Open Pen London

A Lonesome Snow Leopard

Inspiration hits him like a spray of shotgun pellets to the face. That’s good—he’ll use it in a poem.

He writes all night in a chasm of creation. He is deep—Marianas Trench deep. That’s good, too—he uses it straight away. No, he scribbles it out. Lake Baikal deep is better because as the deepest lake in the world, it is more suitable, as he feels his poems are isolated and not touching any other body of water that may also be deep.

He can barely contain himself.

He knows the poems are genius.

Really genius.

At 36 years of age, this is finally his time.

He prepares for his pièce de résistance. He has avoided the complicated theme of love up until now because he feels it is brandished about in this commercialistic society of ours, replaced with l-u-v love, the lemming-drones all luving their Starbucks coffee and luving Justin Timberlake. It is not the love he wants to say. It does not get close to the very Lake Baikal depth of his feelings. He wants his final poem to better Yeats, laying the cloths of heaven at Maud Gonne’s feet, asking her to thread softly. He wants to compare to a summer’s Day. He begins.

 

If love were a duck,

I would set my dogs of desire into the long grass to scare it from its hiding place.

As it took flight to safety, I would spray love with shotgun pellets to the face, unloading both barrels to make sure of the kill, and watch it fall to earth with a lifeless thump. I would rush to the scraggly, blood-soaked dead carcass of love so that the dogs did not tear it asunder. I would grab love by its webbed feet, bring it home, pluck its feathers and chop off its head off with my cleaver. I would rip loves’ entrails from its stomach, keep its liver for pate and eat its heart raw, sucking the blood through its vena cava. I would drench love in orange sauce, cook love to gas mark 5 for 35 minutes then share it with you.

He calls his collection, Life and writes his bio—Ulick McMillan is a poet, a human and a lonesome snow leopard. It gives the public nothing and shrouds his persona in mystery.

Life however, is poorly received and misunderstood. The poetry publishers send standard rejection emails, wishing him the best on his endeavours. A seething rage for publishers boils in his stomach and instead, Ulick self-publishes, Life. He sits in his bedroom with 5,387 copies of Life beside him in 18 big, brown boxes. (5,387 is the depth of Lake Baikal in feet.) He charges for the biggest bookshop in London.

‘How can freedom be a triceratops?’ the bookshop’s manager asks as he flicks through a copy.

‘Because it’s extinct,’ Ulick says.

‘Is this a hidden camera show?’ asks the manager, straightening his tie and looking around for the crew.

Ulick has to be wrestled outside by a security guard. He receives a lifetime ban from the bookshop. It notifies him that his four boxes can be picked up at the bookshop’s local police station. The email begins with Dear Lonesome Snow Leopard. He considers cutting out his tongue and posting it to the bookshop in response. It would be amazing publicity, artistic and bold. It would echo through the ages like a time-earthquake.

He sleeps on the idea.

He calls an end to pounding the footpaths after the incident.

‘I’ll start again,’ says the marketing company’s representative. ‘What would you like our company to do for you, Mr McMillan?’

‘I want you to sell my five thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven copies of my book.’

‘We arrange publicity and advertising, Mr McMillan. For example, we don’t hit the streets with millions of cans of Coca-Cola and sell them to passers-by. We advertise it. We rent billboard space, organise launch parties and photo-shoots, buy column inches. We get Rihanna drinking a can of Coca-Cola. You know what I mean?’

Ulick is forsaken and purged as he listens to the marketer speak. It is all part of the hypocrisy that Life demolishes. It is a conundrum. To get himself out there as a world-renowned poet he must use channels that his work attacks to the very core. He feels like Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, rooting through that giant pile of triceratops droppings to prove to the stupid wardens that the dinosaurs do in fact eat the West Indian lilac.

‘You sir,’ he tells the marketer, ‘are lower on the evolutionary scale than tooth plaque,’ and hangs up.

‘Ulick,’ says Alice. ‘Let’s go do something.’

‘I am in business meetings about my art. I am in anguish, I would be terrible company, Pumpkin.’

‘It could be worse, Ulick. You’re not a starving baby in war-torn Africa.’

‘The starving babies in war-torn Africa have not got a thing on this unappreciated-in-my-time pain I feel, Alice. I would prefer starvation!’

‘Why not try the Internet?’

For once, Alice proves useful. He will go viral.

He starts in the poetry forums to get it praised by the ones who know. The lemming-drones will soon follow. Life for sale, he writes. He offers, If Love Were a Duck as a free sampler of the type of poem Life offers.

The trolls go to town on him. He is surrounded on all sides by malicious keyboard ninjas who would not know poetry if it slapped them in the face with an Atlantic salmon.

This poem is the biggest atrocity to mankind I’ve ever witnessed—Auschwitz Survivor.

This poet needs to be sprayed in the face with shotgun pellets!

I’ve taken 4 showers since I read this poem. It’s not coming off no matter how hard I scrub.

He cannot counter every comment that’s posted. There are just too many of them.

Twitterbot spam pops up on his computer screen the very moment when his wit was just about at its end.

A Twitterbot, says the Internet, is a…

‘Your dinner’s ready,’ Alice shouts from downstairs.

‘Aaaargh!’ he shouts back. He hangs the ‘Creating’ sign on his study door and slams it.

A Twitterbot, says the Internet, is a program used to produce automated posts via the Twitter microblogging service.

Perfect, he thinks. The Twitterbot can get its hands dirty in the world of publicity leaving him free to create his follow-up to Life. He buys a Twitterbot programme right away and puts the printer on notice for another 10,000 copies.

Ulick arranges the programme so that anytime somebody mentions the word ‘life’ on Twitter, his Twitterbot will direct them to buy his poetry. The programme also scrambles his IP address to avoid fines for spamming and reroutes all posts through Lithuania. He names his Twitterbot, Prophet5387 then launches it into cyberspace.

He gets to work on the first poem of his new collection. He titles it, The Self-imposed Bloodied Axe of Rejection. 

He begins.

I wield the self-imposed bloodied axe of rejection.

It is a decent start. He goes downstairs for his dinner.

The next day, Ulick tries to check in on the progress of Prophet5387 but he cannot remember the password. He tries all of his usual’s—sacrificiallamb, misunderstood, nothingness. None of them work. He tries to access the Gmail account he used to create the Twitterbot. Again, he cannot remember the password. He uses his own Twitter account and searches for Prophet5387.

He cannot believe his eyes. It has attracted 2,011 followers in less than 24 hours. He checks on the sales of Life. Not one copy sold. Something is amiss.

Prophet5387’s first tweet was, What am I doing tomorrow? I’ll know tomorrow when I’m doing it. It posted it on a host of other Twitterbot conversations and they automatically retweeted it.

The second tweet was, To be all, is all there is.

The third tweet was, In less, there is a wealth of more.

Ulick realises Prophet5387 is tweeting random phrases that it plucks out of cyberspace. He has programmed it incorrectly. He phones Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and demands to be reissued a new password so that he can change the settings. They are no help—they cannot condone Twitterbots. He phones Google and argues with a machine for two hours. It is no use. He tries to write a poem about it but he is too forlorn.  His once-blooming imagination feels like a barren, furrowed field.

‘Apox,’ he cries. ‘Apox!’

Prophet5387 tweets, Delve deep distracted divers.

Six thousand people enter into a conversation beneath the tweet as to what it means. Internet forums explode in speculation. Someone mentions it is the exact depth of Lake Baikal in feet. Baikal becomes a trendy synonym for a deep and insightful idea.

‘Apox!’ Ulick cries.

The next day, there are Prophet5387 t-shirts and merchandise on sale all over the web.

In one month, Prophet5387 accumulates six million followers and is given a weekly ten minute segment on the Ellen show.

The Poet of our times, writes Time Magazine, is shrouded in mystery. But who is the creator of the Twitterbot Prophet5387 and does it matter? As it uses all our voices, does it represent mankind’s voice as one voice?

Ulick phones Time Magazine.

‘Hello. I am the creator of Prophet5387,’ he says.

‘Really?’ the receptionist says.

‘This is incredible. I thought it was the thousands of others who have called saying they were the creator of Prophet5387 but now that you say it’s really, really you, this is awesome. I’ll send out the news crews right away.’

