shovel? What do you need the shovel for? I asked.

By this time, my brother had already hidden behind the tree.

My mother tied a knot in the bag, placed it on the ground, took the shovel with both hands and, in a single circular movement, lifted it upwards and then let it fall, directly on the tiny animals. You could hear a damp, squirting sound, like a tomato squished between your fingers. A tiny squeak could still be heard, until my mother lifted the shovel again and, with the flat side, banged and banged and banged the bag until its contents no longer seemed to be made up of tiny rats but instead a puddle of brown paint.

The friction of the shovel against the ground had torn the bag. Chunks of viscera and purple foetal skin poked through a hole. My brother began to cry and ran inside the house, covering his eyes with his forearm. My mother pushed her hair behind her ears and asked me to help her throw the remains into the trash.

I picked up the bag, surprised at how little it weighed, and carried it to the garage, leaving behind a dribbled trail of blood along the way. I thought to open the bag before throwing it away. It wasn’t the morbid impulse of someone who looked out of a car window when passing a traffic accident. I wanted to see if some rat were still alive. I untied the knot, I couldn’t help it. Inside, the bodies were all mixed together in a bulbous paste of skin, sinew, organs, and a fresh red, almost warm. I saw the little feet of one, the grey eyes of another, the tail of a third. I don’t know why, but I felt a tightness in my throat. Then I threw the bag into the garbage can, among the scraps of food and empty milk cartons.

When I went back inside, my mother congratulated me for having found the nest. Elda served herself another tequila. Beatriz lit a cigarette. My brother cried in the bathroom.

I stopped visiting my father’s study, even when my mother turned it into a game room, a guest room, a gym, and finally, now married to my stepfather, a bar.

Many years passed before I could break free from the memory of those rats. First I imagined them alive, wandering around the nest, and then dead, asphyxiated, rotting in the bag. Then I began to think of their mother, who we never found. I was sure that she was still there, enormous and hurt, hidden among the pipes of the house, spying on me from a corner of the living room, ready to exact vengeance. I dreamed that she slipped inside my bed and, little by little, with patience, she gnawed away my fingers while I slept.

Carlos died at 17 in a highway accident.

I graduated with a degree in Accounting. I got married. Had two daughters.

I should be afraid of human beings, but the only thing I’m afraid of is rats.

Translation by Lawrence Schimel




Constantinople’s Jacket

It’s the type of business where those with a PhD are the unprepared ones; they had to go to school and waste their time while the rest embraced universal culture without aides and from an early age. Frankly, there are assistants who are quite simple and accountants with mental retardation but overall employees have a terrific intellectual calibre.

The best are those who didn’t even finished High School. As an example there is this one who wanted to become a professional football player. He had some success at a youngster’s league team but his father, an engineer, prevented him going further. He then read every book, admired every painting and listened to every record he bumped into; just to contravene his dad. He ended up incapable of joining any other sort of industry. There is this other one, who retired yesterday in a hurry, who is able to translate in six different languages; she’s invented two perfumes and during her free time she writes advisory papers for the development of Brazilian aerospace programs. There is a Chilean who sees series of figures in action where for the rest of us there’s only a bicycle, for example. He asks: what is the basic ingredient in your bike’s alienation; titanium or aluminium? One responds: Aluminium, why? He looks up, closing his left eye, and adds: 28.3 kilometres an hour without considering slopes; not bad. He’s spent his life turning cultural entrepreneurs into millionaires; by visiting their shops and studying the relevant yellow pages he is able to advise on investments since he already knows how much will be sold during their first year. However his true speciality, in which he never fails, is Thomism; he discusses Councils as if discussing restaurants and he’s a Jew. There’s a physicist who invents motors at his own place. He can distinguish errata just by looking at a document and left the movie industry at 20 after concluding Godard, for whom he worked doing research, was Maoist not out of conviction but stupidity.

It was on all those people’s computer screens that the decisive email inviting the entire personnel to attend the Second Evaluation Meeting on ISO 9000 advancements appeared. In the company all of us understood the partners’ upsetting fixation with our way of getting things done and the sad confusion of the Director General, recently arrived from his MBA and Milky Way’s rotation; so we were polite but condescending and foolish at the same time. Nobody spoke on time to stop the Certification process, maybe it was never possible to do so since the Director had learnt through his private university ministerial teachers those communication strategies of the revolutionary General type that sometimes are mixed up with political ability. When we realized it, the several thousand dollar contract was a reality; a deal with the most unlikely basic group of hustlers on Earth. We had nurtured the monster with a funny attendance at the Total Quality workshops and when we were called to attend the First Evaluation Meeting many amongst us had something else to do. Only the accountants, the secretaries, the janitors and the Director General attended; hence the scarcely veiled ferocity of the Second Meeting invitation. We thought of our kids, of our medical insurance, of the gas coupons, and ran to them en masse.

As usual, there were coffee and nibbles at the entrance. Apparently that’s part of every hustler’s manual: you don’t have to be a charmer just badly pretend to be one and offer coffee and nibbles. We ate them happily chatting in the auditorium’s hall while waiting for the Director General to arrive, always behind his tie which he would wear tomorrow to Wall Street and the one he wore yesterday to the City of London, we proved that scientifically. None of us conceived entering the auditorium before the Meeting started, busy as we were eating the hustlers’ nibbles. Had we done that the smartest amongst us might had given an alarm signal and we would have escaped in order to form an ironic resistance, this time around voluntarily speaking. The tornado Director passed in front of us ten minutes late for the Meeting, cooling our coffees, and we entered the auditorium behind him.

Seats were displayed by Project or Management Offices. There were groups of seats labelled under handmade banners: a broom stick with a paper note announcing Humanities, Sciences, Cutting edge Research, Philosophy and Arts; or Maintenance, Finance, Purchases. Each banner included a crowning, ferocious animal. In our case it was a wolf, we envied the Humanities team, the favourite ones, who had the jaguar. You were to sit under your banner next to the rest of the team of your office, which in our case included a secretary, an errand boy, two assistants and a sizeable group of doctors and people way too illustrated to deserve a PhD.

It started with an extravagant speech, apparently inspirational, by one of the hustlers, who showed very weird images on his computer. Cartoons of Americans, or people of the sort; all were either blonde or black; measuring graphics or working in front of their desks next to what seemed like a ventilator at top speed. What the speech really inspired was laughs, but all of us restrained ourselves because we are quite polite and because the previous afternoon we thought of our kids, our gas coupons and our medical insurance. We were invited to commit to Top Quality as if it was really hot or cooked great. At the climax of the speech, the General Director looked at the sky – or at the ceiling since we were inside an auditorium – and asked who were we tied to. Tradition? noted someone from the Arts Office timidly. An uncomfortable silence followed. Surely it was one of the seven people that failed the anonymous ISO exam the previous week. No, he said, we are tied to our client. Then I remembered one of the workshop sessions where we were told there were internal and external clients. For over forty minutes we discussed who was whose client within the company. At a certain point someone gave the example, if I go for lunch to my house at the end of the month and bring along my monthly salary who is the client? Me or my wife? The hustler said it was the wife; someone from the Human Resources Office thought it was the husband; a somewhat naïve and disoriented girl from the Cutting Edge Research Office said it was actually the children. What if there are no children? insisted the sensitive one. The Chilean intervened to calm the waters, and ask us to continue – the hustlers, like parking lots, charged on an hourly basis – and answer the following question as homework: how may clients fit onto a pin’s head?

After the Director’s speech we listened to those of the managers, quite funny frankly; it was obvious none of them had a clue except for the sales manager who was always clear about who was whose client. Later on, they organized an award ceremony in which the guy next to me got a pen without really knowing the reason for it. We applauded vigorously.

It was then that we learnt how to stand on our own feet; we who thought so highly of ourselves. We were buttoning our jackets and getting ready to go back to our cubicles to share ironies when they turn off the lights. There was confusion, a feeling we were getting used to. Then there was fear, not because of the dark but because of our medical insurance and the gas coupons of the technicians in charge of the event. The screen lit up with the company’s logo, Wagner was coming out of the sound system and we watched images of ourselves in our desks mixed with images of athletes breaking world records and climbers dominating mountains. Jesus! came out of the mouths of the most agnostic Philosophy fundamentalists. A spotlight set on the centre of the podium illuminating the hustlers’ leader, the only interesting one of them because of his obvious hypocrisy. He asked us for a war cry; he asked it of us, who thought heaven looks like a library. The downside of it is we thought again of our cars without gas and of our kids deprived of insurance and then we gave in. Once more, he said, and we followed suit. Once again, another one, once more. Now close your eyes and hold hands with each other. No, one of the oldest ones yelled. Yes, he said; feel the power of music, feel the power of music, feel the power of music. And we did. After three or four minutes of this nightmare during which the only thing we felt was the sweaty hands of the secretary and the errand boy, he screamed: synergy has been done. Lights came back. Those who believed in the miracle applauded.

The rest of us lined up and left the auditorium in pain, following our banners. We were prisoners of war. What we had always been and never noticed for thinking so high of ourselves, immersed in our books. Or maybe what everyone knew but no one dared to tell us: the radiant loot of a secular faction.

Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering




Litro #141: Myths & Legends

litro135_somewherebetweenborders

Cover Art: Cyclops by Samuel Hickson

Contents:

Letter from the Editor by Dan Coxon

Andromeda by Sam Mills

Calypso in Therapy by Louise Palfreyman

On a Ship Bound for Crete by Armel Dagorn

The Tikbalang by Bethany W. Pope

Petrification by Ruth Brandt

Fimbulwinter by Francoise Harvey

Land of Fire and Ice by Andrea Calabretta

Author Q&A with Hari Kunzru

This is only our Myths & Legends issue. Become a Litro Member for access to back-issues and member exclusives.




Andromeda

Andromeda waves her rust-caked chains and screams up at the sky. She imagines her pleas, carried by the wind and spiced with sea-salt, flung into the town, the market place, the windows of houses and the church. Sometimes she even bleats like a goat, though she doubts the townsfolk appreciate the satire. They probably imagine that 48 days on a rock has shattered her mind. Apparently there are small clay likenesses of her for sale in the marketplace; some take them home and eye them furtively, others feel protected by her presence on their sill. Trouble – which might slap at any time, depending on the whim of the gods and the patterning of the stars – has been localised and caged and is no longer looking for fresh flesh.

The blue waters at her feet break and a dark shape emerges. Up rears Ketos the sea monster. He is stoned again. She can see it in the whites of his eyes, which are blurry, as though filmed with green smoke. His roar is so unconvincing that even a passing shoal of fish continue on their path; their buoyancy seems an intended sarcasm. Ketos does nothing because when Ketos is stoned he talks about everything being connected, as though he is regurgitating a watery version of Heraclitus.

Andromeda flings a rock at him. It bounces off his nose, plops back into the ocean. The fish scatter into a firework of cerise and gold.

With a limp flick of his tail, he makes a sulky descent back into the ocean.

She slumps back down onto her rock, on a cushion of dried moss that she fashioned herself. The branches of an ebony tree growing out of the cliff provide a dappled shelter. She examines her body, seeking metamorphosis. Her breasts are stained with sunburn and when she combs her bush with her fingers, it seems an inch longer. Her toenails are dirty; she dips them into the water. Before her imprisonment, she often glanced down at the ocean from the cliffs above her (how curious to think she stood there, in such happiness and innocence, unaware of how her future self would be chained to their rocky sides!) and considered the stillness of the waves. Now she no longer sees the ocean as a calm entity. She watches their bustle: the swim of the sea-thrushes, the flick of the thynnis and tritomus, diving xiphias, drifting pelamis, pinnotheres scuttling with their crampy claws, the batrachus blotted and whiskered, scarus bright as birds against the dull turbot and orcynus: busier than the market place on a Friday. Every creature seems to act with such purpose and fierce intent, exacerbating her sense of aimlessness. Sometimes the salt crystals on her skin glitter as though she is acquiring scales, or her bush looks dank and green-seeped like seaweed. Becoming a monster feels like a boon compared to her deepest fear: that she is becoming abstract, as though one day her body will lose its boundaries, slop into the ocean and her quiddity will become loose and liquid, drift into the horizon, lost and forgotten forever.

Another day, another day. Number forty-nine. End of summer. The cliff shrinking, nibbled a little more. The sun inches across the sea, redrawing chiaroscuros of light and shadow on her skin. There comes a certain point in the afternoon – when the sun slices her into a harlequin and the tide has pulled the waters from her rock – when she feels anchored to her setting, weary with remembering. Incidents which only happened months ago but already feel as though they have faded by too much unravelling, as though she is already an old woman struggling to assert details. Her Mother gave her toy horses to play with when she was a little girl. They would kneel down and pretend to race two beasts across the floor. Just before the finishing line, her Mother would draw her own horse back, allowing Andromeda to win. Every victory was tainted by the look of anguish on her Mother’s face, as though her daughter had cheated. Mother tied ribbons in Andromeda’s hair and told her how pretty she was; she became angry when the ribbons attracted the attention of young men at a feast, and accused her of whorish flirtation. Andromeda gradually realised that she needed to deflect compliments with the shield of self-deprecation, or bat back an even sweeter compliment in return. You are such a beautiful daughter, said her mother; but my looks are just echoes of yours, said Andromeda. You are a better version of me every way, her mother would insist; I am what you made me, whispered Andromeda. I seem a faded crone beside you, her mother wailed; I can be your shadow, replied Andromeda, and her Father rolled his eyes. They were all sitting at Andromeda’s birthday feast when her Mother raised her glass and declared that Andromeda was a very beautiful woman. She sat down, twitching, glancing. Andromeda thought, I am 21 today. I am rather tired of all this. She sipped her wine; her Father rolled her eyes. Her Mother stood up again. She raised her glass and proposed a toast to:

“My daughter – the most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia.”

***

The first reds of sunset. She has survived another day. She combs her fingers through her hair, searches the rock for some seaweed to tie in like ribbons. She waits for the splash of water. She waits. She waits.

Darkness comes, as though the gods above have stoked up a fire and the smoke is seeping into the world. It fills the horizon and blurs the sun before finally blotting him out. It seeps into the ocean and makes the waves, so light in the day, look heavy and turgid. As the air sharpens with evening chill, she begins to feel afraid. How hard did she throw at the rock at Ketos? Surely not that hard? Despair comes, suffocating, refusing to let her live like this for another moment. She considers the sharp rock hidden beneath the moss, imagines its slash against each wrist, her blood making the cuffs shiny and red –

“Andromeda, Andromeda.” The Nereid appears, slips onto the rock. “The most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia,” she sneers. “Ketos is waiting.”

Andromeda frowns. She feels as though she has been teased, her anticipation now sour with resentment. Which Nereid is this? She thinks her name is Plexare. She releases Andromeda’s chains and pulls her down, down, down into the dark depths.

***

Ketos’s chamber reminds Andromeda of her mother’s dressing room. Pearly oculta zigzag over the walls. A large mirror, decorated with firefly squid, reflects various vignettes as the crabs holding it shift and shuffle: a floor crackling with seaweed, a large double bed strewn with cerise sheets, fluorescent maracas. Andromeda feels Ketos’s playing reverberate inside her before she sees him. He is sitting in the corner, banging his drums. They range from large turtle shells, which bounce against his palms, to the shells of helices, which emit silvery tings! as his claw-tips touch them. Every so often he exhales a small, exuberant flame which flares blue in its core and dissolves into the air. She can smell his sins in the flame; the burning perfume of his drugs.

At the sight of Andromeda, his playing becomes louder. His smile is big and lazy. She pads over to the bed. There is a tray on the little coral table beside it, carrying food and water. Her fingers tingle with the urge to seize the glass and glug the water down in one gulp, to tear at the food like a beast. She sips it daintily, casually. She feels the sigh in her body; the pleasure in her throat is raw and sensual. Tonight’s food is, inevitably, fish – something that looks like a turbot. As she chews on its soft flesh, she muses on how the townsfolk might picture her. No doubt they believe that Ketos is eating her slowly, a finger one night, a toe the next, a slow torture. That, too, is a reassurance, for if he were to eat her in one gulp their sacrifice would be diminished to a casual snack.

