There are many questions to ask yourself when thinking about starting a new literary magazine, but the most important has to be: what's the point? In order to justify the enterprise, there needs to be a clear purpose.
I want the focus of The Nottingham Review to be on the everyday. Stories written with simple language not weighed down by ornate, distracting description. Characters and situations that people can relate to. Stories about things so ordinary and familiar that the beauty to be found there is frequently overlooked.
I want this to be something that readers can enjoy. There are many digital literary magazines that publish fantastic stories, but ruin the reading experience with messy, poorly-designed websites. Here I want to give the best representation of the work that I can, through clean, simple design, and to make it available in a variety of formats.
Considering this is the first issue of a new publication, the response from people wanting to contribute has been far greater than I expected. Over 200 stories from 17 different countries were submitted for consideration, ranging from those by established and successful authors to those by writers who have never had anything published before. I am proud to include one of the latter as the opening story in this issue.
Many thanks go to Tania Hershman from ShortStops.info (a wonderful resource for anybody who loves to read or write short fiction). The quality of this issue is in no small part down to her continued support and promotion.
Thank you for reading,
It all started about a year after Margaret’s death, when we woke one morning to the sound of a pneumatic drill boring into stone. A dirty-looking van with a couple of cement mixers loaded onto the back had been parked down the side of Bob’s house. It reminded me of the one he used back when he was still working. I spotted Bob in the garden, standing in a cloud of dust. I waved, but he didn’t see me. And that’s how things went on. He’d start early and finish late, just him, doing whatever he was doing.
Sue wasn’t particularly interested in the goings on next door. But then, she hadn’t been much interested in anything for a long while, save for her mysterious online communications.
‘It’s really none of our business,’ is all she’d say about it.
Bob had taken Margaret’s death pretty hard. He’d nursed her for two years before she went into the hospice. Two years of watching the love of your life slip away from you has got to break your heart. And any idiot could see that those two were crazy for each other, right up till the end. Things are different for me and Sue, but that’s life. We’ve had our good times and, who knows, we may be due a few more, but Bob and Margaret, they had something rare and something special.
For a while I thought Bob had abandoned the place and moved in with one of his girls. It was pretty quiet over there for a long time. Some evenings I’d return home from my walk with Dusky to find him standing in the porch, smoking. Margaret had never allowed him to smoke in the house.
The really sad thing was, he’d allowed that beautiful garden of theirs to get all overgrown. There was a time when he loved that garden, spent every second he could out there doing who knows what to it, always making sure that it was a real picture. But I think it brought back too many memories for him – memories of Margaret sunning herself in the summer, drinking cocktails and listening to the radio while he worked.
One night, Sue and I had a little falling out over this guy called Raymond who’d been emailing her on an almost daily basis. Her face lit up with every new message and I’d begun to think that her secrecy was a little unnecessary. All she’d say was that they’d been in school together and that he wanted to meet up with her to talk about the old days. I said that was fine by me, but she claimed I’d said it in such a way as to portray some kind of hostility towards the idea. After that, she refused to discuss it with me any further, so I stepped outside for some fresh air, thinking it might help to defuse things a little.
Bob was in his back garden, doing something to a window frame, his right elbow triggering the security light every time he moved. It was then that curiosity got the better of me. ‘Warm night,’ I said, across the fence.
Bob looked up and frowned. ‘Sorry, what?’
‘I said it’s a lovely night tonight.’
He stopped what he was doing and seemed to take a moment to regard the qualities of the night. ‘Yes – yes it is,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t noticed.’
With that, he disappeared into his shed.
A couple of nights later, Bob was back is his garden, measuring and sawing wood. This time, he was aided by a powerful floodlight set-up.
I called over the fence. ‘Still at it, I see.’
He looked up and smiled. He checked his watch. ‘Fancy a drink?’ he asked.
We sat on paint-splattered crates in the lounge, drinking bottled beer from a cool box. Everything in the room had been stripped back to bare stone. It was a strange sight. Dust tickled my nose and the smell from an open can of paint troubled my sinuses. I thought briefly about Sue, tapping away on her laptop next door. I wondered if, at any point, she’d looked up and thought it strange to see my empty chair. I also asked myself what she’d think about me sharing a late night drink with our neighbour. And then it occurred to me that she wouldn’t think anything at all.
The following Saturday, Bob invited me over again. This time, he showed me the rest of the house, which, just like the lounge, had been stripped bare. He told me that a few years before Margaret died, before she knew she was ill, she’d made plans to renovate the place, get it just the way she’d always wanted it. Bob had been too busy with work to carry out these changes while she was alive, but he was doing it now, he said, in her honour. It seemed to me like a sad little project he’d taken on, but I admired him for doing it.
‘Actually, I could really do with some help,’ he said.
We were in the attic bedroom, looking up at the protective material that covered the new skylight.
‘I’m sure,’ I said, sipping at my beer.
It was a few seconds before I realised he’d been referring to me. I laughed, a little embarrassed.
‘I’m no wiz when it comes to that kind of thing,’ I said. It was true. I hadn’t carried out any maintenance on our bungalow in thirty years. And despite the fact that the place was in need of urgent attention in several areas, Sue always maintained that she’d prefer to wait for her brother Gordon to get back into port rather than have me make a hash of things.
Bob smiled and placed his big hand on my shoulder. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘I can teach you a few things.’
Sue was not at home when I got back that night. She’d left me a tea-stained note by the phone that was illegible apart from the name Raymond, written in large, red ink.
I watched some television with Dusky sat on my lap, but it was hard to concentrate on anything. Recently, Dusky had begun to make a strange and off-putting wheezing sound when she slept. The vet said it was her age, that it wasn’t anything to worry about. In any case, I was grateful for her warmth and her company that night and she was sleeping so soundly, so peacefully, that I didn’t have the heart to move her.
I was in bed when Sue returned, struggling to get into a novel about the growing pains of an autistic boy who possessed some kind of genius. Jackie at the book club said that she’d heard great things about it, but I wasn’t convinced. I placed the book down as Sue entered the bedroom. She started to undress, carefully folding her best evening gown over the back of the chair. I hadn’t seen her looking so elegant in a long time.
‘Good night?’ I asked.
She tried to conceal a smile, just like she used to do whenever I came home from a long day at the library and surprised her with a rose or a box of chocolates.
I patted the space on the bed beside me. ‘Come on, tell me all about it,’ I said.
‘I think I’ll just take a shower,’ she said.
I listened to the water running. She was in the bathroom for a long time. I thought she must’ve been staring at herself in the mirror, thinking how beautiful she looked that night.
The first real work Bob and I did together was to knock through the kitchen wall into the dining room. I was a little worried that the whole place would come down on top of us, but Bob assured me that he knew what he was doing. He’d made a career out of it, he liked to remind me. It was really very impressive, the way he went about things, and I felt like I was watching a true artisan at work. It’s hard to describe how honoured I felt the day he shared with me Margaret’s blueprints for the place, unravelling them as though they were some ancient scroll.
And I was learning new things all the time. I thought about all the little jobs I would now be able to do at home. It made me happy to think that I’d finally be able to fix the banisters and replace the gutters above our bedroom window. I imagined Sue’s surprise when she came home to find these things done. It concerned me, the malaise that had entered our marriage in the years since my retirement, and being around Bob had inspired in me a new resolve to make right whatever was wrong. With every nail I hammered into wood, I felt like a better man.
Over the next few weeks, we did more things to Bob’s house than I can remember. Bob displayed an admirable work ethic that began to rub off on me. We’d start at seven and finish only when our limbs began to ache, existing on strong coffee and a steady supply of heavy meat pies from the bakery down the road. At night, we’d sit on our crates in front of an old TV, eating our way through the curry house menu, Bob mocking my soft, librarian’s hands or the effeminate way in which I held a screwdriver. I was surprised when he told me he’d been to India once, before he was married. He’d spent the whole trip eating with his hands, he said. It caused me to wonder whether I’d made the most of my life. Sue and I had never travelled further afield than the Isle of Wight.
I particularly enjoyed helping Bob paint the dining room in a cold shade of blue that brought to mind the bottom of a swimming pool. It was satisfying work that seemed to sooth me in ways I cannot explain. I began to envisage how the room would look by the time we’d finished. Bob told me about the last time everyone had been together. It was the Christmas before Margaret died. Their girls had been there with their husbands and their kids. Margaret had been too sick to really take it all in, but there were still moments of joy, he said, looking off to the side at nothing in particular. It was hard to think of such a bare space ever containing so many people, let alone moments of happiness. Sue and I usually spent Christmas at home, just the two of us. One year, Gordon stayed with us, but it hadn’t been a pleasant experience and we never invited him again. I tried to remember what it felt like to have a house full of people.
Sue’s lack of interest in the work Bob and I were carrying out began to sadden me. On a few occasions, I tried to tell her how things had been going, hoping to share with her my enthusiasm for the project, but the more I said, the further away the look in her eyes became. Sometimes I’d see her drive away from the house in the middle of the day, only to return late at night. By the time I crept into the bedroom in my dirty overalls, she was usually fast asleep.
After the painting was complete, Bob and I made a start on the decking in the garden, as he said the weather was due to take a turn for the worse and he wanted to get it done. I was enjoying the work, shirt off in the sun, cold beer in my hand. I imagined that I was attaining a level of fitness I had never previously known and I began to fantasise about the two of us working together more often, perhaps engaging in some philanthropic endeavour whereby we renovated the homes of the elderly and disabled. But two days in, Bob got a call from his youngest daughter that put a premature end to things.
‘Sure. Right. Okay. No, of course you can – of course,’ he said into the phone, drawing thoughtfully on his cigarette. ‘I’ll be glad to have you.’
Bob informed me that his youngest daughter and her family would be moving in with him for a while as they’d been flooded out. I felt a real sense of sorrow when he told me that we’d have to lay down the tools for a while. Despite my disappointment, I helped him ready the place for guests. Shortly before I left, I asked him when he might be needing me again, but he said it was hard to tell.