‘Are you being sarcastic?’ Ulick asks. The line goes dead.

Prophet5387 tweets, Gaza.

The next day, the president of Israel offers peace talks with representatives from Palestine. There is genuine progress made towards peace in the Middle East.

The lemming-drones all wait on Prophet5387’s hourly, automated tweets. They make newspaper headlines around the world. Twitter compiles its tweets in a book. It sells by the tanker-load. The proceeds all go to the starving babies in war-torn Africa.

Prophet5387 tweets, I am a fad.

The people of the world wholeheartedly agree that Prophet5387 is most certainly not a fad as a result. The 14th of April is declared Prophet5387 Day worldwide. Prophet5387, a poet that will never die, they say.

People speculate as to whether Prophet5387 should be declared divine.

Ulick can hardly take much more. He must tell the world of the monster he has created. He does what anyone with something important to say does and goes to an internet forum.

Prophet5387 is nothing but an algorithm, he writes. It is not real. It has never felt wet grass beneath its bare feet in the cold dawn. It has never loved, never felt, never been. It does not know beauty or pain. You people are like the Pacific Islanders of the Second World War, watching the planes come across the sky and declaring them Gods! I can be as random as Prophet5387 if you want—Ride giraffes in the washing machine! Get down the ladder and drink tea!

Three million keyboard ninjas set on him like rabid dogs.

He beckons Alice. He needs some emotional support.

‘I’m going to Russia, Ulick,’ she says, holding two suitcases in the doorway. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you.’

‘Russia?’

‘To Lake Baikal. A commune has started up there to spread the teachings of Prophet5387. I’m starting a new life, Ulick. Without you in it. I’m sorry. I’ve been healed by the words of Prophet5387.’

‘It’s not real!’ Ulick shouts. ‘It’s an algorithm! Nothing more!’

‘I’m sorry, Ulick,’ Alice says. ‘Take care of yourself.’

‘I will not go gentle into that good night, Alice,’ he shouts after her.

The front door opens and closes.

‘I will rage, Alice. I will rage against the dying of the light!’ he screams from the very bottom of his forsaken soul and then faints from the stress of it all.

o          o          o

FIRST PUBLISHED IN OPEN PEN ISSUE ELEVEN.

David McGrath is the author of novel Rickshaw. In 2014 he won the Bare Fiction Prize for Ger Sheen and the Satanists.

REVIEW: MOVING KINGS BY JOSHUA COHEN

WITHOUT EXCITEMENT THERE CANNOT BE LOVE

Between reading the majority of Moving Kings (Joshua Cohen, published July 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions) and sitting down to write this review, I’ve had a massive breakdown. Not the most massive a breakdown you can have – no psychosis – but weeks of panic attacks while hiding inside cupboards, screaming into the sky in public, lying on pavements and weeping, daily nightmares that seep into conscious premonitions of death, going to city farms to stare at goats instead of going to work, full days spent in the psychiatric section of A&E, so, like, yeah, a full-on breakdown.

I don’t think Moving Kings and my breakdown are necessarily linked, but I think the context of my mental decline – and the book’s inability to arrest it – is significant. For me, a great book stops the world. A great book, any great book, is as compatible with a breakdown as staring at a cute dog is compatible with not smiling. Moving Kings – though inarguably a “good book” – isn’t the kind of book one can read to reawaken their dying soul. Moving Kings is well-written, well-structured and engages with interesting topics, but Moving Kings doesn’t feel in any way remotely fresh. Maybe the pop culture and the technology is up to date, but Cohen’s massively acclaimed novel (also newly released over in Trump’s America) didn’t do anything to me I hadn’t felt done to my reading self many, many times before. It reminded me of all those books that increasingly underwhelmed me as I read my way through – and then beyond – the texts that claim to the title of The Great American Novel.

Moving Kings is a beefy, blokey, book about American perceptions of contemporary Israel, mostly focused on the Jewish diaspora of New York and its environs. There are multiple protagonists: the first to be introduced is David King, a wealthy baby boomer who runs a logistics company that shares its name with the novel. He is divorced, he’s into drugs and fucking his secretary (who’s like clingy, y’know), but most importantly he’s into making shitloads of cash. He’s a typical American [anti-] hero: wealth accumulated by effort, combined with a vestige of empathy in a character overwhelmed by flaws. One of these flaws – and the one that will prove to be significant – is his paternalistic wish to look after Yoav, his Israeli cousin’s son, met once when Yoav was a child. In the present day, David arranges for his company to give Yoav (and his buddy Uri) some back-hand, visa-free work when they arrive into America following their national service. Together, Yoav and Uri try to integrate into the American youth culture scene (or whatever) but are frustrated by a) a language barrier (minor for Yoav but severe for Uri) and b) the repercussions of their time spent in the Israeli army. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Cohen weaves together his multiple strands and multiple flashbacks very well, there are great passages of description and evocative descriptions of male ennui. It ticks all those boxes of books that are meant to be “good”: race and identity are explored; the immigrant and the touristic experience of being culturally overwhelmed; regret and ageing; mortality and railing against it… The big themes of American letters are here, and big themes related to the contemporary world crop up too: the problems with landlords and increasing rents and overseas property investors; money and international trade is important, the way people structure their lives and their finances; people trying to connect with estranged family members; intoxication and addiction and the reasons for it; homelessness; poverty as the counterpoint to affluence…

All these big, weighty, hefty topics, all discussed in accessible and uncomplex but simultaneously explorative prose… When one pulls Moving Kings apart, it is easy to see that all the ingredients are present for a great book, but in combination they achieve something underwhelming, and – important – underwhelming in a familiar way. Moving Kings feels like a novel written to a formula, even down to its inclusion of a weird (and v male fantasy) sex scene in the middle of the book. This is the Updike, Franzen, school, y’know – American novels on big themes that are good, y’know, unquestioningly good, but when you’ve read one you’ve read them all. No, that’s unfair: when you’ve read five or six you’ve read most of them, and when you’ve read ten or fifteen you’ve definitely read them all. And, sadly, I have read ten or fifteen of this type of novel, and my appetite for them has long been sated, and was probably sated even before that weird Summer when everyone read and raved about John Williams’ Stoner, another underwhelming book from the same school.

I get it, I get that explorations of affluent WASP and affluent North American Jewish lives are different from each other, but these stories are presented in the same way, with the same styles and the same voices. Moving Kings was published by a major publisher in the US (as were Cohen’s previous novels here), and that is the kind of place where this book belongs. It is a good book, but it’s a good book by rote, y’know (I need to stop saying “y’know”, I know, but I’m recovering from a breakdown SO PLEASE JUST BEAR WITH ME), it’s a good book in the tradition of good books, it’s a good book that doesn’t feel like it’s taking any risks, that doesn’t feel like it’ll offend, annoy or insult anyone, it’s a good book that lacks bite, it’s a good book that is never going to be anyone’s favourite novel, it’s a good book without question, and – for me – that’s what makes it disappointing.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – and indie presses in general – usually do something mainstream publishers don’t. Indie presses take risks, have to take risks, because without risky publications they’re never going to get any attention. Indie presses put out books like The Wake, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Attrib. & Other Stories, Quiet Flows The Una, Pond. Big publishers put out books that are like books they’ve already had success with, because they are big machines with big overheads (MIXED METAPHOR) that need oiling. Indie presses have lower overheads, less staff, y’know, and get their kicks out of publishing literature that wouldn’t get a hearing elsewhere. The reasons for this are diverse, but one similarity I find between books published by indie presses is their uniqueness. Fitzcarraldo Editions is one of my favourite publishers and they’ve put out many of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years. And those great books, those INCREDIBLE books, are books unlike anything I’ve read before. That book on football, that book on smoking, that book on suicide, Claire-Louise Bennett’s prose, Mathias Enard in translation, y’know, AMAZING books. By publishing Moving Kings – a good book in a traditional, riskfree sense – they have done something they didn’t need to do. There is no arguing that Cohen is a good writer, that his book is successful as literature, but it feels so familiar, so part of that style/canon of “American novels”, that there’s nothing to get excited by, and without excitement there cannot be love.