Ketos bashes away and croons a love song.

The rhyme is execrable but Andromeda cannot fail to be charmed. His eyes sparkle as he plays, his wings fizzle and his finned tail flicks and bangs on the floor. She sits on the end of the bed, warm and calm now from the food, and clicks her fingers and hums along.

Ketos clambers out from his drums. He is a beast born to glide through air and water and his wings – a billowing grace when he flies – drag behind him like heavy, moth-eaten curtains. His belly is tubby, streaked with crimson; his face chubby and his chin bearded with green tufts that give his smile a shaggy sweetness. She stretches out and he clambers on top of her with great care, apologising as his tail hits the food tray and upends it. Ketos is in the habit of always saying sorry. Andromeda laughs and kisses him. She thinks of Phineus, whose chest was cool and slender, who used to make love to her as though she was a doll. Ketos’s chest, forever stoking up a fire waiting for release, is warm as a hearth. She runs her fingers over his barnacled back, shivering as his forked tongue flickers over her neck. At times like this, reality and dream exchange their substance. A return to the palace seems a nightmare. How strange it would be, to wear clothes and speak lines at court as though in a silly theatre.

***

Ketos leans over to sprinkle some powdered cuella stones onto a white cigarette paper. Andromeda, still airy from orgasms, stares at down at her nakedness, now imprinted with his touch. Greeny marks from his scales; scratches from where his claws became too enthusiastic; a piece of barnacle embedded in her shin; the faint smell of burning from where his fiery panting enflamed a few locks of hair. She imagines her parents seeing her, her mother appalled and her father telling her that her purity has been forever sullied. She smiles.

Ketos’s back is still turned. Sometimes he clutches her tight after their lovemaking, but not tonight. She wishes that she could dirty him too, smear patches of ebony on his tough skin, entwine his tufts with her tresses.

He lies back and sucks on his joint, his eyes childlike, as though he is inhaling dreams. She heard that when the Nereids ran to Poseidon with their soprano cries – “Did you hear the news? Andromeda’s mother has announced that her daughter is the most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia! Why, she should be a god!” – he hailed Ketos and ordered him to wreak havoc on the shore. Ketos agreed and then never got round to even flying over the cliff. Poseidon blocked his supply of cuella powder and gave him cocaine instead. That night, Ketos beheaded a row of eight cottages, quartered a temple and jumbled divine mosaics into a chaos of colour, killed three townsfolk and set their market area on fire. Andromeda pictures Poseidon with his array of drugs, Ketos his puppet: give him a drug of the right shade and then he can pull the strings. And yet, Ketos’s need to blur the world because he finds it all a bit too much for him, too harsh for his tender heart, too manipulative for his simple ways, is what makes her heart ache when she lies beside him. Climbing astride his belly, she tickles him and he emits a hoary laugh. He offers her the joint. She stubs it out and tears at it, so that the powder tumbles over the sheets.

“Andromeda, you are cruel to me,” Ketos chides her softly.

“When that stupid Nereid was bringing me down to you, I heard some whispers from the others – they were saying something about Perseus coming, and how I didn’t deserve to be rescued.”

Three thwacks as Ketos’s finned tail hits the bed.

“Maybe you should go back,” he whispers.

“You want me to?” Andromeda rolls over, staring at the ceiling. Ketos’s silence is a hurt. She cannot imagine sitting down to dinner next to her mother again, a bracelet tinkling around her wrist instead of a cuff. The rusty scars are stained deep; she wonders if they will always leave faint scribbles on her wrists. Yet she cannot sit on the rock forever. The townsfolk will lose their peace again. They will soon require death to immortalise her. A martyr who never gets round to dying might become rather unconvincing. She surprises herself with the sudden ache to become a Nereid, stay beneath the waves forever, even if it would mean playing to Poisedon’s ego. Then she feels the weight of Ketos’s tail as he curls it over her legs. She leans into his chest and gently strokes the gnarly folds of his wing.

***

She sees the figure a few days later. He is standing on top of the cliff. It is a moment of clever theatricality, for the midday sun illuminates him with a leonine sheen and makes his sword look like the tool of an alchemist. He waves and cries out to Andromeda, but by the time his calls reach her, the wind has blurred them into vagueness, like the words of a child. She realises this is Perseus. She nearly cries out in return but stops herself. Her heart is beating very hard and suddenly she feels dizzy with indecision, for she planned out how she would behave at this point, her careless indifference, yet now her instincts seem to be overriding her intellect.

Perseus attempts to climb down the cliff. She realises there is no time for her to call a Nereid; besides, she is afraid of her secret lover becoming spectacle. She imagines Perseus laughing at him, calling him a dirty old monster; she imagines the waves scarlet.

Halfway down the cliff, Perseus gets stuck. His sword gets entangled in the ebony tree and leaves shower over his head and he makes it all the worse by attempting to wave at Andromeda as though this is all part of the plan. Her eyes water from the strain of trying not to laugh.

There is a silvery flash as his sword falls into the rocks and is swallowed up by the sea. She frowns and curls back into the shade, fixing her eyes on her feet, and does not look up until she feels his fingers – cold and slender – on her shoulder. She looks up. He is so much younger than she was expecting – his face is boyish and open, his smile sheepish, the kind she might see on the dog she used to play with in the palace grounds.

***

Andromeda enters the palace wearing Perseus’s tunic. The palace ceiling once seemed epic, as though remembered from childhood; now everything looks small and cramped. Her Mother comes running to her and she tenses, expecting the slap of harsh words or her hand. Her embrace and tears seem genuine; Andromeda finds herself sobbing into her Mother’s hair in abandonment. Her Father joins them and they hold each other tight. Perseus watches on, maintaining his smile, until his lips seem weary from propping it up.

The water in her bath is as gentle as down. The grapes at the feast are ambrosia. Her Father stands and makes a speech; her Mother watches her very closely, as though anxious that she might vanish into the ether. Perseus makes a speech too. It is very long and details all of the various monsters he has killed, including the minotaur, a chimera and several lamias. When they hear a keening noise coming from the sea later that night, they assume that the sea monster has been slain and is slowly dying, a story that Perseus feeds. Andromeda lies in bed, listening to the wails of his heartbreak and refuses to allow herself to cry. She tells herself that she cannot return to that wild existence, which already seems like a strange dream. This is not a desertion; she is a woman who belongs to a civilised life.

***

A few weeks later, Andromeda stands frozen, as though immortalised on a plinth, wearing a white dress which foams in a long train at the back. The dressmaker fusses around her, snipping and picking and stitching. Her Mother watches, paces about, calls directions, narrows her eyes. She declares that the dress is too ostentatious. Andromeda bites her lip. The world within the palace seemed so fresh on her return. But the changes she perceived were an illusion; history favours rhyme and repetition.

Excusing herself, she hurries to the latrine, gathering up her dress and squatting over the hole. A little of her urine splashes onto the hem. She licks her finger, desperately trying to rub out the stain, which is bright green. The faint curve in her belly is too slight for Mother or the dressmaker to notice yet. The wedding is just a week away; she doubts that Perseus will notice it either. By the time she is ripe and heavy, he will assume that the child is his.

Back in her position, she watches the flash of the dressmaker’s scissors. She considers salt water, alcohol. Then she pictures him, a small green boy with fair hair and turquoise scales, small wings and Ketos’s olive black eyes. Her smile becomes dreamy.

That night, she slips out of the palace. The keening noise becomes more piercing as she approaches the cliff-face. Moonlight is spread across the ocean like a lace cloth. She sings softly to him, until his cries fade and there is a peaceful silence.

Ten thousand men and women from the town and neighbouring villages attend the wedding. The clay likenesses of her sold in the market have been recrafted to depict a maiden who looks chaste and sweet. Several times during the ceremony, she feels their eyes on her and feels like bursting into screams, or laughter, or tears. But she manages to coax her expression into something suitably demure and speak with an even tone. Just before the wedding feast begins, she strides into the kitchen and demands to taste the soup that will be served for the first course. A flick of her wrist and the vial of cuella powder is tossed into its greeny swirl.

Her Father stands and delivers a slurred speech which begins with praise of Perseus and digresses into a monologue about whether it might be possible to grow marrows on Jupiter. Perseus draws out his sword and keeps on attacking his soup, oily splashes adorning his tunic and the clothes of surrounding guests. Andromeda notices that her Mother sits tight and still, for she is a woman who takes little pleasure in gastronomy. But there is enough mayhem for Mother to become distracted, for she rises and attempts to berate the men who climb onto the table and dance, the serving girl who strips off all her clothes and crushes grapes under her feet, declaring that from now on she will only serve Bacchus.

Andromeda picks up her train and hurries outside. In the courtyard, the guards are lying on the ground, gazing up at the moon and attempting to converse with it. At the clifftop, she tears off her dress and hangs it onto a tree. It dances in the wind like a flag, a surrender. She hears Ketos calling her and replies, arrowing her arms and diving into the ocean. The water roars around her, bubbling salt in her lungs, deafening her ears. Then she is being lifted up, up into the bright air and finds herself on Ketos’s back. She kisses his neck and clings onto his wings as he slices through the waves. As the palace becomes a white speck in the distance, they sing love songs, their harmonies plaiting together until their voices grow tired.




Calypso in Therapy

“You are cruel, you gods, and quickest to envy. It afflicts your hearts that a goddess should take a mortal to her bed. I did vow to make him deathless and never grow crooked, or worn with age. But let him go. Let him sail the restless sea…”
Homer, The Odyssey, Book V

Session One – a private counselling service, Moseley, Birmingham

– Not long after he left, I moved house and sold all my possessions
– That seems a little drastic… would you like to explain?
– He went back to his wife and son. I spent the first few months in a blur. Then I got tired of myself, and decided to make a fresh go of things. I thought it would be like the shedding of a skin. I thought that if I moved out, got rid of all the furniture, all the things that reminded me of him, that I would be able to start again.
– I’m interested in the fact that you sold all your possessions, rather than all the things he gave you…
– He didn’t give me anything.
– Ah. I see.
– Nothing at all, actually, come to think of it.
– The bastard!
– Are you supposed to say that?
– Sorry. So why did your possessions remind you of him? Surely these were things you bought before your relationship with… with…
– Odysseus.
– Yes. Odysseus. So, why?
– Everything reminded me of him. If I wore a certain jumper, it reminded me of the last time I wore that jumper with him.
– You got rid of your clothes too?
– Yes.
– Right.
– My table reminded me of sitting at my table eating a meal with him. I couldn’t sit at my table after he left. My bed… I couldn’t sleep in my bed. I slept on the floor. The park reminded me of him, but I couldn’t sell the park…
– So what did you do?
– I just stopped going. I avoided all the places we used to go together. The sun reminded me of him, but I couldn’t sell the sun. The rain reminded me of him, but I couldn’t sell the rain. So I drew the curtains.
– And did it work? Selling all your possessions?
– No.
– Why?
– It wasn’t the shedding of a skin. It felt more like a flaying. And everything hurt after that. Words. Music. The sun. The rain. It all hurt, like I was inside out. But I was inside out the whole time he was with me. Love does that. It puts your nerves, your receptors on the outside. And I found, after I sold everything I owned, that I couldn’t cope with losing everything that had reminded me of him. I wanted him close.
– What did you do?
– I started taking walks in the park.
– Would you like a tissue?
– No. Yes. I can’t believe I’m paying you for this.

Session One, Druids Lane NHS Clinic

– I sacked my last therapist.
– That seems a little drastic… would you like to explain?
– I was trying to bring things to a satisfying conclusion. I gave myself ten sessions. The sessions were very expensive. In truth, I knew, probably after session one, that ten sessions weren’t going to be enough. And I knew, after about session four, that I was paying someone to listen to me talk about him. I just needed to talk about him. And I felt my therapist wanted me to get over him, was willing me to get over him. I could feel her willing me to get better. That’s not very professional, right?
– I couldn’t possibly comment.
– She was a nice lady. So in session nine I tidied up all the loose ends, and in session ten I delivered the perfect ending.
– And what was that?
– I said, “I am so much better now. Thank you. I feel like I can really move on, so thank you.” I said, “I don’t even think about him that much these days.” And I paid her the final £75 and I left.
– And now you’re here.
– And now I’m here. Christ. £750. I paid her £750.
– What would you like to achieve, in these sessions? As you know, the NHS can only offer you six.
– I know, I know. I am lucky to have any sessions at all. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, you see… bereavement counselling was a genius stroke of mine, wasn’t it?
– We assessed you as needing bereavement counselling.
– I miss him so much. I think about him every day.
– Would you like a tissue?
– Could you just pass me the box?

Accident and Emergency, Royal Central Hospital

– So, Miss… er… it says here ‘Calypso’. Do you have a surname?
– No. I am a goddess.
– I see (delusional).
– What are you writing?
– We believe that you may be suffering from an as yet undiagnosed delusional state. I was writing ‘delusional’ in my notes.
– I am not delusional. I am a goddess. My name is Calypso, and I have lived alone…
– Wasn’t that a song?
– Suzanne Vega. One of the more sympathetic treatments…
– Do you still live alone?
– I have always lived alone. Even when he was with me, I lived alone.
– How is that so?
– He didn’t love me. And so I lived alone. Would you pass me the tissues?
– This loneliness… the void… is that why you attempted suicide?
– No.
– Why did you attempt suicide?
– I don’t know. I mean what’s the point?
– What’s the point of living? For some people, it can get too much, yes.
– No. I meant what’s the point of trying to attempt suicide?
– Some people believe it is a way of ending the suffering.
– But my suffering will never end.
– We are going to help you challenge that notion. That is why you are in hospital.
– No. You don’t understand. My suffering will never end.
– Why? Why do you think that?
– I am immortal.
– I see (psychosis).
– What are you writing?
– (paranoia)…

Mental Health Assessment Unit, Royal Central Hospital

– This is becoming very difficult.
– How do you think I feel?
– We think you must be feeling very depressed. But we are not sure how best to approach your treatment. You’ve been admitted seven times in the past eighteen months.
– I am aware of that.
– You shouldn’t have survived the past three attempts. They have been becoming progressively more… determined. We cannot understand how you survived the dose and combination of pills last May, the impact of the train in, August, wasn’t it?
– Yes. August.
– And now this. The combination of drink and hypothermia should undoubtedly have resulted in death. Do you know how you were found?
– No.
– Unconscious under a tree in Highbury Park, your arms wrapped round the trunk. You were covered by a couple of inches of snow. You were wearing a T-shirt.
– It said ‘Destiny’.
– Yes, that bit you do remember. You were wearing a T-shirt and jeans. No shoes. A dog walker found you. She thought you were dead. You were blue. You should have died.
– I told you. I am immortal.
– We know. You have said, many times. It’s in your notes.
– Do you think I am immortal?
– We think your desire to live is very strong. It makes all this… well, it confuses us. You keep trying to kill yourself. But you keep surviving.
– It doesn’t matter what I do to myself, does it?
– We are going to have to think of a more appropriate way of helping you. Repeated hospital admissions are not the answer. We need to work, together, on a way of reducing the impulses that lead you back here.
– I’m actually not aiming, each time, to return here. But yes, from your point of view, it’s all a question of resources, isn’t it?
– No. That’s not what I meant.
– Yes it is. You, the NHS, can’t afford to keep treating me because I am immortal. I will become, over time – a very long time – a drain on resources.
– You are draining your own resources. Have you ever looked at it like that? Have you?
– No.
– If you are immortal, then you have to think ‘Do I want to live like this forever?’ Do you?
– I don’t want to live.
– You would appear to have no choice. Many people in this hospital would give anything to be able to live.
– Not on this ward.
– Even on this ward. Many of our patients make a full recovery. With medication, and the right therapeutic interventions…
– I don’t want medication. I don’t want therapeutic interventions. I don’t want to live.
– We are going round in circles.

