Messages in the Dark

Picture Credits: Steve Buissinne

Exhibit F: An Extract
From the History of Time Spent with You

We travelled to France, you, me and the recovering alcoholic. You
were both working, and I -, I was the tea lady (as the brash Brit in the bar
teased). It was all insects buzzing, sunshine and chlorine.

The garden of the Chateau waited for you. For you to clear it, claw
it, manicure it. Remove the magical light from under the vines. To me, its
wildness was perfection. But your clients gave you Fortnum & Mason Jam for
Christmas and I knew the type of people they were. So there we were, the three
of us and a digger. 

I typed quietly indoors, churning through 18th Century literature,
my mind running in words.

You both carried on when the storm came and soaked your clothes so
they clung to your skin. I, inside, made hot tea and passed steamy mugs through
the door.

He looked like a boy, the alcoholic, – the recovered alcoholic – .
You almost wouldn’t notice the red under his eyes. The same eyes looked hurt
when we cheerily asked about the A.A. But deep breath, he talked about it with
the conviction of someone who knew it’s protocol –  I was
not well.

Wine glugged into our glasses over dinner. A hand over his – No thank you. We talked about the future while we sat on the plastic chairs outside, his rollie lit in a trembling hand. This addiction is fine. I endorsed his blurry-shaped ideas and he endorsed mine. – You’d be good at that. I didn’t ask about his past because it’s all shadows and holes. I was at university, he was unconscious.

When I was coy in my bikini, waddling to the pool, he said I have a
nice bottom, not to be smooth but to be kind.

He accompanied me to the boulangerie. I drove badly. He said it’s fine. Our french made us
embarrassed to order. He tried and apologised and we returned with twenty
croissants for three. I thought it was funny, But they’ll all go stale you complained. And our personalities
dangled -.

For one year sober, you receive a plastic coin and I think a
wristband would be better. Gathered in the cobbled living room we lit a fire
because the hearth is too majestic not to. With wine still in hand, I declared
war on the word Anonymous. It was the
wine that made me chatty. And I didn’t really understand but I knew I didn’t.

As we turned talk to the N.A, not the A.A (N for Narcotics? I asked), I remembered the stories of the little
tins found hidden in the workshop and how it was the secrets that upset
everyone not the heroin.

You would say it doesn’t matter now he’s better. Perhaps you did
say it – I can’t remember. Perhaps you meant it.

Our days repeated. Work, tea, lunch, ripples on the pool all
Hockney in the sunshine. Until the job was complete. (And the mouse we named
Horace had gorged on all our food).

We packed down the house, returned it to its form. Back to a place without
us, without sunglasses and books folded face down. I moved the owner’s wine
back where it was in the fridge. There were three bottles missing. Perhaps I
miscounted.

We wound our way home, packed up in the van, a stolen sunflower
each in the back. We ate jelly sweets, listened to audiobooks and nodded in and
out of sleep. We stopped by the side of the road where I cried and stamped my
feet at you because I really am terrible at driving but you didn’t need to say
it. You could have said it’s fine.

Why are you getting so
upset?
are the words I remember. But I couldn’t
articulate the something I knew to be true about you, about how I knew, that if
it were you, you never would have miscounted those bottles of wine.

And now we’re sat here, and you ask me over dinner if I remember our trip to France. And I smile and say, Yes. And think of how now it’s nothing but nostalgia, just a fragment in the history of me and you.




Romance in Paris

The excitement begins at the airport. You know deep down that in that bag is a ring, a big diamond one that shoots doves at unhappy people, a ring that turns heads in the street. On the plane you feel yourself getting closer; you go for the bag but he says no, he smiles and reads his paper – he has the Financial Times because he has a powerful job that will secure you for life. In Paris you do the sightseeing thing, you go up and down Notre Dame, up and down the Arc de Triumph and up and down the Champs-Élysées. You know his left the Eiffel Tower until after dinner at the most expensive restaurant in Paris because that’s when it lights up, that’s where the romance blossoms. He is still holding his little bag and you’re carrying your new Louis Vuitton and that’s when he asks, slowly, calmly, you can see his nervous before he says it but that just makes everything a little sweeter.

“Is it alright if I meet up with Pierre and go to the game?”

You knew going to Paris on a Tuesday was weird, you should’ve paid attention to Sky Sports News – it’s Champions League night. You say yes obviously, as you’ve been planning to all day. He gets his shirt out of his bag and says he’ll see you back at the hotel. You get a cab back, seeing the couples walk past one on their phone the other taking in the sights alone and wonder, is romance dead?

Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and The Scarlet Pimpernel all come into your mind as you travel slowly through the streets, stuck in traffic behind a rubbish collection truck. Today’s tales of romance come in the obvious of Mills and Boon, the white horse sweeping away the fair maiden. You know now this isn’t real, you know that women aren’t wooed like they used to be and that the world has changed, every one is trying to cram as much in as they can – forgetting those around them. It takes the journey back to the hotel to realise that romance can come in different ways. That girl texting as her boyfriend looks up is still sharing something. It seems still that every book has a love story. Richard Milward writes tales of love that span up and down a tower block in Ten Storey Love Song. Alright it’s not a typical love story but what is these days? There are ‘girly’ books obviously. Sophie Kinsella writes vigorously about typical women in every day situations stumbling into full blown relationships and back out again.

You smile awkwardly at the guard. He has a huge grin on his face, probably because he knows what you’ve just found out. The lift is out of order so you’re walking six flights of stairs. On the walk you think about all the books you’ve read over the last year and how romance plays apart in so much of these. Fair enough you read books about gay gangsters and drug addicts, but they all have that element of romance, they all have a character longing for that someone who’ll appear on the next page. Romance is a bit more creative these days, romance isn’t a trip to Paris and a sparkling Eiffel Tower, romance to you is wanting to be with that person through thick and thin and sharing Sunday morning scrambled eggs with them. You reach your door and slip in quietly, smiling as you see the Eiffel Tower glisten in the distance from your window. He’s there, he beat you back and there are rose petals everywhere.

“Will you marry me?” He laughs.

“Very original.” You say, waiting for the horse.




In France, Nation of Beauty.

Read by British actors Ray Newe and Anna Clair in American accents.

Ray Newe

Ray Newe appeared recently at The National Theatre in The Enchantment, directed by Paul Miller. Other theatre work includes Breezeblock Park at the Liverpool Playhouse and Blackmusicab at The Lyric, Hammersmith. He has also devised and performed several shows with Stan’s Café Theatre. Television credits include Murphys Law, Eyes Down and Brookside. Ray will be featured in a docudrama about the London Underground this December as part of Channel Four’s Inside Stories series.




Jeanne D’Arc




Jean Luc Was Here

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The first thing I wanted was to travel. Where, why or how didn’t matter. All that mattered was when, and when was always now.
Desire to go beyond what was known: England. Interesting enough, but, as with anything, familiarity breeds contempt.
France was close.
We were always taught to hate the French, the way that, the world over, people are taught to hate the race on the other side of the border, especially if you’ve not met them, or visited their country.
So what did I find when I got to France? People. They walked, breathed and ate. I met intelligent people and stupid people. Mean people and generous people. Bigoted people and tolerant people. The range of types of people seemed the same as at home, divergences mainly being the use of language, food and money.
There were other, subtler differences, but these weren’t evident to a seventeen-year-old after half an hour in Dieppe.

I got onto the motorway and started hitching south. No one stopped. A lorry driver flicked a V. Time slowed down. Traffic stung my throat.
Eventually an old woman stopped in a green Renault. She asked where I was going and I said Cannes or Nice. She laughed. She said would twenty kilometres be enough?
I got into the car. We spoke in slow, fractured French. Her profile was refined; pronounced nose and cheekbone framed against the glass.
We turned into the country. Grey, narrow roads threw a net across the land, on the fields meshed in endless shades of green. I opened my window slightly, breathing in the earth.
The old woman pulled out an egg and pricked it with a pin. She sucked it dry with one hand on the wheel. She asked if I would like to join her. I declined.
A little further south she pulled over and said this was where she turned off.

The landscape changed from green to brown. That’s when I met South African Simon. Nineteen. White. On the run from the army back home.
One stays with the bags while the other runs ahead when the cars stop and asks the driver where they’re going.
Progress still slow.
Vineyards for beds.
Simon said it was a shame that we had no sinsemilla so he stole a bottle of brandy instead.
He handed it to me.
“Journey slow, boy.”
Brandy tickled the back of my throat.
“We’ve no choice.”
“Ah come awn …. you never hot-wired a car?“
I shuddered with the after-burn of brandy.
“No.”
“Jeez, where you been livin’, eh? Back home we learn to hot-wire before we learn to drive.”
He grabbed his bag and stood up. I stayed seated.
“Come awn! You ain’t gonna get far if you can’t hot-wire a car.”
I stood up.

Off a road by a service station, down the side of a bank. Crickets thick in the air. Pink and grey stone underfoot. Some little place somewhere.
“They could be poorer than we are.”
“Come awn!”
“But what about getting caught?”
He said it was night, that we’d get a head start, and to just ditch the car in the morning.
I looked-out while he cut the wires. He worked with a lot of detachment, for someone committing a crime.
“Hey, keep your eyes on the road, boy. Can’t you do nothin’ right?”
The engine ignited and the night got hotter and darker. I looked around.
“Get in the car, boy.”
Pebbles squeaking under rubber. Heartbeat like a clenched fist. The road ahead was a gradual descent, and our speed increased by degrees.

We ditched the car in the morning and slept in the shade till noon. It was easier to sleep knowing we’d covered some distance, and gotten away with our crime.
I was torn up inside. I said I didn’t want to be a car thief. Surely it was worth trying hitching from a lorry depot? Get on a truck going south. At least to give it a go?
He mumbled we could give it a go.