Sue threw her arms around me when I stepped through the front door that night, her new nails digging into my back as she pulled me closer. She was wearing a floral blouse and a short blue dress that I'd never seen before. She began to cry.
‘Now, what’s up?’ I asked.
She wouldn’t say what was troubling her. Instead, she straightened herself out, kissed me on the cheek and poured me a beer.
When I got out of the shower, we sat together in the kitchen and ate pork chops and mashed potato. She asked me if I liked the wildflowers she’d arranged in a little vase on the table. I told her that I did, very much.
Later, we played cards and drank hot chocolate. I told her how nice she looked in her new clothes, but she frowned and said they’d been a mistake and that she’d take them back to the shop in the morning.
We both stopped to listen as a car pulled up outside Bob’s house. I heard Bob’s voice. He sounded happy.
Sue ran her hand through my hair. ‘Tell me everything,’ she said.
NICK RYLE WRIGHT is a writer of poetry and short fiction, currently based in the New Forest. This is his first publication.
He can be found on Twitter @nickrylew
It is ten years since Roberto Bolaño’s death and in Valparaíso we have no running water. In the bookshop on the street sloping into Plaza Aníbal Pinto the printed signs in the windows read: ‘Welcome, daughters and sons of Bolaño.’ They have his primary coloured novels on display beneath the moustache of a tipped-up bracket.
But there is no water for a welcome. The rupture of a matriz in Cerro Ramaditas has destroyed houses, swept people to injury, and left a trail of mud and chaos in its apocalyptic wake. Hundreds of litres of the city’s water rushing to join the ocean in wave upon wave. This diluvial torrent, the kind which usually only the rains can bring, has washed a cascade of Valparaíso’s generally static rubbish clots downhill toward the banks and business offices. Por eso, for this, they have shut the water off.
So the anniversary of Bolaño’s death falls now within a kind of crazy hot bliss, extenuated by thirst. Bolaño himself might have enjoyed the bitter poetics of it. The chance to torture his protagonists, to prolong their discomfort: the critics chasing their dead writer. This hot Valparaíso, enjoying its stagnant second summer: the toilet bowls stinking of urine; the frustrated, choked, gurgling of taps; the water trucks circling neighbourhoods with industrial tankers of mysterious liquid; and our hands sticky with a soap we can’t wash away. This Valparaíso greets Latin America’s finest, most astute academics: the rich smell of sweat and sex palpable on dirty streets.
The daughters and sons of Bolaño are arriving for ‘The Distant Star’ of a Literary Congress. The posters for the event, pasted over calls for solidarity and protests – La Lucha esta en la Calle – advertise a cartoon Bolaño smoking a cigarette of surreal swirls, his head tipped towards us with an arch kind of nonchalance.
As if affected by the drought-stagnation of the past few fetid days, Michael’s own clock has slipped backward an hour, so that he arrives at what he believes is the first mesa of the congress only to wonder at this impossible Chilean punctuality, at the whole premature shift of the day. Could they have begun early?
Michael is an interlocutor, a tourist wandered in off the streets. A traveller desperate to diversify his cultural experience, desperate for a story the others won’t be able to tell. Driven here under the influence of that insatiable curiosity which comes with being youthful, an adventurer, Michael sent an email in broken Spanish asking if he could ‘come along’ and they let him.
Michael hopes one day to be an academic, but hope offers little in the way of credentials. It is nothing he could write on a pin badge or have printed on a sticker for collection at registration, for example. He has read Bolaño only for pleasure, with the voracity of an admiring literary fan. Always in translation. Now that he sidles up to the registration desk to claim his name without explanation – he can’t think of the Spanish to explain it – he begins to wonder if the whole ‘adventure’ might have been a mistake.
In the lecture theatre Michael masks his conspicuousness with the scribbling of a steady stream of wild words. Nobody must know that he is sitting with this struggle to grasp even the most basic of connections between thoughts: their relation to figures and characters, to concepts and debates, their implication; all entirely out of reach. He’s always been an excellent bluffer, but it is more difficult to pull off in another language. He hurries his florid notes into seeming significance. When the mesa finishes he follows the crowds towards a new room.
In this room, ‘Infrarealism and Poetry’, Michael snatches at clasps of words flung towards him. Sometimes translating them: mobile universe, to read Bolaño is to learn to die, anti-establishment, structure chaotic like reality, the notion of the poet as hero. Sometimes leaving them to rest in Spanish on his ear-bud, unclasped: la poesía como la violencia, el manifesto infrarealista, amor, sufrimiento, locura, una poesía prosaica. But always, whatever the final language, a floating phraseology: disembodied, loose, almost meaningless.
Perhaps these are the rationalists in Bolaño’s ‘pejorative literal sense,’ Michael thinks to himself. The rationalists who believe that literary criticism is the only place where revolution is still possible; the fight isn’t in the street, the fight is here. Bolaño’s poetry is described with its own vocabulary of violence, of reactionary sensationalism. ‘This appendix to the autodidact’ Michael notes, finally clutching at a momentary sweep of pride.
To listen in another language is to battle always an instinct which spuriously convinces you that if you were to lean forward slightly, as if to hear better, understanding would come too. Michael strains forwards without revelation and notices instead the notes of the man sitting in front of him: a kind of automatic writing, that of a poet divining some other meaning, some new creation, from the lecture being recited in alta voz. The notes read: ‘Come poetry, come to us, but the words come and don’t touch me. That ocean which is literature. And where, where are the Chileans? Lying in that apathetic and ridiculous mouth.’
Even this, or maybe especially this, Michael fails to understand. The notes too expansive and too obscure, too ambitious perhaps, for him to be able to access the flow. Michael leaves his own transcribed fragments to an even greater incomprehensibility.
When the mesa finishes he goes downstairs to get some coffee from the shallow white ceramic conference cups and eat some of the expensive biscuits. They melt buttery with a sweet filling of dulce de leche in his bitter mouth: the taste of intimidation lingers on.
Michael wonders where they have found the water to fill the cups of so many lecturers and professors. But this is a different Chile to the one he has been living in, he supposes. As he walks out into the gardens of the former prison-turned-cultural centre, the Ex-cárcel, he watches the academics milling about in the sunshine, jealously. They are complimenting each other on their papers and veiling insults too under the guise of references to their own research. Their own work is, quite frankly, more revolutionary.
They ask which conferences the others will be attending next? Who has paid for the hotels? Are the flights included? Will there be some grand dinner to attend? And then they grunt with envious acknowledgment.
Michael buys a conference poster instead, consoling himself with a souvenir. He hangs about under the shadow of the big black building for a while, tossing up whether he should stay for the rest of the mesas or give up and head to work early.
Once he’s resolved to leave, he comes back into the bright sunlight, walks past the cliques of lecturers and professors and the sprinklers turning slow circles on the grass, towards the edge of the prison yard and the curl of the port. Here, beyond the mint green spire of the Lutheran church and the pastel cluster of houses on Cerro Concepción, the sea stretches forth cloaked in a cloud which hesitates to touch the hot city. Michael wonders, as he looks out at that view, if he has not unwittingly, just encountered the critics of Bolaño’s 2666: ‘the young conferencegoers, those eager and insatiable cannibals, their thirtysomething faces bloated with success, their expressions shifting from boredom to madness, their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you, though obviously no one understood.’
Later in the afternoon, Michael arrives at the hotel to begin his shift. His boss, José, is sitting in reception with a new arrival, a Swedish exchange student with white blonde hair. José has hot artichokes for each of them. He’s smiling because the water is back – the toilets are flushing, the taps are running, the showers are raining down on guests again and best of all, there is water for cooking and eating artichokes. They sit at the reception desk and peel away the leaves to dip the artichokes in oil, lemon juice and salt, and suck at their fleshy tips. The perfect furling of leaves kept closest to the heart: delicious.
Until now, Michael has never known how to eat their green, petalled mystery, their florid articulation of vegetable matter. He has only ever eaten their hearts, preserved in oily jars: never even imagined what they might look like. José tells them how he boiled the artichokes to soften their tight bodies and Michael doesn’t mention his Literary Congress, that now distant star.
While the critics have sat in their conference halls: chairing, presenting, questioning, thinking the world into its revolutionary state, their closing remarks giving the revolution form; the water companies have worked to restore water to thirty thousand houses. In Valparaíso we have running water again. With this water, Michael has discovered artichokes for the first time: and the mesas this morning, all those disjointed notes – seem to have slipped into the paused time of his now-righted clock.
FRANCESCA BROOKS has had short and flash fiction published with Firewords Quarterly, Cabbages & Kings, The A3 Review, Brain of Forgetting, and With Regard To. She also writes non-fiction for publications such as Garageland and The Learned Pig, and edits a literary journal for Arts & Humanities researchers, The Still Point. Although currently a postgraduate student, in a previous life Francesca worked with art galleries, rare book dealers, frozen food companies and even a circus.
Follow her on Twitter @frangipancesca
or read her blog: thepilgrimages.wordpress.com
As they strapped the queen, Perspex-coffined, to his chin, as his jaw was slathered with honey, as people smiled, cameras poised in anticipation, as a veiled man prepared to free the bees from the hive, he wondered how he had found himself in such an absurd situation.
Ill-advisedly he had given his daughter a copy of the Guinness Book of Records for Christmas. This was where his troubles started. Of all the wonders contained within, it was to the man with the beard of bees that she had found herself drawn.
The image fascinated her.
In her drawings, the bee-bearded man became a constant fixture.
There was something elemental in her adoration.
Pandering to his princess’s whims, he showed her clips online of men bearded with bees. Together they watched as men on ad hoc pedestals awaited a honeyed cluster, trays shaken in the wind releasing a blizzard of bees.
She was disappointed the first time she saw a beard in the wild. Initially awestruck, she stared intensely at a grey-bearded man. Captivated by this bushy protuberance, she awaited movement. Out of politeness, he pulled faces in return. But she grew frustrated. She was waiting for his beard to fly away, anticipated its dissolution, whiskers scattering in the wind, a blown dandelion, as they took flight. Outside of bee-laden clips, she had not seen a bearded man in the flesh. Her father, and the men who encircled her life, had always been clean-shaven. He led her away, answered her queries. She was disheartened to discover that not all beards were sentient.
