We all know the whims of lady luck. Looking back on 2014, most of us will have had our fair share of lucky breaks – and plenty of bad luck too. Here at Litro, we’ve had lots to be grateful for in the last year: the launch of our American website LitroNY.com, our three events at the Latitude Festival in the summer, the publication of our ebook anthology Transatlantic in the US, and, of course, all the wonderful writing that has passed through our pages and our website. But none of these came without their share of misfortunes and problems to be overcome. Nothing worthwhile ever does.
Litro #139 – No Such Luck – explores stories of failure, loss, disappointment, and some very, very bad luck. Here we have tales of failed relationships, homelessness, death and despair. And yet, somehow, there are still a few bright sparks of hope among the hardship and ill fortune. After all, every writer knows that it takes more than a little bad luck to break the human spirit.
We’re excited to have David Rose opening this issue with At Colonus, a broadside aimed at Boris Johnson’s recent campaign to eliminate rough sleeping. David’s Posthumous Stories is one of the best collections we’ve seen in recent years, and his contribution displays a masterful touch. What better way to follow it than with Simon Holloway’s Mosquitoes, a character study examining what it means to be left behind after your other half passes on.
Matthew Di Paoli offers a lighter interlude in The Cleaning Lady, a story of childhood obsession, stray dogs and oversized underwear. Then Kelly Creighton revisits an old lover – and a classic The Vaccines track – in Teenage Icon, unpicking the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Following that, Dominic Stevenson remembers the fallen of World War One, and the victims of the current economic crisis, with his poems I Was There and Bonfire Night Beneath the Stars.
Reece Choules tackles parental grief in Seen and Not Seen, as his narrator withdraws from life following a personal tragedy. Then tragedy is faced full-on in No Angels by Michelle Bracken, as she attempts to answer the question that has haunted mankind for millennia: what happens after death? In our last story, Lucy Durneen picks apart a failed affair in Wild Gestures, a piece that was highly commended in this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize. It’s easy to see why, as Lucy handles her tale of failed romance with grace, wit and imagination. Failure has never looked so colourful.
Finally, we talk to Colin Barrett, author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Young Skins. Colin has won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award – plus he’s recently been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. We chat with him about his writing, his roots, and the importance of luck.
As 2015 looms large ahead, we have plenty to look forward to. We’ll be turning our gaze towards Mexico in the spring, while our Myths & Legends issue, due in March, will include the winner of this year’s IGGY & Litro Young Writers’ Prize. Throw in some unmissable live events, as well as some exciting news on the publication of our anthology in the UK, and 2015 is already full of promise. Let’s hope our luck stays good.
Expanse of grass to left and right, extending to a perimeter railing of corroding wrought iron. The view is limited by a series of trees: regularly-spaced urban plane; horse chestnut, leaves browning, crisping prematurely; a solitary beech.
In foreground, in contradiction of the grass worn bald by summer use, an expense of grass close-mown, striped in the mowing, watered daily and still dewed in the heat. In its shrubbed borders a rustle of wings.
A figure seated in partial shade. Another hurrying toward it.
-What do you think you’re up to? Strictly no dogs, there’s a notice prominent at the gate.
-Dog? I have no dog.
-Then what’s that lead for?
-A keepsake, a memento mori, a comfort to the hand, a habit.
-Let me see your ticket.
-Ticket? I have no ticket.
-You need a ticket to enter this enclosure.
-This is not a public place, a park?
-This is the putting green. You need a ticket, obtainable at the office, along with putter and ball.
-I did wonder at the quality of the sward. I was enjoying its refreshment.
-It’s here for the enjoyment of golfers. If you’re not intending to play, I shall have to ask you to leave.
-Would that I could.
-Play or leave?
-Both. I was a mean opponent with the clubs in my day. But my ingress through the gate was of the nature of a hole in one, that is to say, a fluke. My egress, I regret, will require assistance. Your arm?
-I was hoping for tact and a friendly touch.
-So this lead here? Guide dog?
-Another hole in one. Far more than man’s best friend. More like a daughter to me.
-Killed by an unskilled skateboarder. Below the Hayward Gallery. Attempting some sort of pirouette, was his explanation. Broke her neck. A clean break is all I hope.
You find this funny?
-Surely they would give you another? The Guide Dog charity?
-I could never replace her. Besides, another would outlive me. Who’s to take care of it? I’ll muddle through, it isn’t long.
-Well. Still, rules are rules, and if you’re not a bona fide golfer I’m obliged to, here, take my arm, I’ve spread a tissue, tell you what we’ll do, I’ll deposit you outside the enclosure but in the shade of the shrubs. You’ll get the benefit of the sprinkler but within the safety of the rules. How’s that?
Two figures move slowly through the sunglare, glint of a chain still visible as their shadows merge into shade.
Two figures, one seated, one stooped. Only one of the figures is familiar.
-You move fast for an old man. You sure you’re not exaggerating your visual impairment? How’d you cross all those roads?
-By stumble and grope and listening for the pips. I had a head start; I left at dawn.
-How’d you know?
-By the intersection of the milk delivery and the refuse collection. And the freshening of the breeze, the dawn wind.
-But why’d you go, why’d you check out?
-It’s an overnight hostel, is it not? Night was over.
-No, it’s all-day too. And there’s breakfast all day.
-I prefer to picnic. I like the variety of the unexpected.
-But you didn’t sign the register.
-You forget what a hit-and-miss procedure that is for me.
-There’s always someone there to help, a qualified warden. It’s one of the conditions, signature on the register. That’s why I’ve been sent to find you, escort you back.
-Why should it come to that? It’s what’s best for you, it’s in your own interests. You’re all on your own, unprotected. Look, you may be a senile old fool, but surely you see that?
-“Senile” and “old fool” are tautological. I best know my own interests. I’ll not budge from this spot.
-You can’t stay here by your bloody self.
A third figure approaches, his peaked silhouette recognizable.
In the distance behind the beech, a faint boil of cloud.
-I’ll ask you to moderate your tone and volume. You’re close to committing a public affray. The bye-laws as displayed at every gate are explicit in this. Are you being bothered by this person?
-He wishes to drag me back to the hostel.
-We prefer the term Short Term Sheltered Accommodation.
-Known to fellow inmates as Boris Bunkers.
-They’re provisions of the Mayoral Outreach to the Undomiciled.
-There’s a chain of them across the capital.
-The M&S of the underclass.
-There you are – a tribute to the quality of the care we offer. Good food, clean bed, hot water and soap…
-No catch. We just require a signature in the register and their agreement to return for a minimum of seven nights.
-Hence the coercion.
-Why the coercion?
-Our funding depends on it. This venture represents a commitment to long-term solutions to vagrancy, weaning people off charitable dependency and the streets. People like him, fly-by-nights, jeopardize the funding. Drift in, hot meal, use of the lav and off; it’s taking the piss. Spoils it for everyone. Anti-social.
-I was once pro-social. Attitudes change with circumstance. Pro, anti… I wish for peace, no more.
-You’d have your own cubicle, own locker, a bath, disposable razor. Christ, what more does a man want?
-Dignity and a peaceful death.
-I just said, you’d have your own cubicle, needn’t be disturbed. How could you hope for a peaceful death with the foundering of the Mayoral Outreach on your conscience?
-With so much on my conscience already, I’m sure I could squeeze it on.
-For fuck’s sake.
-You’ve been warned.
-Does my bag of bones mean so very much to you?
-It’s for your sake too. Even in this weather, nights are cold, old bones chill. Don’t be so bloody stubborn.
-If you want my two penn’orth, he has a point.
-That’s it, you try to talk him round. I’ll be at the gate.
Above the beech, cumulonimbi are building up.
-Has he gone?
-He’s waiting at the Main Gate. He does have a point. Cynicism is fashionable but there are people who care. Care workers become care workers because they, well, care. Take my sister-in-law, now, she’s a social worker, years of training…
-The Big Society, room for all in the tent. Welcome the Other, the Alien and Stranger. Hug-a-hoodie, remember that? A sentiment I of all should favour. Unfortunately I was robbed by a hoodie, an off-duty squaddie. A Cameron Highlander, I was told, to add piquancy. No. “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” The passage from one to the other is but one-way. There are border guards. Notices at every turn. “Persona non grata” around one’s neck. Never more so than in the care of the carers.
-But surely you’d have the companionship of…
-Of one’s own kind? The camaraderie of the forgotten? Brothers-in-alms? The parry and thrust, the mutual joshing?
-But you’d have your own cubicle, didn’t he say so? And he’s right about the weather. My knees are a constant reminder. Would it hurt you to stick it out for the week? Rest up, clean up. The sprinkler’s helping but it’s no substitute for soap and water. Not to be personal, but…
-No, quite right. None taken. You think having no access to mirrors, I’m unaware of my appearance; the ill-assorted jib, runnelled visage, a head more crust than hair?