* * *

Lying in a field a few miles from the sea. Space wider than ever before. Stars burning-up in black skies. Palms and vines sprawling on rock. Everything ochre and green. Now we were close. Close to towns with names like Frejus, Cassis and St. Raphael. Names so sweet you could almost taste them. Towns that would provide – we assumed – everything young men wanted.
“What do you say you fetch some water, boy? I’m gonna make a fire.”
We’d found a ten-litre water container in the field. There were some dim, distant lights, and I set out towards them.
The mouth of a tunnel opened up in the rock face. Inside the entrance was a wrecked and rusting car. Shadows twitching on concrete. Graffiti licking the walls. With my intermediate French I could only grasp so much, but the central motif was clear: ‘Jean-Luc Was Here.’
Splashed across the walls were crudely-drawn images of girls, cartoonish spiders in black and red webs … sentences in capitals that I could not translate, but which always ended in exclamation marks.
Further down the tunnel the ground was strewn with broken bottles and the air was damp and still.
When I came out I saw a small house with lights in the windows.
The woman who answered looked alarmed when she saw me. I raised my container and spoke in broken French.
She said there was a standpipe by the side of the house. Flicking her head round she called to her husband.
They walked me to the standpipe.
As the water flowed I felt their eyes upon me. They asked where I was from? Who I was? How old I was? Where I was going? If I was alone?
When the container was full they told me to leave it there, as they had something they wanted to give me. We walked to the door and they invited me in, but I explained that my friend was waiting. The woman went into the house and the man stayed outside. We made small talk. I looked at the sky.
The woman reappeared with a big bag of plums. They were ripe, she explained – only recently ripened.
They said it would be too much to carry the water and plums by myself and that they would help me.
The man carried the water while the woman and I shared the bag’s handles.
Inside the tunnel the air became danker still. Shadows rising and falling. Damp heat caressing my skin. The woman pointed to the graffiti and smiled and started talking so quickly that I could not understand. She looked at me for a recognition that I could not provide. Her husband stared into my face, as if trying to work out how much I understood. Then he started speaking slowly, breaking information down, pointing to the graffiti as he spoke.
I said I think I get it now … Jean-Luc is your … son?
Yes!
So that’s it.
I slowed down and then stopped, still holding one of the bag’s handle. I looked around. Graffiti and drawings covered the walls. A young mind delineated in black and white and red. I looked at the images and texts, imagining their author. I thought him very different to me, but I felt I could still recognise him.
The man and the woman watched me intently, with soft, subdued smiles, saying he was the same age as me, and that I reminded them of him.
There was something else they were trying to explain.
Il est mort l’année dernière.
I conjugated verbs in my head, digging up past tenses from school.
Jean-Luc is … dead?
Yes!
He died last year?
Yes! In a car crash!
He had been eighteen.
They stared at me with fractured smiles; so now you understand?
I looked at them and they looked at me. They suddenly seemed alone.
The woman edged toward me slightly.
Would I like to stay the night? I must be tired after all that travelling, without having slept in a proper bed for weeks.

I politely declined. I was enjoying the adventure, I explained.
But, she continued, there was a room ready and prepared at the top of the house. Clean linen. Scenic views. Croissants and eggs in the morning.
It was a kind offer, I conceded, but one which, unfortunately, I could not accept, as my friend was waiting in the field, making a fire for us.
The soles of the man’s shoes squeaked as he rocked gently on his feet.
Stay with us, he persisted. Just for one night? If you like you can stay longer. But why not stay for one night?
No. I insisted. I had my friend, our journey, the fire that we were making. That was what I wanted.
The man became animated, agitated almost, while the woman seemed to sink into sadness.
“Stay!” they implored.
Suddenly the woman reached a hand out to me; her gesture was effete, desultory even, yet one of her fingers caught my shirt, pulling off a button, and her nail grazed the skin on my chest, drawing a thin line of blood.
I turned to run, still clinging to my handle of the bag of plums. The woman clutched onto her handle tightly, and the bag tore apart at the seam, throwing the plums to the ground. I glanced down at them as I ran: at their newly-ripened flesh slashed on broken glass, their unfermented wine bleeding into dirt. I looked up and ran faster.
Jean Luc’s sentences unwrote themselves as I sprinted back through the tunnel, the images trailing behind like debris. Further up, a short distance from the mouth of the tunnel, the car wreck caught the incoming light, twisting it into the oblique patterns that wavered and dissolved on the walls. I caught a glimpse of the car’s silhouette, and then looked away again, at the small, solitary bulb at the end of the tunnel.
As I came out the atmosphere opened like a pressure valve, sweet and fragrant heat rushing though me, cleansing my senses of the damp, stale scent that had coated my nostrils and throat. The night burst open with limitless space, cricket song peppering the air.
I sprinted along the track, up over the incline, down toward the field that was home. The fire was flickering brightly, licking at the darkness with black and orange tongues. Simon was kneeling beside it, breaking up pieces of wood.
When I reached it I bent over double and placed my hands on knees, breathing roughly and deeply. I closed eyes, watching my inner space swirling.
“Jeez, what happened to the water boy?”

I tried to speak but my breath was too erratic, my tongue too contorted for words.
“Wish I’d ditched you in Paris, boy. You just can’t do nothin’ right.”

I panted and heaved, still facing the ground, waiting to regain the sufficient breath to commence with telling my story.




France Bans Excessively Thin Models. Will We?

http://www.bmamodels.com
Eva Smite, BMA Models

How will the fashion world respond to France’s new legislation that closely monitors malnourishment in models? France, the epitome of elegance, glamour and sophistication who has given us fashion giants such as Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, has taken a stand for health over beauty, will we follow them?

French MP’s have stipulated that modelling agencies who are found to be employing models who are under a minimum BMI, yet to be defined, will be fined up to €75,000, and staff could face up to six months in prison. Photos that have been retouched are now required to have a tag stating what has been edited. Failure to abide by this Photoshop rule this could amount to a fine of €37,000, or up to 30% of the amount spent on the advertising featuring the model. They have also voted for legislation to be passed to make the glorification of anorexia online illegal, stating the maximum fine as €10,000 for encouraging and provoking dangerous behaviour. Considering France’s authority and respect in the fashion world, will the ruling affect the future of fashion? Will this legislation carry much weight and be effective in the prevention and assistance of eating disorders? Is our definition and appreciation of beauty finally changing?

Although France is not the first country to take measures against malnourishment in models, the legislation warrants celebration. In 2012, Israel took the same measures, banning the use of models with a BMI of below 18.5 and requiring that retouched images be noted. Italy and Spain have previously taken similar precautions, preventing models that are excessively thin from taking part in fashion shows. The World Health Organisation guidelines state that an adult with a BMI of below 18.5 is considered underweight, below 18 malnourished, and below 17 severely malnourished. The BMI of many models is below 16. I spoke to Farid Haddad, Director of “BMA Models” to hear what he thinks about France’s ruling. He stated, “I don’t think it will affect the future of fashion as the fashion industry will adapt as it does to trends. It may cause the French fashion industry to use models with a healthier body-image and the law may have some effect on the health of models.” In France 30-40,000 people suffer from anorexia, the majority of them teenagers. The unhealthy body image we accept and often aspire to needs to be adapted, as our idea of beauty is warped. We perceive beauty as being thin instead of being healthy. Diet fads are becoming increasingly popular; we are more concerned with losing weight and being thin than with being healthy and happy. We have been driven to think that our appearance is worth more than our happiness, that our appearance leads to happiness, even that it is the key to happiness.

Retailers, such as Debenhams, are beginning to campaign with and use larger-size models. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, however the label “plus size” that is stamped on to clothes and signs is anything but enticing for women who do wear a bigger size, it is demeaning and unnecessary. Tagging a person as too thin, curvy or plus size can have an effect on mental health, which is often a big factor in both weight loss and weight gain. These social labels can lead to eating disorders. One problem with France’s new legislation is that you can’t recognise conditions such as anorexia solely through BMI calculations. Eating patterns also need to be monitored. France’s rulings are merely the beginning. Further measures need to be taken to promote a healthy body image, but we need to be aware that what is healthy for one person is not necessarily healthy for another. Intimidating models battling with anorexia into gaining weight through legislation may not necessarily be healthy for them. We have to consider the repercussions of forcing models to become larger. This could lead to depression, or other mental illnesses. Producing better resources and more support for people with eating disorders is essential. It is unreasonable to assume that views on body image will adapt immediately.

While France is making progress, it seems that others are still projecting an unhealthy body image. Leading retailers regenerate the idea that skinny is beautiful, their mannequins are half the size of a real human, and their clothes are not consistent sizes. Urban Outfitters have been boycotted and criticised for selling clothes that promote eating disorders. One top that has engraved itself in my mind stated in bold print “Eat Less.” Urban Outfitters have also been called up on editing pictures of their models to an excessive extent, for example creating an unnatural thigh gap. By forming unattainable goals for people who aspire to this body image trend, retailers are in a way partly creating eating disorders.

This is not a new issue. There have previously been movements showing the effects of eating disorders and admonishing their glorification. Isabelle Caro was a French model and actress who campaigned against anorexia before dying of the illness at age 28. She worked with an Italian ad campaign, pictured at 27kg under the headline “No Anorexia.” Caro had wanted to display the horrific, life-threatening reality of battling with anorexia, and to encourage women and girls not to strive for her weight, not to admire her body. The shocking photo of her protruding spine has I’m sure inspired many other campaigns attempting to help promote healthy body image. Australian author and TV host Ajay Rochester has begun an online campaign calling on the fashion industry to “drop the plus” size in order to encourage retailers to stop labelling different body types and instead stock all sizes.

The response to France’s legislation has been mixed. Haddad agrees with the measures, “I am with the legislation as it is part of a campaign against anorexia which is a serious mental health condition.” Many believe it is the right objective, the right idea, but the wrong action. In the fashion industry some think it will create a disadvantage for France over the rest of the fashion world. But surely health is more important than fashion. Perhaps this should be a worldwide ruling for modelling agencies. It has been debated that using BMI to measure whether a model is malnourished is a controversial measurement, as it does not take into consideration muscle and body types. For me personally my engagement is not with the BMI measurement, it is with the fact that the French are taking a stand to eliminate this “eat less,” “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” culture we have bought in to.

Fashion is continuously progressing. This year at New York Fashion week we saw Jamie Brewer walk down the catwalk, the first woman with Down’s Syndrome to walk at the event. Designer Carrie Hammer stated she wanted the models to reflect the variety of bodies that would wear her line of clothing. Society is slowly moving towards a new beauty, a new form of acceptance without labels, and France is heading this movement towards health. When I asked Haddad whether he thinks France’s legislation will encourage a larger movement against unhealthy body image he commented “I think it will start a movement, yes. I think it will affect our definition of beauty, but at the end of the day beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We are all the beholders, our idea of beauty is in our hands.




Group Dynamics: World Cup Profiles, vol. iii

Groups E and F

Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

Four years ago, France imploded in a tricoloured starburst of civil war that signalled the end of coach Raymond Domenech’s dog-eared reign.