She had always seemed to be at one with the natural world. She would not swat away winged unknowns, nor flee from creepy-crawlies, but was apt to proffer a finger as a perch, her gaze growing intense, cross-eyed, as she brought living things ever closer for inspection.
He was the one who fled at the sight of a spider’s shadow.
He tried to placate her with a beard of his own but there was no substance to it. Barely able to summon stubble, iron-filing shadows, his wispy mist of a beard would not dislodge the shifting masses she had witnessed, the magic moving beards he had found for her online.
Her obsession deepened.
He looked through his daughter’s drawings. Encircling men’s faces: winged dots.
He searched for ever more fascinating clips.
Clicking through, he discovered one couple, both beekeepers, who had married, their entire bodies covered in bees. This was too much. He imagined their honeymoon, a stinging encounter, a marriage consummated amid a furious tornado that buzzed as they fucked. Was this his daughter’s destiny? He envisioned her walking up the aisle, draped in bees, a trained swarm trailing behind her, a bare hand upon his arm whilst he wore full beekeeper’s regalia. Would she grow to love the feeling of their fuzz about her skin? He needed to stop viewing her fixations through adult eyes. There need be nothing unseemly about her interests.
Instead, he pictured his daughter, the renowned entomologist, bees pinned to boards as she hovered with a scalpel, black and yellow suits carved open as she gathered data. This did not strike him as likely. He did not see her mutilating them, even after their timely deaths.
She had begged him to beard up for her. This was, on every level, an odd request.
But she was persistent, droned on, the word pleeeaaaassssseeeeee elongated until it buzzed.
Tentative, he made enquires. Around the country, beekeepers took his crackpot calls. How did others go about it?
For his daughter he would do anything.
He did not wish to add to her disappointments.
He was at a loss as to why others did it, the men, almost invariably, who suffered this indignity in their record attempts. What was their motivation? How had circumstances conspired so that the beard-of-bees even become a consideration? His thoughts turned to an unsuspecting man enjoying a family panic before a sudden disruption, an unsettled hive honing in, a beeline made for his face. He pictured him flailing, batting at bees as they landed, his defences futile against this clinging, unshakeable beard. And then he pictured another man, a passerby, glancing over dismissively at him thinking, I could do better than that.
He questioned the mental stability of men who proffered their jaws as kingdoms for insects.
He sensed he was about to join their number.
Previous record breakers talked not of sonic assault or of stings, but of the collective weight. Record attempts were measured not by number—a mathematician in beekeeper’s whites pointing and counting as they descended—but by mass. Stock-still, bee-barbed men perched on scales as digital readouts revealed their level of infestation.
He would not be attempting any records.
He had a hard time convincing a beekeeper to unleash their bees in this way, not least because his tone was undercut by fear. They had been tentative forays, bumbled inquiries. Unfortunately, he eventually found someone foolhardy enough to take him seriously.
A date was arranged to his daughter’s delight and his utter horror.
His chin would house a hive for his princess.
And so he found himself nervous before strangers. Honey-smeared, his jaw was prepped as though for a close shave. In a box the queen buzzed. Release the bees, his daughter cried, although he did not hear her. His ears were plugged, not to block their siren’s song, but to dissuade intruders, his nostrils similarly stymied. One did not wish to invite ingress. As the bees moved silently towards him, a frantic cloud, he hid every nervous twitch and stifled screams. He watched his daughter, wide-eyed, ecstatic, and braced himself until it was all over. On a tripod, a video camera stood pointed in his direction. He would watch his ordeal later when it was all over.
Of late, he had noticed that her Guinness Book of Records no longer fell open upon a bee-bearded man, but rather to the world’s most tattooed man. He would work on one wish at a time.
On an upturned box he stood, a condemned man, a droning noose around his neck.
His daughter giggled, clapping her hands with joy, as bees buzzed about him.
STUART SNELSON lives and writes in London. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, The Bohemyth, HOAX, Lighthouse, Popshot and Structo, among others. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is currently working on his second novel.
He can be found on Twitter @stuartsnelson
Previous stories can be found at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com
The first time I touched her was when I clipped her wing mirror while overtaking on a blind corner. She beeped her horn, which I took as a come-on, and when I got in front I checked her out in my rear-view mirror.
After 100 yards or so, I slammed on my brakes and she went right up the back of me. We got out of our cars to talk about insurance, and that was how I got her mobile number.
I accepted all liability for the accident and offered to buy her a new car. She said it just needed a new bumper, but I told her to keep the police and other official channels out of this and to choose whatever she wanted.
She texted the next day and I got in touch with a garage to order what she’d chosen. When it arrived, I called her to say it was on the forecourt, and hid in the boot.
But she didn’t come to collect the car, a man did. I could tell by the way he strangled the ignition and punched it through the gears. All his swerving was making me nauseous, and it wasn’t long until I heard a metallic slap and an angry driver sounding their horn, but his only reaction was to slam the brakes on as hard as he could. Someone went up the back of him and I was hurt pretty badly.
His wife texted while I was in hospital to say he’d got six years for causing death by dangerous driving and improper carriage of a passenger. I said I accepted all liability for the accident and would buy her a new car. I told her to choose whatever she wanted. She’s driving over to take me home in it tonight.
IAN SHINE lives in south-east London and works as a sub-editor. His short stories have appeared in publications including Litro, The Stinging Fly, three National Flash-Fiction Day anthologies, The Fiction Desk anthology Because of What Happened, Belleville Park Pages and Firewords.
Paige’s father built her a bed of mahogany when she was 12 years old. He planned for it to become a family heirloom of sorts, so he cut the wood two inches too thick and durable enough to withstand monsoons. She was fond of it. She liked the way the lines running through the headboard were the same lines that carved into her father’s forehead after her mother’s death. She grew with it. When she was 13 she awoke in a small semi-circle of blood, clutching her abdomen and feeling like a bruise was spreading across her ovaries. The red sunk onto to the mattress, the mattress that cost almost too much, and she tried to hide it from her father for three days. The red grew stiff and crusty and she couldn’t bear the feel of it as she tossed and turned at night, so she finally confessed. Her father scratched his brow and placed an uncomfortable hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Tell me what to do.’ She scrubbed most of it away and the hard crimson eventually faded to a soft brown. When she was 15 she got so sick that her coughs felt like sandpaper scrubbing against concrete. She woke up from three-hour naps with the white sheets plastered to her legs in a grimy, stale sweat. When the doctor told her it was pneumonia she responded, ‘How do you spell that? Isn’t the G silent?’ The doctor wiped away a few wet strands of hair from her forehead and told her to stay in that bed for a week. She did. When she was 16 she met Fran. Fran was two years older and had shoulders like a linebacker. She painted her nails tar-black and wore padded bras and skipped fifth period everyday to smoke cigarettes behind the football field’s bleachers. Paige picked up the smoking habit and also painted her nails black. Her father didn’t question her when she came home late at night, because he didn’t know how. Her first night getting drunk included five shots of whiskey, two beers and a pesky button on her shirt that popped open whenever she leaned forward. Joseph was the boy who handed her the first beer, and then the second. He had blond shaggy hair and an odd tessellation of freckles on his left cheek. Paige and Joseph climbed through her window at 3:00 a.m. that night. The way was overgrown with t-shirts and dirty jeans in heaps on her floor, and they laughed as they stumbled over sleeves and landed clumsily in the bed. There were many after Joseph. Her father started taking his coffee black and he stopped laughing altogether. A conversation with him was ‘How was school?’, ‘It was alright,’ and a nod of the head. On Halloween Paige and Fran stole the yield sign down the street from Paige’s house. She leaned it against her bedpost, but her loss of innocence still picked up momentum. Paige’s father built her a bed of mahogany when she was 12 years old. He planned for it to become a family heirloom of sorts, so he cut the wood two inches too thick and durable enough to withstand monsoons. It had a handsome brevity, but he did not build it durable enough to withstand the weight of years, the weight of becoming.
JACKIE BRAJE received her BA in English Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Tampa in May 2015 and recently moved to New York to pursue a career in the publishing industry. In the past, she's worked as the Arts & Entertainment Editor for The Minaret, the Assistant Editor for the University of Tampa’s literary journal Neon, and a freelance music journalist for various publications. She currently works as an Editorial Intern for BlackBook Magazine. You can read her most recently published piece, ‘Warm Blooded,’ in the new issue of Dark River Review.
They left in separate cars, each with his driver. They took different routes out of the hilly town: one back up to Koforidua, where he was working with the plant; the other back to the smouldering city on a winding single-lane road. From here the West African coast was a blur of grainy colour, a discontinuation. He breathed easier now that it was over. In another place it would never have been done like this, so furtive and fucked up. Two men in a hotel room on a quiet afternoon, girls swaying past with buckets on their heads.
He glanced at the driver whose eyes were dark brown screens. He had dozed the whole time, bare feet tossed out of the passenger window.
Now he breathed in deep, sweating more. When they were inside, his skin had been dry and silken, an endless terrain. He had bitten the other’s lip, drawn blood, licked the wound, felt unquestioned. He wondered what the other man was thinking now as his pickup truck negotiated sharp curves, sped beneath old boughs reaching over the frayed road, women in chop bars glimpsing his profile.
He had watched him dress: old printed boxers stitched once or twice, jeans from the second-hand market, a Lacoste shirt washed many times. Clothed again, they had stood simply in the room, organised nothing further.
He looked at the driver, a northerner who had sharp, wide features. It had probably been unwise to bring him up here today, but he had no way of knowing the roads out of town, the exact location of the hotel, and the pluck of his seasoned vehicle. What if the jeep had petered out on the ascent, or the engine failed to turn over in the parking lot afterwards? How to explain this excursion to colleagues at work, or rely on local goodwill? He felt certain his cells were flaring and his face could barely manoeuvre.
The small jeep drifted down to the coast, tall grass and stunted trees whipping past. At the city edge a group of sleeping soldiers sprawled under a broad tree. They were thrown back on benches, khaki trousers tucked into polished boots, slick berets on shaven heads, hands holding rifles. A young one pointed them through the busted gate. He had a thick blue belt snug around his waist, temples giving off flints of light.