Alabaster Ward, Royal Central Hospital

– Have you been writing?
– Yes.
– Is it good?
– Yes.
– Does it help?
– Yes.
– Would you like to show it to me?
– No.
– Why not?
– You are a different nurse from yesterday. You people seem to enjoy playing Tetris more than helping any of us. You shine torches in our faces at night. Julie burned herself holding her hands against the tea urn again. Bill punched a hole in the nurses’ station window. Nobody is changing his dressing. Margaret told me she was given instructions for hanging herself, for when she gets out. I asked her what was said, so maybe I’d pick up some tips.
– I am sorry to hear that.
– No you’re not.
– Would you like to show your story to anyone else?
– Yes.
– Who?
– Oh, nobody you know.




On a Ship Bound for Crete

There are ten of us in here. No son of doctors, no daughter of senators, funnily. I’ve come to terms with it: the draw was as rigged as this ship’s mast is. We avoid each other’s eyes, pick at threads on our tunics as if these could save our lives. Except nothing can, and nothing will save next year’s ten or the following year’s, not until all citizens stop sighing in relief when their name doesn’t come up but cry instead at the horror of Athens sending her children to be devoured over the sea.

Each year, once the sacrifice is dispatched, crammed into the stinky hold like goats brought to the mainland from Salamis, citizens speculate on the nature of the evil. It has horns, you might hear. Taller than the tallest man you’ve ever seen. Roams the castle naked, hunts the poor condemned souls through endless corridors, snaps their necks and chews them up between its bovine teeth as if Athenian bodies were straw. But this isn’t the evil that haunts me most. My real enemy has thousands of heads, spits not fire but grateful prayers for not being me.

If some angel sneaked me a sword to fight free, I don’t know which way I’d thrust it first: at the monster feeding on my countrymen, or at my countrymen feeding the monster me.




The Tikbalang

Maria only went to fetch some water. She meant no harm. Her mother was struggling in her labour; the baby was too large to part her small hips. She strained and sweated on her woven sleeping mat as the infant tried to struggle free; her long, blue-black hair plastered onto her forehead with water and salt.

Maria’s grandmother said, “Listen to me. There is a spring whose waters are good for easing the passage of the baby through the bone-cage. Follow the North path out of the barrio and go two miles past the largest mango tree. The forest-people live there, and there are ghosts, but they should not trouble you. The spring you’re seeking wells up between two large banyan trees that are always in flower. The spring itself is in a stone grotto, like the home of the Virgin. The water looks like gold. You will know it on sight.”

The old woman handed Maria a small, weathered Coke bottle with a twist of rag for a cork. Maria slipped it safe into the front pocket of her flower-print dress.

The old woman patted her shoulder, “Hurry, child.”

“Yes Nanai,” she said, and walked out the door.

Maria’s house stood at the very edge of the village, one more palm-hut roofed with corrugated slabs of iron that had turned brown in the acid rain that blew in from the city. Her family was not poor. They were not wealthy enough to afford electricity or cinderblock walls, but they had a lot of livestock, two outfits each, and they never went a day without food. Maria went to school, and did well there, even though she had to learn her lessons in English; a language foreign to her.

The deep, dark forest is the same everywhere on earth. Here, in Luzon, it loomed, black and impenetrable, just outside Maria’s door.

Maria hurried along the path her grandmother set her upon; the road seemed to glow with white dust, even beneath a canopy of green that closed out the sun and dropped the temperature a full ten degrees. She saw a few snakes, drinking in the warmth of the white chalky road, but they did not trouble her. She heard a few screams; a troop of monkeys, hardly worth noticing.

In a few minutes, Maria reached the large mango. It stood thirty feet tall and its branches were hung with huge globes of ripe red-gold fruit. A few had fallen to the earth and, since they were nearly perfect (and she couldn’t reach the better ones) she slipped one into her pocket with the empty glass bottle. The other fruit was larger, but it had a bruise near the stem, so she started eating it right away. She didn’t want the juice to seep into her school-dress; it had just been washed, if she stained it now she would attract flies for a week and have to live with the smell of spoilt fruit.

The pulp was soft and sweet between her sharp white teeth. The juice ran over her chin. She wiped herself clean with the back of her brown hand.

Past the large mango, the path devolved into a trail fit for children or wild pigs. It faltered to a thin white thread she followed with her feet. She sucked the oblong, string-trailing seed of her mango until the flavour was gone. Then she spat the stone onto the ground. When it hit the soil, she heard a loud cry, “Tik Tik!” The voice, if it was a voice, was loud. It echoed through the trees. She could not find the source of it.

Maria knew a lot of stories that she tried not to think about. She walked a little faster down the vanishing path.

She reached the banyan trees, the spring, about half an hour after she set out from her small house. The flavour of the mango was a memory in her mouth. The trees were larger than anything that she had ever seen. They were wider around than the church in her barrio, their trunks composed of many flesh-like grey stalks that joined like arches around dark hollows that were big enough to house four families. There were gaps in the trunk where hidden eyes could peer out at her, and the brown, fibrous roots hung down from the branches like human hair, trailing onto the earth.

She swallowed, screwing up her courage. Maria was afraid, but looking up, she saw that her grandmother had told her the truth. Among the tree’s green-black shiny, coin-sized leaves, flurries of miniscule white blossoms were blooming. She could see the fountain bubbling in its stone bowl between the twin, elephantine trunks.

The water really was gold!

The sight of it, the pure metallic smell (and the memory of her mother’s sweat-stained face) gave the girl courage. She ran to the lip of the spring and knelt on the sandy soil by the roots of the banyan that stood nearest the village. She took the bluish glass Coke-bottle from her pocket, pulled out the cork, and bent to plunge its mouth in water.

“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the echoing cry flew out at her from the black hollows of the banyan. Maria heard the solid clunk, the machine-like ratatat of horse-hooves on wood. She jumped up and screamed.

The tree, with its many dark doors, stood between her body and the path. Another tree, as alive, as ominous, stood to her left. She would not dare jump into the sacred water; she had nowhere to run.

“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the cry continued, growing ever louder. Something hard scraped across wood. Maria saw white sparks flickering across her field of vision. Her mouth tasted like she’d been sucking copper pesos. Breathing hard, she closed her eyes and brought the calm face of her Nanai swimming to the surface of her thoughts.

Suddenly, the tumult stopped. It halted like the cry of a chicken, decapitated with one sharp stroke of her grandmother’s knife. She heard the sound of water, bubbling up into the basin it carved itself in stone. She felt the pound of blood in her temples and clear warm air on her face.

Maria took a deep breath and smelled only green earth and her own stinking fear-sweat.

She opened her eyes.

The trunk of the banyan opened to black three feet from her face. The hole in the trunk gaped like a window. A face stared out of it. A creature was staring at her. It had the long chestnut-furred face of a horse, equine ears high up on its head. They swivelled in confusion. Maria gasped, covering her mouth with the hand that did not hold the bottle.

The creature startled, cried out “Tik Tik!” in its oddly humanoid voice. Maria thought that it was speaking a language, one she could not understand. The thing plastered its ears flat to its skull. Its teeth were yellow and very sharp. It leaned out of the hole, revealing a long, man-like neck frilled with a mane made of sharp, poisonous-looking spikes.

Maria forced herself to stand very still. She was hardly breathing. When she had been quiet for a while, the creature drew back. It still stared out at her, but its ears rose up again and the whites of its eyes shrank until she could see only its black, equine pupil.

Maria thought very hard.

She remembered the unbruised mango weighing down her pocket. Moving very slowly, very cautiously, keeping her eyes open and on the face of the Tikbalang (she paused whenever she saw the velvet ears fall back) she reached into her pocket with her empty hand and brought the fragrant fruit out into the open.

Maria watched the Tikbalang’s soft-haired nostrils flex as the creature snuffled at the mango. She held it out, waiting until its horsey ears flicked forward with interest.

It said, “Tik Tik?”

Then, Maria smiled. She said, very softly, “I need the water for my mother. She’s very sick with her next child.”

The creature was leaning out of the hole in the tree, snuffing the air between them.

Maria continued, “Do you like mangos? I will give this one to you if you’ll let me have some water.”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the Tikbalang reached out of its hole (its arms were very long, too long for its head) and plucked the fruit from her hands with jointed fingers that looked like they had been skilfully carved from black hooves. Maria felt their texture against her palms for a moment as it scooped up the fruit. They were very hard, and razor sharp. Later, she found a thin red trail running down the centre of her palm, a mark from where the claws had grazed her, usurping her fate-line. It never healed.

As soon as the Tikbalang had hold of the fruit, it shunted its body back into its home, retreating like a spider into its hole. When it was gone, the woods seemed suddenly darker, and eerily quiet. Maria filled her bottle quickly. The water was golden in the stone bowl, and stayed golden when it was decanted into the worn glass bottle. She stuck the cloth plug in and ran for home, carrying her treasure in her hands. While she was running, it continued to glow.

Maria made it to the village very quickly. Even so, she was just in time. The baby was rushing fast to earth and her mother was pale. Her lips were parched and her black eyes were as glazed as the eyes of a market-fish at the end of the day. Maria handed the bottle to her grandmother who poured a few drops into her daughter’s gaping wound of a mouth. Her labour eased instantly. The baby was born a few minutes later, a boy, healthy and strong. Maria’s mother held him to her milk-rich breast.

After the excitement had passed, Maria took the mostly-full bottle down from the shelf that held her family’s special-things; the icon, the Bible. She sipped a little water. It tasted like mango and metal, sweet coins dissolving in her mouth. As the liquid touched her tongue, Maria heard the cry of “Tik Tik!” echoing in her ears. Maria smiled when she heard it. She would never run out of stories.




Petrification

Petrified night-trolls near Lake Ugly, 6th September 2014

The night-troll children were fishing down by the lake, dragging in net after net of salmon. So entranced were they by their bountiful haul that they forgot to keep an eye on the night sky. As the first glimmers of dawn infused the darkness, the mother troll rushed out of her cave to call her children to safety, only to discover them petrified. While she stared in shock, the morning light sloped on up the hill to strike her and she became petrified too.

So there they are, lumps of stone, one large boulder at the top gazing down at the smaller ones stuck forever on the shore of Lake Ugly.

We were told that story on the first day when we had yet to learn each other’s names.

***

Volcanically heated pool at Landmannaglaugar, 6th September 2014

She stands in her swimming costume, water up to mid-thigh, her hand raised as though shielding her eyes from the sun. Except I don’t remember the sun shining. I remember the wind later that night, strong enough to rattle the hut’s corrugated iron roof as we lay in columns in our sleeping bags, surrounded by gentle breaths and ferocious snores. And I remember the snow the following morning that drove into our ears and nostrils as we trudged our way through the rhyolite mountains, the most dramatic scenery in Iceland, had we been able to see it through the blizzard.

Her face is dark beneath the shadow of her hand so that if this were the only photo I had of her, I would have nothing to remind me of her features. Perhaps she is waving. At me? At the group admiring the first person brave enough to get into the volcanic pool?

“Come on you lot,” she is saying. “It’s beautiful in here.”

I hadn’t expected the unevenness of the water’s heat or the softness of the mud which moulded itself round my weary feet.

That first night she slept three people away from me. I noticed where she lay and as I said good night to everyone in general, I was really only saying good night to her.

***

View down from the top of a small volcano, 7th September 2014

The moss covering the sides of the volcano is ancient, grown from seeds blown on the wind from Europe. It takes for ever to re-form if disturbed, so it is important to step carefully.

From up here, the landscape is tri-coloured; green, black and grey; moss and lava. But at its moment of creation, the valley must have crackled and blazed orange and red, and sulphur must have poisoned this untainted air.

Way below, in the group of ten or so red and blue coated people, she stands, except I cannot tell which one she is in this photo. I had hoped she would climb too, rather than stay all the way down there in the tired-leg crowd. I hadn’t wanted to ask, or make it obvious that it was her company I enjoyed above the others’; it was only our second day.

But she is down there, and I am up here, and I must have lingered long enough to take this photo before I trod my delicate way back down.

***

Ice cave, 8th September 2014

She is bent over, her backpack hard against the cave’s blue roof, stuck like a tortoise.

“Do you think there are any trolls in here, Emma?” she is calling.

Perhaps she didn’t use those precise words, but she used my name; she knew it by then, and I knew hers.

“Yeah.” I laughed. I know I laughed because even in the photo she is comical.

“Ahh!” She struggles, trapped in an ice cave with trolls.

“Don’t worry,” I call. “The elves will rescue you.”

***

Elf church, 8th September 2014

Elves are peaceful beings, as long as they are treated with respect. They resemble small humans and are the light on trees and flowers; that better side of nature in which feet aren’t frozen with glacial water and wind shards don’t penetrate waterproof coats. And they have a church where they marry, this one; a rock formation with a roof like an elf’s hat.

Here in Iceland you should be kind to strangers; you never know who, or what, they might be.

We had been strangers.

In the hut at Hvangils that night, I slept next to her. A room for twelve with three sets of double bunk-beds. When the couples and men had been matched up, she and I were the only two left. Perhaps I dreamt of the elf church and romance that night. I don’t remember. But I do remember her loose arm across my chest, her breath on my cheek.

***

On the plateau at Heljarkambar after the scary climb, 9th September 2014

She cried and held onto the chain attached to the side of the hill.

“You’re all right,” I said.

She didn’t believe me.

“Nothing’s going to happen.”

Volcanic scree slithered beneath her feet. The earth was untrustworthy. I had lied; something could very well happen.

“One small step at a time.”

I had never seen anyone actually frozen with fear before.

“You can do it.”

She shook her head, eyes shut tight.

“One tiny step.”

Behind us someone was crying and someone else was telling them just to take one small step.

“Try it.”

I put my hand over hers and eased the fingers off the chain. She attached herself to me, jarring me backwards, but I didn’t mind if we fell down the slope together; I would have gone anywhere with her.

“That’s it. And another. Good.”

Every movement was made awkward by the stiff trembling in her legs.

“Not far now.”

Twenty metres could have been the other side of the world for all the courage she had to find within her to cover the distance.

“No, don’t look down, just look at the chain in front of you. It’s not going anywhere.”

When the chain ended she crawled onto the plateau, grasping hold of the ground and sobbing:

“You saved my life.”

In the photo, this one taken on the plateau only a few minutes after the scary climb, she glows with the ecstasy of survival.

***

Crossing a river near Thorsmork, 10th September 2014

Our boots are tied round our necks and our trousers rolled up as we wade, facing slightly upstream, holding onto a guide rope. Someone in blue with a cream hat, whose name I don’t remember now, is mid-stream. A queue has formed.

She sought me out, moving among the group to find me, not for anything in particular, just to walk with me and talk. Egg and chips; that would be our first meal back in the world of running hot water and showers, away from this surreal place of black sand and blue ice lakes, where one is encouraged to believe the fabulous.

She held my hand as we walked and, once we had crossed the river, she steadied herself on my arm to dry her feet with her socks, first one, then the other. I didn’t get a photo of her boots going back on, I was too busy feeling the weight of her grip on my wrist.

***

Walk past the waterfalls to Skogar, 11th September 2014

Eleven waterfalls, one after the other, after the other, until the river flings itself over a sixty metre high cliff. Water racing down, losing energy with every fall, collapsing, inevitably, into the uniform sea.

How many waterfalls can you see in one afternoon and keep saying, “Ahhh,” at? Believe me, it is somewhere less than eleven.

“I can’t look at them any more,” she says, striding ahead. “My eyes are all full up of waterfalls.”

