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Footnotes to l’Amour / Double Take

By Alice Wooledge Salmon

Footnotes to l’Amour

1 — When ‘I’ll be there!’ (most promising words in the English language) has mutated to betrayal, the imposter’s birthday text, his 3-month, 6-month messages are best ignored. The certainty/uncertainty of silence fulfils the imperative.

2 — Garage forecourt flowers, pulled from plastic. Never more than the single, skimpy, even-numbered bunch, putting me in mind of a very old she-says – he-says: ‘The food here is terrible!’ — ‘Yeah, and such small portions.’  Should have alerted me.

3 — As did the descent from fascination: ‘You never release me from my tenterhooks, but sometimes you alter the position’ to chasms of mindful avoidance: ‘I can’t make a date in advance, it spoils the now’.

4 — Gratifying that his succession of how-could-anyone? presents should fetch so little at the car boot sale.  Where my other discards did tolerably well.

5 — Approaching midnight, I turn off lights in favour of the lamp at the foot of my bed, and the plumped white duvet springs into view. Firm mattress, ample size, warmed by gradations of heat, embrace confined to the sumptuous, luxuriant, never-long-enough arms of Morpheus.

*          *          *

Double Take

Trains that clatter east and west — Clapham Junction for Waterloo-Victoria, back and then beyond — flash along rooftops

______ layering the valley

____________ where brick terraces scoop descent

________________________________ from Lavender Hill

to the railway embankment across Battersea’s flood plain.

Stock chimney and party parapet, pitched slate and red ridge construct an architectural rug through whose sunlit fringe — chimneypots, aerials, bare upstanding branches — glide (or so it seems) the multi-coloured carriages of Southern and South West Trains.

Regiments of Gothic Victorian, corner turrets, low gables estate-badged with a fussy stucco meringue, and besides the solo cyclist, G1 bus and a pinned-up notice for ‘found cat’, desertion to comfort the apprehensive driver of a motoring-school Vauxhall.

Why no scent of coffee wreathing Nero Roasting’s warehouse peaks dropped between embankment and a further succession of tracks? Ages-faded, the stink and tang of street sweat and horse dung, outside lav and burning coal.

And so dispersed, every plume of smoke from locomotive and urban grain, the better to distinguish, from eastbound bus along Lavender Hill, Brighton trains as they green-skim the housetops and red-carriage streamers that exaggerate to Surbiton, clock a blue-livery fleet as it skates the way to Windsor: ‘Blue as in “blood”, in honour’, assures Gary at the Junction, ‘of Her Majesty the Queen’.

*          *          *

Alice Wooledge Salmon, an American writer adopted by London and Paris, produces essays and short stories for such as PN Review, The Guardian, Tears in the Fence, Stand, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher, and elsewhere.  Her occasional subject is wine.

HE’S BECOME ADDICTED TO GREEN TEA and other flash fiction stories

By Santino Prinzi

*           *           *

He’s Become Addicted to Green Tea

Not only has my boyfriend become addicted to green tea, but he’s addicted to telling everyone how addicted he is to green tea. He insists on telling everyone how he used to drink fizzy drinks all the time, but since drinking green tea I just can’t get enough of the stuff. It’s not as simple as that, either. No. Apparently, green tea has transformed him. And did you know there are several different brands of green tea, all of whom make their own quirky flavours. He won’t shut up about those too. His tastes started off pedestrian: Mint, Lemon. Then he spotted the Mango and Lychee, then the Salted Caramel. Before I knew it, the space beside the kettle had become overwhelmed by Strawberry Cupcake, Cinnamon and Apple Crumble, and Gingerbread; flavoured tea bags in boxes drowned the mug tree, so much so I started retrieving mugs from the cupboard instead of navigating around the stacks of green tea. Then, as if the physical realm wasn’t enough, my boyfriend started invading the digital world, sharing his #greenteaaddiction on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook; wherever anybody would listen.

But that wasn’t the moment I snapped. We were about to watch a film when he’d poured himself a fresh mug of Cherry Bakewell flavoured green tea (which I admit, after he wafted it under my nose, did smell fantastic). He sat down, took a sip, ahhhhhed, and said:

“Boy, you know, I used to eat cherry bakewells all of the time, and now, I’d much rather drink this than eat the cake.”

I muted the T.V.

“What did you just say?”

I’m sure the Cherry Bakewell green tea tasted as good as it smelled, but there was no way he could’ve meant what he’d said, that he’d rather drink the green tea than eat the cake.

He smiled and took the remote control, unmuted the T.V., and we watched the film without saying a word.

On his Instagram, my ex-boyfriend still posts pictures about his green tea addiction, though he doesn’t call it an addiction, obviously. He captions his images with #motivationmonday and tells the world he’s a different man, and I scroll past and think yes, yes you are.

*           *           *

The Copper-haired Girl

The copper-haired girl, noticing the first rusty leaf amongst the green foliage of the trees while sitting in the back of the car, tells her parents it’s the same colour as her hair, and she is shushed by their arguing, and they will never know how similar the two colours really were; the spider with seven legs that insists still on crawling across the laminated-wood flooring, determined to scare the copper-haired girl, and she is alone, holding the slipper, trying to face her fears because her parents are upstairs and she’s been told not to move; the copper-haired girl running down the stairs Christmas morning to find nothing but her mother sitting in an armchair smoking a cigarette, her eyes swollen – she thought she’d been a good girl this year, but promised Santa she’d try harder for next year, and her mother, voice croaky, promises to try harder too; the new house and the new start for the copper-haired girl and her family, where all the walls are magnolia and everything smells too clean – all this for the new baby boy who the copper-haired girl thinks smells like crayons but knows that isn’t it; the copper-haired girl lying awake in her room, listening to the screaming and the crying from downstairs, the frantic movements, and then the silence, and eventually she falls asleep, forgotten about, but safe; the copper-haired girl in the little black dress, not completely understanding everything that is going on, but knows she’ll never see her little brother again; the copper-haired girl without a single toy invited by her teacher to “show and tell”, even though the teacher knows she has nothing to share with the other children, so, behind her tears, the copper-haired girl shows her teacher something and tells her something else, mimicking what her mother did and yelled at her father the night he left, and the copper-haired girl’s mother gets a call home from the principal; the copper-haired girl thinking she is dying, and her mother isn’t home, so she phones the woman who lives in the flat down the hallway, who tells her everything her mother hadn’t; the blonde-haired boy who promises the copper-haired girl that he’ll take her away from all of this, and she yields, and in the morning she awakes to find herself alone; the copper-haired girl carrying two black plastic sacks filled with clothes, walking to her only friend’s house to see if she can stay for a while because her mother, though drunk, has kicked her out and she doesn’t know why or how this could happen; the copper-haired girl crying into her friend’s shoulders when the police inform her about her mother; the copper-haired woman – twenty-seven – without her womb, without her breasts, but still grasping her life as tightly as she can, sitting on the bus, hoping her job interview today went well, holding on to the dream she’s been chasing for as long as she can remember: tomorrow will be better.

*           *           *

The Perfectionist’s Secret

Everyone called Cassandra a perfectionist. Everyone called Cassandra a perfectionist because everything in her life was meticulous; nothing was out of place, and she was never out of touch with the world around her. She always had a plan, and a back-up plan, and a back-up-back-up plan, but something she hadn’t planned for was the bus hitting her as she crossed the road one morning.

“Smells like the sewers have vomited up in here, Doctor.”

“Isn’t someone sorting it, Moira?”

“I’ll check again, but the last cleaner said they couldn’t find anything that would be the cause of the smell.”

Cassandra could hear the voices, but she couldn’t see who they belonged to. She tried opening her eyes. Bright lights. Her whole body ached, and she shifted slightly where she lay. More sounds trickled through her ears; beeps, more voices, movements, but it was the conversation about smell that gripped her attention, and the word ‘doctor’. She must be in the hospital, though she had no idea why.