He showered at the house. His lover’s smell was raw over him and now he wished he had showered at the hotel and not brought the strong odour of their skins inside the vehicle. Had the driver seen the other man saunter up to the reception, carrying the folders he had suggested? He dressed quickly. He sat on the bed, looking at the wood grain of the parquet floor.
The driver said an envelope had arrived at the office when the secretaries had all gone. It had his name on it in slanted capital letters. Uncertain letters. He thought of a classroom with sixty kids, empty window frames looking onto a clearing of dust outside, hours of football under the sun.
HOTEL DE CALIFORNIE
He looked hard at the driver, made sure he didn’t show the page. ‘Who gave you this?’ he said.
‘A woman,’ the driver said, hands clasped.
He could have folded over with relief. That afternoon he sent the driver home and stayed in the office, working on for hours. The sun fell and the cleaners mopped. Occasionally, he looked up. A heavy black dome hugged the roofs above the city, extinguishing every star. The neighbouring buildings were ill-lit and crammed with palms.
When he was through he walked outside and joined the flux of shadows moving along the trafficked road to the fast food shops at the junction. Open gutters gaped beside him; girls tittered in his wake, but mostly he was unnoticed, his skin a velour of perspiration. At the junction he fell onto a plastic chair by the street and ordered a beer, guzzled it. A smooth girl caught his eye and he winked at her. She came over to flaunt her rich figure, draping herself over him.
‘Sister,' he said, curling her hair. 'Tell me, where is the Hotel de Californie?’
She told him and he drew a map in his mind.
‘You want to take me there?’ she said.
He bought her a beer, he was finished with her. There were other things on his mind. Where to go from here. How to steal him away, luxuriate in him. Perhaps to employ him?
It was punishable by death in this country.
As people coursed past he was surprised to see his driver walking along, arm around a young woman, both wearing light smiles. He shied back in his seat, half-covered his obroni face, watched their backs recede. His lack of safety disarmed him. But he knew that he was safe, he had done nothing.
He could not sleep in the night. He turned off the air conditioning, opened the window louvers; he heard the night watchman shuffle to the front gate and saw him standing under the strip light on the pillar. His skin went from cool to slick in moments.
He sat on the edge of the bed, tried to lie down on the floor. He went out to the kitchen for water, pushed his face under the tap, felt the cold chute fill his nostrils and eyes. He stood naked on the tiles. A tall wrangled man, his body a ruffled harbour. He thought of his lover in a prefab house in the hills, a woman by his side, a baby in a cot at the end of the bed.
The jeep refused to start. He sat sweating at the wheel, turning the key on and off, hearing a defiant clicking coming from somewhere in the engine. He lifted up the bonnet, clueless. It was three o’clock and he was ready early, he’d been certain he would lose his way in the warren downtown. But a taxi? He needed the shelter of his own vehicle in that dodgy zone. A quick getaway and no wandering the streets. He swore, skin blistering in moisture all over. Fuck.
He called and the driver sounded drowsy on his mobile phone. But he knew the driver was obedient. He said he could catch the tro tro, he’d be at the house in fifteen minutes.
He kicked a pot bearing a cactus which toppled over in a cascade of soil and roots. He bent down, gathered up dirt and pebbles in his hand, righted the plant. He walked to the end of the yard, saw that children were watching him through the scrappy hedge.
The driver pushed open the gate and walked over to the little jeep. He peered under the bonnet. Picked up a rock, hit the two bolts on the battery, gave them a really good whack. Told him to try the ignition again now.
The engine turned over and the jeep started.
They reached the Hotel de Californie at four thirty. He was nervy now, he could sense that it was all going pear-shaped. His hands were as weightless as paper, yet his skin was a thick coat daubed on him. His thoughts were metallic scissions on drifts of light. He won’t be here. This is the wrong place. This is a hoax. He thought of being discovered, being thrown into a cell, strung up, pummelled. He felt dark coals of fear and wanted to reverse out of the car park.
But then he saw a face leaning out a window, elbows on the sill, smoking calmly. Oh, the rush. He grabbed the briefcase he had tossed in the back, left the driver some dirty bills.
The driver gave him another envelope. His name in slanted capitals again.
It had been a while now. The last time there had been a knock on the hotel room door, someone trying the locked handle. Everything had been suspended – all fondling, all love – in that moment. They both stared at the grimy door and agitating curve of metal. He’d felt a current travel through the body of the other man, saw him draw back destroyed; their coupling a noxious stain upon the baby and wife. They had solemnly resumed lovemaking. He’d watched the other man dress and leave, a different shirt this time, treasured and washed. He’d plugged in his computer and cupped his face.
He stood before the driver and opened up the envelope.
How on earth to find it? Why couldn’t he just have him at his own place? A beer on the veranda, a snack inside. Then the discovery of his rooms, the air tightening as their mouths locked together.
‘Who gave you this?’
‘A boy, Sir.'
Was this a game or a trap? Was someone watching him? He worked late into the night. He addressed a backlog of emails. Emails from old university friends, emails from ex-colleagues back in Europe, from a sometime lover in Berlin, from his sister travelling through Australia. He told her about him: I’ve met this guy. He’s not free but it’s really something. It’s going to be another agony thing, I can tell you. I feel like a dog on a chain, on a stake plunged into the ground. There is so much beauty here and I can’t run from it. Hot, tropical beauty. Huge thunderclouds and red dirt that steams under your feet. I’ve read the book you gave me. I really loved it, you know.
He sat back. It wasn’t true. He hadn’t even opened her book. But it would make her happy. He wished he had a photo of him, even a shot on his phone. Something to stare into, something to examine with intimate recollection. A metal bucket clattered outside in the hall and he listened to the slow sweeps of the mop.
This time when they set out, he was calmer. He’d told the driver he was buying some glass beads to take home, that one of the girls in the office was sending him to a guy at the beach who brought them from upcountry. They’d given him the house number, did he know where it was? He didn’t show him the paper, just told him the address. The driver thought for a minute, then nodded.
They drove out of the city along the crammed coastal road. This time he had a feeling it would be fundamental, eclipsing. He had wanted to bring some sort of gift, but couldn’t think what a man would give to another man here, in this country. In the end he brought his sister’s book, but knew the other would never read it.
They passed a group of soldiers on the roadside. There was no real check-point, just an open-backed military jeep parked in the sun, five men sitting in the back holding guns, heads leaning on the struts of the vehicle. Down an incline to the sea were the shapeless hills where former ministers had been dragged out at dawn and executed after a coup d’etat. It had happened years ago and the place bore no new growth, just sand and weeds, the ocean a blue cloth hanging beyond them.
He looked over that scarred cemetery of souls. To think of the thrashing waves as the firing squad took aim, crosswinds entering a pasty mouth, then a bloodless falling.
Deep inside Nungua town they pulled up in front of a tin-roofed house with a narrow veranda. His lover was sitting outside with a young woman in a patterned dress and headscarf. She was wearing purple plastic sandals. Two half-empty bottles of Fanta sat on the table between them and the girl had high cheekbones pressed to the top of her face and narrow slanted eyes; her skin was glossy.
At first he pulled back, the recognition floored him and the young girl was something he did not comprehend. Then the man on the veranda waved at him. He too raised his hand behind the windscreen. He told the driver to wait at the bar on the corner and stepped out into the salty neighbourhood of laughing mothers and blaring Tupac playing and kids trailing wire contraptions on wheels. The pair watched him. The car departed and the woman led the men inside, placed the Fanta bottles in the kitchen sink, and locked the door behind her.
They were holding each other on the bed when the woman’s high voice rang out from the other room. They kissed. They crawled apart and began to dress. This time he did not watch the other man pull on his worn clothes, but sat there, elbowing into his T-shirt, smelling whiffs of their melded skins. They embraced. He was given a fresh Fanta from the fridge while the other finished one of the warm bottles waiting there.
He walked alone down the street and came to the bar on the corner. It was empty. For a moment his innards seized and he nearly stumbled on the ridge of the gutter. He felt obscenely visible, his crimes in colossal scrolls on his person. He ordered a beer and threw it back, grateful for the chemical swilling; he looked for options in the degraded sky.
Then the car trundled up the road and the driver was most apologetic, saying he’d been to a timber yard. He climbed in, said he preferred the windows open, realised he didn’t have a single bead to show for the afternoon.
Now the soldiers turned to stare as their car crawled past in the tired file back from the beaches. One soldier pointed to his white face and urged them off the road. The driver swung over untroubled, but he was already grinding his jaw, thinking of colleagues he could call if they were hassled. Papers were fished out, they were all in order. His documents were pored over with a theatrical intensity that set him on edge.
A narrow man in a loose uniform commanded the driver to step down from the vehicle. The driver looked across at him swept with worry, but his thoughts were confounded. He could only think of his lover being harangued by these young bastards, the ripples he had tongued along his beautiful throat, the unguarded facial expressions he had received as gifts. He was stopped from leaving the car by a second soldier standing by his window shaking his head.
‘What’s going on here?’ His voice nearly failed him. ‘What’s the problem?’
They marched the driver down the incline into a pit in the land, beyond the stream of traffic. As he watched, his head began to spin and the faintness spread in tingles to his hands and legs. Again, he pushed the door; the stern young soldier shook his head. The man turned laughing to the small group fixed in a circle of olive green shirts and blue tassels on built shoulders, berets on gleaming foreheads, guns dangling.
The driver was pushed to his knees.
‘Stop this!’ he cried from the vehicle.
The driver raised pale hands, long fingers with small joints. On the kneeling man’s face he could read no expression, hear no sound through this horrible suspension.
One soldier playfully raised a gun.
He sat there, compelled. He thought of a gun raised to his lover’s temple and this shocking vision wet him through: he would rather the cold heel in his own mouth. He pulled out a fan of cash from the glove compartment and waved it at the young soldier’s flanks, yelling at the dusk-smeared concave. Begged them.