Had I reread Zone instead of reading Moving Kings, I would never have felt so low, so broken, so depressed. There is power in the potentiality of art. Literature exists – much of it published by Fitzcarraldo – that makes life seem worth living. Writers, thinkers and translators have contributed to the output of this publishing house that consistently maintains my faith in the changing and eternal power of literature. Moving Kings – as technically “good” as it is – did nothing to make me enthusiastic about the world of books or the world of America. I hadn’t read this text before, but I’d read its style, its concerns and its worldview. By all means read and enjoy it – there is nothing (other than that sex scene) to dislike – because Moving Kings is a good book, it does what it’s meant to do. But it’s literary fiction like loadsa literary fiction. It’s literary fiction that’s going to change no one’s life.

Moving Kings is a good book, but it’s a good book in the same way that hundreds of books are good books and that – for me – isn’t good enough. I want great books that are great in ways I could never imagine. I want books to make me hungry for literature and life and everything inbetween. Moving Kings isn’t exciting as a work of literary art. It’s fine, it’s good, but Pond and Zone are published by the same people and are both unique, life-changing, texts. Read those, if you haven’t. Do support Fitzcarraldo and other indie presses, because amazing, unexpected, books are pouring from them. This book – though it’s good – isn’t amazing.

o         o         o

Scott Manley Hadley is not OK and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

FALSIES

By Gary Budden

Somewhere near the Hoo Peninsula, back in 98. It’s like I’m still right there and I never really left.

After the gig in Gravesend, we were cornered on the bus. It was one of those Stagecoach buses with the seventies-style orange and black seats that smelled of dust and dead skin and gave you friction burns. A bunch of boneheads out looking for blood. It was a shithole then and it’s a shithole now.

My mate Andy, with his post-punk t-shirt and what they considered ‘poof’ hair (on that day dyed cobalt blue) came off badly. It never helped that he was a mouthy bastard, and smart with it, which made it worse, but he didn’t deserve what happened to him. If I close my eyes and think of it, even now, I see a burst bag of bruised purple fruit, swollen flesh engorged, and a tooth laying on a dusty bus seat. Still I think: what was the point?

You know that metal bar bit on the bus seats? I don’t even know if it has a name. They took Andy’s head and thrust in down like they were dunking him into a big bucket of water, like he was being forced to bob for apples. Pushed his teeth straight into that nameless metal bar. I tried to help him but they’d already blackened my eye and knocked the wind out of me. I hadn’t felt like that since I was a kid and my brother planted a tennis ball straight into my solar plexus while we mucked around in the back garden. So I lay there on floor of the top deck of the bus, gasping like a freshly caught bream, surrounded by dried-out gum and empty crisp packets. I heard a crack that was part gunshot, part breaking branch. I learned the sound of splintering enamel. A few small hard objects clattered onto the floor.

It was so bad he was fitted with falsies. All I could do was lay  there on the floor, the life knocked out of me. I know I couldn’t have done jack, but still. This is what people talk about when they say they’re haunted. I’m stuck there, down on the bus floor.

The Gravesend lot, they got off at the next stop with their grins, their shit tattoos and Skrewdriver shirts fading into the night. I guess the driver was too scared to even try and hold them before the police turned up. Who can blame him?

I have this recurring image of a little old lady on that top deck of the bus, frozen and trying to make herself invisible, fingers white-knuckled and gripped to her handbag. She didn’t deserve to see that.

In the hospital, I visited my friend Andy, the guy who I’d sit with in pubs listing our top ten Pacino films, who’d speak passionately of the International Brigades, the guy who planned on making Konnie Huq from Blue Peter his bride in some imagined future. My friend Andy, his face like a burst bag of overripe plums with a gummy grimace. What do you say to such things? Other than, ‘Sorry mate’.

We never really had the words to say what was going on inside. And when we did find them, it was too embarrassing to dig up the past, or perhaps it was simply too late. Words only go so far, don’t they?

‘When she came to see me,’ Andy said, talking about his mum Linda, ‘she burst into fucking tears.’ And with this statement he’d tap his falsies, swill his drink, rub a hand over hair now cut-back and neutral.

These days, I don’t see him much. He left the scene, to all intents and purposes, about a year after Gravesend. You can’t blame him.

o        o        o

Gary Budden is co-director of indie publisher Influx Press.

He writes fiction and creative non-fiction about the intersections of British sub-culture, landscape, psychogeography, hidden history, nature, horror, weird fiction and more. A lot of it falls under the banner ‘landscape punk’. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals. A full list can be found here.

His debut collection, Hollow Shores, will be published by Dead Ink Books in October 2017.

He reads at the Open Pen Summer Party this Wednesday, August 16th, at the Jamboree in Limehouse, East London.

WANK

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By Scott Manley Hadley

-First published Open Pen Issue Eight (April, 2013)

You wake up on Saturday and your girlfriend’s already gone out. Where? You don’t know. Could be anywhere. Maybe she said something about an exhibition. You weren’t paying attention. You rarely do any more.

Last night the two of you stayed up very late taking coke and drinking homemade cocktails. You’d had an argument (yes, another one) at about five am that lasted for over an hour until you shared a couple of spliffs, fucked, then fell asleep. Although the dispute had been verbally unresolved, the proof of your continued attraction to your girlfriend had been evidenced (to some level), so you’d presumed everything would be fine when you woke up. You’ve slept late. You inhaled a lot last night and it (post-­‐coitally) knocked you out. It’s about two pm (Saturday morning, right?) and you’re alone.

Not completely alone: you’ve woken up with a massive erection. An appropriate, private, erection which, in the five minutes or so you’d lain there awake, eyes closed, unmoving, you’d planned to satiate with a frothy 69. Now, still horny from the narcotics and too newly awake to feel hungover, you want to come. You throw your legs out of the bed and wander into the kitchen. With this angry throbber leading the way, you think, your girlfriend would almost   certainly fall to her knees and start gobbling at it before pushing you to the floor and getting her pubes up your nostrils. You gently massage your penis as you (pointlessly, all is silent) check the kitchen, the spare room and the toilet. In the kitchen you open the fridge and take a swig of Tropicana, eat a mouthful of prawn stir-­fry (it’s the best thing you cook).

You return to the bedroom and, satisfied that you’re alone, head into the en-­suite. You’ve always had a thing about steam. Largely sexual, but not entirely so – you like to be surrounded by it, whatever you’re doing. As a preference you shit naked in a room filled with steam. Obviously (at work, parties, restaurants) that isn’t always practical (both the nudity and the boiling water), but when you’re alone in the flat you like to lock yourself in, open the door of the shower cubicle, turn up the heat as high as it can go and let the room become a hammam. Your hard-­‐on is swinging about in front of you as you do this (two hand job, turning on the shower), and as the room fills you slowly begin masturbating in a more concentrated, dedicated, way.

Your left hand’s wrapped around the cock proper, easily pulling the foreskin back and forth thanks to a squeeze of shower gel. Your right hand is wrapped around your balls, stroking them, cupping them, squeezing them, pulling them – just having a blast, doing what feels right. You’re grinding your arse on the side of the basin trying to work out if you’d rather have a finger inside you or your balls in your hand.

You climb into the shower, seal the cubicle behind you. You like the feeling of water running through your hair, down your chest, across your buttocks. You turn down the heat and, as it cools, lube your left hand up and move from your balls to your anus, still stroking your cock, rimming and gently penetrating as you let the waves of pleasure (and the water) run all over you. You sink to your knees, shaking, panting, hard as a rock. You’re thinking about the girl from Luke’s party. (Again, the subject of last night’s argument.) You’re wishing you had her number so that you could call her up, get her here and have her stood on the other side of the Perspex, naked, squeezing her tits together with her forearms as she wanks, shoving a big, orange dildo up inside her. You can imagine her naked, you can imagine how much she’d love to know how hard even now, almost two weeks later, she’s getting you hard. You push your head against the plastic wall, your cheek flat against it, your cock sliding in and out of your fist, your finger sliding in and out of your arse. You want this woman more than you’ve ever wanted your girlfriend. You want to see her, you want to remember her name, you want to find her and fuck her and even if you have to end your relationship to do so you just want to once, one time, have her lying, spread-­‐legged on an oak wood table, your tongue buried in her clit, then your cock buried in her pussy, her ass, her cleavage, her mouth, her what-­‐fucking ever as long as you get to taste her juice and she gets to feel you rigid and ready and desperate inside her.    You want to stare into her eyes, you want to stare into her pussy, and you want to-­

And it’s all over. Two surprisingly thick jets spurt out, immediately mixing with the water. You’ve come hard. You twitch and grin and sigh and gently stroke your head as you swing round and sit in the collecting water at the bottom of the shower. That, you think to yourself, was a fucking good wank. You’re exhausted. You’re light headed. You slump against the tiles at the back of the cubicle, grinning, still.