“Miss Valentina?” the voice that had belonged to the doctor swam through the fuzzy objects that were slowly beginning to take form in Cassandra’s vision. “Please, try not to move too much. Miss Valentina, can you hear me? Cassandra?”

The woman in the white coat moved from the end of Cassandra’s bed to her side. Cassandra could smell her hair: peaches, tinged with hairspray. But she could also smell something else, something rotting, decaying, and familiar to her.

“Where’s my bag?” she asked.

“Your bag?” the doctor looked over the rim of her glasses. “Miss Valentina, you were hit by an oncoming bus; you’re lucky to be alive.”

Cassandra tried sitting up. It hurt, and she managed, but she was filled with panic. She couldn’t fathom the idea of people finding out about her, about the real her. She’d become fond of her reputation as a perfectionist, and as much as she knew getting hit by a bus may tarnish that reputation, if anyone discovered her secret, she’d be ruined. She’d just be Cassandra, not Cassandra the perfectionist.

“I know, I know,” she winced, determined to speak through the pain. “I just need my bag, please.”

“I don’t know where that is, I’m afraid; it may have been left or taken at the scene of the accident. I’m sorry,” the doctor said as a woman in blue scrubs walked towards the hospital bed. Cassandra assumed this was Moira.

“They can’t send someone for a while, but they promise they’ll sort it out.” Moira then noticed that Cassandra had awoken. “How are you feeling? In pain, I imagine.”

No shit.

There was a harsh bleep, the doctor scrambled at her waist, and unclipped her pager. “Let me know if her condition changes,” she said, and ran off.

Cassandra and Moira stared at one another, neither saying a word. She smirked, then drew the curtain around them both. “I know your secret,” she whispered.

Beneath the bedding, Cassandra felt her skin prickle and grow hot, felt as if someone was sitting on her chest. “Pardon?”

Moira nodded. From her scrub pocket, she pulled out a small vial of perfume.

“I mean, this isn’t yours, but I knew the moment they pulled you in here that you were the cause of the smell. I bet you have bottles of perfume everywhere, and your home filled with scented candles, no?”

Cassandra looked away, her eyes stinging. Moira came closer and spritzed Cassandra’s neck. The sour, decomposing smell dissolved, and Cassandra felt less self-conscious for a moment.

“Moroccan Rose, one of my favourites,” Moira grabbed Cassandra’s hand and they looked into each other’s eyes. “I used to have what you have,” Moira smiled, “and I and the doctors here know how we can fix you.”

It took everything Cassandra had not to cry; soon, she could be a real perfectionist.

*           *           *

Author Bio: Santino Prinzi is the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine, and helps bring National Flash Fiction Day in the UK to life. His debut fiction collection, Dots, and other flashes of perception, will be published by The Nottingham Review Press in September 2016. To find out more, follow him on Twitter (@tinoprinzi), or visit his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com

 

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GREASE GUN

By Harry Gallon

Stephanie stood in the workshop doorway, holding the padlock, sucking the key. Before she crossed the garden to the workshop she stood by the fireplace, looked out of the window and wondered what her youngest son was doing after school. Before she stood by the fireplace and looked out of the window she’d poured a glass of wine and then gone upstairs to her bedroom to get the workshop door key. Only she knew it was there, tucked under the old newspaper lining her drawer, weighed down by the vibrator wrapped in a sock that was no longer a pair.

Stephanie signed out of the psychiatric wing and walked slowly back up the hill, past oncology, past the bright yellow medical waste bins, past the new student accommodation that yesterday she’d read were beginning to slide down the hill, even though they’d only been built in the summer. Several undergrads were smoking cigarettes by the pub next to the outpatient clinic – a gray portacabin that’d been forgotten and left to rot.

Stephanie stood in the workshop doorway, breathing slowly, savouring the smell of the workshop air like you savour the smell of the sea. The workshop doorway was low because it was built into a larger set of double doors. The keys tastes like blood, thought Stephanie. She thought that every time she stood with one foot on the wood at the base of the door, one hand being caressed, as she half-entered the room, by cobwebs that were weighed down with dust. Stephanie breathed through her nose and looked at the grease gun.

The main hospital building was old. It looked more like a Victorian train station, thought Stephanie, as she followed the main road past the garden centre, the lawnmowers, the chain smoking paramedics and the wheezing security guard. It looked more like an old station for an abandoned railway line. At least the psychiatric wing was relatively new, not red brick and chip board, not hired-out portaloos, thought Stephanie, walking slowly. It was quicker to go through the cemetery. But it was also the second time her eldest son had been in the psychiatric wing, and she had the afternoon off.

A blob of black grease had been gradually leaking out of the end of the grease gun. Lava flow. Stephanie had noticed it a while ago, but hadn’t bothered to wipe it up. The blob had been leaking out for so long it’d become covered in dust and turned brown. All its moisture would eventually soak up and it’d turn hard. Then she could pick it off, roll it in her fingers, drop it in the pond to see if it floated. Stephanie tried to forget the pond. It needed work. And the rhododendron bush had nearly doubled in size over the summer. Stephanie could see her breath. She took a sip of wine, and entered the workshop.

It was quicker to walk through the cemetery. And nicer. The cemetery was full of wild flowers and long grass. It was dug into the hill, which was rich and loose, rolled over and over like tired sand dunes, caught the wind across the valley and teased the nostrils of mourners and commuting student doctors with the smell of the sea. It wasn’t fear which made Stephanie walk around it. Stephanie was used to graves by now. She was used to the walk to and from the car, which she always parked at the top of town, and the psychiatric wing. The gravestones are still comforting, thought Stephanie, though Luke had died years ago.

When she stepped through the low doorway into the workshop, her shoulder caught the bike chain that hung on the wall by the door. The thick bike chain. The grey bike chain. Like the blob of grease, it’d it was covered with dust, and Stephanie smiled when she saw that, as always, there was a faint, slightly sticky black smudge on her jumper. She touched the chain, gently at first, with just her fingertips. It didn’t move. Then she took the whole thing in her hand, and it moved a little. It was a heavy chain. A motorbike chain. There were several others like it, jammed with dust and hanging up from nails that her husband had hammered into wooden blocks on the workshop walls. When she let the chain go and opened her hand, the creases of her skin were black too, and she held her hand up to her nose.

Stephanie sat in the car with the door open and one foot on the ground. It hadn’t been a particularly good visit. It could never be a particularly good visit. Stephanie had walked through reception to sign in. They recognised her. She knew they had to recognise a lot of mothers, too, and she thanked an orderly who’d told her that her son was in the courtyard. Stephanie walked out through the big glass doors to the lawn, and sat with her son on the grass. The reception area had wooden panelling, and looked like an old community swimming pool, thought Stephanie. All it was missing was the shallow foot pool for containing verrucas and spreading athletes’ foot. Stephanie’s son was cross-legged in the grass, smoking a cigarette and pulling the heads of daisies. ‘Hello you,’ said Stephanie, and he smiled, but didn’t look up.

Stephanie held her hand up to her nose for 16 seconds. Then she took it away again. Then she held it up again, smelled the grease deeper, then had a sip of wine. She’d left the bottle in the kitchen. Her hand smelled like Luke. She swallowed more wine then steadied the chain, which had begun to swing. Stephanie turned and looked further into the workshop, towards the small wood burning stove. There was a chair there, next to an old pile of logs, dusty, like everything else in the workshop, and dry. I should burn those, thought Stephanie, longing for smoke.

Stephanie’s car was parked next to the entrance to the cemetery, which was a large metal gate painted black and a small brick gatehouse with a sign that said owned and maintained by the council. There was an old horse chestnut tree there too, halfway through shedding its leaves. Conkers lay squashed on the road, their shells getting less and less green. The leaves had been swept into piles and left on a patch of grass by the gatehouse. Their shapes were imprinted in tanned little patches on the concrete. The first time Stephanie’s eldest son had been in the hospital’s psychiatric wing, she wasn’t sure if being so close to the cemetery would be good for him. But Robert had been cremated too, though more conventionally than Luke. All that was left of her husband and brother-in-law were slightly discoloured shapes on the floor. Stephanie shook it off. She always shook it off, because it was never a good visit. Her son, like his Uncle Robert, had barely spoken at all.