Domenech once boasted of using star signs to pick his players – but the new man in charge, Didier Deschamps, is a much more pragmatic fellow. Where Domenech was guilty of Banville-esque dreaminess that enabled the many egos in the French squad to do exactly as they pleased, Deschamps is more Ruth Rendell: a calm, calculating influence with a quiet taste for carnage. For Brazil 2014, he has made the initially unpopular decision to leave Samir Nasri at home nursing his tan and bruised feelings, instead preferring to pack the midfield with functional prose stylists like Moussa Sissoko of Newcastle United. In Yohan Cabaye, however, he has a player who belongs both on the shelves of WH Smiths and under the academic’s glare.

Switzerland occupy sixth place in FIFA’s admittedly baffling world rankings and are outsiders with teeth and claws. An awful lot of that is down to the multicultural nature of their squad. While the Swiss have some of the harshest immigration laws in Europe, their best players have been drawn from across the continent. Gokhan Inler, the Tom Stall at the centre of the midfield is Turkish, whilst Xherdan Shaqiri, blessed with two mutually holy feet, is Albanian. In the past it has been fashionable to stereotype the Swiss as boringly effective – and in many cases, they have played down to the generalisation. This group are solid in defence but have uncommon swiftness in attack: more Infinite Jest-like chaos than the bureaucracy of the Pale King. Brazil 2014 could be the great novel the Swiss have only ever placidly threatened to write.

Ecuador are the least-likely of the South American sides to travel any kind of distance in the competition. They arrive with a functional style and a story awaiting Jerry Bruckheimer’s cack hand – their star striker, Christian Benítez, died last July at the age of 27. They will play this tournament for him – and for a chance at facing bilious rivals Colombia in the knockout rounds. That potential encounter would have potential diplomatic significance: Colombia made a brief invasion of the Ecuadorian border back in 2008. If they can gain results against Honduras and Switzerland, then even the expected Gallic whipping might be enough to propel Ecuador limply into the knockout rounds before the expected soft bump back down to earth- or to 2800 metres, the altitude at which they play their home games.

Honduras remind me a little of Richard Ford’s everyman Frank Bascombe. They’re the footballing equivalent of brown slacks and a turtleneck jumper, with an estranged wife and kids and a job as a real-estate agent in New Jersey – with just enough sparky introspection thrown in to make you believe there may be light for them at the end of the Group E tunnel. A recent friendly with England showed them to be optimists of the short-term, brutal kind – and they source many of their players from Wigan Athletic. It won’t be pretty, but it might well be effective.

Prediction: 1) Switzerland 2) France 3) Ecuador 4) Honduras

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria

What a random group, in the way that randomly assorted groups should be. Iran are rather like the coffee Revel that promises little and may deliver only a little over that. Argentina have a forward line as sharp as a Lakeland set of stainless-steel knives, and a defence as leaky as a Poundland sieve. Nigeria are chasing former glories, whilst Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history has yet to be written.

Argentina have the world’s finest attacking player in Lionel Messi, a diminutive homunculus whose runs with the football resemble the outline of Norway’s western coastline, or a wayward dribble of sick on a baby’s bib. Either way, they have an incantatory rhythm that renders opposition defenders frozen like popsicles left in a Tierra del Fuegan freezer. Combined with the more direct Angel di Maria on the opposite wing, they give Argentina one of the World Cup’s most awesome attacking forces. When you add two of the world’s best strikers in Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain to the delicious, uncooked pancake mix, it becomes clear that Argentina will be difficult to stop. That’s just as well, too, because with their defence they will struggle to stop anyone from scoring themselves.

This is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first World Cup. Their path through qualifying was as calm and reassuring as an Adriatic breeze – though results told only a fraction of the tale. They scored over 30 goals in 10 qualifying games, attacking teams with all the fervour of Alan Titchmarsh approaching an erotic novel. Spearheaded by Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, Bosnia are more D.H. Lawrence than Mills and Boon – though attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanić has a good deal more elegance than Walter Morel. They will be helped by the fact that they are still somewhat of a little-known quantity – though not for much longer.

Winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013, Nigeria arrive in Brazil with more hope filling their sails than has been since the halcyon days of 1998 and the golden generation of Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West and co. Once regarded as the Kings of African football and the country most likely to bring the continent its first World Cup, Nigeria have fallen by the wayside in recent years – it’s been a John Steinbeck journey rather than a fantastical trip to the centre of the earth. Their main player is John Obi Mikel of Chelsea, who resembles a somewhat soporific crab for his club side but transforms into a vibrant threat when his country comes calling. Nevertheless, great expectations may need to be revised: there’s no Mr Jaggers in Group F.

Iran are probably best known as an international side for France 1998, when they faced the USA in the group stages in a battle of metaphorical diplomatic détente. It may sound patronising, but they are simply happy to be here – and in Carlos Queiroz, formerly of Manchester United, they have a sharp-brained tactician capable of plotting at least one minor upset.

Prediction: 1) Argentina 2) Bosnia and Herzegovina 3) Nigeria 4) Iran




Alone in Paris

Photo by Patrick Nouhailler (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Patrick Nouhailler (copied from Flickr)

The exchange rate hit you harder than expected and you’ve been pinching Euros with enough force to make the Vitruvian Man gasp for air and cry mercy. Hell, you might have even broken one of his silver ribs. But tonight, your insides are screaming for outside and not even holed pockets can hold you back.

It’s been two weeks in Paris and you’ve made a few friends, but most days are spent alone wandering through museums and drinking espressos in orange-lit cafes, or reading or writing or drawing, and sometimes visiting galleries. You met a Moroccan-born girl with beautiful brown symmetrical lips and made hesitant plans for this evening, but you forgot to call her yesterday to confirm and now she’s made other arrangements. You’re not sad, not even lonely, but you can’t stay in again. Not tonight.

You descend the white-marble spiral staircase of the apartment that was lent to you by a friend, out onto Rue Dauphine in the pricey and sophisticated 6th Arrondissement. You walk past the usual groups of well-dressed, attractive people finger-picking mussels from large pots and drinking red wine, past Taschen Books where you often go to flip through a giant biography of Mohammed Ali and wish you were him, past the gelato shop with the long line stretched onto the sidewalk, and finally hook a left at Paul’s Baguettes on the corner. The grocery store is still awake and tonight you’ll need two bottles (small bottles) of Shiraz, and hey, why not a bag of chips?

You have no plan really, other than to walk and drink your wine. You can do that in Paris, this culture-soaked metropolis where street vendors sell old brown-stained copies of Nietzsche and Apollinaire wrapped in clear plastic and the State permits its citizens the liberty to stroll down the rue with a drink in hand as if they are mature adults. You haven’t taken advantage of this liberty yet because you know you’ll think people are judging you, calling you wino or idiot or dumb American and you won’t even realize it because you don’t speak French, which will only make you feel more like a wino, idiot, and/or dumb American—and if that doesn’t happen you imagine the French police will suddenly change their minds about their complacent public drinking laws and commence to beating you over the head with stale baguettes—and you couldn’t stand to go back home after having your ass kicked by Frenchmen in berets wielding long, hard loaves of bread. But tonight, you’re in the mood for judging, not for being judged—so the hell with men in berets with baguettes, you think.

You replace your self-doubt with the airs of a confident swagger as you twist the cap off the first bottle of wine and saunter through the Latin Quarter—its bustling alleys, its myriad of bars and restaurants with their owners and waiters shouting in every tongue to every sort of tourist, beckoning them inside for an expensive meal. Burgundy reflections of wine against the orange glow of street lamps and endless amounts of beautiful people to watch—lips, eyes, cheeks, collarbones, hands—hover in mist and mingle with the city’s cloudy silence. All of the faces and skins seem wanting and lustful.

Ah, Paris! What a wonderful place to be rich. You could indulge each night at an overpriced restaurant, leave big tips until the waiters know you by name and smile when they see you coming. You could meet a pretty girl in a gallery and buy her fancy wines and crème brûlée and all sorts of shit you can’t pronounce or spell without a dictionary. You could take romantic boat trips down La Seine and wave excitedly as you pass locals on the bank in a manner not so different from the way the tourists wave excitedly at Six Flags Zoo when the red-assed monkeys feel inclined to come down from the trees and climb on cars.

But you are not rich (not even close), and as your wandering imagination fades towards self-pity you see an old, grey-haired homeless man reaching into the garbage. He pulls out a McDonald’s cup and takes a long, hard sip from the straw. You hear the last remnants of fructose corn syrup being greedily sucked and swished into his mouth. And though you’d like to give him water or juice or something to drink, all you have is wine tonight, and you’re just not that great of a philanthropist.

Around this time you have an idea. It is 9:26 p.m. and the Eiffel Tower will sparkle at precisely 10 p.m. Last night you saw it for the first time from a friend’s balcony on the 27th floor in an apartment on the outskirts of the city centre. It was magic. And tonight, you decide, you want to be directly under it when it commences its illuminative dance. Whether you can make it the four or five kilometres from the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower in thirty minutes you know not, but you have already been narrating this journey in your head, and like a foolish writer you think the trip could at the very least give this lonely journey of the soul some narrative arc.

So you set out. At first maintaining a casual pace and taking small swigs of wine. Watching the couples stride by holding hands, a practice that as of late you think should be illegal, at least on tiny sidewalks and in the presence of single people. Along the Left Bank overlooking La Seine, you hear a jazz band playing. You look down and see large groups of friends with wine and cheese and all sorts of French clichés enjoying the music and soft air of the last night of August. You have purpose now. And with purpose added to the mix the music is soothing and the wine tastes good and it’s nice to be alone along this river so far from home with nothing but rambling thoughts and a dream of the Eiffel Tower.

After losing yourself in the rhythms of your own feet, you look down at your watch. It is now 9:42 and you’re not even half way there. How sad it would be to go all that way and miss the lights. But if you’re going to have any shot at making it before ten, you know you need to run. So you begin to jog. You played high school basketball. They even made you run cross-country one year. You were the fifth best runner on the team. But this is the first time you’ve mixed wine-drinking and exercise, so it will be a challenge, no doubt.

You jog past a well-lit café where scholarly-types sip tiny cups of coffee and lovely long-legged ladies wrap their smooth fingers around big bellied glasses of merlot, all of them cross-legged on the terrace watching the street as though at some undetermined moment a movie will begin. They watch you as you glide past in a well-paced jog. There are other joggers out this late, and plenty of drinkers, but you appear to be the only one doing both. They must admire your versatility, you think.

It is now 9:50 and you need a break. You have just past Musée d’Orsay and you estimate that you’re still a twenty minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. You have a swig of wine and wish it was water. You wonder if Jesus could turn wine back into water and you think that that would be a much more Christian thing to do.