The soldiers fell away laughing, ribbing each other, guns thwacked against lean spines. The driver stood and dusted himself off.
They crawled back to the steaming city, which was soon awash with stormy gusts and red-swilling streets. The driver accepted his grave apology. He stared through the window at the splattered houses, realising how violently the afternoon’s beauty had been overturned. He now saw their bodies as fragrant with risk and doom, prologue to the staged execution. The two contexts overlapped and he saw that the long road with its bloody memories was a poisoned thread through the hours. He looked at the driver’s unchanged face and wondered what thoughts he must have summoned in those unlawful moments. He saw the lovers on the drenched bed and knew he would never risk seeing the man he craved again.
In the following weeks he worked long days and went home directly. He wrote jaunty emails to friends, contacted a woman who had wanted to marry him, who sent him photographs of her twins. He looked up house prices in his old city and considered doing an online language course in Chinese. His sister wrote to him: I’m so glad you liked the book. It was great, wasn’t it? Thanks for the photos. The house looks rather swish, at least you’re not sweating all day. What about a shot of this famous man you’ve met? A wife and kid this time? Something tells me you are barking up a very thorny tree. I’m so glad to have left everything and more behind. Here the deserts are crazy with flowers…
But in the night he dreamed of being raped in a cell and woke up floundering, uncertain of his senses. Another time he saw himself surrounded by soldiers, prone on the sand, anticipating ecstasy. It repulsed him.
When two months had passed he knew there would be no more envelopes or hotel names written in slanted letters. He remained calm. After work the driver took him to the tennis courts. He met a young waiter who slipped him his telephone number when he paid for a round of drinks. He watched the man’s long spine and the clipped back of his skull disappearing into the kitchens. That night he called him up and gave him his address.
CATHERINE MCNAMARA grew up in Sydney, moved to Paris to study French and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2014 and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011. Her story 'Magaly Park' received a Pushcart nomination and her work has been shortlisted and anthologised widely.
The pigeons arrive in the spring. She watches him try to shoo them away – first with the clapping of hands, with the stomping of feet on the wooden deck, then finally with a garden hose. ‘Stop,’ she tells him finally. ‘Leave them alone.’
She’s grown to like their incessant cooing, their low murmur a lullaby.
The birds roost on the wooden beam just under the roof, side by side, staring into the Spanish fir across the street, like two people sitting side by side at a bar in front of a baseball game.
Flying rats, he calls them. Or, rats with wings.
How does a bird get a reputation like that? she wonders. As a pest – when pigeons are really quite beautiful, with the blues and purples feathering their necks, their curious faces, their bobbing heads.
Anything can be a pest; it’s just a matter of perspective. She watches parents at grocery stores, snapping at their children, yanking at their hands and arms, everything an annoyance.
A ghost writer for a popular young adult series, she is immersed in the world of the young and their teenage problems. She’s working on new novel in which one of the high school girls has a pregnancy ‘scare’. Ironic, she thinks, how hard you try to avoid pregnancy at one age and try so hard to achieve it at another.
She logs forty hours a week, she decorates the page with dialogue, and in the end she gets a nice paycheck. Yet she’s only a surrogate; when she goes to the bookstore, it’s someone else’s name on the covers of all her books.
One egg falls, then the next. The birds disappear.
Whitish yellow yolk smears the deck’s wooden boards like blood.
Baby clothes keep arriving – ‘gifts’ from her in-laws. Onesies in greens and yellows, little shirts and leggings, even tiny socks. All gender neutral.
Sometimes she looks at him, imagining him as a father. He’s got hair longer than hers, a scruffy face, a barbed-wire tattoo around his bicep – leftovers from his twenties, like the passport stamps he’d collected during his years in the Peace Corps. Now he runs software for HVAC systems. He’s changed, physically and otherwise: the tan faded from his skin, the light from his hair; his straight-toothed smile now seems plain instead of perfect. Still intense, yet quieter, he’s become more comfortable facing a computer screen than a human being. When he looks at her, she wonders if he sees skin and eyes, or just pixels and a blinking cursor.
She comes home one day to find a stranger in the kitchen. She stares at the man’s back as he roots through the fridge.
Only when he turns does she realise it’s him.
He’d cut his hair.
He smiles and turns his head from side to side. He’s clean shaven, ponytail gone, his hair in a short, neat cut that frames his face in a way she’s never seen before. She steps forward and runs a hand over his head.
In bed, she misses the feel of his hair sweeping her face, the way she could lose her hands in it. She touches the back of his neck, his bare shoulders.
‘It’ll grow out,’ he murmurs.
‘Should I have asked you first?’
‘No,’ she says. She rolls onto her back, manoeuvring a pillow under her hips. She remembers reading something, somewhere, that said this would help.
Researching a new storyline at the library, she comes across an article on the passenger pigeon, extinct for a hundred years – a bird whose numbers were once in the billions. It disappeared because of humans: hunting, loss of habitat.
The world’s last passenger pigeon was named Martha. She died on September 1st, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. Like herself, the bird was twenty-nine years old. Like her, Martha had never once produced a fertile egg.
In the spring, the pigeons return. She watches as the male pigeon collects twigs and sticks and leaves, bringing them in his beak to his mate.
That night, she positions the pillow under her hips again.
The next day, she checks the nest for eggs. The pigeons eye her warily.
MIDGE RAYMOND's short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and Poets & Writers, among others. Her debut novel, My Last Continent, is forthcoming next summer from Scribner.
Question 1: What do you miss most? (also worded as, If you could have anything right now, etc.)
Week 1: Pot. Sex. But then I wasn’t getting much sex anyway with me and Lisa separated, was I?
Week 3: Beer. I really need a beer. I really need ten beers.
Week 5: You’re trying to get me to say Micheleo’s pizza, aren’t you? We get pizza here – not very good pizza, of course, but it passes. My mom’s chuck roast, now that I could kill for. I’m joking, come on!
Week 7: Crystal. The way she smells after a bath. How cute she looks when she rubs her nose in her sleep.
Week 9: Have you found a way to sneak beer in here? ‘Cause if you have, I could be real popular. At least for a day.
Week 11: The sky. The prairie. Big open space. Could you blow up a photograph of the view from my folks’ house out the back, that overgrown field? I swear some of the cars we used to play with are still in there somewhere. You could do it, right? I could put it on my wall.
Week 13: What do you want me to say? I miss everything, fucking everything. Waking up with Lisa. Hearing Crystal in the next room. Mom, Dad – even you.
Question 2: How are things with Lisa? (also, Have you seen Lisa? How’s Lisa? How are you two?)
Week 1: Okay, I guess. She showed up for everything, but we haven’t really talked. We’re good. I hope we’re good.
Week 3: She didn’t come this week. She said she had to work last minute, somebody got sick. I believe her, but I still think I ain’t lookin’ so hot to her these days, you know what I mean? Three years with good behaviour. When was I ever good for three months, let alone three years? But then it’s easier to be good in here, a little bit.
Week 5: I have no idea.
Week 7: I gotta get her back. I mean, she’s not gone, but she’s not with me, either. I want her to be with me like I’m with her.
Week 9: We talked, but just about what other people are doing – my folks, Crystal, even Mary. I ask about herself and she clamps up. I’m afraid to say anything about us. I say anything about us, that’s her opening – she’s gone.
Week 11: This time when she came I combed my hair. Don’t laugh. You know it’s not me. Or wasn’t me. I was just trying to clean up, look good for her, and what can I do in bright orange clothes? I can shave, and I can comb my hair. I can brush my teeth. I did all that. I don’t know if she noticed.
Week 13: Will you tell me what to do? Is there anything I can do?
Question 3: What are you going to do when you get out? (also, Got any plans for when this is over? What do you want to do when you get out of here?)
Week 1: Get drunk, I guess. Get high. Sleep it off and start over again.
Week 3: Drive! Music up, window down. You’re in the passenger seat.
Week 5: It depends on what’s up with Lisa.
Week 7: What do you want me to say? Start over? What do I know how to do besides drive a cab? You’re the smart one.
Week 9: Join the library? Hell if I know.
Week 11: Stop asking me, man. It’s too far off. I’ve got to keep my head here.
CARRIE ETTER's stories have appeared in Bluestem, Flash, and New Welsh Review, and next year a pamphlet of them will be published by V. Press. Her most recent collection of poems, Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry by The Poetry Society. She has taught creative writing at Bath Spa University since 2004.
Viewpoint Signage Ltd was a shit place to work in many respects, but it suited a man of Derek’s temperament. The basic criteria for employment were that you turned up semi-regularly and did the job without chopping your own or your colleagues’ fingers off. The job was hacking bits of aluminium into circles, triangles or rectangles and laminating them with reflective material according to whichever road sign was required by council or contractor. Short of pushing drugs on the premises, thumping the works manager or driving the firm’s van into the MD’s Jaguar, it was impossible to get fired.
Derek had got fired a lot in the past. Sometimes, over a pint after work, he’d casually recall the fight, the petty theft or the dalliance with the boss’s daughter that got him the chop. I’d dismiss most of these recollections as beer-soaked bullshit (though not to his face) and figure absenteeism and poor performance as the real reasons. The petty theft thing, though…
The barney that finished it all for Derek happened in the mid-90s. I was twenty-something. I’d left school with an across-the-board set of piss-poor grades and blagged my way into an office job. Eight hours a day with a tie strangling me and the stuck-up pricks with degrees and ambitions to own the place in five years taking the mick because of my broad working-class vowels and slang-driven sentences. Didn’t matter that I’d spent all the hours I’d skived off school with my head in a book, didn’t matter that I was reading Dickens while they were thumbing the ink off the Daily Mail or Viz; I talked like my dad talked because I didn’t see that working a milling machine and working a keyboard were really any different, whereas they did and it put their backs up.
I chucked it after a year or two. Being a thorn in their side was its own reward, but one day I walked into the bogs, took a leak and stood looking at myself in the mirror as I washed my hands afterwards. I saw looking back at me the face of someone who was only fooling himself.