-Nothing that a good bath and a rummage round Oxfam wouldn’t cure. I’ll ask my sister-in-law, she’s bound…
-And the inner man? The reinforcement of one’s invisibility? A week of such?
-God, you’re a stubborn man. He was right about that too. What makes you so stubborn?
-A gift. Nurtured through adversity. Is the ruffian still at the gate?
-He’s still waiting.
-He’ll wait in vain.
-We’re in for a storm. Why not return for just the one night? Sleep on it.
-You’re a kind man. You have my welfare at heart, I acknowledge that. Don’t think me ungrateful, man to man. Yes, I smell the storm. A last favour. Save the ruffian from a soaking. Tell him I’ll be staying put. And for yourself, a parting gift.
-I couldn’t possibly accept anything from…
-You will, in time. God bless.
A peaked figure moves through the curdling light.
A prone form rises, stumbles once, moves toward the beech, a slow, unsteady progress.
The trailed chain – wet – coruscates.
Lightning flicker. A puncture in the atmosphere.
At death the world does not alter but comes to an end. (Wittgenstein)
She takes a cup, just one, from the cupboard above the kettle. The routine has changed and she has had long enough to get used to it now. It has been a long day. It is twenty past one and it has already been a long day.
The kitchen is ordered. Drawers and cupboards are filled. Outside the window the grass is short and the flowers are pruned. A few cherries lie under the tree, the morello variety, too sour to eat. Sheila sees a blackbird dancing across the lawn, as if the sunlight has made the grass too hot to stand on. She drinks her tea. Relief? No, that is too strong a word, too denigrating to their love. But Charles has been dying for so long. The hospital staff know her too well. “I’ll write them a letter,” she thinks. “Not a thank you card but a letter. What is there to thank them for in such a glib way?”
The blackbird bounds under the fir tree and pulls out a fallen cone. It flicks it around on the ground, shaking and spinning it, pauses to glance quickly for danger then repeats the lifting and dropping procedure to loosen any insects lodged inside. The action annoys Sheila. Signs of life. A fervent continuation. She takes her tea and tiredness to the lounge and stands by the window, hearing the clicks and ticks of cooling metal from their car in the driveway. Or rather from his car, his choice of practical hatchback. It’s a staleness she hasn’t noticed before, on the drives to and from his bedside. His death has been coming, has been known and accepted. The future has been hers to consider for weeks, months. A different car, then? How would she go about it? She has blood underneath her fingernails from scratching at bites from mosquitoes and midges.
There are other letters she must write, to banks and savings providers, to the mortgage company, to the gas and electricity companies, insurers, all including a copy of the certificate. It doesn’t intimidate her. She has always been involved with such things. She is ready too for the logistics of death. At the lounge window, with its pelmet and tie-backs, its sill of model tractors, she realises she has been thinking of children: not an old longing but the thought that she could have handed over some of the mundane necessities.
It had been her choice. Charles said he wasn’t bothered, either way. “Those tractors can go,” she thinks. “Was he lying?”
Her clothes smell of the cleanliness of hospitals, as usual. It had become a ritual of bathing, a way to glide in the evenings with an untaxing book, a lack of attention. “Charles is dead,” she thinks. She washes her cup and leaves it on the drainer to dry by itself.
It is too early for a long bath, or too late. She turns on the shower and undresses, inspecting herself in the mirror for indicators of his absence. What marks do sixteen years of marriage leave on a woman? Are there signs in the shapes and curves of her body, in the lines of her arms and shoulders, in her breasts, her stomach, her hips and thighs? Do her eyes and mouth show love, the intertwining of lives, or are they as they would be had she and Charles never met? There is dried blood on her ankles. The bites are ripped, exposed.
The steam makes her feel even more tired. She has been waiting, preparing. Sorrow, if that’s what it is, has passed her by. She finds some trousers from the third drawer down and a loose sweater, loose enough to shake the tiredness off in defiance. A call to action long delayed.
For three hours she storms their castle. First to be exposed is the drawer in the kitchen: his drawer, full of batteries and pens, old takeaway menus, assorted screws and washers, radiator keys, wore for the strimmer, chopsticks, instruction manuals for electrical equipment, matches, coins. As she tips the entire contents into the bin, unsorted, she sees two citronella candles tumble beneath pins and buttons, staples, paperclips.
In the lounge she takes down two paintings of the harbour at Brixham and a photo of Cary Grant but leaves the picture of the windmills of Zante, where they had spent their honeymoon. Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton film collections go into a box for the charity shop, along with the rows of Alistair McLean and John le Carré novels. The dining room yields ornamental figurines of wild animals she had collected, two vases she had once thought pretty, and his briefcase, which she empties into another large box, saved for the occasion. The contents could be collected by someone from his office, if they still wanted them. She nips into the kitchen to write ‘work’ on her list of letters to write, in case she forgets.
The large chestnut dining table he had bought at auction after she fell in love with it still bears his other work papers, a spread of files waiting expectantly for him to return to them. They do not know. Sheila hasn’t told them yet. “You can’t be that urgent,” she says out loud. The sound of her voice surprises her. A home dismantled so quickly, as if she had been a blackbird shaking a fir cone.
She eats. She listens to the radio. She puts an armful of towels in the washing machine, ashamed of the chemical smell of the ward which she seemed to have transferred to them. She rings her mother to tell her the news, wondering what she will do in the morning now that she no longer has the need to drive for forty minutes in her husband’s car.
“For weeks, for months, every night has been the same,” she says. “Is tonight different?”
There is no answer. They say their goodbyes.
She goes to the kitchen to make her bedtime cup of coffee, pours just the right amount of milk into her evening cup and puts it in the microwave. “Charles made this perfectly,” she thinks, “eventually.” She has been preparing for his death for a long time. Without knowing why she ignores the warmed milk and rummages deep in the bin, avoiding drawing pins and fuse wire to find one of the citronella candles. A further search provides a book of matches, The Russian Palace Restaurant, Helsinki. Their anniversary, seven or eight years ago.
The candle smell mixes with the scent of weak coffee. A helicopter flies close overhead. Sheila hears its blades slice the air, pushing and pulling, maintaining altitude in spite of the forces working against it. The sound passes and fades. She wonders where the blackbird is sleeping, whether there are more insects waiting to be shaken free.
As she changes for bed she looks at herself again to see if her skin has altered in the hours since her shower. Was she right to claim with certainty so many times that no one would ever see that skin again, except her doctor and mortician? She strips the bed, throws the extra pillows Charles relied upon and the brown blanket folded at the foot of the bed into the spare room. The morning has hours for them to be discarded more permanently.
Clean sheets. A cream duvet cover with small blue stars and peonies on it. Two cornflower pillow cases. She turns the main light off and lies on her hip facing the lamp, on her usual side of the bed. Her book is easy to read and easy to fall asleep with in her hand. She turns the page with her thumb, rubs her head deeper into the pillow, and reaches down without thinking to scratch at the bites of her widow ankle.
The Cleaning Lady
For a short time growing up, we had a Polish cleaning lady to help around the house. She came on Tuesdays. I was only eight, but I remember sneaking behind the ribbed oak banister and watching her change out of her blue maid scrubs.
The enormity of her breasts, hidden neatly behind her thick white bra, gave me purpose. It was a strange voyeurism because it always felt invited – to change right out in the living room where she knew I could watch.
I could only guess at their texture and weight, similar perhaps to holding balled-up cats – they might squirm out of my hands at the slightest touch. In a way, I wasn’t that far off.
After viewing her, I’d sneak into the upstairs bathroom and take three small papaya pills from my mother’s medicine cabinet. They tasted good and she’d said to chew them when my stomach felt funny. I couldn’t remember the maid’s name or her face now, which I was sure wouldn’t have been up to my present day standards. But in memory she remained immaculate.
There was a certain fanaticism that stayed with me from that period, the hope that at any time, I could stumble upon a depraved miracle.
I thought about the cleaning lady as I sat on the M79 bus riding cross-town to see a girl. She was a dancer and I hadn’t seen her in two weeks because she’d booked a gig right after our first date. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not. I assumed it wasn’t, but then she called me so maybe it was.
The first time around we kissed, and she straddled me. Her breasts weren’t like the maid’s, but dancer’s breasts rarely are. She had underwear that I felt but didn’t see, and for two weeks I was wondering why it was even worth wearing something so insignificant. It made me hope she’d be wearing the same pair.
On Park, a dog got on. He was brown. I stood up front, and he parked himself next to me. I looked around to see if he belonged to anyone, but he didn’t. He was just a dog on a bus.