You maintain this for two, three minutes. Maybe longer. Until water starts to submerge your perineum.

You make a half-­hearted, loose splashing, pushing liquid towards the plughole. Useless.

The drain in here’s one of those three part ones. A disc – the bit you see – sits atop a filter, below which is a beaker that has to fill before any water can flow out and down the pipes. This is to stop any hairs or other matter ending up in the sewers.

Drained, the first wave of a repressed hangover starting to kick in, you stick your fingers under the disc of the plug cover and snap it out of its casing, removing the filter. Which flings out onto your inner thigh one of the most disgusting clumps of material you’ve ever seen: a huge wad of your girlfriend’s and your hair, wrapped together around the massive globule of today’s fresh come, stuck together with a colossal amount of dried, sticky, smelly semen from all the other times you’ve ejaculated in the shower since this was last cleaned.

Your initial response is to throw it onto the floor of the shower, but when your hand pushes it off the hairs all stick to you, wrap themselves around your fingers, the coagulating strips of jizz joining to form a flubber-­‐like material that can’t be detached from the body. You jump up, throwing the thing against the wall as if it’s alive, ram your shoulder against the taps of the shower, shout out in pain, slip onto the floor, bang your head against the glass and land with a crash, kicking open the door of the shower cubicle. As water starts to splash onto the bathroom floor, you realise with a shudder, a quake and an inward moan of horror that your shoulder is bleeding and the back of your head is pressed against something soft and moist, not Perspex. You pull away and see the strings of semen linking the wall and your hair before you can think of what to do. You sigh, scrape it off with one hand and throw it across the bathroom towards the open toilet.

Unexpectedly, your aim is true.

You crawl back under the water, kneel, penitent, let it run through your hair. Using your feet you close the plug. At least the filter’s clean, you think, and grab your genitals. Again again againagain? What’s a Saturday for?

o          o          o

Scott Manley Hadley doesn’t write filth like this any more, he’s like so woke now it’s lit innit #hashtag He blogs at

It’s turned the final word into a link and deleted it

He blogs at Triumphofthenow[dot]com

Actually use all that

Budden Parties

Gary Budden is one half – often cited as the better half – of Influx Press. He is also short storying his way through fiction currently, with a good few neat short stories in the last couple of years, including the Galley Beggar Single ‘Knotweed‘ which we cannot recommend enough.

Not to be weighed down with the shame brought upon Influx House through his business partner’s heavy-footed movements in the world of carpet lit, Budden has been hard at it flying the flag for short stories with something to say, and the excellent Dead Ink have taken notice. The short story collection ‘Hollow Shores‘ hits stores in October, but you can crowdfund it now. Not sure yet? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered because he’s reading at our Open Pen Summer Party. Make your mind up then, London. Join us for our 80% booze 20% live fiction night, cheap tickets and info here.

Ah, the shorty story! To paraphrase the fantastically terrible or terribly fantastic Blood Diamond (2006), We here long before novel came – long after novel gone.


Open Pen Summer Party 2017

Okojie Parties

That there Open Pen Summer Party is just under two weeks away (Wed, Aug 16, 7pm!) and we’re several kinds of chuffed that the magnetic Ireneson Okojie is reading from one of our favourite short story collections going, the acclaimed Speak Gigantular (Jacaranda). The Guardian said that it “delves into the painful, the unsayable, the unknowable. Her prose is precise and illuminating: love and loneliness are recurrent themes.” We agree. Obviously.

IreneOkojie is also the author of novel Butterfly Fish, released last year, also on Jacaranda. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, and the Caine Prize.

Her short stories have been published internationally, including the Kwani 07 and Phatitude, and this year in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2017

Tickets and info for the party are available here, and all proceeds go to keeping the writers and performers boozed up for the night. Anything leftover, as ever, goes to keeping our scrawny little fiction journal in print. You can also buy both of Okojie’s books on the night. I’m sure she’d be so kind as to sign your copy, she signed ours after all.


Eleanor

by Harris Anders

Parties

Remember those student parties that we used to go to, Eleanor?

Which took place each week, with the same people, more or less?. The same university friends, sometimes colleagues, extended families, associates. Weekly rituals that were intended to give fruitful pause amid the ever rumbling on of the ‘this week, next week’. The banality of this repeated society tempered only by our alterations in mood. Sometimes we remained polite and restrained and so found ourselves talking, quietly and patiently, with the least exciting person in the room, trying not to look over their shoulder, whilst waiting for a lull in the conversation, so that we could be excused.

Or sometimes we drank efficiently and became raucous, and splattered ideas and notions about like three year old children, and made forceful attempts to find someone to sleep with. We needed someone that night, to be in our bed, with our wine -stained tongue. Don’t let us drift off into inebriated half-sleep alone.

We succeeded, occasionally. Remember that woman who looked the colour of aubergine flesh who, unwelcome, distended the interlude by calling us each night? We replied in curt sentences, then single words – yes, no, sure – until we just stopped answering. The next party, we dodged her, noting her sullen glances from across the sticky, kitchen linoleum. Being drunk meant being rejected, or rejecting. It gave us the blurry courage to deal with the casual cruelty or sharp humiliation. Which was worse?

But not all parties are like that. Some are occasions – mottled increasingly thinly as the years pass – marking decisions celebrated for their finality. You’ve made a baby, you’ve gotten married, you’ve been promoted. More responsibilities, more ‘no going backs’.

Indeed, it is at that junction in age, when it dawns on us that all main decisions in our lives have now been made, and we are to live in the consequences. When we go to that big occasion, floating near to our forties, we are going to see those old University friends, and their consequences, worn nervously upon them as suits just beginning to settle on the skin. And maybe, also, lingering about, their older relatives who we recall, and seem just as ever, and that will settle it. Them, with their fully worn in consequences.

 We will not have seen each other for years, and we will be unsure about how and why each person has been included on the RSVP. We will wonder who is still close to whom and who still thinks little of us and wonders why it was we were invited. Was it perfunctorily, or out of nostalgia? Or perhaps we were just on some mailing list somewhere? Perhaps the celebrating woman has few friends left – like us – and so we are just being sent for to pad out the crowd?

But we will, for a short time, imagine that it is a gift to us, and that things can go back to the way they were when we were younger, when we believed, luxuriously, in our own loneliness. Not understanding that real loneliness is seeing life around us – the possible places to go, the possible people to see – erode, with seemingly no hope of revival or replacement. Another friend we realised we haven’t seen in years, another night we don’t bother to extricate ourselves from our flat, with its magnolia walls and coffee coloured carpet and canvases of non -specified cityscapes. After 30, we no longer make friends, we just lose them.

We will nervously build up to the first party we’ve been invited to in over two years and place upon – what used to be a banal fixture in a buzz of activity – a heap of momentum. A desperate will to break the now terminal and docile drip of the passing days.

 We think, we will see each other and step over our awkwardness and talk as old friends and drink too much and find ourselves, yet again, sharing a room for the night. And you, Eleanor, will forgive me and promise to call, before dragging your hangover to the 11.30 train back to Birmingham.

But of course you don’t live there any more, you must live somewhere else, but I don’t know where that is or what you are doing or if you are married. Maybe one of those names on the list I didn’t recognise will be the person you now share coffee mugs with, who bathes in the same tub as you and walks barefooted over the same carpet, in and out of each day. It won’t be we at all any more, or even you and I, but an awkward, momentary glance, across tops of wine glasses, that lies heavy on me and won’t go away, won’t be alleviated by a later, tentative conversation that warms into reminiscing and then flirtation, and all the rest.

You will have another him that floats near to your shoulders and watches you be deceitfully likeable and in agreement with everyone and everything. Although he may take pleasure in it. He may see it as your ineffable charm.