It’s 9:52 and a sudden burst of energy surges through you. You sprint. You run across avenues and exceptionally wide streets even when the little green man refuses his approval. The hell with the little green man, you think, he only walks when there’s no threat of danger. He’s a coward. He never would have come to Paris alone.

You have five minutes to get there and you wonder why you are the only one on the street running. Don’t they know? Don’t they know it’s going to sparkle?

You can see it now, an enormous golden point protruding into the dark. You are so close you have to make it and you hope your watch is a few minutes fast. But as you round the bend of another museum you look up and there it is, sparkling, dancing in the night. For a moment you resign yourself to watch it there. It’s magnificent.

But you remember your friend told you that it lights up for five minutes—so you begin to sprint, really sprint, Usain Bolt type sprint. You weave through groups of sidewalk lurkers like a skinny drunken tailback. You hop a flower patch, a bush, and the tiny fence that leads into the park. People must think you’re running from the police—and suddenly, there you are, under the Eiffel Tower.

And the lights are still dancing diamonds. And it looks like stars, or the silver eyes of celestial fish, swimming through a golden waterfall that falls upwards and narrows to a point in the sky; a sparkling arrow aimed at the black void of night. And in all your exhaustion, joy-chills vibrate through your veins and skin like electric currents, even though you are so sore from the mad dash your neck strains just to look up.

And then it stops. And you smile. And you know that you’ve made it. And you know you’ve got a bottle of wine left, and a bag of chips, and a pen and paper and even a little blanket you packed just in case.

You will lie in the grass and marvel at the Eiffel Tower for the next hour until it, as it does every hour on the hour, flashes its diamond-dotted dress again.

And for the first time this evening, you realize you’re in Paris on a summer night, and you have everything you need.




About Monsieur

monsieurI try to keep my books in good condition, but my copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Monsieur is looking worn now. I’ve had it a long time. I’ve had other books as long or longer, but Monsieur is battered, foxed, faded, broken – more decrepit than the chateau (depicted by David Gentleman) on the cover. I think that’s how it should be. It is a book about ruined lives, as so many fine novels are. It is also about the mystery of things. The world is not clean and bright. There are dark passages we must go down. There are doors we have never noticed until they open. Monsieur is set in the dust and shadows of somewhere we come across unexpectedly.

Recently I came across a picturesque chateau. On our way to a famous ruin we saw a chateau not too far from Avignon. It was in the wine country, so the house was surrounded by vineyards. It wasn’t in a state of decay. But it was remote and unexpected and striking. I said at once it reminded me of Monsieur. Durrell lived close by. He may have known it. He must have known it. This was surely somewhere in his mind as he was writing the book. It didn’t resemble the cover illustration, however, which has more of a look of Avignon itself, the medieval walls and the papal palace perhaps as inspirations.

It was the setting of the chateau that was interesting. We find these places from time to time, often with ambivalent feelings. This was a sunlit July morning. The chateau, now converted into a hotel, had a benign look. There was neither mist nor moonlight. It was the remoteness that reminded me of Durrell’s book.

The complete title is Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness. I have heard it suggested that Monsieur is an old name for the devil. (“The prince of darkness is a gentleman.”) Did I wish to read a book with such a title? Yes. I thought it intriguing but safe, for this was Durrell, a serious and respected writer. I bought the paperback in Foyle’s, then walked down to the National Portrait Gallery. There was an exhibition of writers. An oldish man quite small in stature was signing the visitors’ book in front of me. I signed my own name beneath his. You can guess who he was, making a rare visit to Britain, appearing out of nowhere ahead of me. His book was in my hand. It felt like destiny.

Or perhaps it was temptation? I was not tempted by anything satanic. What intrigued was the culture of ancient Provence. I had heard the music of the troubadours. I knew something of the history of the region. Everyone knows of Moorish Spain, but the Moors had trading stations all along the coast of Southern France and beyond. The Moorish influence generated many things exotic to European eyes, including mystical cults at some distance from orthodoxy. Tolerance of  faith and practice, embracing Islam and Judaism, ascetic orders and courtly love, made Provence a blend of cultures that produced a poetry and a music, as well as a way of life, that persist even in this century. Every St John’s Day (23 June) they dance the spiral dance, derived from the ancient Sufic rite, throughout Provence. We share bread and follow the Flame of Life through the city streets (after listening to boring speeches from civic dignitaries).

What has this to do with the book in question? Everything. The book moves from Provence to a voyage on the Nile to Venice. In Provence the mystery begins. In Egypt, far from the tourist haunts of Cairo and Alexandria, the English expatriates who people the novel are attracted to a Gnostic cult. In Venice, Sutcliffe wanders, as in Venice we do wander. He is not young, for this is a novel of maturity with faded lives leading towards death.

What first and indelibly impressed me when I read the Venetian section was Sutcliffe’s admiration for a young woman. I was her age then, not Sutcliffe’s. I appreciated the way desire was described. It was the way of a man experienced in these things. He was assured in a way impossible for the very young. I thought of Cyril Connolly’s similar encounter with a woman in Charing Cross Road. He recounts the true incident in The Unquiet Grave. He hadn’t the courage to speak to her, a stranger. Nor had I. But Sutcliffe, and Durrell himself it seemed, knew how to approach what they admired.

In Venice strange atmospheres are routine. Life becomes a masquerade, alluring and dangerous. It is not a city to take lightly. Nor is the Nile merely a river. It is a god commanding respect. Sailing the Nile, in the right frame of mind, is itself an initiation. The attraction of Gnostic mysteries, so prevalent in the New Age culture of our times, is a rebellion against the West’s materialism. The reality of here and now is but one reality among many. That is the feeling behind Monsieur. In life there is a darkness to be encountered. We cannot ignore it any more than we can ignore the immanence of death. We are encompassed by death. We are, as living beings, defined by our ephemeral nature. Monsieur begins with a death and the arrangements for a requiem.

Or, rather, it begins with a journey towards a requiem. The narrator takes the southbound train from Paris, a journey he had made “from time immemorial”. It was that phrase in the first sentence that made me want to read on. Sometimes it may seem that we have made such a journey, following in the path of previous family members, say. And there are the journeys we have made for ourselves over the years. But to speak of time immemorial is to place the event outside the course of ordinary living and into a metaphysical realm beyond time and space as we (imperfectly) understand them.

Were we to understand fully what this means then we would have a sense of Gnosis, of knowledge of the unknowable. This is what they seek in Monsieur, a means of comprehending unfathomable realities, like love and death.

Gnostic cults (of which there were many in medieval Provence) proved to be a dead end for me. They were not people asking questions of life, but, rather, they were offering all too easy answers in formulae that did not surrender to reasoned examination. I think one is supposed to surrender to the experience. That is a dangerous conceit, opening up oneself to all manner of manipulations. In reading we do not surrender: we engage our minds and our senses in ways that can enlarge our imaginative sympathies.

That is why I have not replaced my battered copy of Monsieur. It has a character, if not a spirit, that belongs to the book I found and took home and have not been parted from. The age-old Provencal culture, which retains its presence and its vitality, is something I owe to reading Lawrence Durrell. The book was the first of a series, but it remains the only one of the Avignon Quintet I have read. I don’t know if I ever shall read the others. There seems so much in the first. Re-reading it, I am drawn back emotionally and physically to a culture whose appeal is in its alternative to trivial materialism.

Durrell’s portrait of Avignon as shabby and backward I do not recognize. Perhaps in an earlier time it was as he says. But today it is a city of clean, light stone, of church squares with cafes and restaurants not always readily known to consumer tourists. Our favourite hotel is in a narrow street where no traffic goes. There are certainly no tour buses. Nobody wanders there. You have to know where to go to eat and sleep to fully experience Avignon. Other Provencal places have their own characters, which again are hidden away. Perhaps that is what is meant by surrendering to the experience.

Durrell’s exquisite prose, the English of someone whose soul rests elsewhere than lands where English is spoken, contains its mysteries. It is the prose of a poet invoking the elements of the scene. It invites enchantment.




Independent Writers: They Did It Their Way

The French have always done things in their own way. They’re headstrong and have a desire to be the best of the best of the best. They eat frogs’ legs and hold the Mona Lisa at the heart of their capital city. They have a 324m tower known as Eiffel and, most importantly, had the power to make McDonald’s change the colour of their logo on the Champs-Élysées.

The altered McDonald’s sign at Champs-Élysées

Every book we pick up is different. Every writer has his or her own style, but here’s a few writers that the French may be proud to call their own – writers that haven’t been afraid to buck a trend or fight their own corner…

Mary Woolstonecraft and Mary Shelly – This mother/daughter combo made their marks on the world in similar fashion. Mary Woolstonecraft accomplished many writing feats before her premature death just after the birth of her daughter. Woolstonecraft was a pioneer for women’s right; she was a keen believer in women having equal opportunities as men across education and much more. She wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which went on to be a seminal building block in gaining women a fair place in society. Her daughter, Mary Shelly, bucked a trend big time by releasing Frankenstein, which took the literary world by the back of its neck and shook it until it realised that women can write just as well as men.

George Orwell – If there was something to say about society, the chances are this guy said it. Orwell wrote almost the world we live in Nineteen Eighty-Four, probably his most famous work. He also penned Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London, which gave lovely insights and opinions on society, capitalism, politics and a whole lot more – whilst of course remaining a splendid read and rather funny, even today.

Irvine Welsh – You might wonder how we’ve jumped from Orwell to Welsh, quite dramatic really. However, Welsh wrote Trainspotting, the book that changed the way we view literature. This book said it’s ok to write about drug addicts and violence in a way that’s entertaining and enjoyable to readers everywhere. Welsh decided to make the characters likeable, to create emotions within us that we probably wouldn’t feel for a drug addict that decided to walk into our life and start to change our world.

Phillip Roth – American writer Roth as been around since the late 50’s and can be seen to have a postmodern approach to his work. Using this, he writes about anything he wishes, with wit and irreverent humour. He has released titles such as The Breast, the story of a man who wakes up and is a breast on a woman’s chest. Roth also covers his integration into American society from his Jewish background, making his fiction hugely autobiographical at times.

Quentin Tarentino – Tarentino has brought us gems like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. It might seem a bit strange ending with Tarnetino, but his work has changed the way we view world cinema and has most likely influenced writers everywhere.

Keith Hodges




Tour de France

The Tour de France is the most sought after crown in the cycling world. This epic race covers 2200 miles, takes 22 days to complete, has men with shaved legs and offers much inspiration for any professional cyclists-come-writers.