I leaned in to the bus driver. “Is this dog by himself?”
He took a wide right, checking me in the mirror. “It comes on the bus every day. It’s quiet, so I don’t ask questions.”
“Where does he go?”
“It gets off at York,” said the driver.
“And you don’t know where he goes after that?”
The driver pulled over and lowered the bus. It hissed down and a few elderly women gingerly boarded. “You’re asking me if I know the ultimate destination of a dog who rides my bus every day?”
I looked down at the dog. He seemed to be listening to the conversation, perhaps aware that it pertained to him. “When you say it like that it makes the question sound stupid.”
The driver closed the doors and pulled away. I realized I missed my stop. At 2nd Avenue I patted the dog on the head and got off. I was supposed to meet the dancer for drinks at 6:00 and it was 6:20, so I hurried into the little wine bar.
The dancer was already there. She had these perfect, unmistakable legs that glimmered like the desks on late night talk shows. She set them off to the side of the table as if withholding them. Her hair was wavy, which I liked. And she had a distinct mole above her eyebrow that she could have hidden, but didn’t.
“Sorry,” I said, “there was this dog on the bus.”
“No, he was alone. It’s like seeing a child alone. You make inquiries.”
“Is it?” She held her palm over the candle in the middle of the table. It flickered and almost went out.
“You and the driver would have gotten along. How was your show?”
“My – oh I made that up.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think I wanted to see you again, but then I said, ‘Why not?’”
“But why would you tell me that?”
“Because I’m honest.”
“Not really though because –”
The waitress interrupted, “What can I get you two?”
“Malbec,” I said.
“Pinot,” said the dancer.
After that, we talked about her dancing on Saturday Night Live and how neither of us is a fast reader. A few glasses later, we went back to her apartment because it was close. We kissed for a while then I took off her top and kissed her small breasts. The blinds were open but she didn’t seem to care. I started to unbutton her jeans, but she said I shouldn’t and that she had to go to a club to meet friends anyway.
“You should come,” she said.
I tried to look down into her half-opened jeans, but I couldn’t see much, just a black elastic band below her flat belly and a triangle of shadow. “Have fun with your friends. Maybe dinner this week.”
“This week’s tough for me,” she said.
I didn’t believe her. I scooped up my jacket that she’d tossed on the floor and headed to leave. “Let me know when you’re free, I guess.”
The next day while eating a meatball hero, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dog. I wondered if he was lonely, but I envied his independence.
Around a quarter to five, I hopped on the M79 and took it cross town again even though I had no reason to be on the East side. Certainly not to see the dancer. At Park, the dog stepped on, and I got excited.
“Where are you going?” I whispered to him in a sort of baby prattle.
He looked up at me with happy eyes and licked his jaw. Maybe that meant something.
We rode for a little while and got off together at York. I wondered what he’d lead me to and if his life was more interesting than mine. We didn’t walk all that far and arrived at a brownstone on a little side street. He waited patiently in front of the door for five or so minutes. I considered the fact that I was waiting on a dog in an alley, and perhaps I’d taken things too far.
As I was beginning to falter, a woman in her fifties with died black hair and a bit of a belly opened the door. The dog began to wag his tail, and she put out a food dish for him. She wore green slippers and seemed startled that I was standing there.
“Excuse me, is this your dog?”
“I just feed him.” She began to close the door.
“Wait – please.” She held the door open a little, enough so that she could close it quickly. “Does he belong to someone in the building?”
She looked me over pretty good before answering. I looked pretty normal, and my hair wasn’t as messy as usual, so I figured she’d answer.
“He did. She passed a couple months back. Now he comes here, and there’s no one else to feed him, so I do it.”
“Did you know he rides the bus every day?”
“I wasn’t aware of that.” She seemed to relax a little and opened the door slightly wider. “That’s funny. She used to take the bus to work.”
“The owner? What did she do – do you know?”
“She was a cleaning person over on the Upper West. She worked for a couple families there. I’m sorry. I have to start dinner. My husband gets ornery.” She patted the dog on the head, but he was busy eating, so he didn’t notice. “If you want, you should take him with you. He doesn’t have any place to go, and I have cats.” She shut the door.
He finished and stared up at me. I imagined my face in black and white. I thought of how having a dog would affect me. I couldn’t come home at four anymore, fooling with dancers’ breasts and sifting through lies. I liked the idea that perhaps this could have been my cleaning lady and there was some symmetry to things.
I felt overwhelmed for a moment. The dog settled down next to some garbage. Maybe that’s where he slept. I sat next to him, and he put his head in my lap. I wanted to ask him what she’d been like and if she wore thick white bras. I wanted this to be more than coincidence, to find order, to catch the scent of her perfume, find her picture – experience that ecstatic depravity I’d stumbled across all those years ago; but in my heart I knew that none of us was connected, that she’d cleaned my countertops and the dancer had someone else to open her jeans, and he was just a dog on a bus sleeping on a man sitting amongst garbage.
Jeremy stoops down into the blue Jaguar X Type. The car makes him feel twice his age. His first car – the run-around scrap metal on wheels – sits abandoned in the driveway; it has done since the garage refused to take the Jag back. Even in death his mother’s contract has remained.
Jeremy’s father had handed him the keys, his expression pissy. “You might as well,” he said.
Jeremy reverses over the two tone flagstones; he swings the vehicle swiftly in the loop of the cul-de-sac packed with identikit detached homes. Tyres yelp on wet tarmac, goading his father who glares through the window of his study, which was Claudia’s old bedroom and has now become his office space since she left too. She has been accepted on a PGCE course and doesn’t want their mother’s car, not with congestion charges and the unfamiliarity of London’s roads.
Jeremy sets off for his last day in his job. His three week old old job. On Monday he starts casual bar work in the nightclub, another stopgap to pay mobile phone bills and vodka quotas while he dreams up a career. Despite his father’s quiet anger, top-heavy with grief, Jeremy feels no pressure to become responsible just yet. He will rely on his inheritance for now, sure that his mother would have wanted him to find the right job, not the right-now job. The right now makes Jeremy feel sick.
As he drives from the monotony of Irish suburbia he thinks about Claudia, the lucky bitch has always known what she’s wanted since they were kids. He wonders about paying her a visit; maybe he could sleep on the floor of her room while he samples the club scene. Jeremy wonders what the men are like in London and if one could take his mind off Louis. He envisages Louis, pictures the white origami creases of his shirt sleeves the morning they had sat at his dining table.
Louis had repeatedly run his little finger over the smooth red handle of his cup. The cup had narked Jeremy, one of the ones that began with, ‘Calm Down and…’ Jeremy couldn’t recall what the rest of it had said. It had been insignificant yet Louis’s finger kept bringing his attention to it, as if to send him subliminal messages. It had only added to the noise in Jeremy’s head.
The new Vaccines song had played on the breakfast show, a punkie upbeat little number. Every time Jeremy has heard it since it has reminded him of then; reminded him of Louis. Now the song still makes Jeremy miss him.
‘Teenage Icon’ played in the café when he had been on his blind date with Padraig, set up by Lexi. The intro immediately brought him back to Louis, and he remained on his mind during the rest of the date, even during the stifled sex in Padraig’s bedroom of his family home. It had all seemed amateur compared to the self-assured encounters with Louis in his stylish studio apartment. He had pictured Louis when Padraig touched him; his five o’clock shadow over the hollows of his cheeks and their abrasive kisses, sometimes gentle, sometimes urgent. No man he had seen since had been a patch on Louis.
Jeremy veers over the country lanes that run behind his home, he thinks about the shop; customers’ expectations and tea-break confinements. He feels boxed in by telephone wires overhead, glistening asphalt below and the break-up of hedges, fences and stonewalls at either side. Two bare trees stand in a field; they reach straight lean arms out, raise the ends slightly, seeming to give Jeremy the bird.
“Fuck you too,” Jeremy says.
On the road the white lines melt into each other and disappear over the hill. Jeremy fumbles to find a decent song on the radio. The blast of the horn brings him back to reality, the oncoming removal truck’s lights beam as they both swerve; side wheels of his mother’s car hit off the grass verge holding Jeremy back briefly.
“And fuck you!” Jeremy shouts, ruffled. He tries to concentrate on the winding roads that he has known since a boy. He has been swaying in different directions, something always distracting him; lately it is the thought of Louis. The Vaccines song comes on the radio, starting from the very beginning.
Oh look at me
With no great capability.
Jeremy thinks it safer to let the tune play. Their song. No, maybe their break up anthem. The radio station’s playlist conspiracy reminds Jeremy what he ran from. Again he thinks about that morning after his seventh unplanned night with Louis.