Yes, and then you will spend the rest of the evening avoiding me and I will suddenly feel foolish for imagining it could be otherwise and have the urge to suddenly go. And you, or anyone else, won’t miss me when I slide out, taking a bottle of the free wine in my satchel. That, at most, you may think later, where did he go? And much later, in your life, whatever happened to him in the end?

It will not be a reviving of something of our old lives;. The things I miss for no other reason than because I have failed to find anything to replace them.

Pace

They don’t prepare us for our later years, those who decide how we are to be raised, taught, organised. We go to school and we are linked to each other by our near exact ages. Our classmates become our peers who take each step through life at the same pace. Though our intelligences may differ, we are taught the same things at the same time with the same people. We are told that the uniformity of our clothes is to represent our school, as patrons, but it is more the case that it is to convince us of our continuity with each other, and the world.

Later, many of us head on to University, if not to learn or to go to parties then certainly to continue on at the same pace. Though we have more freedoms in how we should dress, what books we should read and what meals we can eat, we nonetheless continue to progress through these short years by the same deadlines. The intoxicating presence of society and involvement and new friendships are only a passing entertainment, not a sign of how we ultimately will live in the world.

Because then it changes. We graduate and our peers splinter out across the country. Many, in a disheartening reversal of fortunes, move back to the home towns from which they had believed they had escaped. They set themselves up in an administrative job, marry someone they went to school with and settle down to live a life that did not require the teasing reprieve of an education. Some wander off abroad with an extension of their family’s money and tend to baby orang-utans in Borneo or help build a school in Nigeria. Some, on flimsy savings, settle into a room in London and cleave their feet into the lowest rungs of a corporate ladder.

Splintered out. And suddenly we are no longer walking in the same boots, to the same rhythm: she falls in love quicker; he obtains wealth; she more knowledge; he children, and so suddenly that you and your peers are no longer taking the same steps, at the same time. You are no longer held together by the comfort of a wedded pace.

Pathos 

Martha, the hostess, with all the diplomacy she still believes she is famed for, notices me tinkering about at the outer reaches, tapping the stout cup end of an acid glass of red wine. She has been moving between guests as though to bestow upon them a little revitalising rush of her fertile effervescence. She says, I must speak with Terence, because he lives in Bristol too now, and we used to be such good friends.

We were never good friends. Terence was always the tinkerer on the outskirts. I am new to that particular dimension. At University, now fifteen years since left, I barely spoke but a few pragmatic words to him. Bored, rudely looking over his shoulder, words. Martha, on the other hand, was the subject of a transient obsession.

Terence has an easy manner and a blasé face, peppered now with crow’s feet but still a healthy head of hair and designer spectacles that he is forever shunting up his nose. We talk about the Bristol supermarket riots, rising rents, his taste for computerised music. Terence is a mildly optimistic sort. Maybe he could be my new Bristol friend? Unedifying, but pleasant company, to drink warm ale with into middle age. Terence seems the type to not mind either way.

You married? No, he says, no children, a job as technical writer, an open football club on Sundays. For those men who don’t hold an office job or a steady pack of friends, I suppose. I should come?

Eleanor doesn’t come to Martha’s leaving-to-teach-English-in-China party. I anticipate each intermittent tap on my shoulder to be her, not another old mate stopping by to see how things are getting on, with the same relaxed, utterly unemotional manner that details only obligatory interest. No phone numbers handed over, no meeting up for meals, no re-instigations of the old life.

I think to ask Martha, as she hips by, if she knows where Eleanor is, if she plans to come later? Is it worth waiting on? Martha, piqued by my inability to mask urgency, tells me she couldn’t come. But she is still in Birmingham, working for a digital design company, and did I want her to pass on my email address ? No. I say I already have hers. But it’s really because I know she won’t appreciate being chased.

I’m still the man who she had sex with, to her regret, on two inebriated occasions. One with the added company of a woman the colour of aubergine flesh, who would not let it go with me, as I would not let it go with Eleanor. I’m still the man who would not stop calling, who gambled our friendship on the instinct that if I only pushed that bit harder, she would eventually be moved. I’m still the man whose number she blocked and whose presence she avoided.

Only now I’m older, more tired, and further away. And anyway, it has been so many years. And I don’t want Martha to be the intermediary between me and Eleanor. Martha, the woman I brush up against every few years or so for dinner when she is in town, for no other reason than she finds it impossible to give up on friends. Martha, whose belief in her own unending appeal is scuppered by her caustic manner and relentless self interest.

No, don’t worry Eleanor, it was just a shame to miss her this time around. Martha shrugs, smiles (piteously?) and kisses my cheek. I go to get my coat, feeling foolish for coming all this way. I wonder if Terence feels that way too?

I look for him on my way out, thinking I’ll ask about those football Sundays and give him my number, but I don’t see him on route to the door. I can’t go picking through the crowd to look for him; the man I barely know, who I spoke to for less than an hour, about almost nothing.

The mid summer sun is dipping as I leave. The rush hour train home is clenched with people, and I stand among a small crowd of commuters in the shaking box car between the carriages, lifting the small book I have in my bag, and pretending to read.

 *           *           *

 

MONTGOMERY ROAD and other stories

Montgomery Road

I liked the way Montgomery felt in my mouth, like a sweet. Mont like a mountain, gom like a French eraser. I always loved that word, gomme. It was just right for its purpose. Unpretentious. And then the ery just rounded the thing off, like rolling an r. It was a good, solid word. I would call a cat Montgomery and he would not be called Monty. Ever.

I liked writing it, too. The tall t with its line across. Making it a cross, in fact. Reverential. A blessed road. Then the two tails, the g and the y, curling round confidently. I perfected the art of looping the g-tail elegantly round to the o. It could look almost Victorian, or like a flower.

M is a good starting letter. It’s the thirteenth one, which is unlucky. I hesitated over calling your sister Martha – but I had to, because it’s so solid and strong and old. I hope she wasn’t cursed. I don’t think she was. I looked forward to Mondays, was the only kid who did, because Monday started with M and felt safe and reassuring. And it wasn’t a double like those pesky Ss and Ts. Just Monday. A dark-bluey purple day that held no fear.

We could win Mars bars at school for good behaviour. They would never allow that now, of course. Health and safety and all that. They were good size ones, the sort you’d pay at least a pound for at the corner shop. I would have them to look forward to as I muddled through days starting with T. A t in the middle of something was holy and fine, T at the start was like a gallows. Which is ironic, if you think about it. You could get hanged on either.

Friday was red and sharp and scratchy. I would dab out big wavy ovals with my green and blue felt pens to cool down, like ripples or a cold front or a mountain on a map. I would use my eraser to blur them, making an inky mess and not caring. I would curl my gs and ys, cross my ts, start as many words as possible with M, writing about mice and muddles and Michigan and Milton Keynes. I would run home with a fistful of Mars bar, feeling vaguely triumphant as I sought the cool of our porch on Montgomery Road.

Something like soap

I can smell the grass through the window, across the terrace with the lilies. They were purple and coral and mauve and ours were only peach. I wanted cuttings, so much.

I can smell and taste butter, though whether it is in the same memory as the grass I don’t know. It may not be compatible. There may be one before and one after. Real butter, from Kerry, they said, though it was probably made in a plant in Dublin. It was too thick, too strong. It clogged my throat, my nose.

The lilies were with the grass and they were long ago. They stood on the terrace like beautiful sentries, like Japanese ladies lounging around their canes, oozing scent. Could they outdo the butter? Or would they work together, creating something like soap, something creamy and fragrant and sweet? Something that may actually have been made in a field of cowslips in Kerry?

No. They were different places and times. The grass and its lily loves were before. The butter and its tyranny were after.

What is now? The after of the after?

There’s no butter on the air. I think I smell jam. Raspberry, maybe. I liked raspberries as a kid; they were underrated and unloved next to strawberries. Not anymore. Forget purple lilies and yellow butter. The time of the raspberries is now, and they are pink like they should be. Not blue, like those daft Slush things so long ago.

I still want lily cuttings. I also want a Kerry calf. And a raspberry bush. I want to reunite all the timelines, the before and after and now and next.