The chair wasn’t covered in dust like everything else in the workshop. Stephanie walked over to it carefully, past the skeletons of unfinished motorcycles, past workbenches and hydraulic jacks and unopened packages addressed to Luke that contained air filters and exhaust pipes. She wanted to pick up the chair. It was one of those old church chairs. Wooden. The kind that line the nave, with room to hold a hymn book, in the unlikely event that the congregation grows so massively that there aren’t enough pews left to seat everyone. Stephanie always left the chair by the wood burning stove, where the kettle was. And she always picked it up, but not to move it. It was as though she wanted to weigh it, as if the older she got, the lighter the chair would feel.

Stephanie only smoked when she was stressed, which was often. She’d smelled the cigarette on her son as soon as she’d sat down with him on the grass. She kept a pack of Marlboro Lights in her handbag, would smoke them out in the garden, by the rhododendron bush, at night. Both her sons knew. While she sat in the car her mouth felt like an ashtray. First cigarette of the day. First nicotine high. As she indicated to pull away, a police car slowed down to let her out. That poor girl, Ruth, whose father had abused her, had come over and sat with them in the courtyard. Stephanie had brought her son a book. ‘What’s that?’ Ruth had asked. It was a collection of American short stories. Stephanie’s son looked vacant. Stephanie said, ‘I’m sure he’ll let you borrow it, Ruth.’ Oh, she remembered Ruth. Her son remembered, too. He turned to them and said, ‘Can you even read, Ruth?’ Fucking little shit, though Stephanie, as she coasted down the hill past the cemetery, one eye on the police car behind, unsure if the nicotine had made her over the limit to drive.

On a hook behind the wood burning stove hung some overalls. They were Luke’s overalls. Stephanie had tried so many times to wash them, but he’d always grabbed them out of the pile and hung them back up. The chair weighed the same, and Stephanie put it back down in exactly the same place. She reached over the stove and took the overalls off the hook. Then she sat on the chair and lay the overalls on her lap. She held the collar up to her face, smelled the worn-in sweat from the back of his neck, and unbuttoned her trousers.

Their cat, Rodney, had gone missing again. Ruth was sitting beside her son. She was sobbing. ‘I’ve been up and down the village,’ said Stephanie, trying to lighten the mood. ‘I’ve put up all the same posters again. Posted statuses on Facebook asking if anyone’s seen him, though no one’s replied yet.’

‘That’s good though,’ said Ruth.

Her son said, ‘I don’t know why you bother.’ He’d never liked that cat.

Stephanie shook her head. She was angry. She was always angry, at this point, driving down the hill from the psychiatric wing of the hospital. She wasn’t sure if it was the traffic on the one-way system in the centre of town, or if it was just how much her eldest son reminded her of Robert.

Luke had been her mechanic. That’s how they’d met. When they were young. When Robert, Luke’s younger brother, had been away, in his first year of university. Stephanie had been driving to work. She’d stopped at a red light, and when she started again there was a deep, loud voice, accompanied by a guttural scraping sound. It lasted for 30 yards before she stopped the car and a police officer who’d been passing knocked on her window. ‘Think your exhaust’s fallen off, love,’ said the police officer. ‘Sounds like a bloody tank.’ She gave Stephanie a piece of string to tie it up with, and Stephanie drove four miles to the nearest garage. There’d been sparks. At the garage, there was a young mechanic. There’d been sparks. Stephanie slid her hand into her knickers.

Robert hadn’t been in the psychiatric wing of a hospital. Robert hadn’t needed to talk to anyone. Not even after the crash. And it wasn’t that her eldest son looked like Robert. Why would he? He looked so much like Luke when he was born. Everyone said so. But Stephanie had never been able to shake the feeling that he was becoming more like his uncle. She felt it more after the visits. It’s probably just in your head, thought Stephanie. It’s not like he accidentally killed anyone, is it? She turned off the one-way system and pulled up outside the Co-op. She went inside to buy a bottle of chardonnay. The man queuing in front of her was reading a local newspaper. The headline said new halls fall: students in uproar. Stephanie began to laugh. She didn’t feel angry anymore. After Ruth had walked off, no longer crying, her son had tried, once again, to convince her to start dating. He’d taken her phone, while they sat on the grass, and started downloading a dating app. But there wasn’t enough storage space left. ‘Fuck sake,’ her son said. ‘You’ve got to delete some stuff, mum.’ When Stephanie walked back to the car, it had started to rain.

They’d bought their first house together after their eldest was born. Luke wanted somewhere that had enough space to build his own workshop. Somewhere close to the sea. The garden was a mess. The remains of an old panel fence decayed gracefully at the end, by an elder tree. The lawn was full of weeds and wire and pieces of plastic that had broken of old toys. The lining of the pond was cracked. There was a large rhododendron bush in the middle, which they’d tried digging up several times but which always seemed to grow back. It’d become a family ritual. They’d have a bonfire every year, or used to. Eventually, Luke built the workshop behind it, so that when it grew big in the summer, its branches almost covered one side of the large double doors from where he’d wheel out the motorbikes to test them. Luke hadn’t got round to painting the inside of the workshop. He wanted to work inside it instead. The day it was ready, Stephanie had been gardening. She popped the cheap bottle of Prosecco she’d bought at the Co-op on the way back from work. Their first son was lying in his pushchair in the garden. Stephanie said, ‘I’m proud of you,’ to Luke, who put down his glass and kissed her. He put his greasy hands on her shoulders, her neck, her cheeks, and they conceived another child against the wall.

Stephanie laughed on the drive back home. She didn’t really know why she was laughing. It wasn’t the dating app thing. She wasn’t laughing at her son’s situation, or how much she just fucking hated him sometimes, or how much more she hated not being able to help him. The first time it’d happened he’d disappeared for three days. None of his friends knew where he’d gone. The police found him on the edge of a reservoir. The second time her youngest son had been with him, at home. Something had happened. Some episode. Her youngest had called the ambulance. Stephanie had been working a late shift, and spent the night in the hospital, talking, again, with specialists. She came home to find her youngest son clearing up the glass from a window that’d been broken. ‘He just went mental, mum.’ There was blood on the floor. Muddy footprints. A spade by the back door and a square of almost perfectly replaced turf at the base of the rhododendron bush. Stephanie sighed. Her youngest son didn’t tell her about the cat.

She moved her hand slowly, wanting it to last. She held the overalls more firmly against her nose, and breathed in. She breathed in hard, savouring the smell of old sweat, the damp of the grease which the cold of the workshop would never truly allow to set. It felt heavy. She wanted to taste him. The overalls kept her pinned to the chair. She curled her toes then stretched her legs out as far as they would go. She held the collar more firmly against her nose and mouth until they choked her.

It had begun to rain quite heavily. Stephanie had always been a cautious driver, especially since the crash. And it had been such a violent crash. There hadn’t been any ashes to scatter. What’d been left of Luke after the car had stopped rolling had been incinerated in the passenger seat, while Robert lay unconscious and broken at the side of the road. She didn’t blame him. How could she now, anyway? After what then happened, he was clearly just as much of a victim. Stephanie took the country roads carefully, avoiding large piles of leaves in case they were hiding potholes, pressing the horn for three seconds when she went round sharp bends, flashing her lights. The sky had become a disorienting pink, the air thick and cloying, as though, when she finally pulled into the driveway, stopped and opened the door, she was constantly in the presence of a dead body. Stephanie stepped over the junk mail behind the front door. She took off her scarf, put the wine on the kitchen table next to the glass jar of dried lavender, then removed her coat. The basket under the stairs where Rodney occasionally slept was still empty, but at least the window to the garden had been replaced.