He woke alone, pulled on his t-shirt and jeans. In the mirror of the sparkling white ensuite bathroom, Jeremy teased his fringe from his face, swilled mouthwash and sprayed Louis’ deodorant at his armpits from over his low scooped neckline. Jeremy had planned to leave with one of his handshakes that always resulted in a matey hug. He left the bedroom to see Louis sat staid at the table; a box of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes stood beside an empty bowl and a spare spoon.
“What’s all this, Lou?” Jeremy laughed, feeling jumpy.
“Sit down and have a bowl before work.” Louis was splashing milk into his cup, Calm Down and Drink Coffee, Jeremy remembers now. Not relevant. He wonders if he is looking for signs where there aren’t any.
“Can’t stay. I don’t want to be late for the office.”
Louis had raised an eyebrow and looked at the place setting he’d arranged.
“I thought you hated work, that you didn’t bother showing up half the time these days?”
Jeremy eased into the chair, damned how loose his tongue became after too many vodkas and Red Bull. He hesitated then poured a bowl of cereal, only a small serving although he was starving. In front of Louis he didn’t want to look like a pig. That is when the song came on.
“What’s going on? With us?” Louis asked.
Jeremy drained the milk from a small designer white jug that looked stolen from a fancy hotel. He wondered who Louis had gone to a fancy hotel with.
“What do you mean?” Jeremy coughed. He glanced at Louis, the cup between both hands. White lettering peeked through his fingers. It was the first time he had seen Louis look serious, not in a sexy way. He had wanted to hear the new Vaccines song, now Louis was speaking over the top of it.
“We keep ending up together. Should we make a go of it? I mean, I’m not seeing anybody else and neither are you.”
“How do you know I’m not?” It had shot out of Jeremy’s mouth before he could stop it.
“Lexi told me.”
Jeremy watched his spoon disappear into the milk and become the sliver of a silver crescent.
“I asked. Don’t be mad at her, she wasn’t trying to match-make.”
“Really? That would be a turn up for the books.”
He watched Louis run his little finger over the cup handle, the image that remained. His tanned forearms in his starchy folded up sleeves had looked really good. Louis dressed smarter on his days off work than Jeremy ever did at all, apart from the funeral one month before that morning. In work Jeremy never cared if he looked as though he had been up all night shagging. In fact, all the better; give them something else to talk about.
“What do you think?” asked Louis.
Jeremy ate a spoonful of flakes buying himself time to arrange a response. He nodded his head as he crunched through the mouthful, patting the back of his hand against his mouth.
“Is that what you want? A relationship?” Jeremy asked screwing up his nose.
“I don’t know. I think it makes sense,” Louis offered, sounding unsure himself.
Jeremy piled some more cereal onto his spoon, he thought about eating it, but knew he would be taking the piss. As uncomfortable as it felt Louis deserved an answer.
“I don’t think I’d be a good boyfriend right now, my head is all over the place. There is this thing in work…”
“There is always a thing in work, especially in your case.”
“Louis, I’m getting over someone.” It sounded added on. A cliché.
Louis’ pursed lips said that he didn’t believe him. Knowing Lexi she would have told Louis that Jeremy had never been in a relationship before. Anyway it was true, Jeremy thought, he was getting over his mother. She had only been forty-two; it was hard to accept. Sudden. Something disbelieving in Louis’s expression stopped him opening up. Jeremy wondered if Lexi had told him about his mother too. If she had, Louis hadn’t mentioned it.
Jeremy stops at the traffic lights without knowing how he arrived there. He pretends to fumble in the glove compartment to hide his face, his tears, from the driver in the car beside his. For some reason he always cries recently when he thinks about Louis.
“Okay, I’m going to lay my cards out, Jeremy,” Louis had said. “I like you, I know you like me. You could be at a bar with your friends and me somewhere else. We still always end up together at the end of the night.”
Jeremy looked at Louis; he couldn’t avoid it any longer, not when the guy was opening his heart to him. “Listen Jeremy, I’m not going to beg you to go out with me. If we give it a try and it doesn’t work out, well… what the hell.”
Jeremy felt his chest being concurrently lifted and pushed down against his will. A long, slow sigh escaped his body as though someone telling him that they liked him was a burden. He couldn’t stop it, despite not wanting to hurt Louis.
“Well thanks for eating some breakfast, hope you didn’t feel as though you had to,” Louis said, he stood up, stretched and scratched the back of his head as though bored by Jeremy’s presence.
Jeremy stood slowly. He gawped at Louis, words filed into his mind and back out. The little jukebox picker in his head failed to pick one of the sentences that shuffled past too quick for him to read; but that song still played. It played then and plays now.
I’m no teenage icon
I’m no Frankie Avalon
I’m nobody’s hero
He had followed Louis to the door of the apartment, watched his back in his crisp shirt tucked into chinos, making the most of the last of summer days. Louis opened the front door and hid behind it, out of reach for one of Jeremy’s embraces and playful pats on the back.
“I’m sorry,” Jeremy mustered.
“What for?” Louis’ hurt was concealed with a laugh. “I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
He clicked the door with precision.
Jeremy wonders if Louis still has those feelings. He sees Louis’s building; somehow he has ended up at the apartment instead of work. He tries to catch his breath.
Jeremy doesn’t care about being late for the shop. He doesn’t know why he even bothers when all he cares about is gorgeous, sexy, serious Louis. So, he made a mistake. He wants Louis too. His car is there; Louis is home. Jeremy will tell him how he feels, no time to think it through. Jeremy will simply say that he has never met anyone like Louis before. He has matured and now he wants meals, coupley-walks and movies on the sofa. He wants to be part of something that isn’t falling apart or half-assed. Jeremy thinks about his mother, she would have liked Louis. Claudia will. His father will be impressed that Louis is successful and well put together.
He sweeps the blue Jag into the communal parking and jumps out, leaves it unlocked. His pulse booms in his ears. Jeremy likes how the adrenalin makes him feel, like the day he told his boss at the office to “Go fuck.” Exactly like the day he handed in his notice at the clothes shop.
Jeremy walks to the shared entrance of the block. He tries to work out which number Louis’ apartment is, never paid much heed any time he was there before. He retraces the mornings he has traipsed down the stairs, recalls Louis living on the second floor and on the right side. Jeremy gives apartment six a buzz and waits.
“Hello? Jeremy?” Louis’s voice sounds motorised on the intercom.
Jeremy gives a restricted sheepish wave to the CCTV camera above him.
“Come on up, I’ll buzz you in.” Louis sounds pleased to see him.
Jeremy walks up the stairs, the plastic casing on the handrail creates friction; rubber soles of his trainers on the lino floor seem to want to slow him down. Jeremy’s lifted heart turns to stone. His heart plummets from dancing under his collarbone to dragging at the bottom of his gut. He wonders if he is doing the right thing.
At the top of the stairs Louis stands, cross armed and grinning almost as if he has always known Jeremy was coming back.
“Hi, yourself.” Louis smirks.
Jeremy looks at him. He isn’t as he remembered, distorted by time and fantasy. Louis is kind of handsome, Jeremy thinks, not gorgeous. He is shorter than Jeremy remembered; his shoulders narrower. It dawns that he has never seen Louis when he has been fully sober. The morning they had sat across the dining table he had looked anywhere but at the man.
“I’m sorry,” Jeremy says.
He walks away, slowly, then takes off down the stairs. The descent always being the easiest part.
I Was There
I was there.
Cutting a worn figure
with a Players hanging
from my slack charred lips
waiting for my helmet to be penetrated
by a single,
bolt of lightning.
I was there.
Holding onto my best friend,
three foot long
and constantly jamming
as I caressed it furiously,
anxious that our next touch wouldn’t be our last.
I should have
but I couldn’t,
there was just nothing else.
I was there.
Wiping tears from a shattered face,
its mud casing smeared
by the flowing river of regret
that ran from my eyes as I recalled
my eagerness for King and Country,
when all that was obliged
was to stay in school.
I was there.
Grabbing at a mask and forcing it
onto the man next to me.
It doesn’t do to make friends
because as the toxic air around fills gasping lungs
you’ll eventually see their lungs bellow,
in your hands,
or they yours.
I was there.
Looking at her picture,
knowing that she would be true
because every wretch who could sweet talk her to a lie
was next to me.
My brothers in bayonet
depriving her of her satisfaction
through self-incarceration in a field
as far away from a morning kiss as can be known.
I was there.
In the black and white footage,
of those men,
all dead now
and only known to you as mathematics.
But we do hope you remember that
we were there.