I took the first job in manufacturing that came along: Viewpoint Signage Ltd, where you had to be catatonic to fail the interview. I was there four, five years, maybe. Pretty quickly, the days started bleeding into each other; then, faster than I could reckon it, the months and the years were doing the same. One day I was pushing a broom around and fetching and carrying, then I was operating machinery, then I was doing the odd local delivery in the van, then I was standing in the boardroom and Derek was grinning and clapping.
We’d had a spectacularly good year and the MD had gathered everyone – sales, contracts, all the shop floor staff – around the big shiny board table. My mind wandered for a bit, trying to determine if it was oak or mahogany. I started paying attention when I heard the word ‘million’. Because that’s why he’d gathered us there: to announce that Viewpoint had, for the first time in its trading history, achieved a million in turnover. There was a brief silence in which we shared a collective and disbelieving thought: a bunch of no-hopers like us helped make a million quid?
Then Derek took a step forward, hands bashing together like he was at Glastonbury and his favourite band had just kicked in with their biggest hit. ‘Fucking brilliant,’ he said, grinning. ‘Fucking brilliant. When do we get our bonus?’
This emboldened a few others to nod and grunt.
The MD fingered his tie irritably and shot a shifty glance at the finance manager who took his cue and explained in a lot of hot air and fancy-sounding corporate terms that turnover and profit were not to be confused. Which left a lot of us wondering why they’d made such a big show of telling us if it wasn’t money in the bank after all.
Derek didn’t hang around to think about it that long. He stomped back to the shop floor and by the time the rest of us had dragged our heels after him, he’d hauled three massive sheets of aluminium onto a cutting bed and slammed the blade through them multiple times so that even a 300mm warning triangle couldn’t be salvaged from what was left. He was lining up a fourth, muttering, ‘If I can’t have it, they can’t fucking have it,’ when Stew, the works manager, roared his name and went charging over.
Stew was in his fifties and if you wanted to be polite about it you’d say he was portly. He sat in a clapboard office near the loading bay and shuffled papers all day and communicated by the tannoy. As long as orders went out on time and nothing got nicked, he turned a blind eye to trips to the pub on lunch break and cards played for money in the storeroom. We did our job, he did his and it suited us that he seldom needed to leave his office. So this was the first time most of us had witnessed him out of his natural environment. To see him, head down and running full tilt (well, full tilt for him), sweat beads cascading like water droplets from a dog shaking itself after a plunge into a stream, was to witness something surreal and almost comedic, and be rooted to the spot by it.
Jed from stores was the first to shake off inertia. He later told me that his sister was a nurse and the way Stew looked corresponded with her description of a patient who’d had some kind of seizure. Concerned for Stew’s health, Jed launched himself into a flying tackle. Unfortunately, he aimed at the patch of concrete floor just vacated by Stew’s bull-like bulk. The ‘crump’ sound of Jed hitting the floor and the inventive spiral of curses that bubbled from between his mangled lips alerted Derek. He spun round and put his fists up, and what he’d been muttering he now started shouting: ‘If I can’t have it, they can’t fucking have it!’
Stew gave momentary consideration to this reasoned line of debate and countered thusly: ‘You fucking twat, I’m gonna tear you a new one!’
Derek’s nerve seemed to break and he turned and grabbed a broom that was leaning up against the machine. He spun it, trying to get the bristle end between him and Stew. But the action was clumsy and it flipped out of his hands, the handle catching him in the face. ‘Oooo, ya fugger,’ he slurred, as if his tongue was swollen. I guessed he’d bitten down on it. His discomfort, though, was immediately superseded by the realisation that Stew was likely to pile-drive him onto the cutting bed and he jinked left.
Stew, obviously coming to the same conclusion and weighing up the sheer pleasure of doing it against being had up on an ABH charge, swerved right, with the result that they ran slap bang into each other.
That was when the fight really started.
In films, when two blokes have a fight it’s all square jaws and gimlet eyes, traded blows and teeth only unclenched when one or the other spits blood. In real life, it’s swung fists that miss, kicks that succeed only in unbalancing the aggressor, and a degeneration into hair-pulling and a twisting of facial appendages that makes the Three Stooges look like Jet Li.
That’s how it was with Derek and Stew, and it had me howling with laughter. Didn’t take long to sweep across the shop floor like a Mexican wave. Naturally, for two blokes intent on twatting each other, being laughed at did nothing to soothe Derek and Stew’s sensibilities. They redoubled their efforts, as a result of which the fight reached even more delirious heights of absurdity. And when it seemed like we’d somehow have to staunch the laughter before we pissed ourselves or required sutures down our sides or just plain ran out of breath and expired, I walked into the middle of the melee and pulled them apart.
Or rather that was how it played out in my imagination: application of one hand to Derek’s collar, one hand to Stew’s, sharp separational movement, life goes on, everybody laughs about it tomorrow.
What actually happened were several dozen applications of the fist to my arms and upper back, Doc Martens to my shins and kneecaps and backs-of-the-hand to the side of my head, all compressed into the fifteen seconds my brain spent debating which course of action would do the least damage to me reputationally: withdraw laughingly from the scuffle, or join in.
As it was, I threw up both of my arms – protectively, to be honest, but someone later said it looked like a scene from Rocky. so I was happy to go along with that – and screamed blue murder. Some said they couldn’t make out what I was screaming; others said they could and hadn’t expected it of a quiet lad like me. Whatever. It did the trick. Derek’s fists fell to his side at the same time Stew’s did. Their shoulders slumped. They backed off from each other. Stew went to his office, mopped his face with a handkerchief and busied himself with paperwork. Ten minutes later, Derek knocked and entered and from where I was watching at the laminator, they looked like shadow puppets: exaggerated hand movements, emphatic body language. Eventually Stew got up, pushed past Derek and stalked across the shop floor in the direction of the main reception and the sales office. Derek went to the bog and punched out the mirror. I found him with a bit of rag wrapped round his knuckles.
‘Sorry if I smacked yer, youth,’ he said. ‘I were aiming for that lummox.’
‘Reckon I’ll get the push?’
‘Stew’d have to tell the boss why. He’d get the shove as well.’
‘Yeah.’ Derek spat philosophically into the dirty sink. ‘He’ll make it awkward for me, though.’ Pause; hefty sigh. ‘Fancy a pint, youth?’
‘What, on firm’s time?’
So we hustled out the side door, down the yard, turned left and five minutes’ walk saw us at the pub. ‘My round,’ he said, putting a hand on my arm before I could even pretend to reach for my wallet. His was a newer and bulkier item than I’d expected. I couldn’t quite tell from the way he was holding it, but it looked like the leather was embossed with initials. Very flash for someone as rough and ready as Derek. I should have twigged.
He paid with a crisp twenty and invited the barmaid to have one herself. We grabbed a table near the window and he gazed at the barmaid as we talked. Half an hour later, when I knew I had to go back if I still wanted a job, I left him rehearsing some abject chat-up line. We didn’t talk about anything of consequence and I expected he’d be at work the next day, everything forgotten about and business as usual.
I was back at the laminator ages before Stew reappeared. The tannoy barked and I found myself summoned to his office. Shelves behind his desk held box files, lever arch files, technical manuals and a dog-eared copy of the Traffic Signs Regulations & General Directions. ‘You’re a smart lad,’ he said. ‘Did some office work, didn’t you?’
‘Any thoughts about going back to that?’
‘You sure? There’s a position coming up for junior estimator. I could put in a word.’
I thought about it. I thought about wearing a tie and forcing my accent up a notch during phone calls, calling people ‘sir’ and sounding like a BBC presenter. I thought about the way the lads on the shop floor would look at me; what Derek would say.
I politely declined.
Next day, Derek wasn’t at work and Stew was cursing him for his absconded wallet and the fifty quid in it. We were all really fucking sorry for a bloke who had fifty quid in his wallet a week before payday. Though I did spend most of that morning wishing I’d stayed a bit longer at the pub and tapped Derek for another pint or two.
NEIL FULWOOD was born in Nottingham in 1972. He is the author of the film studies book The Films of Sam Peckinpah. His short fiction has been published in Quantum Muse and The British Fantasy Society Journal. His poetry has appeared inThe Morning Star, Butcher's Dog, London Grip, Prole and The Stare's Nest. He is the co-editor, with David Sillitoe, of More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe, forthcoming from Lucifer Press in autumn 2015.
On her bus into town to meet a friend, the woman fumbles in her bag through softened tissues and the recurring loops of her keyring. Her fingers finally wrap around a cold mirror. Bringing it out, she looks into her reflection until her expectations are met.
She hasn’t seen her friend for nearly a year. She smiles at his news: he’s met someone, he’s happy, he thinks he may go overseas to visit his father, to learn more about his roots. The woman doesn’t say as much as she was planning to about her life. It seems less like news now than it had when she’d set it up on easels to be taken out for this meeting.
The friend must go. He is meeting his girlfriend to see a film. The woman understands. She says she has a lot to get on with as well. They promise each other that it won’t be so long next time. They hug and he kisses her on the cheek.
The woman decides to walk back through the park even though it’s now dark and the paths are covered with frost. She looks down at her feet to avoid slipping and almost steps on a snail. She thinks it’s a good thing that she was walking alone and looking down at her feet or she could’ve crushed it.
She feels the relief of going through her own front door, the dusty warm air from her hallway radiator, the yellow light of her living room lamp, the action of filling her kettle with water. She drinks her cup of tea. A slice of lemon dips in the current of her sips. She saved the snail’s life. The snail would be dead, crushed jelly and shards of shell, if it weren’t for her.
The woman jumps up. She puts on her coat and slips out of her apartment building in just her slippers. The poor snail must be frozen solid by now. She sees silver lines crossing and re-crossing the path. She gasps at the beauty of the intricate pattern of threads tying the park together across the path. There it is – her snail. She picks it up by the shell.
Back at home, she finds an old ice cream tub. She knew it would come in handy one of these days. She spoons a peach from a tin, allowing the syrup to pool in the bottom of the tub. Here you are, a little treat, she tells the snail.
She watches it explore its new tub home for a while, before going to brush her teeth, changing into her pyjamas and turning off the lights. She makes sure to put the lid on the ice cream tub. She leaves it open a crack so that the snail can breathe.