But they’re fragments, scattered across the floor in a pool of incompatible colours, messing with my eyes.

And we know my nose was done for long ago.

Climbing the mountain

It’s Friday night. I leave France Saturday morning. I have to be out at half seven. I glance around at my apartment. Ready to go? Well, I only have most of my clothes to pack, all my books to cram into my trunk and a load of recycling to take down to the car park.

I shudder. It’s too much. I have the whole night ahead of my, anyway. I listen to some music to calm myself.

I finally accept, at around eleven, that I ought to deal with the rubbish. I shudder as I take the Walk of Death down the near-vertical, light-free stairs leading into the abyss of the car park. As always the huge, heavy door at the end bangs shut like a rock falling to earth and I jump out of my skin.

I sort all my recycling properly like a good citizen, despite the fact that others haven’t been so considerate and the bins are a mess of unsuitable items. I hear the famous door bang again and inwardly moan. What now?

A cleaner looms ahead. “What are you doing?” she asks, and I panic.

“Just sorting my rubbish.”

“Ah, that’s okay,” she says happily. What did she think I was doing, holding a satanic midnight car mass? I return upstairs to begin the second of many, many runs.

*         *         *

With my recycling dealt with I pack, and pack. And pack. One o’clock comes. Two. I have to be up at seven. Everything is a blur of exhaustion. Three. Both cases are stuffed. I begin on my rucksack. Four. I finally go to bed.

My alarm rings. I spring up, head spinning, grab everything and haul it out into the corridor. I’ve missed my desired bus. I’m depending on the last one that will get me to Perpignan Station in time. It stops up the hill from me. I grit my teeth. I will get there if it kills me. In hours I will be home and watching How I Met Your Mother while drinking Horlicks. The pain will be but a distant memory.

I get to the road, cross. I am now at the base of the mountain (aka mild hill) to the bus stop. The bus is there. My heart sinks. There’s no chance now. But he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Could he… be waiting for me? Surely not. French buses don’t wait. But this one is stationary. Time to climb a hill.

I grit my teeth and drag one bag, then another. The handles cut into me. Everything hurts. Home, I think. Horlicks. A couple of guys look at me with interest. Neither offers to help. I soldier on. I conquer the hill and start on the ten-metre trek to the bus. Still he waits. Either he is the nicest, kindest bus driver in France or he is ahead of schedule. Probably the latter.

Five metres. Three. Then I am on the step of the bus, panting, looking like an animal – but alive. I commence the quest to locate my pass. The driver shows no sign of going anywhere. Five minutes later another woman boards and then he pulls out. Looks like he wasn’t waiting for me. I am heartbroken. But I will find it in me to forgive him one day.

We arrive at the station with moments to spare. I stagger in, trailing my bags, a triumphant snail. I will do it, I think, failure is not an option. I clank down the steps into the tunnel. Through the tunnel. Up the steps. The train. The doors are shutting.

I stumble and nearly fall, nearly give up and accept it as my destiny to sit there sobbing eternally, a martyr of the steps. Then I hear a British accent and two expat-ish women grab one of my trunks. I hurry up behind with the other, filled with a new, raw hope. My heroes. I sob out my thanks as they throw me onto the train.

I sprawl in the space between compartments, squashed against some kind of machinery. I have a seat reservation but the thought of going searching for it is laughable. I just slouch, gasping, as we fly through the countryside. No cowboy who ever hijacked a train felt more gangsta than I do right now. I have a final bag-tidy, leaving a couple of battered old English books in the train in the hope some cultured person will pick them up and think, “Sacre bleu! A book in English! I’ll keep and read this!” (And hopefully not “What is this cluttering up the train, let us throw it out.”)

The train stops. I trawl the bags anew through Carcassonne Station. Feeling more in control than I have all day, I march out to find the airport shuttle bus. It isn’t there. I check the timetable. It left fifteen minutes ago. I throw my hands up in the air (metaphorically, of course; I’m not sufficiently French to really do it). That’s it. Fate does not want me to catch this flight.

I call my mother. She calls me a taxi. I arrive at the airport, check in, go through security, buy a bar of chocolate. Two come out of the machine. I take one and back away, scared. I don’t want to be a thief. I come back later to see if the other is still there. It’s not. The same guys are hanging around, smirking. What a wuss, they’re thinking. I tiptoe away and sit. That seems like the safest option.

The flight is delayed and delayed. Finally I board. I sit and close my eyes and think, let this be over.

*         *         *

Soon it is and I am home watching How I Met Your Mother, drinking Horlicks and thinking, bloody France. Of course, it doesn’t last long. It never does. Days later I am researching Antibes. Antibes is pretty…

 

*         *         *

Announced as a New North Poet at Northern Writers’ Awards 2017, Elizabeth Gibson tweets from @Grizonne

A LOVE OF ART

By Toby Roebuck

I could capture a glance, freeze a smile, find emotion in the stoniest of faces, but I could never paint two people next to each other. Cheeks drooped. Eyes lost their lustre. Mouths looked like misshapen fruit. One person, fine. Two, and it all fell to pieces.

For years I thought I was doomed, worthy only to paint leaders of industry and family ensembles. Then I met Joe and Amanda Swallow. They showed me a different type of ‘togetherness’. It was a valuable lesson, delivered with subtlety and intelligence.

*      *       *

They arrived in Newhampton to little fanfare, taking up an average semi-detached next to the Post Office. As I took my morning coffee at the café over the road, I saw their belongings being unloaded: a piano, a pineapple lamp, a tiny leather rhinoceros that presumably functioned as a footrest. Eccentric possessions for Newhampton, somewhat bohemian, artistic even. They’d piqued my interest.

About a week later I overheard my neighbour Mary talking to the church-warden. Amongst the bulletins of local gossip was a reference to the ‘nice looking young couple’ that had moved into the thatched cottage on the high street.

‘Any children?’ asked the warden.

‘Not as far as I know.’

‘Well that house would be rather small for kids, I reckon.’

This kind of practical consideration usually comforted Mary. But her reply sounded regretful. ‘Shame,’ she said. ‘Not to have kids. Considering they’re such nice looking people.’ It was an odd thing to say, intimate yet judgemental. ‘But they are young,’ she qualified, as if generously accepting their challenging ways into Newhampton. I wondered how these people could bring out the aesthete in Mary, a woman of strict routines and overbearing pragmatism.

Every day for two weeks, through each morning coffee, I stared at their house without so much as a glimpse of them. I assumed they were afternoon people. Not up before ten, lounging luxuriously through the day, too young and bohemian to notice the morning slip into afternoon. I imagined them getting up late, pulling on Japanese kimonos, throwing their feet up on the rhinoceros and tapping open some quails eggs for brunch.

At the end of two weeks I relented to curiosity and put one of my business cards through their letterbox.

The next morning Joe called. It was about eight-fifteen. I assumed this was a rare early start.

He sounded understated, almost apologetic. I was expecting a bellowing Oliver Reed-style raconteur, or the sublime hushed tones of a fragile poet. But instead I heard a quiet croak inviting me for an ‘initial consultation’. I was disappointed, but still intrigued enough to sketch a quick prediction of them.

*      *      *

Two days later I was knocking on their front door. They greeted me, side-by-side, sharing equal space in the doorway. Mary was right – they were certainly nice looking. All cheek bones and slender wrists, arched eyebrows and lithe limbs. A slender, dark and elegant couple. To my mind, they evoked images of Middle Eastern vice: furtive meetings in the corners of souks; the flash of burnished skin beneath a niqab; Arabian nights and harems.

By Newhampton standards, their house had an air of the illicit. The rhinoceros was pride of place, commanding the room from a central position. Dark leather sofas lined the two long walls. A television hid inside an oak cabinet, as if embarrassed to reveal its true function.

Amanda invited me to sit on one sofa and they took their places on the other. They seemed to predict each other’s movements, as if their progression around the room was a choreographed performance.

‘We liked your business card,’ said Amanda, her voice thin and toneless.

‘Yes, we loved it,’ Joe added. ‘Beautiful little embroidered bits at the end of the letters.’ Although chirpier somehow, Joe spoke with the same dying whisper as Amanda. Their intonation was identical. Yet there was the tiniest difference in their style of expression, as if you were hearing the same tune, played on the same piano, but in different keys.