Stephanie breathed heavily. She sat, slouched, in the wooden chair by the wood burning stove in the workshop. Her eyes were closed. When she opened them she saw that it was getting dark outside. Her breath had slightly misted the windows. She refastened her trousers, stood, and hung the overalls on the hook on the wall. She walked over to the workbench and touched the dusty blob of grease. Still wet, she thought, and smiled. Just then a light went on in the kitchen window. Stephanie saw her youngest son leave his school bag on the side then fill up the kettle. Stephanie finished her glass of wine, put the glass back down then picked up a gardening fork. When she stepped back through the workshop doorway her youngest son was standing at the other end of the garden. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’ he said.

‘Just thought I’d have another crack at that rhododendron bush,’ said Stephanie. She looked at the bush. It was smaller than she remembered. ‘Looks like someone’s already had a go.’

Her youngest son coughed. ‘Bit dark for that,’ he said. ‘Come inside for some tea instead.’

*          *          *

Harry Gallon is the author of The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, out on Dead Ink Books.

Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, his next novel, is out this year, also on Dead Ink Books.

Twitter: @hcagallon @DeadInkBooks

EVEN DEAD, I’M NEUROTIC

By Nick Black

“Saul Rubinstein! Did they cover the mirrors before you died?” – these my late wife Leigh’s first words to me in twenty-five years, as she spits on her fingers and rubs at a grease spot on my shirt. I scratch my ear. She slaps my hand away without even looking up.

“So!” she says, finally meeting my eye. “What age did you make it to without me?”

I think back. It was Fish Night. “Eighty-six,” I tell her. “Did you marry again?”

“No.”

“And showgirls?”

“By the busload.” She smiles, or snarls, an expression I’d remembered fondly, either way. Even her happiness has teeth, this woman.

She walks me through an orange grove drenched in warm, syrupy sunshine. The oranges are huge, like grapefruit. All very beautiful, but hazy, like walking through a projector beam on the way to your cinema seat. Leigh, of course, is more solid, her flesh still beige. When we’re close, I can smell her hair lacquer.

“… It’s like I saw you yesterday,” she’s saying. “But I did miss you… Look at you, head swelling by the second! I should never open my mouth.”

“Is anyone arguing?” Just like old times. I look at her looking at me while we laugh, her eyes darting behind her specs, all over my face. I can see my reflection in her spectacle lenses. I look green.   Behind the glass, her eyes are narrowing. I’m done for.

I was less alone after she died than I might have led her to believe. I couldn’t cope so well in the later years, so I found myself an Irish woman to come once a week, help out. Paula. From County Cork. Leigh’ll ask if she was young, if she was pretty, if she was Jewish. The fact is, she was none of these, but she had hair the colour of salami and a rump you could bounce pennies off, though it cost you a pound for the pleasure. I’ll not add that detail. I forget who suggested it first but after a while, Paula and I came to an arrangement and she moved into the spare room, rent free, where she continued to entertain her men friends, always giving me notice so I’d stay out the way and keep the bathroom noises down.

Her presence didn’t pass my neighbours’ notice. What’s with Rubinstein, the recluse, suddenly people are coming and going there, day and night? Eventually, the rabbi popped ‘round, a first, and we sat in the front room, with the TV on low. ‘Deal Or No Deal’. I should have turned it off, I know, but had I invited him? Anyway, we’re both half-watching while pretending not to, and he’s asking about my health, my guttering, who knows?, when in walked Paula with three cups of tea she’d just made us.   The rabbi’s eyes popped out his head so hard they nearly knocked his glasses off. I didn’t acknowledge her at all, took my tea and stared at the carpet. “Are you not going to introduce me, Rubie?” asked Paula, standing behind my armchair, laying a heavy hand on top of my head. “This is my wife Paula,” I muttered. I don’t know why I had to add those two words. Maybe someone was saying them on the telly and I repeated them, without thinking. Maybe it was witchcraft. The rabbi was out of there before his lips had touched his cup, Paula doubling over in hysterics the second the front door was back in its frame. After that, he seemed to always be there, hovering on the street outside, whenever I was taking the rubbish out and Paula stood behind me in her nightie. On the blue moon she and I ever went to the bookies together, there’d be the rabbi, walking out of the drycleaner next door. “You do realise you’ll have to marry me now?” she said over sandwiches one day. “Make an honest woman of me?” Reaching over to take the last of my salmon paste.

All of this I decide I have to confess to Leigh when suddenly she says, “You know Elliot’s here, too?” and the breath to speak dies right in my throat.

The orange groves… Forget the orange groves. Apparently, we’re on a stony beach, now, the sea a sheet of rippling gold.   Beyond us, standing side-on by the water’s edge and frowning a little: Elliot Siegel, with his blue-black inky hair, the light shining off his pale waxy forehead. Just like Tony Curtis, everyone used to say. He’s in a tux, shirt open, no tie, one hand in his pocket, the sea foaming over his bare feet… He died young, so of course he’s still going to look good, there’s no talent to it.  I can hardly stop staring. I wonder how they got his head back on after the crash.

Really, I don’t know why I should be surprised to see him. Leigh had told me on our first date, some five years after he’d widowed her, “I’ll always love him, Saul. I’ve never believed in ‘til death do us part,’” urgently clasping both my hands. I’d taken her to see Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames at the Flamingo Club, and her face and make-up were dripping in the heat. I think that’s when I fell for her. Vwoompf. A lift with its cables cut. Elliot Siegel, then, is inevitably here, though he doesn’t look too happy about it. I knew him vaguely, in our teens, to raise my chin to across a crowded room. He’s barely older now. If Leigh and I had had kids, he could be our grandson.

“Let me go talk to him, Saulie. Your dying’s going to be a shock to him,” Leigh says, just about brushing my cuff with her fingertips as she goes. ‘A shock to him?!’ I think, as memories of someone trying the Heimlich Manoeuvre on me flash to mind.   I watch her walk away toward this handsome young man, her dodgy hip throwing a kink in her gait every few steps. I listen to the waves shhhh over the stones, and I suck on my back tooth.

I think there’s a bit of cod still stuck in my plate.

The beach reminds me of Brighton. Leigh always liked Brighton, though we never went together. She’d spent her first honeymoon there and it was too painful, I was told.   I went a couple of times with a girl from the salon next to my shop. Jackie Goldwyn. I probably told Leigh I’d gone to the races. It was perfectly innocent, jokes and ice creams in the afternoon, that’s all.  I was happy with that.

Me and Leigh’s honeymoon had been in Torremolinos, where we both got food poisoning.

The boys at the golf club gave me grief about dating the widow Siegel. Our first Christmas together, I’d bought her a fur jacket, sable, butterscotch lining, which of course I couldn’t afford. Every hour not spent in my father’s shop, selling off-the-rack suits for the discerning cheapskate, I was at the club, caddying by day, waiting at night. Most of the members and their wives and girlfriends I knew from shul but they looked less pious sat in the smoke and roar of the dining room. Squeezing between tables with hot, heavy tureens, picking up dropped forks, napkins, replacing empties, whipping off tablecloths, I’d be constantly looking around, running a mental finger over what everyone was wearing, guessing its price, wondering if any of that was bought on the HP, too.

Washing up at the end of a night, my friends Tony Feldman, Terry Gold with the runaway eye, Spencer someone I can’t remember, always the same song. “…Working so hard for another bloke’s woman….”

“But one with experience…” You could almost hear their hearts stop. Tony raised his hand, he’d gone too far.

Terry’d jump back in, “There are plenty of girls barely off their ponies waiting for us, Sollie. Waiting for us! You don’t need to marry the first one not to laugh in your face.”

It got tired, week in, week out, but I didn’t mix with girls who owned ponies, and besides, Leigh frequently laughed in my face. Who’d want anything else?