In the morning, she goes directly to the windowsill where she’d left the tub. Oh no, she says. The snail is gone. Lines of slime lace her kitchen counter, the floor, and ultimately under the front door of her ground floor flat.
Never mind, she tells herself. She takes the lid off the tub. The peach is disintegrated. The snail tried to eat it. She lets this thought cheer her up as she soaps up a rag. She is about to begin washing away the slime trails when morning sunlight turns them silver. She looks in grateful wonder at the silver threads decorating her flat, a gift from her guest.
ARIKE OKE is a writer, dance archivist and former rollergirl. Her fiction's been exhibited (Artlink Hull), performed (Liars' League, Are You Sitting Comfortably?), anthologised and published in magazines (Words With Jam, Holdfast). She’s writing her first novel, Outrigger, a literary drama of family secrets and hidden identities. Follow her twittering @arikeoke
Things hadn’t gone well for us the past few years. It was mostly my fault. But I didn’t expect Lynn to leave. I didn’t expect that at all.
First, she lost her teaching job, then I lost mine. Budget cuts. We both began to drink more. But, she generally went off to bed before I did. Sometimes she wanted to go for a walk, do something together, but I usually declined. We didn’t fill our time very productively. We spent the mornings looking for work, we shopped and did those sorts of regular, mundane things, but mostly we watched television. From opposite ends of the couch.
She left one morning before I woke up. She put a note under the coffeemaker, which she knew was the first place I went each day after getting out of bed. It said simply that she needed some time alone, a new start; it said she might be back. It didn’t indicate where she was going. I called her family and friends; none of them knew where she’d gone. She’d left her cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter and didn’t respond to any of my emails, so there was no way to contact her. From the bank, she’d removed exactly half of our savings, to the penny.
That fall, I put myself on a few substitute teaching lists in neighbouring districts and began getting some regular calls. So, that paid the rent. The fall turned to winter, a mild one. I didn’t hear from Lynn. Not a word.
It became harder to sit alone in front of the television, so I started heading to different taverns in the evenings, nondescript places. I didn’t want to become a regular at any, so went to a variety. I could walk to a few; I took the bus to others. I’d sit on a stool at the bar. If the place served food, I’d have something to eat. I listened to the talk around me, but avoided conversations. It felt better to be around people than in my empty house. I thought about things. How my life hadn’t gone as I’d imagined it would. When I thought back to the dreams I’d had, or the plans that Lynn and I had made early on, I could hardly believe that I was the same person in those memories. What had happened? The bustle around me and the alcohol helped dim things.
I was sitting in one of those bars finishing my last drink before leaving when a young man came over from the other side and sat down beside me. He was holding a glass of beer. He nodded his head as we looked at each other and made a small smile.
‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’ he asked.
I studied him a bit more, then shook my head. ‘Sorry. I don’t.’
‘Well, that’s understandable. It’s been almost ten years since I was in your remedial math class. Junior year. Gene Perkins.’
I sat blinking until his younger face vaguely emerged in my mind. ‘Gene,’ I said. ‘My, you’ve grown up.’
He grinned, reached out his hand, and I shook it. As I did, I remembered a bit more about him. How he’d struggled in class, how surly he’d been, how he’d dropped out suddenly one day. I’d known he had problems at home, but not the details. He extended his glass and I clinked mine against it. ‘Here’s to seeing you again, Mr Norris,’ he said. ‘So, how the hell have you been?’
I shrugged. ‘You know.’
I paused, then nodded. ‘You? I wondered what happened after you left.’
He raised his eyebrows and took a swallow of beer. ‘Well, things got better for me,’ he said. ‘Considerably.’
He began a summary of his intervening years. His dad had been long gone, and his mom was put in jail, so he’d gone to live with a grandmother in another state. He finished school there and then joined the navy. He’d stayed in for eight years and had done five deployments to the Middle East. He’d also been on two humanitarian missions. He’d earned medals and was discharged with distinction. He was now working for a former crewmate selling highway guard rails. He travelled around the Northeast doing that. He’d just finished attending a work conference at a hotel up the street and had stopped in for dinner because the concierge told him the burgers were great. He’d had one and agreed.
I asked him if he was married and his grin widened. He took out a wallet and showed me photos of his wife and two little girls. He ran his finger tenderly over each photo after showing it to me and smiled at it. He replaced his wallet, looked at me more intently, and nodded again for a long moment. ‘So,’ he said. ‘There’s something I want you to know.’ He paused. ‘So, here goes. It meant a lot to me the way you treated me in class. I know I was horrible at math, but you believed in me. You wouldn’t let me quit.’
He gazed at me steadily, and his lower lip quivered. I tried my best to remember our interactions in class, but could honestly not recall anything noteworthy about them. He’d just been another kid like all the rest.
‘It really meant a lot to me,’ he continued. ‘Especially at the time.’ He clapped me on the shoulder, and wiped at the corner of his eye. ‘You’re a good, good man, Mr Norris. I want you to know that I’ve never forgotten you. And I never will.’
He stood up, took some money out of his pocket, and set a ten dollar bill next to his glass. The bartender had come over. ‘Another for him of whatever he’s having,’ Gene told him.
The bartender went away to mix my drink. I sat blinking, swallowing over something hard in my throat.
‘Well,’ Gene said. ‘Have to hit the road. Early day tomorrow.’ He extended his hand, and we shook again. ‘Been great seeing you, Mr Norris. Lucky.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. It was all I could manage.
I watched him leave. The bartender brought my drink over, set it in front of me, and took the money away. I tried to recall more about Gene, but couldn’t come up with much. I thought I might have spoken to him a couple of times after class. I thought I’d probably inflated his grades. I remembered allowing him to retake a couple of tests. But that was pretty much it. He’d basically just been another student like any other, although one with a few more troubles than most.
I left before finishing the drink. The air outside tasted like spring. I hadn’t noticed that. I began walking home. The trees along the sidewalk had new buds; I hadn’t been aware of those either. And in some of the flower beds along my street, I saw for the first time that crocuses had begun opening. Daffodils, I remembered, would be next. A little bubble of hope rose up in me. I’m not sure I could have felt more grateful than I did at that moment.
WILLIAM CASS has had a little over eighty short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including the winning selection in The Examined Life Journal's writing contest. He lives and works as an educator in San Diego, California.
I found a photograph of my grandfather, arm-in-arm with my grandmother on the hillside at Armon Hanetziv, glued to the inside of a suitcase in his study. Their shadows pass over the lip of the walkway wall and spill into the backdrop of old Jerusalem behind them. They are unsmiling, but something about the straightness of their spines, the way they lean slightly against one another, and the slight elevation of their chins, implies that they are hopeful. My mother, exploring the study with me that afternoon, helped to date the image: sometime in November, 1958.
My grandfather was born in Palestine in 1928. We found artefacts of his childhood in all corners of the study: trinkets of his Italian parentage, sheet music scored with scales and arpeggios, a roughly-cut dreidel, a doll in the stance of a golem. It seems as though he spoke Italian at home, and probably Yiddish with his school friends at the local kibbutz. Of this group there is little evidence; it is obvious that even before his parents repatriated to Italy in 1938, music had already taken hold of the child. As well as the numerous scores, some including dedications from benevolent aunts to the ‘bambino intelligente’ in the inside cover, files of childish doodles sketch out violins, cellos, pianofortes, catalogues of percussion, sometimes whole orchestras in crayon.
His first record (Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, captioned ‘Il mio primo disco’) is framed on the study wall. This would have been the start of his collection, accumulated furiously over two decades, culminating in the library of wax and vinyl that now papers the room. The records are shelved according to region of origin, mapping for us the histories of Europe over the centuries and pointing me – pushing me in fact – towards the truth of my grandfather. He seemed to favour the pastoral, but not just those arable cantatas and serenatas that paint the Italy of his teenage years; here we find Meyerbeer, Rameau, Williams, even Wagner.
I caressed these records gently when I first arrived in Israel and took over my grandfather’s house. They connected me to this man, who I knew only in childhood memories, in the same way that each symphony connected me to its composer. I entered into a new world, a past I had yet to nurture for myself.
I did not want the house; the Israeli countryside was too far removed in every sense from my life in Venice. The fact that I had been born here, less than a kilometre away in Tiberias Hospital, meant nothing to me. While Venice rippled with energy, the Jordan Valley was a cultural swamp. I was surrounded on all sides by the klezmer wheezing out of Tzfat, the old country tarantellas of my family and the tepid Israeli rock dripping from Tiberias.
I had left Venice at the birth of Italo-disco, the inception of nightclubs and first stirrings of actual, adult love. I returned there immediately, donating my grandfather’s house to the daughter of his first cousin. The study, she promised, would remain undisturbed. I took with me a suitcase of his vinyl fossils, the same suitcase that welcomed me with a photograph from Armon Hanetziv. I emptied it of its letters and postcards to make room for the records, and left inside only the photograph and a lone record (marked onlySymphony No. 1, ‘Dy Alt Welt’, op.55) that I hadn’t yet come across. It was worn, covered in fine scratches and, held horizontally, almost indecipherably warped. I laid the other records on top of it, locked the suitcase, and sent it ahead of me to Venice. My trip to Israel had lasted just three days.
In Venice, adventures opened up before me one after the other: lovers, motorcycles, mild criminality, literature, politics. I associated with students, disco dancers, skinheads, priests, the homeless, businessmen, factory workers, the neighbourhood. I wrote poetry to no success, some essays for local pamphlets and a novel. I boxed, and met beautiful women in cafes. I met my wife, bought a house, and worked as many hours as I could afford. A routine developed: the assembly line, dinner, a bar, and one of my grandfather’s records before bed. I selected them from the suitcase, taking the first, listening to it half-cut for sometimes weeks on repeat before filing it permanently on the shelf and taking out the next. After a year, the suitcase was still three-quarters full. I remember vividly, as our first boy rolled around on the carpet and our discoteche were looking more and more distant, playing Howard Hanson’s Symphony no.2 for one solid month. Sometimes, rather than drawing a new record from the suitcase I would revisit one from January, April, June, and re-dose myself. It took almost a decade to reach the bottom of the suitcase. By then, I was thirty years old.