When writing it’s always the way that we take inspiration from our surroundings; right now I’m tempted to create an epic novel that highlights the struggle of an unmade bed and half a glass of orange squash. We absorb atmospheres and characteristics of places all the time and sometimes even pop out with a camera, a pad and a pen to try and get a feel for the busy London markets or the local dominatrix dungeon. The Tour de France covers 21 stages, so between cramp, sweating and looking at the person two yards in front of you for a few hours at a time – that’s a lot of possible inspiration.

Naturally the race concludes in Paris. We all know what Paris looks like because they sell pictures of it in places like TK Maxx and it appears on the front of travel guides globally as the must see place in France. On top of this though there’s a lot more little gems that can be found in France that cyclists are hogging and that should appear as a setting for some sort of new age novel involving a pig farm or two.

First of all there is Les Esserts, which is home to a 19th Century manor house. There are also intricate villages and lovely locals to get your imagination flowing. A little further down the route is the stage between Dinan and Lisieux that has a selection of architectural delights, such as an old Gothic church that would be more than at home playing the part of an extra in Dracula. Further on in the race is Aurillac, which hosts the Aurillac Street Theatre Festival, a celebration of everything colourful and fun. With entertainment for everyone there’s sure to be a character you can take on board and turn into the next big serial killer or the one man to save the human race from the octo-baby that was spawned when Jupitar and Saturn collided on a windy day. The festival is sought after by promoters and companies world wide and almost acts as a Cannes for those with an interest in live theatre.

The final destination on the route that I’d like to share is Montpellier on the South coast. Montpellier is littered with festivals of dance and arts, but also has a back garden that leads out on to the Mediterranean Sea. If you’re on your bike, having a stern pedal along and the sun starts to set over the sea then have a look, you’ll probably be writing until the next stage starts.

Obviously I’ve only mentioned a tiny fraction of what’s on view for inspiration during the Tour de France; all you need to do is become a professional cyclist and go visit them, or just check them out. Up to you.

Keith Hodges




Adam Thorpe: Poet, Playwright and Novelist

Adam Thorpe

Prize-winning poet, playwright and novelist Adam Thorpe was born in Paris in 1956 and grew up in India, Cameroon and England. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and is the author of nine novels, including Ulverton. He has lived in France for over twenty years. His new translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which uses strictly period English, was published this October by Vintage Classics. His sixth volume of poetry, Voluntary, comes out in March 2012 and is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation; his tenth novel, Flight, will appear in May—both books published by Jonathan Cape.

What is your earliest childhood memory?
I was about three and we were living in Calcutta. I have a vivid image of the white-bearded smiling face of our ‘Untouchable’ sweeper: he would often play with me. I also remember wandering on my own into the central room of our huge old colonial-style house. I heard the clock ticking and suddenly knew with a shadow of fear that nothing went on forever.

What makes you happy?
A lot of things: when the work’s going well; when I’m with friends or family and we’re laughing, especially if I make a joke in French that works; when my children are happy in their lives. When I’m lying on an empty, sunny beach in somewhere like Estonia with Jo (my wife) next to me and all I can hear is the sea.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Learning to write at primary school, forming letters over and over on ruled lines, I experienced a deep, sensual thrill that I can still feel. I tried writing my first novel at the age of eleven and stopped wanting to be a vet.

What are you reading at the moment?
Ian Mortimer’s brilliant The Great Traitor, about Sir Roger Mortimer, lover of Queen Isabella and apparent murderer of the king – Edward II of red-hot poker fame. Take away the suits of armour, and England in the fourteenth century was much like present-day northern Mexico, carved up by psychopathic cartels: all massacres, mutilations and mayhem.

What advice would you give to a first time writer?
A literary writer? When you’re blocked, open the dictionary at random and whatever word you first touch with your finger, let it lead you. Be lead by language, in other words. Jump-start the imagination. Don’t be cerebral. Challenge yourself but stay simple and clear.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Reading in bed with a cup of tea – in the morning.

How do you relax?
Swimming. Walking in the hills. Watching old and new (good) TV series on DVDs.

What is your favourite French novel?
Madame Bovary, despite having translated it.

Which French author is underrated or deserves to be better-known?
Lettres de Mon Moulin (short story collection Letters from my Windmill) aside, Alphonse Daudet has never quite received the acclaim his writing deserves, perhaps because he was an anti-semite and a monarchist.

What’s the most challenging thing about translating literature?
Capturing nuance; sub-text; the music of the syllables… In fact, everything about it is a challenge.

And what’s the best thing?
When the three essential elements – accuracy, naturalness and musicality – click into place like a solid plane of colour in a Rubik’s cube.

What’s the worst job you’ve had?
Either three months as a machinist in a neon-bulb factory, or ten days as a refuse collector for Berkshire County Council, before the age of the wheelie. Excellent material for a writer, though.

What is the most important thing life has taught you?
Thinking the worst of people is too easy and leads nowhere nice or even interesting. Being generous in spirit, without too much naivety, is usually fruitful.

What’s next?
I may well be translating Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, trying to capture its dark charge by tuning the English to the right music.




Nilam Ashra-McGrath – Rouen

The February evening is sharp as I step out of the hotel. A walk through the cobbled streets of Rouen clears my head and brings the blood pumping back into my legs. I sniff the air; the central Vieux Marche has a stench of alcohol and stale urine, jarring the senses. The wind carries the smell across the river, leaving a trail that hovers over the city like a dark unspoken secret. So very anti-tourist. The cathedral is a dark hue, magnificent on the horizon at the end of the narrow alleyway. It is flanked by designer shops; Hermès and Hugo Boss sit below the stone carvings of angels and gargoyles. The still figures watch over the homeless tucked into the damp doorways of its arches and curled under the warm fluorescent lighting of nearby shop doorways. A kilometre away, the cathedral is already imposing, but like an optical illusion, it remains distant as I walk towards it through the damp streets. The shoppers are beginning to drift home, and their conversations are replaced by the clatter of shutters. The town is closing for the evening.

The town carries his presence from afar. He is the man in the supermarket who stands behind me, eyeing my choices. He is the long-haired tramp, reeking of alcohol at 8am on the bus to Mont-Sant-Aignan, waiting to see if I acknowledge him. He is in the red, swollen eyes of the drunks who sit on their stone benches, urging me to come over.

He was reserved the morning I left, watching me in silence as I washed the dishes, his eyes unreadable. As I finished and turned around, his body pinned mine to the sink.

“Don’t forget, I’m thinking of you.” He pulled the top of my blouse closed; one side, then another and ran his fingers down my arm over the bruised skin. I tensed, held my breath for a few seconds. “I hate the thought of all those men staring at you.”

“It’s just a conference.”

He stared, moving his features deliberately to show that he was searching for something. “Will there be anyone there I know?”

“Like who?”

“Well … any exes that I should be aware of? Any hidden skeletons?”

“What? No,” I tutted softly.

“What about your boss? He’s always had a thing for you.” Again, his face searched mine.

“No he hasn’t.”

“You got a promotion pretty quick.”

“And that’s nothing to do with my research, you think?”

He threw his arms open. “Of course it is. You know what? We’ve never really celebrated that. Why don’t I come with you and we can go to Paris after, make a long weekend of it?”

“I have to get back Nick. I’ve got lectures on Monday.”

“I’ll make it worth your while.” He lowered his voice and wrapped his hands around my hips. “It’ll be romantic …”

“No, really,” I shook my head, “let’s leave it for now.” I pushed him away, gently, so the rage didn’t rise. “I have to pack. My flight.”

The anticipation of freedom, of being able to take a breath when I got away from him has eluded me, and now there is a restlessness stirring in my bones. I haven’t socialised with anyone this year. Instead, I’ve left the conference swiftly each afternoon to pace the streets of Rouen, ignoring any text and phone messages, replying only once when I got here: Am fine. Hotel fine. Speak when I get back. x.

For four nights, sleep too has eluded me. It has come in snatches, light and spiralling downward so that my body jerks me back into the room filled with flickering television lights. My dreams are filled with images of me running to catch a train that is steaming away from the station – a station I don’t recognise – with the porters clinging to the sides of the carriages, gripping the brass handles and urging me to clamber on board. The only face I can see is kind, black and moustachioed. He is dressed in a way that makes me think it’s the Orient Express, but from the 1940s. I wake and wonder if this type of journey is still possible and the porter’s face remains firmly imprinted in my mind as I stamp through narrow alleys each night, skirting round the homeless clustered throughout the old town.

As I reach Place de la Cathedrale, a fine drizzle appears like string from the top of the cathedral onto the benches and pathways snaking below its bell tower. Amongst the mist, I see the lights of Ali’s Saladerie, it’s windows beginning to steam with the dishes being carved together on the stove. A group of bodies is silhouetted against the bank of windows. One slams a skateboard onto the pavement and pushes it back and forth, grating the cobbles underneath. Small rounds of ash blink amongst them and they stand fixed in front of the door as I try to enter.

Excuse-moi.” I see now that they are all boys, and one moves a fraction to let me in.

This is my fifth and final night in the city, and each night I have eaten here. The waiter nods as I enter and I nod in return. Every table is taken, so I sit at the counter overlooking the chef. As soon as I sit, the place feels claustrophobic. My jumper scratches at my neck and the air is hot and thick with cooking fumes. I order and as I wait for my food, I thumb through my text messages and see that there is something new: Looking forward to seeing u. Have surprise for u. My heart is ill at the thought of seeing him.

While eating, I recognise a woman I saw yesterday. In a small boutique near Rue Socrate, whilst looking at jumpers, she emerges from the changing rooms. Her burgundy dress is tight and cuts across her body, showing the shape of breasts perfectly. She is tall – upright and proud – and admires her own figure slowly and with surety in the full-length mirror. She moves her hands over her behind, then over her breasts. “C’est une belle robe,” say the two assistants, who have stopped to watch her.

I move to another rack, passing a mirror, and catch my reflection. The dark, oversized jumper hides the shape of my upper body. My trousers, sagging at the hips, are wet from the knees down. My coat sleeves almost cover my hands. The entire outfit has been chosen by Nick. Years before, my hair used to flow in curls into the small of my back, so that men stared, but is now almost permanently scraped back into a rough bun, tied with a cheap hairband. “Maybe not the right look for a woman your age,” he started saying, until my hair was cut and tamed, my body covered, and I was tethered. I look again at the woman. She is in another outfit: a lilac silk camisole, a tight, cream pencil skirt. She is almost certainly older than me by several years, but she exudes youth. Her hair is wavy and dances on her back as she adjusts herself. Remember? says a voice in my head, and I watch her for several more minutes, but can’t bring myself to look at my reflection again.