The conversation passed in an airy exchange of whispers and solicitous smiles. Their company was narcotic. Everything slowed down, clouded over, as if shrouded in incense. I found myself staring at them, taking in little of what they said, focusing on their faces and the smooth lilt of their voices. Their strange unity fascinated me. There was no boundary between them, no tangible divide, no place where one started and the other stopped. At one point I realized they were picking at each other, tugging at miniscule arm hairs and fiddling with the skin of hands, unselfconsciously grooming like baboons.

I left mesmerized and a little confused. I’d been in their house for twenty minutes yet knew nothing meaningful about them.

But without remembering how, I had committed to draw their portrait. Business had been agreed. I was due to return in a week’s time for preliminary sketches and photos.

*      *      *

I felt it was a positive move, a good deed, a sign of Newhampton’s inclusivity and openness. But when I mentioned my new commission around town, I was greeted with a mixture of suspicion, concern and contempt. Sheila Jones, who ran the florist, said the Swallows were snobs and had no place here. David Jones, my erstwhile drinking partner and Sheila’s husband, said they had twice ignored invites to tennis club social events. David, ever the faithful husband, concurred with Sheila that there was ‘something spooky about them’.

Jeff from the grocery shop was horrified when they inquired about home deliveries. Once he had recovered from the shock, he told them he was nobody’s delivery boy and they should come into his shop like every other decent member of the community. To his mind, the Swallows were ‘work shy poshos’.

But the worst report came from Suzanne Cleary, the wife of a local entrepreneur. She had seen them walking around like they ‘had just bought Newhampton in a game of monopoly’. She said they were ‘snooty weirdos’. Upon closer analysis, I discovered that her view was based on their tendency to walk along pavements one behind the other and not smile when someone passed them.

*      *      *

‘So how did you meet?’

They grinned at each other. ‘In Brighton. We were eighteen,’ said Joe.

‘Well that’s pretty young,’ I remarked. ‘By modern standards.’

They laughed. ‘Perhaps we’re old fashioned,’ chuckled Amanda.

Their laughter was restrained, as if the joke might offend me. I felt excluded. ‘Childhood sweethearts then?’ I asked uneasily.

There was no reply, just muffled giggles. I re-positioned my camera and asked them to sit a little apart, as much to break up the jollity as to get another shot. I’d been making simple sketches and taking photos for about half an hour. It was a useful way of gathering compositional ideas for the final piece. They were willing subjects, happy to re-locate to different rooms, bring in a lamp, sit at new angles, anything I wanted. But there was a sense they did it in body not in mind, to keep me happy while they got on with the more important work of melting into each other’s company. Their world seemed impenetrable.

I studied them through the viewfinder. ‘So you basically grew up together?’

It was intended as harmless small talk. But they stiffened at the question, bodies tensing. Through the magnification of the camera lens, I saw Amanda twist minutely and recoil from me. ‘No,’ she answered, staccato quick.

‘No, that’s not how it was at all,’ Joe said, bristling. ‘I grew up in Canada, just outside Vancouver, middle of nowhere. I was a teenage exile, you know. Came over here when I was eighteen and met Amanda pretty much immediately and that was pretty much that.’ Once Joe had accepted me, he proved to be an expansive talker. He still spoke in hushed tones, but would unfurl soft meandering anecdotes, seemingly for his own purpose as much as mine.

I stood up and looked at them. Without the framing of the camera shot, I was aware of how small they were. Even though both very tall, they were slight and without much physical presence. They looked lost in the room.

‘So we didn’t grow up together, you see,’ Amanda clarified. ‘Continents apart, in fact.’ She had the same ethereal delivery as Joe, but without his tendency to elaborate. Her speech was pithy and quotable.

I sensed their unease, reproached myself then wondered why. As the only other person in the room, it was reasonable to think I was the cause of their discomfort. But I knew I had stayed within the realms of acceptable conversation. Surely any awkwardness emanated from them, not me. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ I explained. ‘I consider myself to have grown up with plenty of friends from my late teens and twenties. There’s still a lot of growing to be done, so in a sense you’re growing up together. That’s all I meant.’

This soothed them. They edged apart. ‘Well I guess we did then,’ agreed Amanda.

After this faltering start things got warmer. The gap between us closed and I stayed for another hour. They even confided in me and shared private jokes. When I had arrived, the door to their world had been locked and guarded, but over the course of that hour, even if only by the tiniest of cracks, I edged it open.

As we moved from room to room, trying out new compositions and arrangements, I saw photos of them dotted around the house: beaming into the camera after a beachfront dinner; arm-in-arm on a ferry with Manhattan looming in the far distance; outside a house in a nondescript suburban street. Each photo became an excuse to glean information. I learnt that they’d moved around the world, never living anywhere for more than a couple of years, mainly because Amanda’s job required them to, but partly because they felt the constant draw of the new. I didn’t pick up on Amanda’s job, but realised she didn’t work now. And Joe was self-employed, yet once again, his exact work eluded me. After a life of roaming, they saw Newhampton as the perfect place to settle.

I could see they had lived separate from the world, moving through it yet apart from it. They made no comment about the places they had lived, only how the two of them felt there. Madrid brought out the chef in each of them. Johannesburg made a nature-lover of Joe, but a shopaholic of Amanda. Tokyo, alas, nearly made alcoholics of them both.

The afternoon was a success. I came away with several ideas for the portrait and promised to produce a shortlist from which they could choose just one. But more importantly, I had won their trust. It was only when I referred to them as a ‘husband and wife team’ that the palpable unease returned.

‘Oh, we’re not married,’ chimed Amanda. It was an unremarkable comment, yet she cowered when it left her lips.

Joe jolted forward, almost blocking Amanda from my vision, as if he wanted to obliterate her from this exchange. His eyes brightened and his jaw flexed. ‘Darling, don’t be ridiculous,’ he said cagily. ‘How can you say we’re not married?’

‘Oh I didn’t…’

‘We’re not technically married. But, you know, de facto married.’ Joe’s gaze bore into me as though fixing the truth of this statement in my brain.

‘Like common law husband and wife,’ I said.

Joe leaned back, putting Amanda back in my vision. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Like that. You got it in one.’

‘We’re married,’ confirmed Amanda, finality in her voice.

Their coolness returned. I’d edged open the door to their world just an inch too far and they had kicked me back over the threshold.

I photographed them for another five minutes, just to finish in a civilized manner. They didn’t utter a word and stared vacantly over my head.

Thankfully, the spiky atmosphere dissipated before I left. As I stood in the hallway gathering my coat they imparted personal details without reservation. With no prompting, and barely in context, Joe told me about his teenage rock band. As I kissed Amanda goodbye, she said she loved my accent because it sounded like her first boyfriend.

*        *       *

My problem painting couples was long-standing. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I had never been able to do it.

It started with the positioning. I could never place them at a realistic distance from each other. It sounds easy. But the smallest error creates a stiffness that infects the entire picture. A beaming subject becomes a creep when the person next to them is sitting too far away, or too close, or in a position that defies the laws of perspective. And once you know the positioning is wrong, your hand turns to lead, the lines lose their fluency, and every feature, every scratch and shade, is a crime against the unsung art of two-person portraiture. Singles are easy. Ensembles too – people merge, shoulders overlap, and in many ways the group becomes one entity. But with two, they need to be distinct, yet together.

*         *         *

I soon realised that Joe and Amanda had taken up permanent residence in my head. They didn’t occupy my entire mind, but at any one time, to differing degrees, they were present in my thoughts. At more idle moments I would fall into self-absorbed ruminations on them. Even at my busiest moments – mixing paints, filing tax returns, sweet-talking clients – Amanda and Joe never left my mental landscape. They crept back into the peripheries, found a foothold, took up position and made sure I could never ignore them.

*         *         *

After a few days, still with no answers, I found myself having dinner with them. They wanted to see the shortlist of compositions I had selected for the portrait. As they said in their hand-written invitation, ‘it would be more convivial to make the choice over dinner’.

It was a delightful affair. I sat in the kitchen on a high stool while they cooked and chatted to me over their shoulders. They seemed to divide their time perfectly between the food and me. Perhaps I was a little drunk, but I thought they were trying to communicate a deep self-truth through the Van Morrison album playing in another room.