My son was cycling, schooling, and back-talking, which he did in a uniquely Italian way. I was proud that he was going to grow up a Venetian, not from some abstract love of the city but because he would be given all the same advantages for adventure that I had. He would be growing up in the same city as his great-grandfather (that man whose records now surrounded his sleep) and his father, who never imagined living again anywhere but Venice. Childhood would be simple, full and sweet; adolescence would be a gondola, taxiing and taxing him, taking him away from me, making him. He would be a part of Venice and Venice a part of him, and he would be his own man with a whole city at his fingertips. That was the future I imagined as I reached the bottom of my grandfather’s suitcase.
I pulled out the record that had been waiting for me since Israel. I had no immediate memory of its place amongst the letters and postcards as I took it to the record player. I must have noticed again the scratches, the bend. My wife and child were not at home that night; my memory of swinging my feet onto the sofa as the record began is completely intact. The music played.Symphony no.1 ‘Dy Alt Welt’, op.55. The piece begins with heavy, padding chords on a bed of soft brass. The orchestra sounds subdued under the crackle and fuzz of the recording. Its tempo is lupine, but with no threat of danger, evoking moonlight, or at least the forest at night.
Timpani rustles autumnally through the bass. The strings introduce the movement of bird’s feet hopping through puddles. There is a lift and then, flight, a freedom of form drawn out by the cellos. The fleeting wheeze of a clarinet implies a swift passing through chimney smoke. The violins reach a clearing and then descend, with notes of folk that cannot be regionalised, into a village scene. The rhythm settles on the corner of a gazebo, marquee, perhaps a sukka, to watch newlyweds dance their first dance.
The piano and first violin hold each other for the first time, stepping together, spinning together, rising, falling, kicking. Caricatures of the spectators can be made out of the oboe, tuba, harp. Their inflections are flung out like celebratory gestures. Their applause comes in a rush of cymbals, and the strings, with a flutter, migrate back across the forest towards loneliness and nature. There they perch, on primordial undertones, before the French horn pushes through the silence. It is a mating call, a response, or else the bray of a large mammal mourning loss. The horn ambles out of mighty lungs, echoing off the lesser chords of the bassoons, to disturb floating spores in the white light. It drifts, quiet as snowfall, onto a house or cabin, and the sound of human activity resumes.
Cellos provide a flicker of candlelight; the piano and first violin re-emerge. They are disconnected now, the violin violent and desperate, the piano dislocated, providing support. A flute sounds persistently in near-monotone. There is a push, followed by bells, and those bells ring jubilantly with chimes and gongs. The candlelight becomes sunlight and pours in from the lower strings. The orchestra is soaked in dawn, rests a moment in the full warmth of day, and flits on. A familiar theme begins to whisper; the forest is rediscovered.
Again, the call of the French horn. It reverberates through a mist, converses with delicate fungi, fills out the spaces left by spoken life. It is connected to the soil by the left-hand of the piano, stirring. Something large kicks its way through the fallen leaves. It lumbers awkwardly over the woodwind, stamps up and down in the bass drum and splashes into the cymbals. It flees up the keyboard towards the melody of the French horn, describing in broken pieces its pattern, its gait, the path it meanders through its habitat. Suddenly, the cellos embrace the piano in its hue, holding it, the violin softens its previous shriek into joy, and the piano is re-absorbed into a paternal lull.
With a sigh of wedding music, the disparate melodies assemble into one fully-moulded sound, with the French horn calling, still calling across time, and the heavy chords padding across wet mulch, and the moonlight coming to crescendo and, climaxing, coming together into one sound and holding, holding like a living vine, clinging, stretching, and finally snapping, leaving only crackle and fuzz.
The record clipped as it spun out its final silence. It was still clipping when my wife and son returned home from wherever they had been. Our boy went to sleep without protest. I invited my wife to the sofa. I could not speak at first; the words would not put themselves together. An impulse had entered me, via the music, which was still too visceral to describe in language. It was only after a half-hour wrestling with my tongue did I manage to say aloud: ‘We are moving home.’
My wife, cosmopolitan and Catholic to the same degree, could not comprehend. The idea of leaving Venice to take up my grandfather’s house in the Israeli countryside was not just absurd, but impossible; it was even, in terms of our son now ten years old, dangerous. I had no rationale for my passion, only a vocabulary coming to me without words from a piece of music. I tried to explain the anxiety that occupied me, the desire for something I could not even describe, but I was unable. I did not try to explain the music; actually, the secret impulse it had lit in me took me by the fingers and locked the record back in the suitcase. Before my thirty-first birthday, I brought the suitcase and the record to my father and asked him, for the first time in my life, in front of a boardroom of his colleagues, for advice. He brought me into his office.
I asked first if he recognised the record. He did. It was his father’s. I asked if he had heard it. He told me he had. I asked if he knew where it had come from. He explained that throughout his childhood, great piles of records had been sprouting all around the house as my grandfather cultivated his collection. The pastoral sketches he favoured led on to more intensive arable schemes, adagios evoking wider and wider scenes of the fantastical rural landscapes he associated with his childhood in Palestine. He seemed to sidestep the cultural ambiguity of the British Mandate and search exclusively for the hills, valleys, deserts, lakes and forests of what he called ‘Il Vecchio Mondo’ – ‘The Old World’. I knew immediately what my father was telling me before he mentioned the record. He explained how his father had told him and his mother, holding or being held by this record, that they were immigrating to the new Israel, to live out a new life for the family and to complete the life that had been revived in him, suddenly, by an anonymous stimulus.
My father’s use of the word ‘anonymous’ I am yet to forget. I pressured him for details of the piece’s origin; I demanded names, dates, titles. He had none. I tried to contact the benevolent aunts who had sent my grandfather sheet music as a child, but there were none left. I looked for record dealers who might have served Venice at the time, but there were none. I concluded that my father’s father, himself a virtuoso musician, might have composed and recorded the piece, but no evidence of this has ever been found in his study or anywhere else. The Dy Alt Welt symphony could be linked only to my own feeling of home drawing me towards memories of the Jordan Valley: its rich woodland which I had explored with no fear, its village communities that I had shared in and internalised, and the house of my grandfather. I convinced my family with poetry, and brought my father’s suitcase back to the study where I had found it.
Life in Israel was complicated for all of us. My son, only ten, had to engage with a new language, hearing Italian less and less often even in his own house. My wife struggled to adapt to village life; the kibbutz, I think, was prison-like. There are no canals here, no links to other neighbourhoods, and current affairs are condensed into village gossip. I went to work in the banana fields, sweating under the green gauze that surrounds the plantations on every side, invigorated daily by my grandfather’s Dy Alt Weltwhilst still keeping it hidden from the people I loved. I revisited it only in the mid-afternoon, when my wife was at work and my son was at school. In these few hours I sat in my grandfather’s study, selecting and re-selecting his black disks from the walls, searching for themes, stylistic similarities, musical-genetic codes that would show me where this piece, or more pertinently from which home this piece had originated. But its history would not be known. Whether it was the shared history of my own grandfather or the pre-schismed history of some British imperialist, German nationalist, Italian fascist, I could never know. All I knew was that it drew me home, as it had drawn my father back to Italy when he discovered it in secret in the 1970s, my grandfather back to the Jordan Valley in the 50s, and myself back to the country of my conception, my origin, my home. If my father was still alive, I could question him further. He had chosen to leave the record in Israel, out of sight, and never expected me to discover it. So I kept it at a distance from my own son as long as I could.
I had the option to destroy it; looking back, I wish I had. If it had been published to the world, in my grandfather’s name or anyone else’s, its effect on society might have been brutal. I imagine often my record being played to every father in every country of the world, and every father realising suddenly that they must uproot and move back to wherever they came from, digging out their family with them, and re-conquering their childhood home, regardless of the consequences. Israel then would be empty of all its elderly, as well as all its Europeans and taglit-inspired Americans, and Russians and Ethiopians; hundreds of thousands of Arabs might flow back towards Jaffa from the West Bank, and Jews back to Warsaw, Berlin and Paris, and the entire world might be shaken up by mass repatriation, migration, reinstallation. This could never occur; it would collapse the entire infrastructures of whole continents. The record would stay in my grandfather’s study – my study, even if I could not bring myself to destroy it.
Inevitably, when I was past fifty and still sweating under the gauze of the banana fields, it was discovered. I came back early one morning, after the kerosene we inject into old trees caused a forest fire, to find my record playing at volume throughout the entire house. I knew it immediately, and I knew before I entered the study that it would be my son, visiting us for Rosh Hashanah, who would be there, leant over the record player, listening. I tried to grab the needle but he stopped me. He let the record play to completion, and we listened until it started to clip and the silence opened out a hollow between us.
‘It was your grandfather’s,’ I said, but he already understood.
He had been exploring the collection even as a boy in Venice.
‘I’m moving home,’ he told me, and I had nothing to say.
That day, I lost my son. At the age of thirty, he moved back to Italy. He took his girlfriend, a Zionist who never connected with her religious background, and found a quiet backstreet beside the canals to complete his adulthood. He bought a motorcycle and drove my grandson around the city. He remembered something that perhaps took place before his lifetime had begun, and left us. He left the record behind, but took everything else with him.
I had thought life in Israel was difficult but even in relative peacetime, as I will soon dip out from under the green canopy of the fields, it is more difficult than ever. My son, who I watched rolling happily over the carpet in Venice and dragged off to the place I felt was home, has wandered into the forests where I cannot retrieve him. All that is left is his letters and postcards, stored now in my grandfather’s suitcase, with a record I am unable to play. I read these letters often, and re-find the youth I once spent in nightclubs and cafes. But I cannot follow; the banana field is my forest.
I have found what people call their home.
JOE BEDFORD is a writer living in Brighton, UK. His work has recently been published in Storgy, Spelk, and Spontaneity, and has been performed as part of the Charleston and Brighton Fringe festivals.
A number of his stories are available at joebedford.co.uk