Bonfire Night Beneath the Stars
Penny for the guy,
and the girl,
in the sleeping bag
on the doorstep
of a shop that made
£67.4 million pounds profit,
after avoiding tax,
in the financial year
ensuring the closure
of libraries, hostels and A&E units,
in the financial year
Hold the shivering to account,
as fireworks illuminate
their faces distressed,
torn, worn with memories of misfortune,
self-made in your eyes.
Approach your temple,
walk on proud,
and make sure
you don’t remember their face,
as you step over them,
to offer praise
and thanks for your blessings.
Forget that times have fallen
harder on them,
than the discomfort you feel,
walking past to preach and pray
and hear from God’s messenger peace and justice for all.
Seen and Not Seen
Naked on the sheetless mattress, legs apart, arms stretched wide, he watched the clouds move outside his window. There was a knock at the door. Loud. Knuckles on wood, once, twice, three times. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. A woman’s voice broke in.
“I’ve made sandwiches.”
“Did I ask for them?”
Silence. She thought about this. She thought about the next part of their routine.
“You’ve got to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“But Mr. Henry…”
“I said I’m not hungry.”
Silence returned. A breeze came through the window caressing the limp cock hung sadly between his thighs. He turned on his side. She knocked at the door again.
On the embossed wallpaper of the half-decorated room he made out tortured sex acts in the obscure twisted lines and bubbles. He made out faces scarred with horror, grotesque in the shadows of a large floor lamp. Poorly put together. Rarely switched on. He reached with trembling hands towards the face he once thought of as his own.
“I’ll leave the sandwiches outside your door Mr Henry.”
He watched a spider crawl along the wall above the skirting board yet to be painted. He had never liked this room. Its angles too harsh and sudden. Ceiling low. It would forever remain unfinished. Forgotten. Lost to the past. He heard the phone ring.
“Tell them I’m asleep. Marta, do you hear me? Tell them I’m asleep. Marta.”
He coughed. Lungs flooded with air. He could hear the high and low points of exclamation in her tone, but try as he might he was unable to make out words. If he had been in his own room then, well, life would be different, life would be as it was meant to have been.
Floorboards creaked under the disturbance of footsteps. He could feel her pressed up against the door.
“What is it Marta?”
It was her turn to offer silence. She took a deep breath. If only she could see his face. If only she could make a connection.
“Marta what is it?”
“That was Mr Bodill.”
He turned to face the door. His limp cock fell from against his right leg like a tree. Slapped against his left. This amused him. This childlike awakening of what was there. I am a man. Ugly. Sick. This brought forth a wry smile. This brought pain. Shooting. Burning. Through the deep, permanent creases of his face it throbbed. He closed his eyes.
“What did he want?”
“He say he have to see you Mr Henry.”
He turned back away from the door. Stared up at the ceiling. The spider was now crawling above him. In a book he had once read, a man had awoken to find he had turned into a giant bug while sleeping. Why couldn’t he fall asleep and wake as something new? A bird perhaps, so he might fly away. A dog, so he could be loved for doing nothing but being there. He tried to imagine himself as a spider. Hanging upside down. He smiled. Once again the pain came in waves. His fists clenched. He slammed them into the bed. He didn’t want to wake up as something new. He wanted to wake as he once was.
“Mr Henry he say…”
“Out of the question Marta.”
“You did tell him no didn’t you Marta.”
He heard the faint squeal of rubber soles burning in the compression between weighty anxiety and the twisting of foot into floor. He could feel his heart racing. He could feel the beginning of a migraine working its way up from behind his eyes towards its resting place above. She had yet to speak. She had yet to end his waiting.
“Yes Mr Henry.”
“You did tell him I couldn’t see him.”
Another silence. He thought he could hear her sobs. He watched a plane disappear into white clouds yellowing. He tried to imagine the faces of those on board. Beautiful. Then ripped at the seams. It had been so long though since he had seen a face, his imagination failed to produce anything new. Any sense of pleasure he was hoping to derive was replaced by an overwhelming sense of loss. He sat up slowly. His unkempt hair, longer than it had ever been, fell loosely over his face. It tickled scar tissue.
His voice was low. Soft.
“Yes Mr Henry.”
“What did you tell Mr Bodill?”
“I… oh Mr Henry…”
Her words cut out and she broke into loud sobs. He waited for her to finish. That was all he could do. No consoling. No there there. No it will be ok. I am in here. She is out there.
“Oh Mr Henry, Mr Bodill say Mrs Jaar is sick, really, really sick.”
He fell back down onto the bed. He put his arms up in the air. Spread his fingers. He closed his good eye. Through the blurred vision that remained he could make out a moving black blob by the loosely hanging ceiling rose.
“Are you ok?”
“You can go now Marta.”
“But Mr Henry I…”
“Go home Marta. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”
Silence. He felt her move away from the door, the creak in the floorboards. Mrs Jaar was sick. Anna was sick. He reached for lips she had kissed. He could hear a child’s laughter. Tears welled in his eyes. She’s sick. I’m sick. He tried to remember the shape of her figure. He had reached out to her in the darkness. She wasn’t there. She pulled away. He tried to speak. She wouldn’t listen. He heard the front door close. He breathed a sigh of relief.
He got out of bed. Twilight rays shone on the tiny handprints made in different shades of blue that neither he nor Anna could bring themselves to wash away. He heard child’s laughter. He whispered a name. Took off the dressing gown hanging on the back of the door. It smelled of alcohol and stale sweat. He opened the door slightly.
No reply. He was alone. He pulled the door open. All the lights were on. She had not wanted him to step out into darkness. Too much darkness, she had said. Not enough light. On the floor just behind the threshold a tray of sandwiches, bland, lay under a clear glass lid on top of an expensive plate. He shook his head. Picked up the tray. He could only admire her perseverance. He could only curse her stupid naivety. He stepped out into the hall. He caught her face wrapped in laughter. He had asked Marta to remove all photographs. All mirrors. She hadn’t been able to put this one away. The three of them together on what would have been a forgettable summer’s day. Anna. A kiss rested on her face. Tommy. Held by his side. Tiny hand pulled apart the style of his slicked back hair. He stared into the eyes. He couldn’t bear to put this one away.
He tried to remember the sound of their voices. Silence.
He made his way into the living room. Placed the tray down on the coffee table she had bought one Sunday. Hot. Rancid smells burnt his lungs. Alcohol. Gasoline. Tommy was teething. They had to rub a gel, sweet tasting, over his gums. She said she had to have it. They argued over the price. Price didn’t matter. He owed her this. She knew it. He knew it. It was left unsaid. It didn’t matter now though. Those principles, that feeling of paying too much, of giving too much, it was all gone. He turned the television on. It was loud. He didn’t care. The neighbours wouldn’t hear. Not with reinforced walls and floors. Not with social lives. He turned it up louder. It would not drown out the ringing in his ears. It would not drown out the thoughts of her. She was sick. He turned towards the telephone. I am sick. He sat down. Perhaps he should phone Bodill. Tell him not to come. Perhaps he wanted to see him, someone, her. On the television screen mothers gathered outside a church, weeping, crossing themselves, pulling on the uniforms of soldiers, asking them,
“Why my girl?”
They would be told there was nothing to be done. This was meant to be. His will. He picked up the phone. The dial tone seemed to speak to him in its repetition. You deserve this. She doesn’t. She is sick. He put the phone down. On the television screen a reporter stood by an accident scene. Grass blew in the breeze behind him. The red and white tape in the distance wrapped around a tree.
“What happened here today locals say was an accident waiting to happen.”
From an overhead shot the twisted, crushed, reorganised car lay still at the end of a black trail. He reached for his face. Police were walking in and around the area in organised steps. He pulled away. When they carried him out he was unconscious. Figures in white overalls and facemasks, walked away from the day’s carnage with tiny, clear plastic bags. The loud beeps of the heart monitor filled the lonely room where he had slept his dreamless sleep. She sat at his bedside without emotion, keeping her grieving for a place that knew them, where she wouldn’t hate herself for those unspoken but known of moments when she wished it had been different. When he woke, to the white walls, to the repetition, she would not be there. It was better that way. On the television screen a beautiful woman in figure hugging dress pointed to different parts of the country.
“Tomorrow’s weather is looking quite promising.”
So they could predict the future. They could tell you what was in store. No one told him what was to come when she said,
It was unspoken but known that he didn’t want it. Boy. Girl. It didn’t matter. He valued freedom above all else. Children were responsibility. Chains. He wanted freedom. To know there was an exit. The decision had been made. It wasn’t, had never been, his to take.
“Can’t you see Henry, this was meant to be.”
And the weather woman said,
“In the north there is a band of rain that will…”
So they could predict the future. There was no God. There was no reason. This was all just an accident waiting to happen. She was sick. Anna was sick. It was all just meant to be.