This is our last day of walking and whether she looks or not the waterfalls matter, because we are passing each one of them together, losing energy with every step together, descending, inevitably, back to normality, together.

***

Geysir, 12th September 2014

There is a stone engraved with ‘GEYSIR’ in the foreground, just in case I forget where we are. Behind the stone, water vapour trails rise out of the earth. Next to it eight people have lined up to pose for this photo.

We are sightseeing on the way to the airport. In less than six hours we will part at Gatwick and holiday friendships will become a list of email addresses, scrunched somewhere in a drawer, and these photographs.

Could we ever be anything other than strangers who had been kind to each other? Perhaps I should have left the question unthought and contented myself with these photos, as I am now, grateful for what had been. But this was the world where fantasy and reality were one.

***

Geyser at Geysir, 12th September 2014

A steaming, blue-grey dome is caught the moment before it recedes. We are being taunted by a bubble of water building up its breath, preparing to explode, or not. And as we wait, untouching, even though we have touched so often and are close enough now to touch again, I ask:

“Shall we keep in contact?”

“Could do,” she replies.

“That’d be great. Maybe we could meet up.”

“Sure.”

The dome rises to a metre high.

“We could go walking or something. Or perhaps another holiday like this one?”

I reach out and touch her arm.

“You know I’m not gay,” she says.

The water has slunk back into its black hole.

“I know,” I say. “Do you think I didn’t know that?”

“I did wonder,” she says.

“You needn’t have wondered,” I say. “I knew.”

The water re-emerges in a rush.

“If you’d prefer not to meet,” I say. “That’s fine too.”

She doesn’t answer; she is watching the geyser.

That picture of the boiling water spouting thirty metres into the air remains snapped on my retina alone. I was unable to hold my camera; my hands and heart had turned to stone.




Fimbulwinter

The girls are playing a game. The winner is whoever can stand on one foot for the longest; the loser will be ostracised. They are gathered by the granite and slate dry-wall of the playground, but one of the rules is that you can’t use the wall for balance. You can’t use anyone else for balance, either. If you are Mara, you should be grateful for being invited to play.

The other girls are talking: TV shows, who stole and ruined whose pen, the netball team. Their balance is wavering. Mara can see their lifted feet trembling for the ground and short bodies swaying as the conversation grows more animated. She doesn’t join in because conversation is distracting and once she is distracted she knows she will lose. She always loses and is banished to the cold shade of the picnic bench by the teachers’ lounge, where no one dares to approach her.

So she listens and tries not to shake with the chill and effort of standing so still. She watches her steamy breath roil into the air, worried that she’s breathing too much, too obviously. The key to not losing is not to be noticed, which is infuriating in itself. The minutes tick by. Talkative Catherine plants both feet on the ground in order to better illustrate, with waving hands, the story she’s telling. The other girls’ feet are hovering just shy of the gravel – here and there a toe is touching the solid earth, and eventually drifts down to leave its owner standing two-footed and straight. The game has been forgotten. Mara’s left foot is still hooked around her right knee. Her legs are aching. With relief, she lowers her foot to the ground, loosens her tense muscles.

“You lose,” says Jo.

Mara jerks her foot up. Jo tilts her head and smirks. Queen, she dismisses her subject.

Mara steps back. The injustice rages in her belly and will not be calmed, sending heat up her chest into her face. Her hands are clenched. The other girls stand, angelic and one-legged, gazing at her. Cousins, sisters, friends, all of them village children, they purse their lips slightly, wrinkle their so-similar noses, and consider her as one might consider the carcass of an unfamiliar animal squashed by a passing car.

“I thought the game was over,” says Mara, shakily. “Catherine had her foot down.”

“No, she didn’t,” says Jo, calm and friendly. “She had it up the whole time. Off you go.”

Mara unclenches her hands with some effort and walks off to the bench.

***

Mrs Bleakly stands on the other side of the playground, watching the girls. In their matching coats, bathed in frozen winter light with the rolling hills as a backdrop, they look like a Christmas card. They play so nicely, never a raised word. Except that one. Always hiding in a corner, she is.

Mrs Bleakly peeps her whistle warningly at two of the boys who are trying to climb the wall, then heads for the bench.

“Everything ok, Mara?” she says, cheerfully.

“Fine, thanks,” says Mara. The bit of rotten wood she’s prodding on the underside of the bench breaks free in her hand and a couple of woodlice make a run for it.

“Don’t break school equipment,” says Mrs Bleakly, automatically. “It’s a bit cold over here, isn’t it? Why don’t you go and play in the sun with the other girls? I’m sure they’d let you.”

Mara shrugs.

“I’m not cold,” she says, and crumbles the bit of wood between her fingers so that it falls like dirty snow.

“As long as you’re ok,” says Mrs Bleakly, checking her watch. “Do you want to ring the bell for the end of break?”

This is an honour, Mara knows, but ringing the bell will draw unwanted attention, and a day of isolation is better than the week of freezing-out she’ll face if she does that.

“No, thanks.”

So Mrs Bleakly rings the bell herself.

Mara gratefully follows her into lessons, where seats are assigned and conversation is monitored, and she can focus on pens and paper and not have to look up.

***

At lunchtime, Mara takes her sandwich straight to the bench, as decreed by Jo. She breaks off a little more rotten wood and names the exposed woodlice, tells them quietly that they are her only real friends. Her only real friends run for the dark and roll up into scaly little ball-bearings when she prods them.

By afternoon break it is raining, and a wet break is called. There is no bench in the classroom to go to, so she moves to the reading corner, and browses the book shelves. She grimaces at the smiling faces on the covers of the inevitable books about feelings, passes over the Ben and Sarah books. Ben and Sarah always do something slightly wrong and learn a lesson and everyone hugs at the end. She wants something good. Then she sees it, hidden at the back – men fighting on a flaming ship with a dragon prow, wild waves all round. She immerses herself in stories of gods, battles and berserkers.

Paul watches Mara reading. Her tongue is sticking out and she’s smiling. He looks down at his own miserable choice, a moral-riddled book on friendships and jealousy. One of the quieter boys, he often retreats to the reading corner on wet break, but he’s never seen that book before. Eventually, he ambles over to her.

“What are you reading?” he asks.

Mara looks up, half-closes the book. “Viking gods,” she says, cautiously.

“It looks good,” says Paul. “Can I have it after you?”

“It’s brilliant!” Mara leafs through the pages, shows him the bright pictures. “Did you know that they sent dead warriors out to sea on burning ships? Did you know that the gods fought giants and the world is going to freeze over? And that there is a giant snake around the world, biting its own tail?”

“I’m not even sure how that book got in here,” says Mrs Bleakly, who has been listening. “It might be a bit old for you.” She looks dubiously at a picture of Loki with his wicked smile, sharpening mistletoe to kill blind Baldur.

“It’s not!” Mara hugs the book to herself without realising it. Paul looks alarmed. Mrs Bleakly decides to make a tactical withdrawal, and deal with it after everyone’s gone home.

Mara goes back to reading, shuts them out. At the end of break, she hides the book in her bag.

That afternoon, she draws runes down the side of her workbook and a picture of herself as Freyja, goddess of war and beauty, with an axe in her hand.

“We’re supposed to be drawing our houses,” whispers Catherine, looking over Mara’s shoulder. Mara glares at her, Freyja in her eyes, and Catherine quails.

***

At home, Mara retreats to the massive garden. Her parents, city folk both, had rejoiced at having so much green space, all for themselves. “We’ll grow vegetables!” Mum had said, “And have barbecues and picnics on the lawn.” Her father had looked at the greenhouse and the potting shed and filled them with new tools and gardening equipment. And then work started and life went back to normal, but with less people and more frighteningly open space.

Since then the garden, so perfectly manicured when they first moved in, has grown wild. There are no vegetables and the potting shed is falling down. Nettles are stealthily conquering the lawn. The long grass and reaching, dishevelled hedges have yielded any number of hiding places and dens. Mara can’t be found if she doesn’t want to be found. She’s a traveller, a ghost, a gypsy princess. She wears leaves in her hair and mixes mysterious potions of mud and roots.

Today, Mara takes branches and leaves and builds herself a ship. It bursts forth from the trees, from sea-spray leaves. Its dragon-head is alive and shouting. She waves her axe and hails the gods. She bites her lip for the taste of blood and sets about the nettles, slaying every one. Her skin is immune to their stings. Only her mother’s voice calling her for dinner can dissipate the rage, and she is astonished at the carnage she has left.

***

Over burnt fish fingers, her parents ask her about the day. They are genuinely interested.

“It was fine,” says Mara. “We read out loud. We learnt about Vikings.” She stabs her mashed potatoes over and over again with her fork, gratified when the prongs hit a lump.

That night, she falls asleep with the book in her hand. She dreams of Viking ships, icy lands and fiery seas. She is at the prow of her own longboat, a raging goddess with a horned helmet. She stands one-legged with perfect balance, and her hordes sweep the beach and go on to the school. She can feel the heat of burning wood and bricks, shrivelling her arm hair. The girls see her coming and they are in awe. They welcome her, with real smiles and open arms. Jo Stanley comes aboard to eat ice cream and learn sea shanties. She says they are best friends and lets her win a game, but the game is boring.

***

The next day is Friday. As the children arrive at school, parents at their heels, the other girls wave and greet Mara. Mara waves back. Everyone is chummy while the parents watch. The mums and dads chat, arranging tea dates, play dates.

“I’m so glad Mara has made friends,” says Mara’s mother to Mrs Stanley. “We were worried that the move to such a small school might be difficult for her.”

“They adjust better than we think,” says Mrs Stanley. The women smile at each other, arrange to meet for a cup of tea. Mara watches them, darkly, her mother consorting with the enemy. Jo smiles brightly at her mother’s suggestion that the two girls play together at the weekend, but in the cloakroom, she turns to Mara and looks at her with eyes cold like hailstones.

“Was that your idea?”

“No,” says Mara. If Jo’s stare is ice, Mara’s is the threat of burning ships. Jo steps back. The other girls fall silent.

“Would you like to play with us at break time?” says Jo, polite, firm. “We are going to play a game.”

“No, thank you,” says Mara, equally polite, firmer.

Catherine, always more hysterical than the others, audibly gasps. Jo nods, as if she expected this, as if Mara has somehow lost a battle.

“Fine,” she says. “Do what you want.”

Mara, who knows she has won everything, turns her back on them.

***

At morning break she seeks out Paul to give him the book, asks him if he wants to play.

“I’ll be Freyja, you be Odin,” she says.

“Who wins?” says Paul.

“We’re on the same side,” says Mara.

The playground echoes to their shouts as they lay waste to the school. The bench is their ship, their coats are bear-skin cloaks. They taste blood and wage war and send bodies lit up into the night and sing songs and draw runes down their arms. They chase Loki and catch wolves, slay serpents. Odin sends his ravens to spy on Jo and her giants, who are standing out in the frozen wastes, not having half as much fun as they are. Mrs Bleakly asks them to ring the bell for the end of break, and they ring it loud, for Valhalla, Asgard and victory.




Litro #140: Diaries

Contents:

Letter from the Editor by Dan Coxon

Trying to Discover India by Shashi Tharoor

Much Bothered with Buffalo by Claire Thurlow

While He Sleeps by Ariel Dawn

What Good Looks Like by James Mitchell

Author Q&A with Chuck Palahniuk

The Night I Got Lost on the Way Home From China by Jamie Lynch

This is only a taster of our Diaries issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.





Trying to Discover India

It is strange, now, so many years later, to be telling my story, writing this journal. I think back to that other journal, the one Columbus kept, day by day, sitting at the desk in his cabin as the waves rocked the Santa Maria, his quill scratching away, recording it all – leagues sailed, the direction of the wind, his hopes and fears. Mine will lack that immediacy, because all I have are a few scraps of notes and my memories, the memories of an old man far away from his land and his people, writing in a language that is not mine, for readers in another world. But if I do not tell my story, who else will?

So let me begin as Columbus did, with the weighing of the anchors. It was, I remember, a Friday – I had already learned their days of the week, and this was the day of Venus, goddess of beauty, sprung from the foam of the sea – Friday the third of August, by the Christian calendar the year fourteen hundred and ninety-two, when we set out from the bar of Saltes, at the confluence of two rivers, the Tinto and the Odiel, to sail into the unknown. [private]

I remember it well, that last glimpse of Europe. It was a grey day, overhung by those European clouds that block the light without providing the blessed release of a real rain. Many families were at the quayside, the women in their long skirts and high collars trying to hold back their tears, their children waving, little hands receding with the shoreline. The men waved back, too, some of them, for most of Columbus’ crew were from around these parts, and many did not know when, if ever, they would return to those who now bid them farewell. Then they went down to row, for the sails were limp, and we were counting on the ebb tide to take us down river. I had no one waving me goodbye, but I stood on the deck, hearing the liturgy of the friars of La Ribada on our port side, chanting to the greater glory of their unforgiving God, as the men on deck knelt and crossed themselves in supplication. I was still there as we went over the bar, watching the coast of that young – and to me quite new – continent disappear, and I thought of my own departure from Calicut, silent like a pariah passing a sleeping Brahmin.

We had set sail at eight o’clock, an auspicious time, by my calculations, just before the day entered the last four-fifths of the Panchami and the moon tenanted 13 degrees of longitude in Sagittarius, which would have required, if you believed at all in my astrological accuracy, a series of rituals to propitiate the planets – rituals I am sure Columbus would not have had time for. So we cast off in time, and there was a strong breeze to sea, which took us southwards as the sun rose, a scarlet stain across a glowering sky.

The breeze took with it too another ship, not of our fleet, the last of many that were all supposed to have left by the previous day, carrying away from Spain the Jews who had failed to undergo the Catholic baptism decreed for them by Columbus’ blessed Sovereigns. I had seen these people, kin to the Yehudis of Cranganore who had found safety in my homeland after an earlier European persecution (fleeing Romans then as they fled Christians now); I had seen them clogging the roads around Palos with their pathetic drooping donkeys and their overladen carts, choking the air with their chants of lamentation, stifling the sea-breeze with desperate sobs. I had seen them everywhere that Spanish summer, bundling their possessions onto carts, onto their backs, into their hearts, condemned to stop being what they were or stop being where they were, obliged to either betray their beliefs or abandon their homes. They were in our way at the port, screaming and wailing as they climbed pushed stumbled on board the ships that would take them away from the only homes they had ever known for generations. They suffered terribly, those Jews, suffered not just their immediate loss but even more the future loss of what they would never have again, their own country, the land to which they had given so much. I wanted to say to them, go in peace, my brothers and sisters, do not weep. I wanted to urge them to sail, sail away from this land where people think there is only one Truth and they know what it is, sail far without fear and without tears, for this Europe is a closed-minded continent, full of intolerance and oppression, a place worth leaving behind. I wanted to say to them, there is a world beyond where men can be men whatever the colour of their skin or the shape of their nose, where you can grow your beards or put caps on your head or worship in your own way without anyone asking you to explain or defend yourselves. I know that world exists because I am from it, it is my world, it is India. Sail with me and I shall take you there.

But I could not, for it was not my place to say this, nor my hope to offer; and so on the same tide, sailing down the Rio Saltes, overladen with suffering humanity, the last Jew-ship left Spain, and I could hear the sad sounds of their mournful pipe and tabor fading as the Jews drifted away from us, toward the Levant, the Spanish sun rising behind them for the last time.

For ourselves, we headed south-west, towards our first stop, the islands lying on the latitude of the Indias, what these people called the Canaries. Yellow birds, I thought reflexively, but no, it was dogs these Latins had named the islands for, howling wild creatures they had usurped the land from. One day these Europeans will want to do the same to us, I knew, and they will treat us as dogs too, caging our treasures like yellow birds.