I’d roam the course at the crack of dawn, collecting lost balls to sell back to the pro shop. The dew’d soak my slacks walking through the rough. When the sun was high enough, I could look back and see where I’d been by the darker colour of the grass, like the wake of a ship. Wood pigeons cooing and that laugh of Leigh’s in my head: those are the sounds I put with that picture.

My parents weren’t any keener on me seeing Leigh.

“She can kill off as many husbands as she wants, so long as none of them are my son” – my mother.

“Not a lucky woman,” shook my father’s face from side to side. That Elliot was killed driving through a red light at three o’clock in the morning, while Leigh was fast asleep, counted for nothing. “What sort of wife lets their husband travel round on his own like that?! She should have been with him!”

They’re both notably absent here.

Leigh’s parents I’m not so sure about. It was never a secret they’d preferred Elliott, and sometimes she disappears with him to who knows where. Elliot tried to mouth something to me over Leigh’s shoulder on one of these occasions. I saw his face moving, turned to see who he was talking to, (I couldn’t believe it would be me), and when I turned back they were gone.

I’m ranting, for a change. Leigh and I are in a garden, night-blooming jasmine frothing around us, moonlight trickling through the trees. They seem big on outdoor scenes here: building rents must be ridiculous.

“… Twenty five years behind my back, while I’m busy mourning you?!…”

I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I’m hungry. No-one ever seems to eat here. Leigh’s been trying to convince me that the poor boy Siegel’s insecure, jealous of the thirty-six years she and I spent together, and he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to compete with that and…

I tuned out.   Her eyes, it might be noted, are shining like good gravy to have not one but two husbands chewed up at the same time because of her. I regret my outburst. She’s enjoying this too much.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, “ ‘Twenty five years’! Time….” She looks around and raises her hands in the air, palms up like they’re weighing scales, up, down, not knowing how to finish the sentence. I grunt, conceding.

How she died, I don’t even want to think about, but it took a lot out of this woman. Watching her doing her hand dance, all of the mischief suddenly drains of me, and I bat at the jasmine for something to do.

We had no kids, the doctors could never work out why, but there was a dog.   I had the shop, Leigh did some secretarial work, and we had some money for a few years. Despite Leigh’s concerns, I bought a Rover P6, low mileage, Cameron Green, that I promised to keep under 40. I figured if I never looked at the speedo, that was more or less keeping my word.  We bought a house in Finchley, with a garden.   I bought Leigh a fondue set and an Afghan hound, Lenny, stupid thing, long silky hair. He reminded me of Björn Borg.

The dog came with us everywhere. Leigh was always complaining I paid him more attention than I did her but we were both soppy about him. Leigh used to tie ribbons in his hair until I pointed out he was a boy dog and might not like that. Next morning, I woke to find my own bonce festooned with pink silk bows.

Lenny loved being driven around, his head out the back window. Whenever we took him out, people would stop to admire him, stroke him, Leigh and I kvelling like we’d made him ourselves. We took him to Hampstead Heath when the fair was on, Lenny pulling Leigh through the crowds. I stopped to chat to one of my customers. I saw the two of them up ahead of me, Leigh squatting down to talk to a little boy who was touching Lenny’s snout.   The kid had the darkest head of hair, jet black and bushy. Pale little face. He kind of reminded me of Elliott, maybe how Elliott might’ve looked at that age. I guess Leigh was having a similar thought because suddenly the boy was walking off through the crowd, holding Lenny’s lead, and I was excusing myself from my conversation and pushing through, trying to catch up. There were too many people between us. Thousands of lightbulbs heating the air, onions and burgers sizzling.  Machinery swung into the corner of my vision, out again. Everyone screaming. By the time I finally got to her, Leigh was alone, her cheeks damp, her mouth wobbling all over the place. She said, “I’m sorry, Saulie. He loved Lenny so much, I didn’t know what else to do.”

I searched the whole fairground, snatching at the arm of every brown- or black-haired kid I passed, calling Lenny’s name, Leigh behind me calling mine. I spilled out of the fair and onto the Heath as dusk became night. I couldn’t see a thing. I never found them. Leigh caught up with me on East Heath Road, watching the lights of the traffic crawling up and down the hill.

I know it sounds crazy but I slept with Lenny’s bowl under my pillow that night, possibly the one after too.   I did run it under hot water first.

Even dead, I’m neurotic. I have to stop myself worrying whether Pauline’s turned the outside light out overnight. That’s a hard habit to break. When we married, she converted and changed her name to Sarah. Sarah Rubinstein. It fitted her like a watermelon for a hat. I think she was running from something, debts, the law. If I asked too many questions, she’d laugh off my concerns and threaten to stick me in a home. She brought her two adult sons over from Ireland, men I’d never even known existed, though I hardly ever saw them. Occasionally I might hear one or other of them on the roof. I think they might have been tilers.

There was a home, right at the very end, but I was only visiting. Old Terry Gold, with the runaway eye, we’d stayed in touch all those years (and I still didn’t know where to look when I was talking to him.) Once a week or so, I’d go see him, chat about the old days, play some cards, stay for supper if there was one going spare.   “That’s Malcolm’s,” Terry would tease as my fork poised. “They wheeled his body out this afternoon.”   Terry had never got married himself, been too busy playing the field, he always claimed. People said he was in love his whole life with his first cousin, Rita. A knockout, she was. Ran away and joined the theatre, if I remember rightly.

So. Terry Gold’s care home, Fish Night. That’s where I bit it.   Surrounded by orange furniture and Caribbean nurses, every one of whom I knew by name.

I’m no philosopher. I sold womenswear in Temple Fortune. Nonetheless, it occurs to me that if this is Heaven, we’ve been sold a bill of goods.   For one thing, and I don’t mean to be lewd, the only woman here is sixty years old, and already married.   Hips courtesy of the NHS. Teeth, too. Then there’s that other husband who, for all his chin dimples and unstained tuxedos, looks tortured. Tortured! Imagine looking like that and having to spend the rest of eternity with a woman who’s sixty years old and, again, here with her husband. I swear I caught Elliot shooting her a look earlier that would have copped a life sentence if it had come true. ‘Life sentence’, I’m saying. He wishes. I’m just glad she didn’t see it.

The two of them have gone riding this afternoon – which reminds me of Tony’s pony girls comment, all those years ago – so I’m sitting in a meadow picking bluebells, waiting for her to get back. There’s no-one else here. Nowhere to go. I could kill myself with boredom, if etcetera etcetera.

For all I know, I’m here picking bluebells for centuries. Perhaps this is Leigh’s Heaven is what I’ve been thinking, sat here. I wonder if I have my own Heaven somewhere, and if Elliot has his, and what they’re like, and which of us is having more fun.   I wonder if Leigh’s in mine, too, or if it’s all dolly birds and circuses.

This field should look like a plucked chicken by now but still I’m deep in bluebells.   My mind drifts to Elliot, earlier, Leigh squeezing a riding hat onto his head. Even from a distance, with my old kaput eyes, I could see how nervous he was, eyeing the horses.  Huge things, everywhere muscles, sweat, hooves, chompers. Leigh could never get me on one, are you kidding, but maybe he was raised to respect his elders and couldn’t say no. She’ll have him listening to Cleo Laine next.   One of the horses suddenly tossed its head and snorted and the poor kid nearly fell over backwards.

The memory of it lifts my mood, I can’t deny. Naughty Saul, I smile to myself. Butterflies puff up around me, into the soft sunshine. I tug another bluebell out of the ground and suck on my back teeth. This bit of cod seems to be lasting forever.

*           *          *

Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including the Lonely Crowd, Spelk and Litro. They’ve also won several flash contests and been listed for competitions including the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards.

ADULTHOOD

Open Pen Issue Eighteen is out Saturday, February 4. You can find it at one of our stockists, or if you can’t get to one of those, you can subscribe.

It’s front cover story is The Jungle by Josephine Bruni. Josephine is late to writing, but her short story feels like a classic Chekhov unravelling. The Jungle is about African Violets and internet forums, it’s about the treachery of devotion.