“So most of the north will be touched by rain. Moving down to the Midlands the weather will be mild and breezy. And for those in the south temperatures will rise steadily leaving some of you to enjoy a beautiful day.”
She was sick. I’m sick. She knew this. She knew this the last time. Rain falling, light sneaking through the cracks in the doorframe, when the knock on the door came. Knuckles on wood, once, twice, three times.
He watched a plane disappear into the clouds. He imagined the faces of the passengers. He reached towards his own.
He had nothing left to say. No more to offer. In her eyes he saw all that was unspoken. Tommy, his broken face, their broken hearts, what was and what could have been.
“Henry don’t you at least want to say goodbye.”
He could predict the future now too. A knock at the door, loud, unsympathetic. Bodill stood without affection, a bridge too far between them. You haven’t been there for her. He would tell him the past is past. There was nothing he could do now. Locking yourself away won’t change things. She was sick. She needed him. What good was all this doing? It wasn’t your fault. It was his fault though, for he had always been able to predict the future. When she said,
He knew instantly it was not going to end well. Life would change forever. He would be responsible for another. A God. Unforgiving. Judgemental. He was set up to fail. He knew this because he knew that each life was an accumulation of those lived before it. God was dead now. There was no reason to it. The buzzer rang. He let it ring. Outside streetlights were coming on. Cars were beginning to fill the roads. The buzzer rang. He let it ring. She was sick. I am sick. Tommy was gone. Tomorrow was going to come again. He could predict the future now. He would not wake how he once was. There would be no God. There would be no reason. For some it would be a beautiful day. For him it would be another without them.
Death is a funny thing. My friends and me, we’ve seen a lot of people die. Mostly men. Young guys. We’d wake in the morning to find a body in the street. Sometimes, it’d be there for hours.
We hardly ever talked about death, or what happens after you die.
It was like that in San Bernardino.
“What about Heaven?” Isis asked one morning, on our way to school. Her braids were thin and tight, and the pink and yellow barrettes kept smacking as we walked.
“What about it?” I said, shielding the sun from my eyes. “What would you do there, anyway? Do dogs go there, too?” We saw a lot of dead dogs. And cats.
“Come on, JoJo. It’s not like the movies,” she said. And I remember that Isis laughed a little. But it was a strange laugh, like she wasn’t so sure about it. Perhaps she thought it was like the movies, but she didn’t want anyone to know.
We agreed that if Heaven did exist, we’d only want to go if we were both there, could wear sneakers, blast Beyonce as loud as we wanted, and eat as many Takis as our heavenly stomachs could handle.
I can’t say that I made it to Heaven.
I died, but I’m still around.
I see Isis all the time. She can’t see me, though. For some reason, death doesn’t work that way for me.
Like the movies.
A few nights after I died, I was sitting in Isis’s room, and she was looking at me, or she was looking through me, and I didn’t see myself in the mirror on her closet door.
I was a bunch of lights. I am a bunch of lights.
Red and orange balls of fire. A group of them. Like four to five.
Sometimes more, I think. There are times when I pulse, like the sun on the hottest of days, or like one of those science films. You know, one of those shots where we’re looking at the sun from outer space, from above the earth. So bright, and so hot. And, sometimes, you can see the sun sending out little fireworks. Where they go, I have no idea.
It was Labor Day weekend. The three days off were long, and boring, and all I did was hang with Isis on her front stoop. We talked about Rina, and watched her down the street. She was always off with a group of girls, or a group of guys, or just one. The one guy.
My mother spent her nights at Party Doll, with her new guy Maurice. They’d only been dating for a few months, ever since my father moved out.
She didn’t like that I knew that she went there, but I could smell the liquor on her breath, and Manny told me that’s where she was at night.
“Your mom was out late!” he said to me, grinning.
It was Tuesday morning, and we were supposed to be walking to school. I didn’t feel like going just yet.
“So? How would you know?” I looked at Manny real hard. Sometimes, I thought he was nice enough, but I could never really tell what he wanted.
“I just do. I don’t ever sleep.” He shook his head, and pulled at his pants. They were baggy, and falling. He pulled them up some more.
“But, Maurice!” he said, real loud. “That guy is tight. He gave me all this candy, see?” he was digging in his pockets, and came out with a handful of Skittles.
“Yeah, he’s okay. He treats my mom good.” Manny held out his hands, and I picked out some red and yellow candy.
“Heck, yeah. MoMo and JoJo!” Manny laughed, and tossed the rest into his mouth.
“No one calls him that,” I said.
“I do,” he said, and then he walked off, back to his apartment. I wasn’t sure if he was going to class. He missed a lot of school.
Isis came up to me then, her backpack hanging off her shoulder, and she held her hands up in the air. She didn’t understand why I even talked to Manny. He drove us crazy.
“Really?” she said.
“He’s not so bad, you know.”
“Tell Ms. Rivers that,” she said.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the last conversation we would have.
It was Taco Tuesday. My mother always saved her money for Taco Tuesday. Nickels and dimes, dollar bills from her jeans, and sometimes mine.
My mother and Maurice were waiting for me and Stevie after school. Stevie was six. My mother liked to be early for Taco Tuesday. She said we had to get to Del Taco before dinnertime, and before all the other people who had nothing better to eat.
Stevie held my hand as we walked along Highland Avenue. The street was busy with cars, and people walked across whenever they wanted. For some reason, there just weren’t enough crosswalks. Sometimes, a car would stop. But mostly, you’d see people stuck in the middle, sometimes holding a baby, or pushing a shopping cart.
Del Taco wasn’t far from where we lived, and wasn’t far from school. Maurice and my mother walked ahead of us. He held her hand, firmly, and she laughed as they talked.
I liked Maurice. I liked that he whispered in my mother’s ear when they sat on the couch and watched movies. I liked that he fried wontons on Saturday nights, and I liked that when Stevie didn’t want to do his homework, Maurice sat him down at the kitchen table, and said, “Let’s do this, little man.”
My father never did any of that. He was always tired and mean.
Stevie’s hand was sweaty, and he was telling me about his day, and I remember he was showing me something he had made in class. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it seemed like Stevie had to glue a bunch of letters together to spell baby words and phrases, like I, see, the, man,my.
“Can you read any of these?” I asked him.
“Sure I can,” he said.
I turned the paper over, and someone had scribbled in green crayon, Fuk The MaN.
“Who wrote this?” I showed the words to Stevie, and he smiled.
“Isaiah. Mrs. K says he doesn’t listen.”
“Don’t let him touch your stuff.” I took Stevie’s paper, and put it in his backpack.
“Come on, you guys,” my mother said, turning to look at us. She was beautiful. Her hair was long, and blonde, and she liked to wear baggy sweaters and skinny jeans. She and Maurice started doing this little dance as they walked. A car cruised by, the music loud and beating down the street. You could feel the thumps.
Maurice liked to dance. He shook his shoulders, and Stevie got in on it, too. He ran up to them, and wrapped himself around my mother’s legs. We probably looked silly like that, but that’s another thing I liked about Maurice. He was fun.
My mother ordered as many tacos as her change could afford, which turned out to be twenty-nine. Stevie grabbed three, I had two, and my mother and Maurice divided the rest between them. Whatever we didn’t finish, we’d take home for later.
“Who do you think has the harder job, Santa or the Tooth Fairy?” Stevie asked. He was like that, always asking the weirdest questions.
My mother took a bite of her taco, and shrugged. She didn’t like to talk while eating.
Maurice squeezed some Macho hot sauce onto his finger, and took a lick. “I don’t know, man. Santa’s only gotta work that one night, and the Tooth Fairy, she’s busy all the time,” he said.
Stevie nodded. “Yeah, but he’s got to make all those toys, and brush the reindeer.”
My mother took a sip of her drink. She wasn’t going to say much. She took her hands, and rubbed Stevie’s head. “Eat your dinner,” she told him.
So, he did.
“What about all that teeth?” Maurice asked.
That’s when I saw my father. He was outside, riding a bike.
He rode up to Del Taco, and set his bike against the building. He looked different. He looked serious, like he meant business.
“Hey,” I said, nudging my mother.
She looked up.
Stevie couldn’t see him, and neither could Maurice.
Maurice was still talking with Stevie, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I wasn’t listening because my father was walking toward us, sweaty and red, and he had a gun.
And then he shot us.
He got Stevie in the head, and Stevie slumped over onto Maurice.
Maurice yelled out, and grabbed my brother. He looked at him. He looked at my mother. He looked at me. He was scared.
My father shot Maurice. He shot him twice, three times, more. I don’t remember. But, Maurice fell over, too.