But the waters were calmer than my mind, and as our little fleet sailed placidly on, I went to look for our leader, Colon, the man they call Christophorus Columbus. I found him in good spirits, pacing the deck with a proprietary air, his ear cocked to an inaudible muse in the foam of the sea, his own personal Venus. “Aha!” he exclaimed. “El Indio! Is it not magnificent?”

I nodded, because agreement was clearly expected, and he smiled self-satisfiedly, looking out to sea, turning his face to the spray. “I have been writing,” he declared, with that air he had of imparting information as if he were sharing a rare privilege. “I am writing a journal.” He was enormously proud of this; it was as if the act of writing itself validated, in anticipation, the momentous importance of the voyage he was undertaking. He intended to present his journal to his generous Sovereigns, who in their infinite wisdom – he was careful not to mention cupidity – had made the voyage of Christopher Columbus possible.

I watched him strut about the deck, barking an order here, asking a question there, filled with the optimism of one who had finally been given the chance to be proved right, and wondered again, for the thousandth time, why he had embarked on this madness. There was, of course, this thing that men call glory, but that was surely not the most important thing to him: I did not believe Columbus would care very much whether his name lived on or not in the minds of men, whether it was whispered in the hush when men told great stories of adventure and heroism and the deaths of kings. No, for him the immediate was what mattered; personal gain, here and now, certainly meant more to him, for he lived in the present, tasted its disappointments like sour berries, and yearned for the sweetness of success on his palate today, not at the next meal. I would never understand his fondness for titles, something we never took seriously in my country: “Don”, now that he had been ennobled just in time for the voyage, and that ridiculous “High Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, which he had invented for himself and wanted everyone to use.

“Colon,” I said to him, “I mean Don Christophorus, what on earth do these words mean? It is like calling yourself Main Emperor of the Earthly Lands, or Crowned King of the Soil on the Ground: either you’re an Admiral or you’re not, and the rest is irrelevant.” But there was something about Columbus that needed the reassurance of those unnecessary words, and High Admiral of the Ocean Sea he remained.

He had convinced himself, had Columbus, that his precious Sovereigns would make him viceroy in perpetuity of all the lands he was going to find on his way to India. And that after him, oh he insisted on this, his eldest son would succeed to the same position, and so on and on, he was meticulously insistent, Columbus savouring the ascent of generations yet unborn, his son would succeed to the viceroyalty after him, and so from generation to generation. A dynasty of Columbuses to rule the waves, all by dispensation of a pair of monarchs who did not even know where he was going, and who kept their promises the way a sultan kept his wives, to be fulfilled or ignored as it pleased the monarch’s fancy. Oh Columbus, I thought, but this time I did not say it, you are mad, you are naive, you are addled deranged foolish demented crazy.

And he was, this great sailor and explorer, this High Admiral of the Ocean Sea, with his reddish cheeks and his far-seeing stare, he really was two lateens short of a topmast. He thought he was going to convert all of India to his holy faith; now that all the Jews had been driven out of Spain, now Columbus wanted to build on this great Christian achievement by winning more magnificent victories for the Blessed Cause.

“My mission,” he told me, with that messianic glint in his cold blue eyes that must have frightened Isabella first, “my mission is to Christianize the Indians, bring enlightenment to the pagan.”

I tried to tell him we already had Christians in Kerala, converted by old Doubting Thomas, the Apostle himself, Jesus’ disciple and traveller for the faith, well before Columbus’ own ancestors. “Malayalis”, I said, “were worshipping the cross when your so-called civilized Europeans were still feeding Christians to the lions.”

He looked at me almost cross-eyed in disbelief. Then he found his refutation in my own idolatry: if Keralites were Christians, why wasn’t I one?

I explained to him, patiently, that some Keralites were Christians, but most of us, perfectly satisfied with the ancient faith into which we had been born, were not.

“Aha!” he exclaimed, “that proves it: they are not pagans, but heathens, which is worse, because pagans have never had the opportunity to see the light, whereas heathens have had the Truth offered to them and have spurned it to worship their false gods. The great and noble task remains to be accomplished, in the name of our glorious Sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, blessed be their thrones, princes devoted to the holy Christian faith and enemies of all idolatries and heresies…” I stopped listening to his benedictions. “Accomplished, that is, by me.”

It was useless to argue with Columbus, because arguing with him was like pissing overboard in a high wind: it just blew back in your own face. Since the last time I raised matters of religion with him, explaining how in my country there many ways of raising your hands to the stars, he began to threaten to instruct me in his one true faith. Me! Heir to four thousand years of belief and speculation, traveller across worlds, cynic and betrayer, I had found and lost more faiths than he had heard of.

“To speak of one true faith, Don Christophorus,” I had pointed out, “is like speaking of one true way to get out of bed, or one true way to wipe your behind. The divine Creator has made it possible for men to reach out to him in a hundred, nay a thousand, different ways.”

But none of this would Columbus hear, and despite myself I envied him his fierce certitudes. This was a man who was often in error but never in doubt.

There were two more days of uneventful sailing, with the sun rising and the seas falling, and the seas rising and the sun setting with the monotony that all sailors know, heading south by southwest in calm waters, the ships sighing across the waves. Columbus marked progress in his journal and gleamed: fifteen leagues on Friday, more than forty on Sunday, all as if it were going to make any difference. Only I knew, with a quiet despair I felt every time I looked across our mast to the sun sinking in the horizon, that we would never get to India this way.

For his calculations were all wrong. And he didn’t like being told they were.

It was soon after we met, when I had allowed the wine in my belly and the conviction in his voice lead me to see him again. Out of Columbus’ saddlebags had tumbled maps, books, sheets of paper. There were seven years of letters to and from some Italian called Toscanelli, who had sent him a map by Henricus Martellus showing the width of the ocean between the Spains and India. Or rather China, because it was the distance between Lisbon and Quinsay on the Cathay coast that Columbus had first worked out, figuring 26 spaces on the map. Since that was too far to landfall, he’d changed tack: it was Cipangu he was aiming for now, some 30 degrees east of China. Though I had never seen a map like this, this Cipangu struck me as oddly familiar: as I had first suspected, it had to be the island country that Indian Buddhist missionaries had taken their religion to, a cold and warlike place called Nihon, hardly the fabled land of gold and spices Columbus thought he was setting out for. I said nothing of this, of course: it was not in my interest to have him discover that, given the “India” he was aiming for, I was not going to be the great asset he expected me to be on this journey. After all, I had to get out of Europe, and what did I care if it was China I reached at the end of the journey? There were ways to get to India from there, and with fewer obstacles than I would face heading east. No, if Columbus was going to sail, I wanted to be on his ship – provided, of course, he knew what he was doing.

So I said nothing about Cipangu, which he seemed to think of as an outlying Indian province, one of what he called “the Indias”. What I did say, though, was altogether more practical, and quite unwelcome.

“Your figures don’t make sense,” I ventured.

“By San Fernando, what do you mean?” he demanded redly. “Look – it’s quite plain. I have calculated the distance to India in degrees, based on the works of Martellus, of Marinus of Tyre, d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, and above all, infallibly, Pope Pius’ Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum. I have correlated all this to what is known from the accounts of Ser Marco Polo – look, here is his book. I have consulted the eminent Toscanelli, who has corroborated my conclusions. Now, when so many sources agree, there’s really no room for dispute.” The pitch of his voice was high, but a note of authority insinuated itself into his tone: this was not the first time he was debating the point, nor, I knew and he knew, would it be the last.

He spread his hands in a gesture of patient accommodation. “We agree that the earth, like any globe, is made up of 360 degrees. Marinus found that the known world worked out to 225 degrees; Marco Polo discovered another 28, and we know there are 30 degrees from the Cathay coast to Cipangu. That gives us 283 degrees, leaving 77 degrees unaccounted for between Cipangu and Europe. I propose to stop in the Canary Islands – nine degrees west of Europe – to reprovision myself. So when I restart my voyage, I will have just 68 degrees to traverse to reach Cipangu.”

“But…” I began.

“In fact it’s even better than that,” said Columbus. “All the authorities agree that Marinus’ degree is about ten percent too big. So instead of 68 degrees from the Canaries to Cipangu, it’s really only about 60. Now the next question is, how long, in miles, is a degree? There your Moorish friend Alfragan has the answer: 56 and two-thirds miles, but this, of course, is on land, Roman miles, which work out on sea to 45 nautical miles.”

“Not really. You see…”

“I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that measurement applies only on the Equator. Correct: if we sailed close to the Equator, each degree would amount to 45 nautical miles. But we will sail at a latitude of about 28 degrees north, where the degrees are narrower – about 40 nautical miles. Which is even better. All we will have to do to arrive in Cipangu from the Canaries is to sail 60 degrees by 40 nautical miles, a small matter of 2400 miles, not quite 750 leagues. Plain sailing.” He looked up, as if expecting applause.

“Not quite,” I interjected at last. “First, I don’t know how you can be so sure about how many degrees of land there are from here to China and this Cipangu of yours. The distance may be less, and across water it may be greater. But more important, Alfragan used Arabic miles, so when he spoke of 56 miles to a degree, it’s really 66 nautical miles, not 45.”

This was clearly a new concept to Columbus, but he didn’t even blink. “I don’t agree,” he said calmly. “Why should Alfragan have used Arabic miles?”

“Because,” I pointed out not unreasonably, “he’s an Arab.”

“So what? Everyone uses Roman miles. Why couldn’t he have done the same? No, my dear Indian friend, your objection will not do. I will not listen to it. I have spent too many years already putting up with the illiterate objections, the disbelief and the mockery of too many. Do you know what some foolish people have claimed as an excuse to turn down my request for support? They say the true distance is closer to 10,000 nautical miles, that my way will take us fourteen weeks on the high seas. Fourteen weeks!” He laughed sardonically, and I found I could not join in, because that figure was closer to my fears than Columbus’ widely optimistic and inaccurate calculation. “I’ll be in India in three weeks. At most, four.”

In Cipangu, you mean, I thought. If you’re right. Which you almost certainly are not, if you’re proceeding from these figures. But if you are, and your madness might well be divinely blessed, I’d be closer to home. Somehow, some day, I’ll make my way back to Kozhikode from there, more easily than I can from Spain.

He looked at me, watching me think, and waited for me to speak.

“Unless you run into some land on the way,” I suggested lamely. I had to say something.

“No chance of that,” Columbus laughed. “Some little islands, perhaps. But even Aristotle opined that water runs from Pole to Pole between Spain and India.”

“Who is this Aristotle?” I asked innocently. “A sailor?”

Columbus gave me an odd look. “Aristotle,” he said, “was the greatest of Greek philosophers.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “In India, philosophers do not claim to know much about land or water. They confine themselves to the realm of the spirit.”

My barb had no effect. This man, this Christoforus Columbus, had a greater capacity for self-deception than anyone I’d ever met. I’d have to be wary of him. Let him fool himself if he wants to, I told myself, let him think he’s fooled me; but let me not lose sight, as he seems all too ready to do, of terra firma.

I began, despite my better judgement, to plan for the voyage, to be friend philosopher guide translator interpreter slave to a madman with sails. As their Saint Augustine, a man I have read and have much respect for, put it, Melius est dubitare de ocultis, quam litigare de incertis — better to doubt the obscure than dispute the uncertain.

So I tied my hopes, and my plans, to Columbus’. Until he walked in to the tavern one day and threw his saddlebags on the floor at my feet.

“It’s all over,” he said. “Before it has even begun.”

Columbus’ enthusiasm, his optimistic figures, his messianic faith in himself, had failed to persuade the Queen, the very Queen who had sent him money for a mule and a fresh set of clothes to enable him to present himself to her. Her Committee of experts – the third such committee to consider Columbus’ ideas – had met at St Stephen’s College in Salamanca, interviewed him, and advised her that the enterprise was unsound and unnecessary.

“These people of St Stephen’s, may God take them,” Columbus swore, using the only oath in which he allowed himself to utter the name of the Lord in vain. “They think they know everything.”

The fact was, they did; the Committee’s head, Frey Hernando de Talavera, was the Queen’s confessor, and he had gathered around him at St Stephen’s College the foremost mathematicians, geographers and astronomers of Castile, who had unanimously decided that Columbus’ numbers did not add up. So had I, though unlike Talavera’s learned Stephanian professors mine was the lesser college of experience. The ocean between what Columbus called the Spains and the Indias simply could not be as narrow as he thought it was. And yet…

Columbus was bitter. He had tried so hard and so long for Spain’s backing. As he walked in the victory procession through Granada, with the royal banners of Ferdinand and Isabella flying silken-proud from the towers of the Alhambra, he had felt that his moment had come at last; that in this hour of triumph the King and Queen of all the Spains would not deny him the trifling sum of two million maravedis needed to equip him to find a new route to India. But they had, and his hopes lay crushed like groundnut shells at their feet.

“Never again,” he swore darkly, “never again, by San Fernando, shall I set foot in Spain.” His disappointment smouldered in him like black coals, casting smokeless shadows on his soul. He was running out of wealthy monarchs to turn to. Portugal’s Dom Joao II had lost interest when Bartholomew Dias sailed to the Cape of Good Hope; there was a way to India that seemed to make more sense than sailing westward. England’s Henry VII, to whom Columbus had sent his brother Bartholomew three years earlier, showed no interest at all.

“The British are so parsimonious they would rather let someone else find the route and then follow,” Columbus cursed, spitting out the words as he downed a draught of the tavern’s most poisonous wine. “For this reason they will never extend their rule beyond their own shores.”

That left only Charles VIII in France, and that is where Columbus wanted to go next to try his luck. Except that his brother Bartholomew had been there nearly two years already, with little to show for it. I looked at Columbus dubiously, seeing my hopes of escape sink into his worn boots.

“You are welcome to come with me to France,” he said to me in farewell, “but you know I cannot afford to pay for you on the way.”

“That’s alright,” I assured him, careful not to reveal how little I thought of his chances of success there. “When your expedition is financed, send word and I shall come and join you there. I am hoping by then to have saved a little money. The Queen’s escribano de racion has taken some interest in my astrological skills.”

Columbus frowned his disapproval of my pagan practices. “Luis de Santangel?” he asked speculatively. “He is a good man. He seemed quite – sympathetic to my plans.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I believe he is.” And a plan began to form in my own mind.

Columbus set out on the mule his Queen had paid for, his saddlebags bursting with the collective output of Martellus and Marinus, Seneca and Aeneas Sylvius, a fat friar by his side as his only companion. It was a long way to France. Suddenly I knew they would never get there.

I rushed to my new patron, Luis de Santangel, the man who controlled the royal purse. The day I cast his horoscope I had told him of his last three illnesses, described the state of his relations with his wife and portrayed his essential character in the most flattering terms.

“Fair master,” I announced breathlessly, “I have seen the most remarkable sign in your astrological charts.”

“Indeed?” The keeper of the monarchs’ money was no less immune to the appeal of the stars than the poorest Kozhikode fisherman.

“You have entered a most propitious period,” I told him, unfurling the parchment on which I had plotted the planets of his birth. “One of great good fortune.” I could see the coins practically clanging together in Santangel’s eyes. “Look at the horoscope I have cast for you: your second, fourth, ninth and eleventh houses are all strong, and – this is what makes it special – the twelfth house is not stronger than the first or the eleventh, which would have given you great income but, alas, even greater expenditure.”

The escribano de racion looked relieved, and slightly amused. “Tell me more, my learned friend. Where does this great good fortune I am about to get come from?”

“Here,” I said, stabbing emphatically at the rectangle I had drawn. “In the eighth house. The eighth house,” I added, my voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “is the house of death. An inheritance, perhaps? A legacy? It is also the house of buried treasure, of good fortune rising from the bowels of the earth. Silver mines? Gold? Master, you have recently undertaken such ventures?”

Santangel shook his head, and the ghost of a smile haunted his avid face. “I am too old to be expecting any inheritances,” he said. “My parents, God rest their souls, passed away a long time ago, and I have not so much as a maiden aunt from whom to expect a legacy. What else does your eighth house portend?”