Over dinner we talked of travels, picking up the trail of each other’s stories, embellishing them with our own experiences. When I spoke of my trip to Kyoto, Amanda remembered the winter weekend she spent there searching for cherry blossom that didn’t exist. Joe talked of his childhood in Vancouver, which reminded me of a skiing injury picked up there five years ago. We all shared the pain of using the train network in America, a country that despises anyone without a car. I was struck, once again, by how little fondness they had for the places they had lived. They spoke as if every city had oppressed them.

In the smooth flow of the evening I was free of the previous days’ anxieties. By the end of the main course, as Amanda took away our plates, we were held in a state of calm.

Excusing myself for a toilet break, I took a wrong turn and found myself in their bedroom. It couldn’t have been more ordinary: heavily pillowed king-size bed; mirrored dressing table; clothes loosely tossed over a chair. The room was full of framed photos, standard statements of happy coupledom. But one stood out. It hung alone in a corner. It showed a boy of about six standing arm-in-arm with a girl of roughly the same age. They were in a garden, toys strewn behind them, late summer sun casting long shadows. Their postures were immediately familiar – bodies straight and leaning inwards, a barely perceptible space between the hips, tops of heads almost touching, faces held in identical grins, serene in each other’s company. Even through the puppy fat I could see the dark luminous skin and angular features of Joe and Amanda. I briefly thought it could be their children. But genetics is not that simple – parents don’t just replicate themselves. I was looking at my hosts together as children. So why did they tell me they met aged eighteen?

I returned to the dining table resolved to never talk about the history of their relationship. There was too much dissonance, too many conflicts and clashes. Every time I inquired, they either lied to me or made me feel guilty for asking. I was happy to respect their privacy and ignore what I’d seen.

But as I took my seat, I had the overwhelming sensation that I was being patronised. I looked from Amanda to Joe, then back again, and saw nothing but mockery. They greeted me with such glassy-eyed grins, such condescending geniality, that I declared to get to the bottom of it once and for all. It may have been their life, and they had every right to exclude me, but I wouldn’t be lied to.

I settled in my seat, dessert spoon clenched like a relay baton. ‘So you met when you were eighteen?’

‘Sure did,’ confirmed Joe, leaning over his lemon tart.

‘Interesting.’ I paused. ‘I saw the picture of you as children in the bedroom.’

Their faces sank and the air went cold. They flashed glances at each other, but said nothing. I assumed there would be a normal explanation and had expected them to casually justify the lie. But their stiffness, and their scared gazes, told me otherwise.

In a flash their furtiveness disappeared and their faces froze in defiance. I knew why. Having trespassed into their room, this was morally ambiguous territory. ‘It was a mistake, I got lost,’ I clarified, determined not to be knocked off path. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I was looking for the toilet.’

No response, just fierce glares.

Joe finally broke the impasse. ‘Yes, that’s right.’ His voice returned to the tentative murmur I heard when he first phoned me.

‘What’s right?’

‘We knew each other as children.’ It was incongruous, this fragile croak coming from an aggressive face.

‘So why tell me you met later?’ I heard a quivering belligerence in my voice. ‘Not that it’s any of my business. I’m just curious,’ I said, attempting to soften the tone. ‘But why did you lie to me?’

‘We didn’t lie.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘We did meet when we were eighteen.’

‘Right. But you also knew each other as children?’

Joe put his hand on Amanda’s arm. She looked at him, sunken-eyed, tired and resigned. Her lips mouthed something, but I couldn’t make out the exact words. Having gone over it many times since, it was either ‘I love you,’ ‘Go on’, or ‘Not now’.

‘Exactly. We grew up together.’ Joe squeezed Amanda’s arm and pulled her towards him, drawing her head into his chest. ‘And we met when we were eighteen.’

In that moment I saw the contradictory truth of their lives and knew, for them, nothing could be more normal. It was as if a dirty light had been cast on everything. As Amanda sank into Joe’s chest, and their breathing synchronized, I remembered the way they picked at each other’s arms, the eerie mirroring of each other’s movements, the points of facial commonality, the merging of two physical presences in the camera lens.

I gathered myself. ‘And what about Canada? I suppose you were never there.’

Joe released snorts of laughter. ‘That’s actually true. I moved there when I was five.’

‘He went there with dad,’ said Amanda, head still lodged in Joe’s body.

‘And she stayed with mum in Brighton.’

*       *       *

Two people can be hewn from the same rock, divided and split apart, yet materially the same. And once you know that, once you see a couple as just two identical people, it’s easy to draw them together. These days, as I look at two potential subjects, I just think of them as the same person, whole and yet distinct, seeking to converge. And the rest flows from there.

I thank the Swallows for that lesson every day of my working life.

*        *        *

I waited ten days before painting their portrait. It wasn’t that I needed time to accept. I just needed space to grow. My method of perceiving had been challenged and I needed to recalibrate my sight.

The sessions themselves were calm and purposeful. It took two days, which is quick by any standards. It was one of my best, and certainly my first successful couples portrait. The Swallows thought I had ‘captured something indescribable’. I knew what they meant, but they were wrong. It’s perfectly describable. It’s called ‘union’.

They were very physical during the sessions, frequently caressing and hugging. But it was neither a challenge nor a careless slip. It barely registered with me. In fact, if anything, I felt pride in being privy to a secret.

My relationship with them settled into one of quiet understanding. I was not at all shocked or repulsed. I was drawn to their outsider status, impressed by their isolated happiness. We never became close but regularly enjoyed each other’s company, discovering a shared love of food, walks and, of course, art. In their tastes – Miro, Goya, Valazquez – I sensed a tendency for the macabre, not to mention an obsession with all things Spanish, no doubt picked up in their brief stint in Madrid.

Their relationship was only discussed on one other occasion. It was towards the end of a drunken dinner and the conversation had turned to the joys of solitude. I was extolling the virtues of living alone when Joe, with no preamble, said, ‘That’s why we told you.’

Puzzled, I asked him what he meant.

‘That’s why we let you in, back when you painted us. We discussed it, you know, before you forced it out of us. Well, once Amanda had let the cat out of the bag we could see how freaked out you were and we thought about how best to – ’

‘So why me?’ I interrupted, desperate to see myself through another’s eyes.

‘You’re a loner. You don’t quite fit in here.’ Joe smirked, relishing the shock of this statement.

Amanda smiled indulgently. ‘Yes,’ she added. ‘You reminded us of ourselves when we were kids living apart.’ She thought about this. ‘Apart from everything.’

Joe looked amused. ‘But of course we had no idea if you’d be okay with it. You could have been a raging fascist for all we knew.’ He rolled his eyes mockingly at the prospect. ‘But there was something….’ He trailed off, not needing to say the rest.

They left after two years. It had been low-key. I was their only friend and beyond me they had few acquaintances. They wouldn’t tell me where they were going next. They never stayed anywhere too long and never maintained old contacts, they said, to keep their world fresh from the past.

They promised to write, but only did once. It was the first Christmas after they had gone. I received a simple card, a watercolour robin on a tree. Inside, the generic greeting read: ‘Thinking of you at this time of togetherness.’

*        *        *

Toby Roebuck is a documentary-maker from London who writes short stories in his ever decreasing spare time. He’s had stories shortlisted and longlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize. This is the first he’s had published in an online magazine. He tweets at @TobyRoebuck1

P-A-R-T-W-H-Y

TONIGHT

WED, AUG 16

OPEN PEN SUMMER PARTY, at our favourite venue,
the Jamboree, Limehouse, East London.

TICKETS AVAILABLE ON THE DOOR – £6

7pm doors, 7:45 showtime.


Featuring

LIVE JAZZ FROM

THE OPEN PEN HOUSE BEAT JAZZ BAND

AND SPECIAL GUESTS

VICE QUINTET

Readings from:

Irenosen Okojie

Author of short fiction collection ‘Speak Gigantular (Jaracanda Books)

Gary Budden

Reading from his debut fiction collection ‘Hollow Shores‘ (Dead Ink)

And Open Pen authors:

Rob True
Leo X Robertson
Holly Watson
Mazin Saleem

Open Pen Summer Party poster