OP18_1Booker long-listed Wyl Menmuir‘s guest editorial looks at the importance of writing counters narratives which seek to isolate and divide, and in what is of equal privilege to Open Pen, The London Short Story Prize winning story is printed in full. Congratulations to winner Foye McCarthy for his Oh No, a Bank Robbery! Fuck!.

N Quentin Woolf returns of course. His residency is as much a part of what we do as Josh Neal’s exquisite cover illustrations, which return with a timely colourful bang (Issue Eighteen is otherwise charcoal, in colour). And it wouldn’t be Open Pen without discovering fresh, young talent. And that’s where William Kraemer’s playful contribution Answering Zeus comes in and ties the whole issue together.

Enjoy the read as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together (minus the stress, natch).

ONLY UP HERE

 

By Fernando Sdrigotti

 

Midday. I’ve been rolling around in bed since I quit last week. It happened out of nowhere: I pulled myself a double Jameson’s during a busy shift and sat on the other side of the bar. What are you doing? I’m quitting. You can’t quit. Yes I can: look. Go have a fag and come back behind the bar. I won’t — it’s too busy behind the bar. You’ve got to give me a week’s notice. Silence. I finished my drink and walked out of the pub with the voice of the Cypriot telling me I was barred. I left with most of my money in my pocket; not that they would ever notice — they could never get the maths right. And then I felt like I owned the world, that I could go anywhere. London was finally smiling at me: no more bars, no more mopping the floor, collecting pints, long shifts serving wankers. The beginning of a new era; then it was the future already and the future of that future was full of promises. The high lasted for a couple of hours. Soon I realised I was unemployed. And I hit the bed. I must have been in bed for five days.

Not exactly five days in bed but five days of leaving it only to go for a piss, grab something to eat, smoke a cigarette, have a drink of water. And the same happened to Leo: he fell into introspection at about the same time — two days before me, actually. My moments of ecstasy and sadness were probably a copycat version of his, after he quit his job at the Bricklayer’s Arms. He had come home hyperventilated, coked-up, speaking about his plans to go back to film school, how we should rent a car on Sunday and drive to Cambridge, Oxford, Kent, Cornwall, whatever, like Thelma and Louise. And then the bed. Just like I would some days later.

Midday all through this side of the studio flat and on Leo’s side too. I’m head-to-the-pillow when the sun comes through the huge window. The smell of feet in the room, burnt cigarette butts, lack of personal and general hygiene, the mess all around us. We ran out of cunting cigarettes too, says Leo. Go get some, I says. Fuck off, he says, and didn’t even raise his head from the pillow. Anyway, it’s only a matter of holding on until tonight. Maybe I’ll even fall asleep and wake up tomorrow.

By two p.m. I can’t take it anymore and I leave the flat. It’s stupidly sunny while I make my way to George’s Kebab, just around the corner. I walk into his place with my stomach rumbling and don’t even say hi until I’ve ordered my food: a large shish with humus and a can of ginger beer. Hello first, innit? Hello George! Sorry, I’m really hungry. No worries my friend we’ll feed you. Nice to see you; where were you? he asks. I was away, at a training course to join the Royal Marines, I say. I thought you had to be British to join the army, he says. They’ve changed the rules now; they need people from other backgrounds. How did the training go? I passed it! Good on you, son. But I’ve changed my mind, I don’t think the army is for me. Yes, don’t join those cunts on anything. I won’t! Large shish and humus and a can of ginger beer; there you go my friend, he says, and nods towards the back door.

Soon I’m sitting in the back room, watching my team “back home” playing a shitty football game; the commentary is in Turkish — it’s all very strange. Eleven thousand one hundred and forty-six kilometres away, I’m watching twenty two Argentine idiots chase a ball in real time. With three or four seconds delay, perhaps, but live. It’s mind-boggling. From Buenos Aires and across the Atlantic, over the Ural mountains, BANG!, Istanbul, then picked up by a Soviet satellite who-knows-how-many kilometres above the atmosphere and BANG! (again) on the telly before me. I tell an old leather jacket-clad Turk about this uncanny situation. I think he doesn’t understand me — he just smiles blankly and then goes back to his paper. I shut up and eat the kebab.

The other guy is here as well; the guy with the weird little eye, the second-in-command. He calls me “my friend” too. He soon spots me and sits on the table with me. He asks where I have been I tell him I’ve been working overtime, managing the pub isn’t an easy job, you see. Then I tell him they fired me. He seems confused, puzzled, or perhaps just drunk. He says something about these fucking English cunts. I tell him the owners of the place are Cypriots. He says they must be Greek Cypriots. I say I am pretty sure they’re Turkish Cypriots. He doesn’t reply and stops talking to me for a while. Then he says that there are cunts everywhere — he’s absolutely right. He’s drinking Raki and his eye, the funky one, gets smaller with every sip. By the end of the bottle he’ll look like Thom Yorke. But before that happens my team scores a goal and I celebrate by closing my fist and saying yessssss. Little eye celebrates too — he hugs me and gets a bit overexcited and drops his glass on the floor. He curses in Turkish and leaves through the front door. The accident doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the guys in the room — they’re all busy looking at a laptop. Kebab people love gadgets — they are technological people. Little eye comes back and sweeps the floor with a broom. Stumbling and singing something in Turkish.

This incredible universe of brands, shelves, smells, little- and medium- sized tins and cans, unpronounceable names and inedible processed meals.

The off-licence guy asks me where I’ve been. I tell him I was on a meditation retreat on the Isle of Man. I don’t even know how I come up with this. He doesn’t say anything for a while. Then he asks me about my job, did I take a holiday? I say I’ve quit and he frowns. I pay for the beers, the Supermalt and the Jaffa cakes. Thanks. You’re welcome. A frown, a clearly annoyed frown. He says that I have to work now that I’m young so that I can retire well when I’m older. I knew he would come up with some shit like that. I tell him that I’ve got a job interview in the City this week, for Royal Bank of Scotland, and that’s why I quit my job at the bar and went on a meditation retreat. He says I should have quit only after nailing the job. I say I needed time to prepare for the job interview — god, I hate hard-working people. He asks me what sort of meditation I practice. I ask what does he mean with what kind. Vipassana, Zen, Mindfulness? he asks. It’s all the same, I say. No, it isn’t. He seems to know all about it. I say Singing Yoga Meditation. Singing Yoga Meditation? He seems confused. I tell him we do yoga, sing and then meditate. I don’t think he buys it. It’s a sort of New Age thing, very popular in Argentina and Liverpool Street. Never heard of it. It’s a new thing. Then he asks me about “my friend Leo” managing to sound the quotation marks, the homophobe. I tell him that he’s still at the retreat, that he decided to stay a bit longer, he’s getting good at the singing yoga but needs to improve on the meditative side of things. He quit his job too? Yes, he did. He has an interview at Warner Brothers the same day I have mine at Royal Bank of Scotland. You’re doing fine, he says. It was about time, I say. He tells me to remind Leo that he owes him twenty pounds. I say I will. When’s your interview, he asks. On Wednesday, I say. Good luck to you both. I thank him and walk out.

It’s three p.m. and still very sunny. I cross the road and walk towards St. Leonard’s churchyard. When I’m halfway there I feel I need to go for a piss. So I backtrack and head to the public toilets on the corner of Columbia and Hackney roads, some hundred metres up. There aren’t many people around save for some hipsters carrying flowers and plants from the flower market. Perhaps I should go and buy a plant or just walk to the market, see people, maybe bump into someone I know, have a coffee, get some clean air.