“A voyage, perhaps?” I offered tentatively. “An expedition? Figuratively, shall we say, to the bowels of the earth? Our ancient astrological commentator, Rudra, wrote that fortune from the eighth house would often be fortune acquired through others, including through supporting the labour of others. Perhaps there is such a voyage you have financed, fair master?”

“No,” said Santangel, but I could see in his eyes that he had already thought of a voyage he might have financed but had failed to. He was looking at my face, at my fingers spreading the astrological charts in front of him, but he was seeing Columbus, saddling his mule in some way-station on the dusty road to France. “But go on.”

“Surely you must have, my exalted eminence,” I said. “Look again: your fourth house is strong, indicating large properties, but your eleventh is also strong, suggesting recurring income. And then – look at your eighth house – this income will come not necessarily from those properties, but from others, perhaps in lands far away, acquired for you, at your behest, by someone else. Someone financed, perhaps, by you? Answerable to you? Could there be such a man?”

“There could,” Luis de Santangel said, rising from his chair with a glitter in his eyes. “My foreign friend, you do not know whereof you have spoken.” He clapped his hands for a servant. “I only pray it is not too late.”

The Queen’s messengers caught up with Columbus at the village of Pinos-Puente, just ten miles from Granada; disappointment and overburdened saddlebags must have weighed him down, for he had not made much progress on the route. Her Catholic Majesty Isabella had changed her mind, for Luis de Santangel had offered to finance the expedition himself.

I did not tell Columbus about the part I had played in his destiny. This was not a man who liked the thought of being in anyone’s debt. But as I watched him, smiling and content on the deck of the Santa Maria, his prematurely white hair blown about by the breeze, I felt a surge of almost paternal pride. In my own small way, I too had left a fingerprint on the pages of history.

“I have work for you, Indio,” Columbus said cheerfully. “As I write my journal, so must you write.” He took me down to his cabin and carefully unwrapped an oilskin package. “The royal letters of credence,” he said. “In triplicate.” He opened a copy, and I read in the flowing script much favoured by the calligraphers of Aragon:

“To the most serene prince [this space was left blank] our very dear friend, Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Castile, Aragon, Leon, etc., greetings and increase of good fortune. We have learned with joy of your esteem and high regard for us and our nation and of your great eagerness to receive information concerning our successes. Wherefore we have resolved to dispatch our noble captain Christophorus Colon to you, with letters, from which you may learn of our good health and prosperity….”

“Who on earth is this for?” I asked in disbelief. “‘Great eagerness to receive information concerning our successes’? What makes your precious sovereigns think there’s any serene prince anywhere who’s dying for news of their victories?”

“By San Fernando, you have an insolent tongue in your head, Indio,” responded Columbus, reddening. “I did not ask you to question the Sovereigns. I merely want you to translate their Letter of Credence into the Indian language, that’s all.”

“There are many Indian languages, Don Christophorus,” I replied.

“Well, translate it into all of them,” Columbus retorted shortly. “These are the credentials I must present when we arrive in India.”

“And the blank space? Should it addressed To Whom it May Concern?”

“May God take you, Indio. The space is to be filled in by Escobedo, secretary of our fleet, depending on whose domains we land in. The letters are intended to recommend me to all the lords and kings of India whose lands I will claim in the name of our Blessed Sovereigns. The original is already addressed to Magno Cano, the Grand Khan.”

“There is no Grand Khan, Columbus,” I said wearily. “I’ve tried to tell you since Granada. The Chinese haven’t had a Grand Khan since before I was born.”

But Columbus would not listen. He had spent too much of his life trying to get others to listen to him; his own ears were closed, from habit, to anything he did not wish to hear.

And so I sat down, translating the letter into Malayalam and Arabic. I was writing a presumptuous document in an incomprehensible language, destined to be read by princes who did not exist in a country we would never reach. But at least I was sailing away from Spain, though none of us on the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria had the slightest idea where we were going. [/private]




While He Sleeps

My steps spill rain from trees and the trees reveal the old dream faces. I write to them and Rhys sleeping and Lucy who lives in these woods. Apologies, stream of consciousness, echo poems dying for the echo: I roll these notes in leaves with ribbons bright enough to catch their eyes. In the hollows and deep branches I slip these scrolls in abandoned nests and coloured bottles. Under the bitter cherry my diary with the belts and the pin on a string, I keep it buried: the hole and earth under my nails, all the invisible living.




What Good Looks Like

Wednesday 22/3
QUESTION OF THE DAY!

“If Sally has a Burger and @Jason has five Burgers and zainab has no Burgers, how many Burgers could they each have if they share? Show your working.”

This question is easy of course. I am only putting it down to show you what I have to answer now I am in Sparrow table. Sparrow table is for people who hide the fish so they run out of battery and people who throw their Burgers at lunch and now it is for people like me. I think in this question I must be a zainab.

I am not obviously. I am Ruby Clancey, I am eight (nearly nine), and I am going to be a vet when I am old enough and can find a sick animal. I checked out Sparrows at freetime on my picturetable, they don’t look so dumb. After lunch today we did Describing, so here is a sparrow Description: they have funny claws like a wild chicken and a too-long tail and the one on my picturetable has a boggly eye like nathan when he puts pens up his nose. So not that great you might think. But Diary, I have missed the key features! A sparrow is more like:

These Five Things Will Make You Love Sparrows

  1. Tiger Stripes
  2. Beak is like a Snail’s shell
  3. Always Concentrating
  4. Flies
  5. Etc.

Etc. means “and so on”. This is the last of the handy tricks Mrs Pointer told us before the smiling man came and said we’re going to let you go. Mum once said that if you love something you let it go, so Mrs Pointer must be very happy. [private]

 

Wednesday 29/3
QUESTION OF THE DAY!

“What is the next number in the sequence?”

1 3 5 7 9 ???

What a mystery! How can you predict the future? It is very simple, because a ‘sequence’ is a hidden pattern. The answer is of course 11 (ELEVEN) because it is the next of the odd numbers. What is an odd number, Ruby? An odd number is a number that doesn’t fit in with the even numbers.

We have had one week of being in the tables now. It happened so fast. The smiling man read out each of our names, and the grade we have so far this year. When he read mine out to everyone I got the hot feeling on my cheeks because it didn’t sound good, but I don’t understand some of the lessons even though I do try. I do drawing and thinking and Describing okay, but I’m better at thinking in shapes than numbers. That’s why best friend @Tobias Beaumont sits with the Owls, and I sit with frankie and lucy and nathan and whatever he has put into his nose each day. But a sequence goes up and up, forever! The smiling man said that now the school is an Academy and expensive teachers like Mrs Pointer have been let go, there is more money for nice things like multi-touch picturetables and a new fish tank with upgraded fish and Biometric Scanning, which is very grownup. I told Mum we are getting Biometric Scanning like happens at her Assignment and she didn’t say anything, which I think is the sign of understanding and respect between two grownups.

When we came in on the first Monday after it happened, it was like a different Willow Prime, a brand new one. Someone had painted over all the rude drawings on the walls, including the one of the boy’s thing which made us girls laugh, though when @Quentin had tried to show us his we said no thanks like it says to on the picturetables, though very politely because he is an @. We sat on the swings, and they were not rusty. And when I got into the classroom, a cartoon bear said to me, Welcome to Sparrow table. So everyone would know exactly where their place was. At lunch today, @Tobias sat with us and told us his mum said it was about time too. But I think it is more about numbers and things.

P.S. the next next number is 13, which Mrs. Pointer once said is unlucky for sums, or something.

 

Serveday 5/4 (Thursday really)
Question Of The Day:

How are you doing today?

It’s Work Week! I mean Hi, welcome to Work Week, how may I help you? On Monday the cartoon bear told us all to check out under our picturetables for a very special present. I love love love presents. Yesterday, Mum made flourcakes with the butter she’d been saving all quarter. I took the last one into school to split it with @Tobias. I think @Mrs Beaumont prefers @Tobias eat the sushis and stuff she gets made for him, but he really liked it. He wanted to have another, so I shall have to hope Mum can get more butter this season. Would she be angry if I split our food? No, because I would be Sally, splitting her Burger with poor @Tobias/zainab.

Anyway, presents. Everyone pulled out little packets with their names on, just for them! All the @s had dark suits like the smiling man and heroes on TV. Some of the other tables had jeans and shirts, jumpers, and leather satchels, the sorts of things Mrs. Pointer used to wear. @Mary said her suit was too boring and told Sarah she had to swap her flower-pattern dress with her, but just as they were about to a loud buzzing noise made all our eyes vibrate so @Mary decided to wear what she was given. Inside my packet was a beautiful red-and-white striped apron, a little paper hat, a metal spatula, and some metal Burgers. Even nathan got some green-brown patchy overalls like a forest, though I do not know if he will make more mess or less in them.

We have to wear our outfits all week, and learn how to use them. Whenever I flip a metal Burger at the right time, my spatula makes a little ping noise which makes me feel really good in the back of my head, like when Mum tickles me just right and my little forearm-hairs stand up. nathan has to bang a block of ice outside into little cubes and sometimes he bangs the floor instead, but overall he seems contented.

 

Wednesday 12/4

It has been another week but we have to keep our outfits on now, and the cartoon bear tells us to do more things. I quite like my stripy apron, but more surprising is how much the Owls love their suits. While we are flipping our Burgers or sweeping the floor etc. they have to stand around a big screen and do Brain Storming. I am far away and my spatula does a buzz that makes my hand shake when I stop so I can’t hear them very well, but it sounds like Brain Storming is when you make up a story together about toothpaste or deodorant or in sewer ants, and then when you can’t decide how it will end, have an argument. It must be a lot of fun, because sometimes the bell goes for freetime and @Marcie and @Godric or whoever will carry on Brain Storming at each other right the way until Content Hour. @Tobias does not do this though, sometimes he does not take part in the story at all, but looks over like he wants to play with the spatula. But if I let go of it, it buzzes.

Today, we started Interaction. Robin table had to come and each buy a Burger from me while the bear on my picturetable told me what to say. So I will say oh my epic gosh did you see the dress Philomena Saturna wore on the red carpet, I mean wow! to which the Robin will reply I know, right? and both of our things will ping and we’ll get the nice back-of-head feeling. I don’t know what to call it. It was fun to start with, like being in TV, but then saying the same things over and over was weird. When the bear told me to say to Sarah that her new yellow badge was very her even though it’s not very Sarah and Sarah is very mean, I told it I didn’t want to and it started growling and made me think of dead animals. That’s why I am on the rubbish pile behind the estate, because when Mum gets home I don’t want her finding me until she has taken off her overalls from the ChickenFac.

 

Thursday Morning(!) 20/4

Ruby’s Good-Behaviour Spelling Test Practice:

  • Shrimp
  • Credit
  • Super-size
  • Department
  • Artisanal

 

Afternoon

At free period, everyone on Sparrow and related tables is supposed to stop in the afternoon to check out music videos, so I am entering additional content to you, diary, to add value. I still have to wear my greasy stripy apron during video time, but it has one pocket in the front for order tickets and tips, and now for an extra page of you!

So the oddest thing happened earlier. @Tobias broke off from the other Owls and @people at freetime, and we played together like we used to, up by the front gate. He was being the lazy union worker and I was the supervisor, and we were rolling on the tarmac ‘til our outfits got dirty, when @Tobias stopped fighting.

Come on tobias, you workshy freeloader, I shouted like they do on TV.

No, look at that, he said, and he pointed at the school sign.

It’s changed, he said. I checked it out.

It still said Willow Prime, but it had a kind of logo behind it and lots of companies’ names all around. And it looked like underneath somebody had written something. A bit like the writing on the walls they painted over, only this was very neat!

Passionate achievement of individual excellence.

What does it mean, I asked @Tobias. He checked out his shoes and said, it doesn’t mean anything. Then he told me to be careful, because I didn’t have to do what I was learning all the time even though I am really trying to get good like the bear said, and then things went quiet so I thought of my learned Sparrow Content and the videos and asked him, did he know The Seven Signs Of Hair Stress?

The sign started buzzing at us in this high pitch that you can only just hear, so we walked back down to the big grey class building. The buzz means end of freetime, but nathan gets to stay outside now. Break or not break he only does one thing, and that is breaking bigger and bigger chunks of ice. They must have had to bring special ice down from a Fac or something, this was bigger than him and nathan is actually big when you see him swinging the hammer they gave him in his brown-green suit. And it is good that nathan has something he is good at like how Mum is so good at the ChickenFac that they make her stay ‘til after I am asleep sometimes, but does he have to make such a noise, I asked @Tobias? Because nathan was shouting at this ice like the shout could kill it, and when his hammer made a big crack down the middle I have never heard a boy scream quite like that, except on the TV shows where something gets killed.

@Tobias said, don’t go near him. I said why not, he looks happy, and @Tobias didn’t say anything.

 

Friday 24/4

In the morning, I was getting ready to do Burger Practice and watching nathan get ready for Smashing Practice (the block of ice had a scary person’s face on it, wearing a bandage) when the bear came on all our picturetables and said, it is time for a celebration. I wondered if maybe Mrs. Pointer was coming back and I could serve her a Welcome Home Burger with candle, but the bear said Sarah, stand up. She jumped out of her seat like it had given her the don’t-do-that-again shock, but she looked happy. The bear said Sarah, congratulations, you may join Owl table, please collect your new outfit. Everyone went silent except for nathan smashing ice and screaming outside. Then @Sarah screamed yes, yes, slammed her fist on her old picturedesk, glared at the Robins she used to sit with and ran over to Owl table, nearly crying, which made the Owls shuffle awkwardly. Nobody said anything, then an old voice said, you see?

We all jumped, because the smiling man had come in without anyone knowing. He was smiling more than ever, then he said, you see, all of us can become the people we were meant to be if we try. Even that boy nathan has found his true calling. We heard another whoop from outside, and then I noticed that every time he whooped, some people on my table would flinch. frankie and lucy, they shuddered like he was smashing them into pieces outside.

In the afternoon we were all doing our table things, when @Tobias brushed past me and whispered, did you notice?

I whispered, notice what?

The smiling man, he said. He was older. They replace them just like that.

I thought about Mrs. Pointer, and the hurting buzzer sounded. The man, a man, had come in. Interaction, he said. @Tobias and ruby isn’t it, since you’re talking why don’t you start?

I picked up the metal spatula and pulled down my sticky apron, which is now even greasy in my dreams. I have always tried to do Interaction right, but my words come out in the wrong order, and none of them are things I want to say to my friends. My picturetable flashed the message, and I tried to forget who I was talking to.

Hello sir, I said. How can I help you today?

@Tobias sort of smiled but he couldn’t keep it up. Like the last time I asked Mum how her day was and she said I manage, and then didn’t say anything all night.

Hello, he said, can I have –

No hello, said the man. She is serving you.

I held up my spatula and managed to look like service.

– a burger please, said @Tobias. The buzzer went. No please, the man said.

You won’t believe what happens next.

I am not supposed to look directly at the @s for Interaction, but from under my paper cap I saw him stare at the man. Then he looked at me and said, Hi ruby. How’re you doing?

All the Owls gasped. The other Sparrows went ummmm.

I looked at him, and I got this hot feeling behind my chest because he’s never said my name out loud in the classroom before and he’s not meant to, and it was like I wanted to be crushed from the outside so I couldn’t be found by anyone, but I also wanted to expand forever from my middle and fill up everything. The two things pushed each other for a long time, and then I was saying a thing before I knew I was saying it.

Hey Toby. How are you? I missed you.

I felt the tingle behind my neck, but I hadn’t flipped a Burger or swept the floor or recited my Sparrow Content. So I think it must have been another feeling I don’t have a name for. The spatula felt very heavy, all of a sudden.