That night, when sleep comes, it comes with a dawning. It’s 2am and I’m watching a poorly dubbed film. The girl is heartbroken; moody, dependent and foolish. She believes she loves her man more than her own life. I can see that this is what we’re supposed to feel, to love someone more than life itself. I understand that he thinks he feels that way about me, that his choke is actually love.

Today, waking from a fitful sleep, I lie looking at the line of daybreak through the curtains. “Enough,” I whisper into the shaft of light and forget my duties for the day. Instead, I stop inside l’église Sainte Jeanne D’Arc and glimpse the features of the saint trapped in the curves of the stained glass. Her colours flutter over my body and I close my eyes to feel warmth on my face for the first time in days. I’m there for an hour and when I step outside, it feels like I’m coming out of hibernation. I go back to the boutique and am surprised when the assistants recognise me. I pick up the burgundy dress and take it to the cubicle. I pull my jumper over my head with a slight crackle, and leave my trousers on the floor, stepping on them as I carefully slip the dress over my shoulders and wrap its softness around my waist with a small knot. I try on a baby-blue, cashmere cardigan, jeans and a wool jacket. The clothes are tight and smooth around my curves and I am breathless looking at my forgotten shape.

And now, the woman from the boutique is here, in the café, with a flash of burgundy showing beneath her tailored coat. She doesn’t know what she started in me. In a butter-like Italian accent, she asks for l’addition and is met with a smile from the men around her, her stilted French earning her much praise. They ask if she will come again tomorrow. “Non.” She shakes her glossy mane. She is at a conference, she says, and I stiffen and turn my face away. This is her last night and she is taking a train to Italy in the morning. She turns back to the rest of the café – her audience – to wave and the waiters wave back and mouth “Au revoir, merci,” over the din. The boys are still outside, dragging on their cigarettes, and part to let her through.

I finish my meal and head back. Hearing the woman’s voice has roused an urgency that makes me want to leave the city immediately. I walk quickly past unlit doorways, placing a scarf over my nose to dampen the smells that come drifting across my path. From the Vieux Marche, I turn into the hotel courtyard and a group of students recognise me. They stop for small talk, and as they walk away I ask “Where are you from?”

“Trieste. Italiano,” they call back.

As they disappear to start their evening, thunder claps overhead and sheets of rain come down hard. I turn to face the hotel reception and there he is, through the window, and I start. I’m frozen, in the rain, glaring at his face as he watches television and eats a sandwich at the bar. He is here. He has found me. He is waiting, and all I can do is stare. I stand for a long time until the receptionist comes out with an umbrella and manoeuvres me inside.

He stands, smiling. “Hi baby.”

“What …?” I shake my head, “I thought …” I feel the strength I found earlier hiss away.

“You’ve been a long time, where’ve you been?”

“Eating.” I shiver in spite of the warmth of the hotel lobby.

“Who with? Who are they?’ He jerks his head to the empty courtyard. He must have seen me talking.

“Students, from the conference.”

The receptionist hands me my key and I turn and walk to the lift. He follows, saying in a low voice, “You don’t seem very happy, anyone would think you don’t want me around.” In the lift, he eyes my body. I rest my head against the mirrored walls and watch the lights take me to the fourth floor.

“I asked you not to come,” I say, pushing past the slowly opening steel door. In the room, I slump onto a chair and hot tears slide down my cheeks. “Why are you here?”

“I told you, we’re going to celebrate your promotion, go to Paris.”

“I already told you, I can’t.”

“Well, you see, I checked with your mum. You’ve got some time off she says. Funny, you never mentioned it.”

A tightness forms around my chest and I look at him. “I don’t want to go to Paris.” Then quietly, to the floor, “I want you to leave me alone.”

“Why would I do that babe? You know you’re mine now. You’re my girl.” He’s on the floor, kneeling in front of me as I wipe tears across my face. “Why the tears babe?” He holds my shoulders and shakes them a little. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” When I sob in return, he speaks again but with steel in his voice, “Aren’t. You. Glad. To see me?” I nod. He gets up, switches on the television, slips off his shoes and lies on the bed, and all the while, I’m crying, thinking of the Italian woman and of my own reflection.

We are silent for a long time until I stand and take my sodden coat off. My suitcase lies open with clothes stacked in each half. A flutter of hope rises when I realise that I have packed my new clothes away earlier; he has seen nothing.

“I have to do things for the closing session tomorrow,” I say, my cheeks burning, and spread papers out across the desk, bed and suitcase. He is oblivious to what I’m doing, happy in the knowledge that he has locked me away tonight.

“What time is check-out?”

“Eleven.” I continue to shuffle papers. If I look at him now, he’ll see the quivering in my chest.

“So we can get up late.”

“Well, you can.” The quivering has helped me tune my voice. “I have to run a session tomorrow, someone dropped out and they asked if I could step in. But I should be back here before twelve.” I can feel his eyes on my back. I turn to him, “Or you could meet me at the conference, after you’ve checked out?” He is reassured by this, by the idea that he remains my shadow. His face eases and he returns to the television screen.

He has brought wine, and I say “No, I need a clear head for the morning, for the session.” But I stay up, wide-eyed, watching war films with him until he eventually falls asleep, the entire bottle consumed by him. I creep to the suitcase, pull out my new clothes, and place them in a pile near the door. It’s 3am before I fall into a shaky sleep, waking every hour until I cannot lie still any more. At 6am, I pad to the door, put on my new jeans, the blue cardigan buttoned over a bra and the wool jacket. I fold my burgundy dress into the smallest square and put it into my handbag, next to my passport, purse and phone. I collect the papers I need to keep me sane on the journey. In the dark bathroom, with its cold tiles and haunting mirror, I know that I must go now. Now, before he wakes. Whatever I have in the bathroom, l leave. My old jumper, trousers and coat are still on hangers; my suitcase lies open. I crouch by the door, pull on my socks then zip up my boots slowly to soften the ripping sound. I pull the door handle gently and slip through the slimmest gap I can make for myself without letting in the stark hallway light. I do not look back.

Outside, the sky is the cobalt of dawn. Rue Jeanne d’Arc’s lamplight guides me past Square Verdrel to the station lit in the distance. I stride, almost jog. My feet are light; there is little baggage. I dash across Rue Verte and onto the station concourse. When I reach the counter, I ask the woman if I can get to Italy from Paris. “Oui madame, a Paris Bercy, près de la Gare De Lyon.” She sells me two tickets. Arrivée Roma Termini is printed on one, and a trembling begins inside me. I’m on the direct train to Paris and my heart is rattling in my ears for most of the journey, past the graffiti-daubed buildings and stretches of flat land, until la Tour Eiffel flickers between offices and apartments.

I step outside St Lazare station; the air is crisp and the sky clean. The morning is spent at Printemps: new luggage, shoes, underwear. When I reach Bercy station, I am humming with nerves. The fluttering in my stomach is permanent since the abuse began at lunchtime. I eat at Cafe Chambertin, fragile from the morning, and climb the stairs to the concrete and glass structure, where I am directed to the lounge upstairs. Dusk comes late in the afternoon, giving me time to sit in the deep leather chairs, with my feet tucked under me, and watch the passengers below. I imagine him waking up to an empty room and beginning to pack my things, wondering why my coat is still hanging there. I imagine him checking out, and the receptionist not meeting his gaze. I see him waiting at the conference and the fury that follows, the fury that is always there.

I study the trains and know that when my train comes, my carriage will be the third one along. When it arrives, I walk along the platform slowly, glancing in at the berths. The sky is punctured by platform lights and the passengers’ feet are hidden by steam rising from the tracks. “Madame,” says the inspector, tipping his hat and guiding me on-board. I watch France speed past my window until my bunk is lowered and I am rocked into a deep sleep. I do not dream; my mind is clear. 

Nilam Ashra-McGrath is a writer and researcher for the non-profit sector. She is currently writing a book based on her summer writing residency at Huddersfield Library. You can read extracts of her book on her blog (http://nilamsnet.wordpress.com/category/writer-in-residence-2/). She also writes a blog dedicated to anyone living and working overseas, who are feeling homesick (http://feelinghomesick.wordpress.com/) for the UK. Rouen is her first piece of published fiction.



Litro #111: France

Cover design by Luke Bright

Table of Contents

November 2011

Editor’s Letter Katy Darby

Short Stories Pierre Michon – “The Lightness of Suibhne” Michel Houellebecq – “I Feel Like Giving Up” Layla Hendow – “La Maison De Dieu” Susanna Crossman – “The Pull of the Moon

Book Extracts Agnès Desarthe – from The Foundling Faïza Guène – from Bar Balto Marcel Aymé – from While Waiting

Poetry Michel Houellebecq – “In the Service of Blood

Nonfiction Dany Laferrière – an extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking

Art Steven Appleby – “How to Speak French

Listings Alex James




Litro #111: France – Editor’s Letter

Click for Contents

The relationship between the English and the French—our one-time conquerors, trade rivals, enemies, allies, and nearest neighbours in Europe–has always been complicated. Since 1066 France and the French have been a powerful influence on England, and many aristocratic families still carry the noble Norman “de” before their surnames. French is classy; French is posh; French, above all, is chic.

The Brits have always envied the French for their fantastic food, effortless style (Chanel, Hermès, Balmain, Cardin, Givenchy…), clever, sexy films, and what we see as their laissez-faire, not to say louche attitude towards sex and life in general. Our own language borrows heavily from French to express what English has no word for, as I’ve just demonstrated. The clichéd (another French loan-word) image of the Frenchman may be a beret-wearing Breton sporting a string of onions, but in reality we’re far more likely to picture the elegance of Catherine Deneuve, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fin-de-siècle can-can paintings, or a smouldering Alain Delon.

French literature has always had plenty to offer, from the swashbuckling sagas of Dumas to the science-fiction adventures of Jules Verne; from Francoise Sagan’s teen cri-de-coueur Bonjour Tristesse to, more recently, the mischievous metamorphoses of Marie Dariussecq. In the following pages you’ll see another side of novelist Michel Houllebecq, one of the best-known contemporary French authors, who contributes two poems; we’re also proud to present a new nonfiction translation of Francophone Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, who was in Port-au-Prince when last year’s earthquake struck, and who writes about his experience sharply and profoundly in Everything around me is shaking.