A couple of minutes pass and the door remains locked. I look at a couple passing by, a girl and a guy; the girl with skinny legs, flat ass and huge tits, the guy very tall and pale, quite good looking, but he’s wearing flip-flops and has huge bony feet. They stare at me when they pass — it must be my plastic bag. And they’re gone. Some more people carrying plants, the phone booth; I start to get bored. I remember when I called Guido from this phone booth soon after I arrived. I called him crying, paying for the phone call with pound coins, saying that I was freaking out because I was feeling suicidal and was missing Buenos Aires. It was a very expensive phone call. Why do you say that? I don’t really know; it’s just this horrible idea I can’t get out of my head: I think I’ll kill myself. Have you been using drugs? No. Since when do you have this in your head? Since I arrived, I said, London is a shithole. I don’t know why I called him, of all the people back home. I guess I needed to speak to someone and his was the only number I remembered at the time. Suddenly I ran out of coins and the call ended. It must have been a disturbing phone call, because he started emailing me like mad afterward, saying that I was very selfish calling him out of the blue like that, after we had agreed to let things cool down, that he had to ask around to find out if I was still alive, that I should have at least called him back to tell him I hadn’t topped my head. I never replied to his emails but he kept sending them. I thought he would just let it go but he didn’t give up. So I blocked him. He changed his email and I blocked him again and he changed the email address and so on: the whole process went on for a while. Until I tired and changed my email and gave it only to my mother and father. But he got hold of my phone number and started calling me until I changed my number too. I should have never called him that day: he’s insane.

The door finally opens and one of the local crackheads leaves. He bows in a friendly way and I say hi. He’s high as a kite and looks very happy. The door closes behind him and there’s a sound of water; the word “cleaning” starts flashing in red on the door and we both stare at it and it’s fascinating. He gets bored and walks away. When he’s walked some twenty metres he turns around and waves with a broad smile. I wave back at him, just about the same time the word “cleaning” stops flashing. I put 20p in the slot and the door opens and I walk in. It looks pretty clean: no sign of drug paraphernalia, no weird smells, no small pieces of cotton. Perhaps he was really in need of a toilet.

I struggle for a bit first but then manage to piss with my plastic bag in one hand. A nice piss, longer than expected, but a bit dark, perhaps from having my kidneys crushed during my last few days in bed. It feels great to piss in a different toilet — I can see things are beginning to move. When I finish I leave without washing my hands because my dick must be cleaner than the faucet. The door opens and I leave. The door closes behind me and the flushing sound starts once more.

Sunny, so sunny. The traffic as a background mantra and traces of fumes in the air. I’m just sitting on a bench in the middle of the churchyard, checking out the tombstones in the distance and drinking my Supermalt. There are a couple of crackheads — others — loitering about. A guy, around thirty, and a girl, who could be anything from seventeen to forty-five. They’ve been around the yard, picking cigarette butts and putting them in their pockets and scavenging who knows what from the trash bins.

Now they’re arguing by the church entrance. I can’t hear what they say, but she shouts louder than him. She moves her hands like a Neapolitan, a lot of hands being thrown into the air in all directions — crack makes people very expressive. Or she must be communicating something very important, or maybe she just talks like that, like a Neapolitan; or maybe she is a Neapolitan. I’ve seen this couple before many times since I moved to Waterson Street. They hang around with the public toilet crackhead, mostly around the churchyard, although I’ve seen them walking up and down Old Street, frantically begging for money and tobacco from the wankers late on Fridays and Saturdays. Crackheads are always in fast forward, always in a rush to get somewhere. Many times I’ve thought I should stop one of them and ask them what’s the rush. So far I’ve never done this and perhaps I’ll never will: you don’t want to stop people when they’re on their way to score.

It’s getting hot and humid now; it’s getting dark: it’ll rain. I light up one of my counterfeit Polish Marlboro. Smoking feels funny: smoke gets denser and the cigarettes smokier. The fag doesn’t taste right, and it smells weird, and I can’t tell whether it’s the humidity or the taste of Eastern Europe.

Back in the off-licence I buy a new lighter, a can of tuna, mozzarella, baked beans and crisps. I ask the guy to swap my cans for cold ones. He agrees but gives me an evil eye and checks the cans haven’t been opened. I know he thinks I’m a lazy fuck and that he doesn’t trust me; I don’t trust him either. He’s always checking the CCTV screen when I walk to the back of the shop and I’m always checking the expiry date on the products. He tells me once more to remind Leo about his twenty pounds. I say I will, and think to myself that he’s bound to live out his days behind the counter of his tiny shop, until he gets his throat cut from ear to ear by one of the churchyard bums. But I don’t tell him that.

Things are better next door. No need for CCTV when you have a large kebab knife behind the counter. I buy three more packs from little eye. Palenie Zabija. Palenia Zabija I say, chcesz papierosa. Eight pounds my friend, he says. Three for eight pounds. Even if they taste like shit: long live the EU, long live Poland and continental cancer.

Soon I get home. I open the door. Leo is still tucked under the sheets. He looks at me when I enter the flat. Morning, I say, I got us food. Morning, he says. It’s four thirty. He doesn’t reply and I’m starting to get tired of his self-pity. I’ll cook some food, I say. More silence.

I walk towards the kitchen area and open a drawer and get the tin opener. I open the can of tuna and empty it into a medium-sized bowl. I open the baked beans and mix the beans with the tuna. I put the mix in the microwave oven, set it for three minutes. While the tuna and the beans are turning I put the beers in the fridge. Then I get the mozzarella out of the pack and lay it on a plate. I watch the bowl turn in the oven and soon the thing beeps a couple of times. I cut the mozzarella in two and then open the oven and get the bowl out and empty some of the tuna and beans from the bowl into the plate; then I put one of the halves of mozzarella in the bowl. There you go, you need to eat something, I say, holding a plate to Leo’s face. I’m not hungry, he says. Eat anyway; I’ve got cigarettes, a lot of them; but no ciggies until you’ve eaten. Which ones? George’s or the cabbies’? George’s. Lights or reds? Lights. I like reds, he says. I don’t, I say. I leave the plate next to Leo’s bed and go to my side of the room. I’m hungry and I eat fast. Before I finish my plate I see Leo grabbing his. He starts eating, slowly.

It’ll rain, I say. Yes, he answers. It’s very muggy out there. Yes, it feels muggy in here too. I got us some beers; I thought we could go to the roof, drink beer, smoke, listen to music. It’ll rain, he says. We can hide under the water tank. I’m not sure I want to go all the way up, he says, sorry. No worries, I say, I’ll go by myself.

I finish eating from my bowl and leave it by the side of the bed. I move my clothes around until I find my small CD player. I press play to see if the batteries are still good — it would seem so, at least the CD seems to be moving: THESUNDAYSTHESUNDAYSTHESUNDAYS. The letters become one large white lump and I press stop. I can feel Leo staring at me but I don’t look back. I get my cigarettes and keys, grab the beers from the fridge and leave. I’ll be on the roof, I say before I close the door.

The parking lot and the flats all around. Three blocks in a square of which the fourth side leads to an alley, some more workshops, or the end of the world for all I know. And here four floors of huge windows, reconverted workshops, tall ceilings and cold lofty spaces — places never meant to be lived in. There are traces of fabrics scattered in the lot and some weird cylindrical props. A huge cardboard palm tree lays next the overfilled garbage skip. A flash flares in one of the few flats with curtains. Someone shouting in Italian below me. A girl laughs somewhere. And five cool-looking people are barbecuing something on the roof to my right. People are going about their lives in their flats and the sky is bright yellow. I haven’t opened a can yet, I haven’t lit up yet, I haven’t even pressed play. I’m just sitting here, under the water tank, looking.

Thunder, finally, and Leo’s hand resting on my shoulder. He sits by my side, wrapped inside one of his sheets — a stinking greasy-haired Jesus Christ. I pass him the Polish Marlboros and he lights up. I’m glad you came, I say. It’s breezy up here, he says. Beers are opened — no need for a toast. We drink in silence and smoke. We both look at the sky. It can’t be long before the clouds fall down like sacks of potatoes. But the barbecue people on the other roof don’t seem to care. Perhaps they haven’t even realised or perhaps they’ve reached an ideal state of unawareness of the things around them. Shit, he says, it will rain like in the Bible. Yes, I say. I’ve left the windows open, he says. Don’t worry Leo, we’re only up here. He nods and I press play. We stay there under the water tank, listening to The Sundays.