My mother screamed, but she couldn’t move. The people in the restaurant were hiding in their booths, and some ran out, yelling and hollering.
It was so quiet, but so loud.
My father shot my mother, and then he shot, me, too.
So many people were crying.
It hurt. And there was blood everywhere. It was like hot sauce, but brighter, and thicker, and it smeared across the table.
My father looked at us. He shot my mother again, and she let out a loud, “Oh!” and then he looked back at me, but I wasn’t breathing anymore.
He walked outside. No one got in his way. No one tried to stop him.
And then, he took the gun, and put it under his chin.
It was one of those murder suicides. My mother liked to watch shows like that on Dateline. She was always asking questions, like how could someone do that? What are they thinking?
Maybe it’s just that some people are bad, and can never be good.
Like my father. He was always bad.
I died, but I’m still around.
Stevie’s alive, but he’s in the hospital, and needs to have brain surgery.
Maurice didn’t make it. MoMo. JoJo.
My mom, she survived. She’s in the hospital, too.
Sometimes I go and see them.
Me and the lights. We sit in their rooms, and just listen to them breathe. And when I get tired of that, I hang with Isis.
I look around for Maurice, but I don’t ever see him.
Maybe he’s a bunch of lights, too.
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF ROMANCE.
You fall in love with a voice, with a book, a beard, or lack of. You, who feel nothing, who is a wasteland in a woman’s body. You can’t let any of this show on your face, even when he gets into your dreams and sets them on fire, but yes, one day you make a left turn instead of a right, you buy lunch at one café instead of another and you fall like a cliché, a stone into water. You have so much in common! You are academics. You teach classes that connect people with their inner poet. You have a mutual affinity for the second person and patisserie. Let’s split the cake, you say, which roughly translates as: you have my heart forever. He won’t, of course – no-one has anyone’s heart that long. But from this point on you move around the city like an echo. It seems bizarre that natural selection has not stopped humanity loving this way, fatally, inconveniently, but this is how it goes.
You are a romantic who has officially renounced romance but keeps looking for it in hopeless places, the way you’d always have half an eye out for a cat that went missing years ago. It has always stood to reason that one day it was going to saunter in, bristle at your leg, lap milk like it owned the place. This much is probability. Still, you have a home to go to, and an apartment to clean, papers to grade. That much is fact.
ONE OF YOU IS MARRIED.
The winter city at dusk, the hour of sinning lovers. But you are not lovers. You are nounless. Your togetherness indulges no dangerous, expletive verbs, although you use them casually in conversation, sometimes, if not in reference to yourselves. You walk through evening shadows to the U-Bahn, moving from pool of light to lavender pool of light, and there is always a perfect four-inch gap between your hands, your shoulders; your heavy coats do not brush together and so the powder-snow remains untouched on woollen fibres, trembling with your footsteps like jasmine over water.
On one street, synthpop. Bach along another. You pass peeled-paint doors and posters for old operas. Your mind snapshots the shadows of dogs, a diamond necklace behind glass, the warm, grassy scent of horseshit on cobblestone. You catalogue it all with caution; you know what these kind of symbols can do. Yours is a profession that examines the fictional lives of fictional people; their hearts might not actually bleed or melt or commit any of the other atrocities that real ones claim to, but you know the odds aren’t good. You’ve written essays on the subject of manifest yearning. When you teach A Farewell to Arms you have a kind of wild look about you, choreographing all that unquantifiable tragedy into a dance performed with your hands.
When he talks about Maupassant you note, appreciatively, that he too is fluent in the language of wild-gesture, his crazy-dramatic movements rivalling your own. If the universe is providing signs, here is a sign. His hands move the air around like he is operating an engine. It is imperative that an ocean of space rises and falls between you, always, but something in these wild-gestures –
You should have a contest of wild-gestures! A Gesture-Off. It would be more sexy than it sounds. Something faintly threatening, like the Godfather Waltz, would play as you circled each other, faster, faster, hands raised, eyes flashing. He has that whole Byronic thing going on. It’s hotter than Mercury.
When he asks, “What is this?” you do not say propinquity. You wave your hands in the dangerous way that means neither yes nor no, knowledge nor ignorance. He is only in the city for two weeks.
Your Jewish friend would tell you, sometimes the harsh fact of life is that it is what it is. Urban Dictionary has another way to define this.
The train stops and both of you reach for the door at the same time.
THE THINGS THAT TIGERS WANT.
On the terrace of a bar near the Zoologischer Garten you discuss literary beards. Right now, he’s on a Chekhov. Hemingway is out of the question because of the way his neck resists all hair-growth. A pity.
The sounds of the animals in their make-believe worlds of jungles and ice floes, veldt and fynbos float high over the trees. The night moans of the tigers feel centuries old. He tells you he’s leaving tomorrow. You quote Ondaatje because it’s the only thing you can do.
“Damn it,” he says.
“Damn it,” you repeat.
You damn whatever you can get your mouths around. The sour and far-off stench of the wolf enclosure, the fucking cold. Time and the way it moves. Bright pink, rum-soaked cakes with ridiculous names. Students who do not read. Students who think they can sweet-talk you into changing their grades. That you missed a performance of Offenbach at the Zitadelle Spandau by ten days. You miss him and he is right there in front of you.
You tell him about the thing that made you angrier than anything else in the world, the thing you have never quite told anyone else. In the distance tigers bellow and you realise that even when you feel most crazy there is just no danger in anything you ever do.
“Let me see those fists,” he says and you bunch them up. You feel something small and tough, a fierce spirit forming inside you. A fighting spirit. Your breath freezes and flies hard into the night like blue fire djinn.
Somewhere in the dark you sense the tiger turning and pacing, prowling the length of its enclosure. More terrible than the growl is its sudden absence. The tiger’s muscles, built for maximum efficiency in the thick, wet Sumatran heat, shiver and contract against a Mitteleuropean chill. You feel her wasted strength, her nostalgia for sharp jungle grass, the myth of home that, born in captivity, she knows only in her bones, the way eels follow currents blind until they emerge in the Sargasso.
The tiger’s roar breaks free like a running man. It is a sound that is looking for something. The demands of the human heart are no different, you think. Even a tiger feels it. Even a tiger wants more than it already has.
IF YOU HAD READ LESS HEMINGWAY THIS PROBABLY WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED.
“You’re a Modernist,” he says, which explains everything. Only excessive consumption of Hemingway can be behind this violent hunger, the way it’s not enough just to love – you
have to also be broken into little pieces and reassembled with your ears attached to your cheeks or a rose where your mouth used to be. He teases you with fake French. You don’t know how to tell him there are days when all you want is for a person to come along with a daiquiri, some passive-aggressive minimalist prose and a huge fish they just trapped with a net of their own design. This is hard to admit because women burned their bras to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Maybe that makes you a terrible feminist, maybe it doesn’t.
In your defence, at no point in this fantasy do you actually cook that fish. You don’t arrange it on a plate, spoon feed anyone, kiss their feet or suck their cock while they slump in a chair and you slow-dance for their unilateral pleasure. You just want someone to desire you in sentences of terse, heartbreaking simplicity. You suspect this need to tell and untell at the same time is, in fact, more than a little Postmodern, but man, he would whoop your ass if you opened that can of worms. Instead: you go with him to the airport. The howl of ascending Boeings reminds you how much you love to fly, that visceral keening of the plane as it prepares to take off translating inside you as both don’t-leave-the-ground and make-me-soar. Manifest yearning, you think. Who of us can live with it? Something large and expanding pushed deep into a small space like a heart.
By way of goodbye he says, “When I need a Modernist, I’ll call you. In fake French.”
By way of goodbye you say, “Ne me quitte pas.” Your fake French is so good he doesn’t comprehend. He heads for the departure gates, for his real life. At security he gives you the internationally recognised gesture indicating love, unrequited – which is to say, he doesn’t turn around and fix you with a stare that pierces your heart but walks straight on, stopping only for the little see-through cosmetic bag the airlines make you use because if the twenty first century has shown us anything, it’s that it’s possible, always possible, the whole world could at any moment come crashing down because of the simple things we hide in plain sight.
THE ESSENCE OF LONELINESS, OF IN-DER-WELT-SEIN.
Your apartment in Rosenthaler Straße breathes the dark, competing smells of people who don’t belong together. Across the street is a café fronted with bright red geraniums and metal tables. At night the tables disappear and people come to dance milonga where just ten years ago, Soviet military patrols enforced curfews and teenagers kissed in ugly, bullet-pocked stairwells.
He calls to tell you about a book he just read. In English. What this means is: he doesn’t need you yet. You curl the telephone wire around your body like it is soft muslin. You swap anecdotes about work. You talk about seed cake like you are licking at each other’s bodies, then you say goodbye with the awkwardness of strangers who have been forced to share an elevator for a floor too long.