Other emerging and established French writers featured in this issue include hip French-Algerian enfant terrible Faïza Guène, radically different short story writers Marcel Aymé and Pierre Michon, and Agnès Desarthe, with a moving extract from her prize-winning novel The Foundling. Susanna Crossman, a writer living in North-West France, contributes a meditation on family and loneliness in The Pull of the Moon, and we’re also delighted to publish La Maison de Dieu, a story of faith and redemption from this year’s winner of the Litro and IGGY International Short Story Award, Layla Hendow.

There’s plenty more great writing to explore on our website, where you’ll discover tourists, bohemians, artists and even a new take on Joan of Arc in our online exclusives and audio stories, updated weekly.

C’est tout! Au revoir – until our next issue.




Pierre Michon – The Lightness of Suibhne

In the Annals of the Four Masters we are told how Suibhne, king of Kildare, has a taste for the things of this world. He is a simple man. His joys and pleasures are simple. He is heavy and coarse, with ugly blonde hair on his head like moss on a stone; and he lacks refinement of mind or spirit. He wages war, eats, laughs, and in every other particular resembles the brown bull of Cooley, which mounts fifty heifers a day. The abbot Fin Barr follows this brute closely and attempts to remind him that Heaven reckons even the weight of a hair. The weight of the soul is far greater. Fin Barr has lived for nine years on the edge of a promontory and for another nine amid the gulls and crows by the lake at Gougane Barra: he is nothing but spirit, with hands as brittle as glass. Curiously, he loves Suibhne, because Suibhne is like a bull or a rock which might have a soul. And Suibhne loves Fin Barr, who makes him feel, on top of the pleasures of this world, the pleasure of having a soul.

[private]Fin Barr’s brother is the king of Lismore. In the month of May, Suibhne takes up arms against this neighbouring king. The pretext matters little: Suibhne wants the king’s drinking cup, his fat cattle and his women. He wants also to stretch his legs and ride out in the springtime. He has sought the counsel of Fin Barr, who told him: Kings fight amongst themselves – that is how it must be. Wage war on the king of Lismore, since he is a king. But if you are victorious, spare my brother – who is also yours, for are we not like brothers, you and me? Suibhne is in a good mood and has given his promise.

The weather is fine as they set out with their embossed shields and polished scabbards. The army in the sun is a glinting stream. The dogs of war chase butterflies and Suibhne sings at the top of his voice. His horse is mighty like him: together they resemble a hill with moss on its summit. Fin Barr, too, is happy. Blood pulses in his hands of glass. He tells himself that, in its jubilation and contentment, the coarse soul of the king is almost fine, clear in any case; and at that very instant the king turns around, seeks him out by sight, finds him, and makes a delicate gesture with his hand. So then, thinks Fin Barr, this one I will save – and if I save this one, even the mountains will be redeemed.

Before the oak woods of Killarney the king of Lismore’s men are assembled. At dawn the woods breathe sweetly. Suibhne, mounted on the greatest horse, among the handsomest warriors, sees his regal counterpart sporting a crow’s feather on his helmet. Suibhne himself wears a white feather but in other regards they are the same. He is glad that both kings are handsome. Thereupon falls a deep silence, heavy waiting, and break of day in the May-time dew. Men hear the first cuckoo. Then none can hear it, for Suibhne has raised his hand and with his gesture summoned thunder. All day long, step by step and joyfully, he closes in on the crow’s feather. At five o’clock, with their forces scattered among the purlieus, they stand face-to-face: they look at one another, laugh, and catch their breaths with a kind of roaring. All of a sudden, the straight warlike fury of Suibhne becomes another kind. The king with the black feather is like a portrait of his brother, thin and hard like him, but with hands of iron rather than fragile glass: and this, bizarrely, doubles Suibhne’s fury. Before his opponent, still laughing, can raise his shield, he runs him through with his sword. He finishes him off with an axe.

In front of the corpse his intoxication fades. Suibhne’s soul returns to him.

Across the forest, the cuckoos call each to each.

Undone, groggy, the king sits on the moss in a clearing. His head is bowed. He lifts it and Fin Barr is standing before him. Suibhne looks at him like a guilty child. For a very long time Fin Barr says nothing; then he speaks his curses. To finish, he says: You will have as brothers only the wolves in the depths of the forest. You have no more soul than they. Fin Barr turns on his heels, Suibhne follows like a dog. At the camp he sits on the ground, his head obstinately bowed, thinking.

In the evening, soldiers about their campfires see the king suddenly rise and flee into the forest like a wolf. He does not return.

Nine years pass. Fin Barr, Abbot of Kildare, is looking for beams to fortify his abbey: in the oak woods of Killarney, he walks from tree trunk to tree trunk with his vassals. They look upwards, make comparisons and choices. In the fork of an oak tree too knotty for purpose, Fin Barr sees, amidst what he took for a tuft of mistletoe, laughing eyes come to life and reveal a face: it is a man who raises his arm and offers the abbot a delicate gesture with his hand. It is the king.

He jumps to the ground. He has upon his shoulder a crow which from time to time, when the king moves, shakes out its wings and then very gravely preens its feathers. Suibhne embraces Fin Barr, he laughs, he caresses him – but he cannot answer his questions: he no longer has the true use of speech. Meantime he appears to speak with his crow, a sort of jargon to which it responds in the jargon of crows. And when this dialogue ceases, the king sings softly, almost without cease. He seems prodigiously happy and absorbed by his happy lot. All day long he follows Fin Barr and his vassals, behind them he too jumps like a crow. When they call a halt, he finds them berries and watercress which he devours with the same avid pleasure which he took in the delicacies of a king, and the crow eats from his mouth. The vassals are overjoyed. Fin Barr is moved, he strokes this bundle of mistletoe and black feathers that was a king. He tells himself that, all in all, his king has not changed in the least. That night for a long time he holds in his long hand the great hand, he lets it go and Suibhne departs hopping towards the wood, looking as if he might fly. They will not see one another again before on one and the other settles the bird of Death.

The Annals of the Four Masters tell that Suibhne, by the Grace of God, was transformed into a bird; that he owed his feathers to the angels, that he snatched the dove upon the wing and spoke the divine Word in the jargon of crows; that he was a saint and a madman, a thing of God. This is not entirely the opinion of Fin Barr, who returns melancholy to Kilmore in the evening, on a cart groaning beneath the weight of logs, with his vassals asleep already among the timbers. Fin Barr does not know what to think. He is happy that Suibhne should rejoice as much in the condition of forest tramp as that of a king, that his joy should be invincible and multiple as that of God. But he cannot decide if it comes from the soul. At the abbot’s feet a diminutive woodcutter talks in his sleep, pained, as though struggling. He is racked by his soul. Fin Barr wonders: is the soul that which makes us whimper in the dark? Or else could it be that which makes us laugh and dance in spite of everything? My king whom I cursed has passionately embraced the only joy available to him. Is that what it is to be a saint? Or is it to be a beast? Is it to be racked by one’s soul, or in thrall to the body? God only knows, and the Four Masters, who have the ear of God.[/private]

The Lightness of Suibhne (pronounced ‘Sweeney’) is taken from Mythologies d’hiver by Pierre Michon, published by Éditions Verdier (1997).

Pierre Michon

Pierre Michon was born in Central France in 1945. He has published ten works of fiction, which have earned him a reputation as one of the finest writers of his generation. His work is starting to appear in translation in English, chiefly in the United States.

Gregory Norminton is a novelist and short story writer. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. His translations include Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, published by Oneworld Classics.




Michel Houellebecq – I Feel Like Giving Up

I feel like giving up, and collapse on the back seat. But the wheels of need start turning again. The evening’s ruined, maybe the week, maybe even the rest of my life, but I’ll still need to go out again and get booze.

In Tesco a few yummy mummies are wondering in the aisles, refined and sexed up like peahens. There are probably a few men there too, but who cares? You can give up on small talk as much as you like, a vagina is still an opening.

I went up the stairs, clutching my litre of rum in its plastic bag. I’m killing myself, I can see that, my teeth have started to crumble. And when I look at women, why do they run away? Do they think I plead too much, or I’m desperate, have too much anger, or look like a perv? I’ve no idea. Probably never will. And that’s the tragedy.

Taken from The Art of Struggle by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, published by Alma Books at £10.99 (www.almabooks.com)

Michel Houllebecq

Michel Houellebecq lives in County Cork, Ireland. He is the bestselling author of Atomised, Platform, Whatever and The Possibility of an Island. He is also a poet, essayist and rap artist.

Delphine Grass has written a doctoral thesis entitled The Poetics of Humanity in the Novels of Michel Houellebecq at University College London. Her poetry has been published in various French and English-language journals. She is a member of the A Verse poetry group based in La Sorbonne, Paris.

Timothy Mathews is Professor of French and Comparative Criticism at University College London. He is author of Reading Apollinaire. Theories of Poetic Language (Manchester University Press 1987 and 1990), and Literature, Art and the Pursuit of Decay in Twentieth-Century France (Cambridge University Press 2000 and 2006).




Layla Hendow – La Maison De Dieu

I

There walked the priest: through the stone archway of a watchtower in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, underneath the blood-red cliffs scorched by an ancient sun. He was close enough to the Argens River to have felt its cooling wind, had there been one that day. He was alone. The rain had started early that morning and bounced upon the cobbled pavement like it was landing on a frozen lake. The old streets that ran between buildings themselves even older became narrow as he walked. They guided him to the entrance of l’eglise de Roquebrune-sur-Argens.

The old man sighed. He looked up at the sky, a gunmetal grey, and then at the godless world around him. He thought it bleaker than he ever thought possible. The building he was trying to open was more similar to a ruin than a church and he imagined the rain could dissolve the very foundations of the stone.

 

II

The priest shook off his cape when he entered the church; the sleeves of his fading cassock stained with rain. On the table, there was a handwritten notice on thick brown paper. It read:

            Bienvenue!

            Eglise de Roquebrune-sur-Argens

            Diocese de Fréjus-Toulon

            “La maison de Dieu”

            Horaire des Messes:

            Le dimanche: 10h30 (avec orgue)

The note lying beside it asked him to nail the sign to the door. He put down the piece of paper. He did not go.

Instead, he made his way down the church to the altar: two unlit candles lay on its smooth, white marbled surface. The wax had melted down the sides of the candles some time ago, hardening into a strange new sculpture. A row of women undressing. The man frowned at this thought. He knew that time had forgotten this place, that time moved forward, but the church was forgotten. The wax had hardened and no one had ever thought to remove it. God had been forgotten somewhere along the line.

The man began to speak, closing his eyes as though he could see the words resting beneath them. He held his hands in front of him, imagining the roughness of the paper-thin bread and the weight of the wine-cup.