And then it starts raining.

*           *           *

First published as the Open Pen Issue Seventeen cover story.

Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario, Argentina and has lived in London since the early noughties. He is editor-in-chief of minor literature[s], a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine and senior editor at large at Numéro Cinq. He is the author of Tríptico (Dunken 2008) and Shetlag, una novela anunciada (Araña editorial, 2014), and has a forthcoming collection of short stories in English, Dysfunctional Males, of which this story is an outtake. Twitter: @f_sd

We spoke to Fernando Sdrigotti for our new podcast. Listen here.

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REVIEW

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
FORBIDDEN LINE  (GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS)  BY PAUL STANBRIDGE

Forbidden Line is a brand new book published by Galley Beggar Press, the company behind Eimear McBride’s award-crushing A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride’s novel (released way back in 2013 when I had hair and hope for the future) is a rip-roaring ride, and was so successful it lifted Galley Beggar Press to a prominent position within the British literary scene. Since then, GBP has maintained its reputation, putting out a smashing selection of literary texts. Doing what every good independent publisher should be doing (right?), publishing powerful and unique texts overlooked by traditionalist and/or populist mainstream publishers, gifting to the world great literature that may otherwise have been overlooked, ignored, forgotten or discarded.

Paul Stanbridge’s Forbidden Line is very much a non-mainstream novel. It is experimental, it is genuinely weird, it is focused (at least initially) on rural England and it makes many references to literary works and historical events. It is highly stylised and contains much wordplay, a Fowlesian disregard for literary convention, a lot of violence, a lot of intoxication and implies a heavy engagement with historical sources. It does a lot of interesting things, but – and this is the big one – is there too much going on for it to be enjoyable? However, even if the answer to that question is “yes”, it raises the secondary question about its purpose: is Stanbridge’s novel meant to be enjoyable? And, if it isn’t, what is it meant to be? Maybe Forbidden Line is ultimately a joke, a satire taking aim at a reader’s perceived notions of fiction and normative narrative structures. Let’s have a look in more detail, pull apart the text’s many threads.

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Forbidden Line starts off as an Essex-based retelling of Don Quixote, but rather than believing he is a knight errant, Don Waswill (who is accompanied by his servant Isiah (known as “Is” and then later “Is-Book”) believes in the importance of Chance and the negative effects on society caused by any and all written history. These two characters become embroiled in a 21st-century re-enactment of the Peasants’ Revolt that turns incredibly bloody, and they discover that they’ve accidentally been copying the movements of the historical mob, functioning as lightening-rod-like leaders dragging the recorded past into the present. Additionally, Don had written a non-consecutive encyclopaedia over the twenty-one years that preceded his meeting Isiah, but after he develops an intense disapproval of all written words the two men destroy the encyclopaedia and the crate that contained it. This crate keeps reappearing, no matter how many times they destroy it, while Isiah – who has phenomenal powers of memory – becomes the new repository for a solely oral encyclopaedia, hence the change of name mentioned above.

Still with me?

Stanbridge plays with literary norms throughout, in what begins as a rather trad Modernist vibe but becomes more 1960s/70s later on. We read passages in different styles, initially parts of Don’s encyclopaedia but later on extracts from other texts. We see diagrams, especially maps, and we read written versions of the second, oral, encyclopaedia. Time is liquid, as too are locations – the characters move in ways that match neither reality nor the normalised laws of fiction. (A bit like Mantissa by John Fowles.) The two protagonists believe in Chance in opposition to cause and effect, and Stanbridge’s gently present narrator also seems to have little interest in a structured narrative. In fact, the narrator often seems to have less control over his characters than they do over him. It isn’t the narrator who merges and moves time and place, but Don, or Chance itself. Through this technique the novel perhaps seeks to prove its own internal logic: the unexpected keeps happening, cause and effect do not apply, things are destroyed but then reappear, things that do not happen have happened, people share names with historical figures from the past and identities are coagulated and altered based on popular opinion. In short, it’s weird: the reader is knocked about, confused, constantly on the back foot and uncertain about any of the facts within the novel’s fictional world. No rules are unbreakable, nothing is predictable. The only constant truth is the fact that what we believe to be true may change at any time. The only rule that stays unbroken is the rule that every rule can be broken. This sort of arrangement has the potential to be quite fun, and in many ways the dishevelled and discombobulated reader can take pleasure from the book twisting them into confusion, if exhaustion doesn’t set in first.

The prose is written in an elevated style, long sentences, big words (i.e. polysyllabic vocabulary), and we are regularly bombarded with information, and complex intellectual theories, most frequently w/r/t “the hyperfine transition of hydrogen” – which I didn’t understand – but also about literature, esp Don Quixote and previous variants of it, plus the already-mentioned Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The reader needs to pay attention to every word within every sentence if they are to understand what is happening as meaning is often obtuse. For me, it became tiring – a novel this big cannot be this much work unless the gains the reader receives are equal. Joyce gets away with being verbose because he’s both witty and human; Woolf gets away with difficult prose because she writes deep emotional truth; Conrad’s seemingly turgid prose is a slim veil over the top of great swash-buckling excitement; and well-translated Proust gets away with massive, circling, immersive sentences because it’s gorgeous and glorious and art-affirming. Will Forbidden Line provide these climactic highs for a reader, or am I just setting the limbo bar impossibly low, judging Stanbridge against his stylistic peers?

My big fear right now is that my lack of enjoyment of Forbidden Line comes down to this: either I’m not as clever as I think I am or Paul Stanbridge isn’t.

Forbidden Line is full of conflicting and exploratory and intellectual themes and – to almost patronise myself (the vice that keeps making me late for work in the mornings) – I couldn’t keep track of them all. Stanbridge has loaded Forbidden Line with so much stuff, so many ideas, so many letters in words and so much researched knowledge that I’m prepared to admit that I was intellectually dwarfed. I couldn’t cope. And I’m not stoopid (I’ve got two degrees). Am I stupid?

Stanbridge’s prose has a strong and distinctive style and I regularly had to reread sentences to understand the meaning. The book is fun, it is literarily playful, and when I was most on board with it, it regularly made me smile. Its disengaged treatment of violence, its use of Ian McEwan as a character and its extended section on previous adaptations of Don Quixote are all examples of elements of the text that combined to make me feel uncertain where to look with my mind’s eye.

And there is a lot here to be enjoyed. Multiple time streams and postmodern attitudes to structure, mixed media, twisted expectations, having fun with history and convention and questioning societally normal attitudes related to perception of the present and the perception of society. And there’s so much of everything. Forbidden Line is a novel brim-full of ideas and though I sometimes found myself floundering I feel this is deliberate – it is a shifting, complex, text ON PURPOSE.

Forbidden Line is meant to destabilise a reader and rail against the normative experience of reading even a [standard] experimental book. Forbidden Line offers a unique reading experience – there is nothing quite like this – however this uniqueness does demand a hefty intellectual effort on the part of the reader.

Forbidden Line is interesting and intriguing and a successful attempt at doing something original with the written word.

Since reading it, I’ve done a bit of research on The Peasants’ Revolt, casually, and also on the different versions of Don Quixote mentioned in the book. One of them – which I hadn’t realised – was a fictional adaptation in the real world, taken from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve barely read) but treated like a real life figure in Forbidden Line. Stanbridge’s novel has layers to it, layers that perhaps I lack the cultural capital to appreciate properly. Maybe the whole novel would open up, wide, if I read it in tandem with Wikipedia or I just happened to be more cleverer.

Forbidden Line wore me out, but if it was a lover, a squash game, a meal or a dog, I’d definitely consider that a good thing. A unique read, worth a go if you’re up to it.

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Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

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