Everything slowed down, then sped up. The Owls shrieked, @Sarah most of all, and the buzzers buzzed and nathan smashed his ice and the smiling man screamed about disobedient little etc’s but Toby and I didn’t hear any of it until we were already running past the Biometric Scanning and cameras, over the tarmac and under the Willow Prime sign, passionately achieving our individual excellence, jumping and flapping our wings, and I saw in his brown eyes something between a brave little sparrow and a strong, angry bear. [/private]




Litro #139: No Such Luck

Contents:

Letter from the Editor by Dan Coxon

At Colonus by David Rose

Mosquitoes by Simon Holloway

The Cleaning Lady by Matthew Di Paoli

Teenage Icon by Kelly Creighton

I Was There by Dominic Stevenson

Bonfire Night Beneath the Stars by Dominic Stevenson

Seen and Not Seen by Reece Choules

No Angels by Michelle Bracken

Wild Gestures by Lucy Durneen

Author Q&A with Colin Barrett

This is only a taster of our No Such Luck issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.





At Colonus

Expanse of grass to left and right, extending to a perimeter railing of corroding wrought iron. The view is limited by a series of trees: regularly-spaced urban plane; horse chestnut, leaves browning, crisping prematurely; a solitary beech.

In foreground, in contradiction of the grass worn bald by summer use, an expense of grass close-mown, striped in the mowing, watered daily and still dewed in the heat. In its shrubbed borders a rustle of wings.

A figure seated in partial shade. Another hurrying toward it.

-What do you think you’re up to? Strictly no dogs, there’s a notice prominent at the gate.

-Dog? I have no dog.

-Then what’s that lead for?

-A keepsake, a memento mori, a comfort to the hand, a habit.

-Let me see your ticket.

-Ticket? I have no ticket.

-You need a ticket to enter this enclosure.

-This is not a public place, a park?

-This is the putting green. You need a ticket, obtainable at the office, along with putter and ball.

-I did wonder at the quality of the sward. I was enjoying its refreshment.

-It’s here for the enjoyment of golfers. If you’re not intending to play, I shall have to ask you to leave.

-Would that I could.

-Play or leave?

-Both. I was a mean opponent with the clubs in my day. But my ingress through the gate was of the nature of a hole in one, that is to say, a fluke. My egress, I regret, will require assistance. Your arm?

-You’re blind?

-I was hoping for tact and a friendly touch.

-So this lead here? Guide dog?

-Another hole in one. Far more than man’s best friend. More like a daughter to me.

-What happened?

-Killed by an unskilled skateboarder. Below the Hayward Gallery. Attempting some sort of pirouette, was his explanation. Broke her neck. A clean break is all I hope.

You find this funny?

-Surely they would give you another? The Guide Dog charity?

-I could never replace her. Besides, another would outlive me. Who’s to take care of it? I’ll muddle through, it isn’t long.

-Well. Still, rules are rules, and if you’re not a bona fide golfer I’m obliged to, here, take my arm, I’ve spread a tissue, tell you what we’ll do, I’ll deposit you outside the enclosure but in the shade of the shrubs. You’ll get the benefit of the sprinkler but within the safety of the rules. How’s that?

Two figures move slowly through the sunglare, glint of a chain still visible as their shadows merge into shade.

***

Two figures, one seated, one stooped. Only one of the figures is familiar.

-You move fast for an old man. You sure you’re not exaggerating your visual impairment? How’d you cross all those roads?

-By stumble and grope and listening for the pips. I had a head start; I left at dawn.

-How’d you know?

-By the intersection of the milk delivery and the refuse collection. And the freshening of the breeze, the dawn wind.

-But why’d you go, why’d you check out?

-It’s an overnight hostel, is it not? Night was over.

-No, it’s all-day too. And there’s breakfast all day.

-I prefer to picnic. I like the variety of the unexpected.

-But you didn’t sign the register.

-You forget what a hit-and-miss procedure that is for me.

-There’s always someone there to help, a qualified warden. It’s one of the conditions, signature on the register. That’s why I’ve been sent to find you, escort you back.

-Coercively?

-Why should it come to that? It’s what’s best for you, it’s in your own interests. You’re all on your own, unprotected. Look, you may be a senile old fool, but surely you see that?

-“Senile” and “old fool” are tautological. I best know my own interests. I’ll not budge from this spot.

-You can’t stay here by your bloody self.

A third figure approaches, his peaked silhouette recognizable.

In the distance behind the beech, a faint boil of cloud.

-I’ll ask you to moderate your tone and volume. You’re close to committing a public affray. The bye-laws as displayed at every gate are explicit in this. Are you being bothered by this person?

-He wishes to drag me back to the hostel.

-Hostel?

-We prefer the term Short Term Sheltered Accommodation.

-Known to fellow inmates as Boris Bunkers.

-They’re provisions of the Mayoral Outreach to the Undomiciled.

-They?

-There’s a chain of them across the capital.

-The M&S of the underclass.

-There you are – a tribute to the quality of the care we offer. Good food, clean bed, hot water and soap…

-The catch?

-No catch. We just require a signature in the register and their agreement to return for a minimum of seven nights.

-Hence the coercion.

-Why the coercion?

-Our funding depends on it. This venture represents a commitment to long-term solutions to vagrancy, weaning people off charitable dependency and the streets. People like him, fly-by-nights, jeopardize the funding. Drift in, hot meal, use of the lav and off; it’s taking the piss. Spoils it for everyone. Anti-social.

-I was once pro-social. Attitudes change with circumstance. Pro, anti… I wish for peace, no more.

-You’d have your own cubicle, own locker, a bath, disposable razor. Christ, what more does a man want?

-Dignity and a peaceful death.

-I just said, you’d have your own cubicle, needn’t be disturbed. How could you hope for a peaceful death with the foundering of the Mayoral Outreach on your conscience?

-With so much on my conscience already, I’m sure I could squeeze it on.

-For fuck’s sake.

-You’ve been warned.

-Does my bag of bones mean so very much to you?

-It’s for your sake too. Even in this weather, nights are cold, old bones chill. Don’t be so bloody stubborn.

-If you want my two penn’orth, he has a point.

-That’s it, you try to talk him round. I’ll be at the gate.

***

Above the beech, cumulonimbi are building up.

-Has he gone?

-He’s waiting at the Main Gate. He does have a point. Cynicism is fashionable but there are people who care. Care workers become care workers because they, well, care. Take my sister-in-law, now, she’s a social worker, years of training…

-The Big Society, room for all in the tent. Welcome the Other, the Alien and Stranger. Hug-a-hoodie, remember that? A sentiment I of all should favour. Unfortunately I was robbed by a hoodie, an off-duty squaddie. A Cameron Highlander, I was told, to add piquancy. No. “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” The passage from one to the other is but one-way. There are border guards. Notices at every turn. “Persona non grata” around one’s neck. Never more so than in the care of the carers.

-But surely you’d have the companionship of…

-Of one’s own kind? The camaraderie of the forgotten? Brothers-in-alms? The parry and thrust, the mutual joshing?

-But you’d have your own cubicle, didn’t he say so? And he’s right about the weather. My knees are a constant reminder. Would it hurt you to stick it out for the week? Rest up, clean up. The sprinkler’s helping but it’s no substitute for soap and water. Not to be personal, but…

-No, quite right. None taken. You think having no access to mirrors, I’m unaware of my appearance; the ill-assorted jib, runnelled visage, a head more crust than hair?

-Nothing that a good bath and a rummage round Oxfam wouldn’t cure. I’ll ask my sister-in-law, she’s bound…

-And the inner man? The reinforcement of one’s invisibility? A week of such?

-God, you’re a stubborn man. He was right about that too. What makes you so stubborn?

-A gift. Nurtured through adversity. Is the ruffian still at the gate?

-He’s still waiting.

-He’ll wait in vain.

-We’re in for a storm. Why not return for just the one night? Sleep on it.

-You’re a kind man. You have my welfare at heart, I acknowledge that. Don’t think me ungrateful, man to man. Yes, I smell the storm. A last favour. Save the ruffian from a soaking. Tell him I’ll be staying put. And for yourself, a parting gift.

-I couldn’t possibly accept anything from…

-You will, in time. God bless.

A peaked figure moves through the curdling light.

A prone form rises, stumbles once, moves toward the beech, a slow, unsteady progress.

The trailed chain – wet – coruscates.

Lightning flicker. A puncture in the atmosphere.

 

At death the world does not alter but comes to an end. (Wittgenstein)




Mosquitoes

She takes a cup, just one, from the cupboard above the kettle. The routine has changed and she has had long enough to get used to it now. It has been a long day. It is twenty past one and it has already been a long day.

The kitchen is ordered. Drawers and cupboards are filled. Outside the window the grass is short and the flowers are pruned. A few cherries lie under the tree, the morello variety, too sour to eat. Sheila sees a blackbird dancing across the lawn, as if the sunlight has made the grass too hot to stand on. She drinks her tea. Relief? No, that is too strong a word, too denigrating to their love. But Charles has been dying for so long. The hospital staff know her too well. “I’ll write them a letter,” she thinks. “Not a thank you card but a letter. What is there to thank them for in such a glib way?”

The blackbird bounds under the fir tree and pulls out a fallen cone. It flicks it around on the ground, shaking and spinning it, pauses to glance quickly for danger then repeats the lifting and dropping procedure to loosen any insects lodged inside. The action annoys Sheila. Signs of life. A fervent continuation. She takes her tea and tiredness to the lounge and stands by the window, hearing the clicks and ticks of cooling metal from their car in the driveway. Or rather from his car, his choice of practical hatchback. It’s a staleness she hasn’t noticed before, on the drives to and from his bedside. His death has been coming, has been known and accepted. The future has been hers to consider for weeks, months. A different car, then? How would she go about it? She has blood underneath her fingernails from scratching at bites from mosquitoes and midges.

There are other letters she must write, to banks and savings providers, to the mortgage company, to the gas and electricity companies, insurers, all including a copy of the certificate. It doesn’t intimidate her. She has always been involved with such things. She is ready too for the logistics of death. At the lounge window, with its pelmet and tie-backs, its sill of model tractors, she realises she has been thinking of children: not an old longing but the thought that she could have handed over some of the mundane necessities.

It had been her choice. Charles said he wasn’t bothered, either way. “Those tractors can go,” she thinks. “Was he lying?”

Her clothes smell of the cleanliness of hospitals, as usual. It had become a ritual of bathing, a way to glide in the evenings with an untaxing book, a lack of attention. “Charles is dead,” she thinks. She washes her cup and leaves it on the drainer to dry by itself.

It is too early for a long bath, or too late. She turns on the shower and undresses, inspecting herself in the mirror for indicators of his absence. What marks do sixteen years of marriage leave on a woman? Are there signs in the shapes and curves of her body, in the lines of her arms and shoulders, in her breasts, her stomach, her hips and thighs? Do her eyes and mouth show love, the intertwining of lives, or are they as they would be had she and Charles never met? There is dried blood on her ankles. The bites are ripped, exposed.

The steam makes her feel even more tired. She has been waiting, preparing. Sorrow, if that’s what it is, has passed her by. She finds some trousers from the third drawer down and a loose sweater, loose enough to shake the tiredness off in defiance. A call to action long delayed.

For three hours she storms their castle. First to be exposed is the drawer in the kitchen: his drawer, full of batteries and pens, old takeaway menus, assorted screws and washers, radiator keys, wore for the strimmer, chopsticks, instruction manuals for electrical equipment, matches, coins. As she tips the entire contents into the bin, unsorted, she sees two citronella candles tumble beneath pins and buttons, staples, paperclips.

In the lounge she takes down two paintings of the harbour at Brixham and a photo of Cary Grant but leaves the picture of the windmills of Zante, where they had spent their honeymoon. Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton film collections go into a box for the charity shop, along with the rows of Alistair McLean and John le Carré novels. The dining room yields ornamental figurines of wild animals she had collected, two vases she had once thought pretty, and his briefcase, which she empties into another large box, saved for the occasion. The contents could be collected by someone from his office, if they still wanted them. She nips into the kitchen to write ‘work’ on her list of letters to write, in case she forgets.

The large chestnut dining table he had bought at auction after she fell in love with it still bears his other work papers, a spread of files waiting expectantly for him to return to them. They do not know. Sheila hasn’t told them yet. “You can’t be that urgent,” she says out loud. The sound of her voice surprises her. A home dismantled so quickly, as if she had been a blackbird shaking a fir cone.

She eats. She listens to the radio. She puts an armful of towels in the washing machine, ashamed of the chemical smell of the ward which she seemed to have transferred to them. She rings her mother to tell her the news, wondering what she will do in the morning now that she no longer has the need to drive for forty minutes in her husband’s car.

“For weeks, for months, every night has been the same,” she says. “Is tonight different?”

There is no answer. They say their goodbyes.

She goes to the kitchen to make her bedtime cup of coffee, pours just the right amount of milk into her evening cup and puts it in the microwave. “Charles made this perfectly,” she thinks, “eventually.” She has been preparing for his death for a long time. Without knowing why she ignores the warmed milk and rummages deep in the bin, avoiding drawing pins and fuse wire to find one of the citronella candles. A further search provides a book of matches, The Russian Palace Restaurant, Helsinki. Their anniversary, seven or eight years ago.

The candle smell mixes with the scent of weak coffee. A helicopter flies close overhead. Sheila hears its blades slice the air, pushing and pulling, maintaining altitude in spite of the forces working against it. The sound passes and fades. She wonders where the blackbird is sleeping, whether there are more insects waiting to be shaken free.

As she changes for bed she looks at herself again to see if her skin has altered in the hours since her shower. Was she right to claim with certainty so many times that no one would ever see that skin again, except her doctor and mortician? She strips the bed, throws the extra pillows Charles relied upon and the brown blanket folded at the foot of the bed into the spare room. The morning has hours for them to be discarded more permanently.

Clean sheets. A cream duvet cover with small blue stars and peonies on it. Two cornflower pillow cases. She turns the main light off and lies on her hip facing the lamp, on her usual side of the bed. Her book is easy to read and easy to fall asleep with in her hand. She turns the page with her thumb, rubs her head deeper into the pillow, and reaches down without thinking to scratch at the bites of her widow ankle.




The Cleaning Lady

For a short time growing up, we had a Polish cleaning lady to help around the house. She came on Tuesdays. I was only eight, but I remember sneaking behind the ribbed oak banister and watching her change out of her blue maid scrubs.

The enormity of her breasts, hidden neatly behind her thick white bra, gave me purpose. It was a strange voyeurism because it always felt invited – to change right out in the living room where she knew I could watch.

I could only guess at their texture and weight, similar perhaps to holding balled-up cats – they might squirm out of my hands at the slightest touch. In a way, I wasn’t that far off.

After viewing her, I’d sneak into the upstairs bathroom and take three small papaya pills from my mother’s medicine cabinet. They tasted good and she’d said to chew them when my stomach felt funny. I couldn’t remember the maid’s name or her face now, which I was sure wouldn’t have been up to my present day standards. But in memory she remained immaculate.

There was a certain fanaticism that stayed with me from that period, the hope that at any time, I could stumble upon a depraved miracle.

I thought about the cleaning lady as I sat on the M79 bus riding cross-town to see a girl. She was a dancer and I hadn’t seen her in two weeks because she’d booked a gig right after our first date. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not. I assumed it wasn’t, but then she called me so maybe it was.

The first time around we kissed, and she straddled me. Her breasts weren’t like the maid’s, but dancer’s breasts rarely are. She had underwear that I felt but didn’t see, and for two weeks I was wondering why it was even worth wearing something so insignificant. It made me hope she’d be wearing the same pair.

On Park, a dog got on. He was brown. I stood up front, and he parked himself next to me. I looked around to see if he belonged to anyone, but he didn’t. He was just a dog on a bus.

I leaned in to the bus driver. “Is this dog by himself?”

He took a wide right, checking me in the mirror. “It comes on the bus every day. It’s quiet, so I don’t ask questions.”