What is this?
You head for the bathroom. You turn on the faucet, find your secret, expensive shampoo. Through orange-scented steam you trace the routes his fingers have never taken along your skin and your body becomes an aria, rising.
When your husband comes home, late, you pretend to be asleep. He smells of yeast and rain – not verdant valley rain but the kind that hits concrete and absorbs all the unwanted smells of the city. You lie very still. The cure for everything – vertigo, a fox outside your burrow – is to lie still, that much our instinct knows. The stillness is a way of repelling all the movement of the world, the moving dust, the moving curtains, even the moving fibres of the rug that bend like grass under his feet. Your husband shoulder-barges the bookshelves and curses, like he does most nights, but still: you do not move until he makes you.
THE LETTER YOU WILL NEVER SEND.
You think about how wild you could be if you chose and realise instead that what you have become is completely motionless. Even the silver-winter sky is moving faster than you. You are outside your body, appraising it, giving it directions like an untrained animal. Like a playwright, heartbroken by the actors’ interpretation of his words, you want to cry for the distance between the thing you intended to be and the thing it turns out that you are.
You want to say to your husband, don’t do it like that. You’re not unblocking a drain. You move your hand in the direction of where he is frantically looking for change, playing a bit of Spanish guitar, what even is it? You move your legs differently, up a bit, back a bit. You imagine gestures of extraordinary wildness that bring another mouth to yours, summon them deep in your prefrontal cortex. Cortex isn’t erotic. You lose it. Your husband sighs, a slow sigh of desire exhausted, so one of you is satisfied. One of you is as good as it gets.
You get up from the bed, sit at your desk and write. You fuck the hell out of your fake-French speaking friend with words you will never send. You try soft words, love-words, sharp syllables that hurt like pebbles under feet, the broken, meandering mountain-path of the first person present continuous. You pour out these feelings like thick cream, filling a jug that flows over and over the tulipwood desk. You take the sheets of paper, fold the words away like gristle into a napkin. Then you stand at the window, open it, cup the folded paper into your palm and set it free. It falls straight to the November slush on the sidewalk. Figures.
The shadows inside the milonga cafe turn fast and the room swells with a sad song of violins and longing. Soon the city will be full of the light it celebrates by leading golden-haired girls down streets paved with gingerbread. Just a little bit Wicker Man, you think. You imagine catching snowflakes on your tongue, or burning inside a giant effigy. You wonder how it is possible that human existence can be so weird, so beautiful, arbitrary, animal, perfect and terrible, so pointless and yet something you would hang on to at all costs, through all suffering, for as long as it takes.
THE THEORY OF THE UNIVERSE IN SILICO, FULL OF SENTIENT BEINGS THAT DO NOT KNOW THEY ARE IN A SIMULATION.
Even a tiger’s heart, you feel, rebels against this.
WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN A HUMAN BEING DIDN’T WANT SOMETHING MORE THAN IT ALREADY HAD?
It’s rushing down fast from the Baltic – winter. You hear its feet. You remember when, years ago, you caught the morning train to Stralsund, from there the ferry to Rügen Island; you stood on deck watching the hull spray diamonds through a drumtight sea. For non-specific reasons that was a day when you thought anything might be possible. It’s not even nostalgia, what you’re feeling. It’s a suspicion that the spotty kid simulating your life in his futuristic garage has got bored, downed a cup of some kind of life-enhancing energy serum and left you on auto while he masturbates to the latest thing in space porn.
The night sky above your apartment prickles with light. You make a wish on the brightest star you can find. Only as you’re closing the windows to shut out the damn milonga do you see the star is in fact a landing aircraft. You don’t retract the wish because – who knows.
The next time he calls, he asks about the tigers in the Zoologischer Garten. You tell him how the tiger enclosure is currently closed because a keeper was mauled to death. That’s a real conversation killer. You are both silent, imagining, maybe, the kind of death that comes from doing something that meant the world to you, once.
“Damn it,” he says.
“Damn it,” you say back.
Everything you cannot say with any of the written alphabets of the known world you translate into wild-gesture. It doesn’t matter that he can’t see you. These are the biological roots of language after all. This is the way humanity says everything it has no words for.
What is this?
It is what it is.
And what if it isn’t?
Author Q&A with Colin Barrett
We discuss short stories, long stories and the importance of luck with the award-winning author of Young Skins.
Litro: You’ve been hugely successful for a debut short story writer, winning both the Frank O’Connor prize and the Rooney Prize. Do you think the market is improving for short stories?
Colin: I don’t know. The Internet gives an impression of greater visibility and interest in the form, but the Internet does that for most things. In actuality, it’s still probably the same relatively tiny band of doggedly impassioned adherents who help keep the short story alive. Alive, dead, declining, reviving: in any case such anthropomorphic metaphors have their limits. It doesn’t, shouldn’t, affect the work. I used to worry about things like the ‘relevancy’ of the form, and indeed worry about things like if serious writing etc. was on the way out. Well, it probably is, but it always has been. There are people, alive, now, coterminous with my own contingent existence, that care deeply about the short story. Today, that is enough for me. I don’t worry if there can be ‘enough’ of them, of us.
Litro: What attracted you to short fiction? Will we see any longer fiction from you?
Colin: Short stories, like poetry, are profoundly at odds with the literalness of language and the given-ness of the world. In short stories you are working with distillates. You are concentrating the world, and language. There are intensities achievable in the short story form by definition much more difficult to replicate in longer narratives.
The novel does other, different things, but for the last few years I was fascinated by what the short story does. I used to read and write a lot of poetry. I still read a bit, though less than I used to, and don’t write it as such. My interest in the short story progressed from that original interest in poetry.
But yes, you will see longer fiction from me.
Litro: Many of your characters in Young Skins are down on their luck, or generally in a bad place. Was this done as a dramatic device, to increase the tension in the stories, or did it go deeper than that? Do you see a lot of bad luck around you?
Colin: I did not think of very many of the characters as down on their luck. As I was writing the book, I didn’t think of them as anything, if I could, by which I mean there were no devices or preconceptions in play – not consciously, anyway. I just found a gesture or phrase and built from there. You write to find out what you are writing about. Luck isn’t a concept I spend much time considering. I think maybe most my characters would consider themselves lucky; at least, most have established some sort of working accommodation with their own limitations or inhibitions or parlous circumstances, and most are not alone in their lives.
Litro: The stories also feel very deeply rooted in Ireland. It’s hard to imagine them taking place anywhere else. Do you consider yourself to be a specifically Irish writer?
Colin: The great, or vexatious, thing about being an Irish writer is that you don’t have to worry about considering yourself an Irish writer, because even if you don’t consider yourself so, you are! I’m going to repeat myself and make it sound like I have some sort of cognitive impairment, but I don’t think about it. Practically speaking, reading other writers had more of an influence on Young Skins than any of my own personal experiences, and the majority of those other writers were not Irish. But of course the book is infused with and practically seeping Irishness. How could it not?
Litro: To what extent do you think aspiring writers make their own luck? What advice would you give to a wannabe writer to improve their luck?
Colin: You have no control over how your work is received. You have only limited control on whether it is seen in the first place, that is, published: you can’t legislate for the possibility that the day your work is lifted off an submission editor’s desk is the day the intern is nursing a hangover and an incorrigible grudge against pieces written in the second person singular.
What you have control over is the work itself. Working on it until it is as near to correct as you can get it. Write and read as much as possible. And rewrite and reread. Get deep into the structures of the things, your own work and the work of people you admire. Word counts mean nothing. But keep writing. Write steadily, whenever you get the chance. Keep coming back, as they say in AA. The shittiest page of cliché and typo-ridden dross is still worth more than the most pristine page of unwritten prose. “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” said, apparently, some golfer guy. Now, granted, all he did was wear plaid Dadwear and hit small, dimpled white balls into holes in the ground all day, but the principle, I find, is sound.
Litro: Which writers are you reading at the moment? Who has inspired you most?
Colin: Writers I’ve discovered fairly recently include multiple short story volumes by Joy Williams, Jayne Anne Phillips and a collection, Night Soul, by the novelist Joseph McElroy. I mean, they’ve all had long careers and published a raft of critically acclaimed books, but to me they are ‘new’ discoveries. The work I’ve found I’ve really liked.
James Joyce, Paul Muldoon, David Foster Wallace, Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson are, overall, the writers who each likely prompted the most crucial transitions in my writing.
Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next?
Colin: More short fiction. Longer fiction.
Colin Barrett was born in Canada and grew up in Ireland. Young Skins, a collection of short stories, is his first book. In 2014 he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and is shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.