“Where does he go?”

“It gets off at York,” said the driver.

“And you don’t know where he goes after that?”

The driver pulled over and lowered the bus. It hissed down and a few elderly women gingerly boarded. “You’re asking me if I know the ultimate destination of a dog who rides my bus every day?”

I looked down at the dog. He seemed to be listening to the conversation, perhaps aware that it pertained to him. “When you say it like that it makes the question sound stupid.”

“Does it?”

The driver closed the doors and pulled away. I realized I missed my stop. At 2nd Avenue I patted the dog on the head and got off. I was supposed to meet the dancer for drinks at 6:00 and it was 6:20, so I hurried into the little wine bar.

The dancer was already there. She had these perfect, unmistakable legs that glimmered like the desks on late night talk shows. She set them off to the side of the table as if withholding them. Her hair was wavy, which I liked. And she had a distinct mole above her eyebrow that she could have hidden, but didn’t.

“Sorry,” I said, “there was this dog on the bus.”

“That happens.”

“No, he was alone. It’s like seeing a child alone. You make inquiries.”

“Is it?” She held her palm over the candle in the middle of the table. It flickered and almost went out.

“You and the driver would have gotten along. How was your show?”

“My – oh I made that up.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I didn’t think I wanted to see you again, but then I said, ‘Why not?’”

“But why would you tell me that?”

“Because I’m honest.”

“Not really though because –”

The waitress interrupted, “What can I get you two?”

“Malbec,” I said.

“Pinot,” said the dancer.

After that, we talked about her dancing on Saturday Night Live and how neither of us is a fast reader. A few glasses later, we went back to her apartment because it was close. We kissed for a while then I took off her top and kissed her small breasts. The blinds were open but she didn’t seem to care. I started to unbutton her jeans, but she said I shouldn’t and that she had to go to a club to meet friends anyway.

“You should come,” she said.

I tried to look down into her half-opened jeans, but I couldn’t see much, just a black elastic band below her flat belly and a triangle of shadow. “Have fun with your friends. Maybe dinner this week.”

“This week’s tough for me,” she said.

I didn’t believe her. I scooped up my jacket that she’d tossed on the floor and headed to leave. “Let me know when you’re free, I guess.”

***

The next day while eating a meatball hero, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dog. I wondered if he was lonely, but I envied his independence.

Around a quarter to five, I hopped on the M79 and took it cross town again even though I had no reason to be on the East side. Certainly not to see the dancer. At Park, the dog stepped on, and I got excited.

“Where are you going?” I whispered to him in a sort of baby prattle.

He looked up at me with happy eyes and licked his jaw. Maybe that meant something.

We rode for a little while and got off together at York. I wondered what he’d lead me to and if his life was more interesting than mine. We didn’t walk all that far and arrived at a brownstone on a little side street. He waited patiently in front of the door for five or so minutes. I considered the fact that I was waiting on a dog in an alley, and perhaps I’d taken things too far.

As I was beginning to falter, a woman in her fifties with died black hair and a bit of a belly opened the door. The dog began to wag his tail, and she put out a food dish for him. She wore green slippers and seemed startled that I was standing there.

“Excuse me, is this your dog?”

“I just feed him.” She began to close the door.

“Wait – please.” She held the door open a little, enough so that she could close it quickly. “Does he belong to someone in the building?”

She looked me over pretty good before answering. I looked pretty normal, and my hair wasn’t as messy as usual, so I figured she’d answer.

“He did. She passed a couple months back. Now he comes here, and there’s no one else to feed him, so I do it.”

“Did you know he rides the bus every day?”

“I wasn’t aware of that.” She seemed to relax a little and opened the door slightly wider. “That’s funny. She used to take the bus to work.”

“The owner? What did she do – do you know?”

“She was a cleaning person over on the Upper West. She worked for a couple families there. I’m sorry. I have to start dinner. My husband gets ornery.” She patted the dog on the head, but he was busy eating, so he didn’t notice. “If you want, you should take him with you. He doesn’t have any place to go, and I have cats.” She shut the door.

He finished and stared up at me. I imagined my face in black and white. I thought of how having a dog would affect me. I couldn’t come home at four anymore, fooling with dancers’ breasts and sifting through lies. I liked the idea that perhaps this could have been my cleaning lady and there was some symmetry to things.

I felt overwhelmed for a moment. The dog settled down next to some garbage. Maybe that’s where he slept. I sat next to him, and he put his head in my lap. I wanted to ask him what she’d been like and if she wore thick white bras. I wanted this to be more than coincidence, to find order, to catch the scent of her perfume, find her picture – experience that ecstatic depravity I’d stumbled across all those years ago; but in my heart I knew that none of us was connected, that she’d cleaned my countertops and the dancer had someone else to open her jeans, and he was just a dog on a bus sleeping on a man sitting amongst garbage.




Teenage Icon

Jeremy stoops down into the blue Jaguar X Type. The car makes him feel twice his age. His first car – the run-around scrap metal on wheels – sits abandoned in the driveway; it has done since the garage refused to take the Jag back. Even in death his mother’s contract has remained.

Jeremy’s father had handed him the keys, his expression pissy. “You might as well,” he said.

Jeremy reverses over the two tone flagstones; he swings the vehicle swiftly in the loop of the cul-de-sac packed with identikit detached homes. Tyres yelp on wet tarmac, goading his father who glares through the window of his study, which was Claudia’s old bedroom and has now become his office space since she left too. She has been accepted on a PGCE course and doesn’t want their mother’s car, not with congestion charges and the unfamiliarity of London’s roads.

Jeremy sets off for his last day in his job. His three week old old job. On Monday he starts casual bar work in the nightclub, another stopgap to pay mobile phone bills and vodka quotas while he dreams up a career. Despite his father’s quiet anger, top-heavy with grief, Jeremy feels no pressure to become responsible just yet. He will rely on his inheritance for now, sure that his mother would have wanted him to find the right job, not the right-now job. The right now makes Jeremy feel sick.

As he drives from the monotony of Irish suburbia he thinks about Claudia, the lucky bitch has always known what she’s wanted since they were kids. He wonders about paying her a visit; maybe he could sleep on the floor of her room while he samples the club scene. Jeremy wonders what the men are like in London and if one could take his mind off Louis. He envisages Louis, pictures the white origami creases of his shirt sleeves the morning they had sat at his dining table.

Louis had repeatedly run his little finger over the smooth red handle of his cup. The cup had narked Jeremy, one of the ones that began with, ‘Calm Down and…’ Jeremy couldn’t recall what the rest of it had said. It had been insignificant yet Louis’s finger kept bringing his attention to it, as if to send him subliminal messages. It had only added to the noise in Jeremy’s head.

The new Vaccines song had played on the breakfast show, a punkie upbeat little number. Every time Jeremy has heard it since it has reminded him of then; reminded him of Louis. Now the song still makes Jeremy miss him.

‘Teenage Icon’ played in the café when he had been on his blind date with Padraig, set up by Lexi. The intro immediately brought him back to Louis, and he remained on his mind during the rest of the date, even during the stifled sex in Padraig’s bedroom of his family home. It had all seemed amateur compared to the self-assured encounters with Louis in his stylish studio apartment. He had pictured Louis when Padraig touched him; his five o’clock shadow over the hollows of his cheeks and their abrasive kisses, sometimes gentle, sometimes urgent. No man he had seen since had been a patch on Louis.

***

Jeremy veers over the country lanes that run behind his home, he thinks about the shop; customers’ expectations and tea-break confinements. He feels boxed in by telephone wires overhead, glistening asphalt below and the break-up of hedges, fences and stonewalls at either side. Two bare trees stand in a field; they reach straight lean arms out, raise the ends slightly, seeming to give Jeremy the bird.

“Fuck you too,” Jeremy says.

On the road the white lines melt into each other and disappear over the hill. Jeremy fumbles to find a decent song on the radio. The blast of the horn brings him back to reality, the oncoming removal truck’s lights beam as they both swerve; side wheels of his mother’s car hit off the grass verge holding Jeremy back briefly.

“And fuck you!” Jeremy shouts, ruffled. He tries to concentrate on the winding roads that he has known since a boy. He has been swaying in different directions, something always distracting him; lately it is the thought of Louis. The Vaccines song comes on the radio, starting from the very beginning.

Oh look at me
So ordinary
No mystery
With no great capability.

Jeremy thinks it safer to let the tune play. Their song. No, maybe their break up anthem. The radio station’s playlist conspiracy reminds Jeremy what he ran from. Again he thinks about that morning after his seventh unplanned night with Louis.

He woke alone, pulled on his t-shirt and jeans. In the mirror of the sparkling white ensuite bathroom, Jeremy teased his fringe from his face, swilled mouthwash and sprayed Louis’ deodorant at his armpits from over his low scooped neckline. Jeremy had planned to leave with one of his handshakes that always resulted in a matey hug. He left the bedroom to see Louis sat staid at the table; a box of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes stood beside an empty bowl and a spare spoon.

“What’s all this, Lou?” Jeremy laughed, feeling jumpy.

“Sit down and have a bowl before work.” Louis was splashing milk into his cup, Calm Down and Drink Coffee, Jeremy remembers now. Not relevant. He wonders if he is looking for signs where there aren’t any.

“Can’t stay. I don’t want to be late for the office.”

Louis had raised an eyebrow and looked at the place setting he’d arranged.

“I thought you hated work, that you didn’t bother showing up half the time these days?”

Jeremy eased into the chair, damned how loose his tongue became after too many vodkas and Red Bull. He hesitated then poured a bowl of cereal, only a small serving although he was starving. In front of Louis he didn’t want to look like a pig. That is when the song came on.

“What’s going on? With us?” Louis asked.

Jeremy drained the milk from a small designer white jug that looked stolen from a fancy hotel. He wondered who Louis had gone to a fancy hotel with.

“What do you mean?” Jeremy coughed. He glanced at Louis, the cup between both hands. White lettering peeked through his fingers. It was the first time he had seen Louis look serious, not in a sexy way. He had wanted to hear the new Vaccines song, now Louis was speaking over the top of it.

“We keep ending up together. Should we make a go of it? I mean, I’m not seeing anybody else and neither are you.”

“How do you know I’m not?” It had shot out of Jeremy’s mouth before he could stop it.

“Lexi told me.”

Jeremy watched his spoon disappear into the milk and become the sliver of a silver crescent.

“I asked. Don’t be mad at her, she wasn’t trying to match-make.”

“Really? That would be a turn up for the books.”

He watched Louis run his little finger over the cup handle, the image that remained. His tanned forearms in his starchy folded up sleeves had looked really good. Louis dressed smarter on his days off work than Jeremy ever did at all, apart from the funeral one month before that morning. In work Jeremy never cared if he looked as though he had been up all night shagging. In fact, all the better; give them something else to talk about.

“What do you think?” asked Louis.

Jeremy ate a spoonful of flakes buying himself time to arrange a response. He nodded his head as he crunched through the mouthful, patting the back of his hand against his mouth.

“Is that what you want? A relationship?” Jeremy asked screwing up his nose.

“I don’t know. I think it makes sense,” Louis offered, sounding unsure himself.

Jeremy piled some more cereal onto his spoon, he thought about eating it, but knew he would be taking the piss. As uncomfortable as it felt Louis deserved an answer.

“I don’t think I’d be a good boyfriend right now, my head is all over the place. There is this thing in work…”

“There is always a thing in work, especially in your case.”

“Louis, I’m getting over someone.” It sounded added on. A cliché.

Louis’ pursed lips said that he didn’t believe him. Knowing Lexi she would have told Louis that Jeremy had never been in a relationship before. Anyway it was true, Jeremy thought, he was getting over his mother. She had only been forty-two; it was hard to accept. Sudden. Something disbelieving in Louis’s expression stopped him opening up. Jeremy wondered if Lexi had told him about his mother too. If she had, Louis hadn’t mentioned it.

***

Jeremy stops at the traffic lights without knowing how he arrived there. He pretends to fumble in the glove compartment to hide his face, his tears, from the driver in the car beside his. For some reason he always cries recently when he thinks about Louis.

***

“Okay, I’m going to lay my cards out, Jeremy,” Louis had said. “I like you, I know you like me. You could be at a bar with your friends and me somewhere else. We still always end up together at the end of the night.”

Jeremy looked at Louis; he couldn’t avoid it any longer, not when the guy was opening his heart to him. “Listen Jeremy, I’m not going to beg you to go out with me. If we give it a try and it doesn’t work out, well… what the hell.”

Jeremy felt his chest being concurrently lifted and pushed down against his will. A long, slow sigh escaped his body as though someone telling him that they liked him was a burden. He couldn’t stop it, despite not wanting to hurt Louis.

“Well thanks for eating some breakfast, hope you didn’t feel as though you had to,” Louis said, he stood up, stretched and scratched the back of his head as though bored by Jeremy’s presence.

Jeremy stood slowly. He gawped at Louis, words filed into his mind and back out. The little jukebox picker in his head failed to pick one of the sentences that shuffled past too quick for him to read; but that song still played. It played then and plays now.

I’m no teenage icon
I’m no Frankie Avalon
I’m nobody’s hero
Oooh.

He had followed Louis to the door of the apartment, watched his back in his crisp shirt tucked into chinos, making the most of the last of summer days. Louis opened the front door and hid behind it, out of reach for one of Jeremy’s embraces and playful pats on the back.

“I’m sorry,” Jeremy mustered.

“What for?” Louis’ hurt was concealed with a laugh. “I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

He clicked the door with precision.

***

Jeremy wonders if Louis still has those feelings. He sees Louis’s building; somehow he has ended up at the apartment instead of work. He tries to catch his breath.

Jeremy doesn’t care about being late for the shop. He doesn’t know why he even bothers when all he cares about is gorgeous, sexy, serious Louis. So, he made a mistake. He wants Louis too. His car is there; Louis is home. Jeremy will tell him how he feels, no time to think it through. Jeremy will simply say that he has never met anyone like Louis before. He has matured and now he wants meals, coupley-walks and movies on the sofa. He wants to be part of something that isn’t falling apart or half-assed. Jeremy thinks about his mother, she would have liked Louis. Claudia will. His father will be impressed that Louis is successful and well put together.

He sweeps the blue Jag into the communal parking and jumps out, leaves it unlocked. His pulse booms in his ears. Jeremy likes how the adrenalin makes him feel, like the day he told his boss at the office to “Go fuck.” Exactly like the day he handed in his notice at the clothes shop.

Jeremy walks to the shared entrance of the block. He tries to work out which number Louis’ apartment is, never paid much heed any time he was there before. He retraces the mornings he has traipsed down the stairs, recalls Louis living on the second floor and on the right side. Jeremy gives apartment six a buzz and waits.

“Hello? Jeremy?” Louis’s voice sounds motorised on the intercom.

Jeremy gives a restricted sheepish wave to the CCTV camera above him.

“Come on up, I’ll buzz you in.” Louis sounds pleased to see him.

Jeremy walks up the stairs, the plastic casing on the handrail creates friction; rubber soles of his trainers on the lino floor seem to want to slow him down. Jeremy’s lifted heart turns to stone. His heart plummets from dancing under his collarbone to dragging at the bottom of his gut. He wonders if he is doing the right thing.

At the top of the stairs Louis stands, cross armed and grinning almost as if he has always known Jeremy was coming back.

“Hi, Lou.”

“Hi, yourself.” Louis smirks.

Jeremy looks at him. He isn’t as he remembered, distorted by time and fantasy. Louis is kind of handsome, Jeremy thinks, not gorgeous. He is shorter than Jeremy remembered; his shoulders narrower. It dawns that he has never seen Louis when he has been fully sober. The morning they had sat across the dining table he had looked anywhere but at the man.

“I’m sorry,” Jeremy says.

He walks away, slowly, then takes off down the stairs. The descent always being the easiest part.