Panis triticeus … vinum de vite …’

 

III

As the priest turned to lock the Eucharist behind its golden gates, he heard the wooden doors of the church swing open quickly. For a split second he heard again the world outside.

Je suis très désolé,’ he called out. ‘La masse commence à dix heures et demi.

He heard the light click of a woman’s heels inside the shadows of the far end of the church.

‘Hello? Bonjour?’ She spoke in a textbook French accent. ‘L’anglais, s’il vous plait,’ she said meekly. She was seemingly lost in the vastness of the pews.

Suddenly she appeared from the shadows in the North Aisle. He stared at the girl in surprise. Her hair was parted centrally and fell in black waves over her petite shoulders. Sunglasses were placed upon her head like a crown, despite the rain beyond those walls, and a large, professional camera dangled from her neck. She wore little red gloves, which she took off carefully and placed on the table next to the door to dry.

L’anglais?’ she asked again, unsure what the man’s silence could otherwise mean.

‘Yes,’ the priest said slowly. ‘I said you were early. Mass does not begin until ten thirty. You weren’t to know.’

‘Oh no!’ she said, letting out a small, child-like giggle. ‘I’m not here for mass. I’m not even a Christian. I was wondering if I could take some photographs of your beautiful church.’

She stood and rocked on her feet before the priest nodded slowly.

‘Will you give me a tour?’ she paused. ‘S’il vous plait? I will be finished so much quicker,’ she added, sensing his agitation.

‘Of course…’ He found himself nodding again. ‘Mais ce n’est pas la Notre Dame de Paris…’ he said under his breath.

They began to walk to the back of the church, taking the route he had walked so many times before.

‘Oh, I cannot stand Paris!’ she said, like she had just finished translating the words one by one in her head and was exceedingly pleased with herself. ‘Too busy! Too many people. I despise people … photography is my passion, but not of people. I love churches …’

She spoke quickly and seemed to be talking to herself. He could not help it. He cleared his throat and asked her why.

‘Why?’ She let out that same strange giggle, which distracted him. ‘Because they are beautiful! Especially the old ones. They represent a community that has existed for hundreds of years, and that without the church as its leader would not exist. It is somewhat inspiring, don’t you think? The church is like a womb … it is the last remains of true family in this world.’

‘But … I thought you said you weren’t a Christian?’

‘I’m not. But just because I don’t believe in God does not mean I can’t believe in the power of the church. The power it has to create hope. Just look at this window …’

The girl diverted, walking through a set of pews to the stained-glass window on the wall above. She was mesmerized by it and her mouth hung slightly open. The priest took this opportunity to look at her. He thought she was beautiful. The light from the stained-glass window cut shards of red across her face and shoulders, so when she smiled she looked like the image of the devil himself. He was taken aback: in all of the Cité Millénaire he did not think such beauty existed. As she spoke about the history of the figure of Jesus on the cross he realised it was not him leading the tour, but her.

So the church appeared new: like the first time he had entered it as a child. How infinite the walls had seemed! And how, now that he was older, he had begun to feel part of the stone itself. The ornate paintings on the wall and roof were suddenly the pieces of art he had once fallen in love with. The structure of the pews and the stone archways, which led to the chambers, were striking and each curve was like that of a woman’s figure. He followed as the girl’s camera led them through the church.

 

IV

As the bells rang, the priest got up from the pew. When the girl left, he had knelt down and begun to pray. He prayed for God to forgive his sins. He prayed for the family and friends he had not seen in years. He prayed for the girl; that she might never believe in God. He did not want her to change, but to stay exactly the way she was.

Walking to the doors, he passed the notice still on the table. He picked it up.

La maison de Dieu,’ he read aloud. The House of God.

Next to the notice, there lay two small, red gloves. The priest laughed. He grabbed the nail and hammer and opened the door.

 

La Maison de Dieu was the winner of the 2011 Litro/IGGY International Young Persons’ Short Story award.

 

Layla Hendow

Layla Hendow is a student reading English Literature at university. She enjoys writing poetry and short stories and hopes to be a writer in later life. She has recently had poems published in Aesthetica magazine and Acumen magazine, and was featured in two anthologies by Forward Press last year.




Susanna Crossman – The Pull of the Moon

In the morning, Madeleine awakes from a dream that smells of boiled eggs. She lies under the covers, tired for a moment and then remembers that today is Friday. Today is Friday. She smiles, feels a pain in her lower back and slowly eases her sturdy legs from under linen sheets and woollen blankets. Her gnarled toes touch the cold white tiled floor. ‘You should get a duvet,’ her daughter Florence has told her a hundred times before ringing off, ‘Au revoir maman, bisous.’ Kisses land on the lines of her soft plump cheeks. [private]‘And Camille?’ Madeleine asks, but Florence has gone again, she is always saying goodbye, ‘I have to go maman, je t’embrasse.’ Madeleine edges feet into worn slippers. She has sewn the edges back to the heavy brown felt soles. ‘Make do,’ her mother told her, ‘Waste not, want not.’ Madeleine grew up in the war; she can paint walls, darn, stitch, cook from scratch, milk a cow, knit a jumper, repair shoes, drive a tractor, pluck a chicken and plant and harvest a field of potatoes. From her small seaside flat she now watches the tides rise and fall.

Florence and her husband Pierre chose the flat, moved her house and packed her boxes. ‘You’ll be so, so happy maman,’ her daughter smiles. ‘Move while you’re young, you can make new friends, you can’t live alone in the middle of nowhere. Papa has been gone such a long time now.’ Madeline tries, joins clubs for broderie, stretching, crossword puzzles, local heritage. She tries not to miss the soft chestnut parquet floor that she polished every week on a Tuesday afternoon, the warm smell of a nesting chicken, the empty space on Patrick’s chair. She tries to smile, to nod and is quickly put off by the banter and the lack of air. ‘Réspire,’ her father would say to her as a child, ‘Breathe in and then breathe out, but slowly, then they cannot see your fear.’

Madeleine slips her dressing gown from the back of the door. It hangs on a coat-hanger, blue and worn, subdued. She ties a knot by her hip and takes a look out of the window. ‘Look at the view,’ Florence says when they first visit the flat. ‘Grandma!’ her granddaughter Camille cries out ‘The sea, the sea, la mer!’ The sea stretches out to a blurred blue and grey horizon. The sea is like a mouse today, gently waiting. Madeleine smiles; it is high tide and waves are lapping the shore. It is six o’clock.

She walks to the kitchen and stands by the table, her thick stubby fingers smooth the tea-towel hanging on the back of the chair. She puts water in a saucepan to boil, takes a bowl from the cupboard, fetches the Ricorée, gets a spoon from a drawer, puts the powder in the bowl, pours in the boiled water, sits down at the table and drinks. Madeleine’s life is folded as neatly as her ironed piles of handkerchiefs, stacked in the corner of a darkened wardrobe. It is the morning.

It is the morning and Madeleine eats bread with butter. She finishes and wipes the crumbs from the table and washes her teaspoon, the knife and the bowl. She returns to her bedroom and dresses. She wears a brown skirt, blue tights, a pale blue jumper and a red scarf, a present from Camille. ‘You like red,’ she says to her grandma at Christmas. ‘Red is the colour of revolution,’ Madeleine’s father always says, ‘Do not forget, that red is the colour of the people.’ He wraps big arms around her mother’s broad waist as she stirs the evening soup. ‘Stuff and nonsense,’ she replies. ‘The people should choose their colour, that’s the point.’

Madeleine’s mother wears bright red lipstick to her daughter’s wedding on an early summer’s day. ‘You seem so young,’ she whispers in her daughter’s ear, hidden under the veil, ‘Remember that Patrick is only a man and you are only a woman. Remember to be happy.’ That night the sheets are stained burnt crimson and Patrick snores as Madeleine listens to the sound of her breath in the night and nurses sore thighs.

Madeleine puts on her coat and walks out of her flat, locking the door behind her. The March wind is brisk and cold; she pulls her scarf around her neck, clutches her bag. She glances at the sea and nods; the tide is going out. In the distance she can hear the gentle clinking of the sailboats, of rope against metal. She walks along the beach and then left up the street to the boulangerie. She enters and the bell jangles,

Bonjour Madame,’ she says.

Bonjour Madame. Half a baguette as usual?’ asks the dark-haired woman from behind the counter.

‘No, Two baguettes please, and I’d like to order deux pain au chocolat for tomorrow morning and four Paris-Brest for Sunday.’ The baker’s wife smiles ‘You have visitors?’

Oui, oui,’ says Madeleine quickly. She takes the baguettes, pays and leaves the shop in an uncomfortable jangle, ‘Merci, thank-you, au revoir.’

She walks on to the market where she buys the first spring radishes, primrose-yellow butter, little charlotte potatoes and a chicken. She chooses six eggs, puts them in a box and thinks of cake. On the way home, she stops at the little supermarket, gets flour and strange yoghurts with Smarties. ‘Camille loves them,’ Florence sighs, ‘You can’t fight against the tide of progress.’ She licks her lips, ‘Promise me you’ll get yourself a new coat, I can order one from the catalogue, I’ve got 20 percent off the spring collection. Maman, fais-toi plaisir, treat yourself.’

Patrick stands heavy by the bed, red-eyed, ‘Give me the money you stupid woman.’ She hands over her handbag, too exhausted to argue, six months pregnant with Florence. He takes the francs from her purse and slams the door; she can hear him muttering in the street. Madeleine is ashamed of what the neighbours will think; she didn’t know that men could be like this. Patrick is burnt inside and out from the war. He has a thick purple scar across his back. He cries in his sleep when he isn’t snoring. Madeleine strokes his brow as he whimpers; her fingers try to smooth away the trampling fiends.

Back in her flat, Madeleine takes off her coat and hangs it in the wardrobe. From another coat hanger she takes a nylon button-through overall which she fastens over her solid waist. It is low tide now, twelve o’clock.  She fetches a mixing bowl, a spoon and a measuring jug. She mixes sugar and butter, adds eggs and flour, powdered almonds. She spoons the mixture into a greased tray, little rectangular sponge cakes, financiers. She thinks of how she will make hot chocolate and Camille will dip cakes into the sweet brown liquid. They will smile, hair blown into tangles from the sea breeze, cheeks apple bright from the spray.

Madeleine makes herself a light lunch, a slice of ham, a tomato, and une salade verte. She eats a yoghurt for dessert and has a cup of coffee, which she takes into her living room. Every day, she sits and watches the ebb and the flow of the sea. Her day is measured by the pull of the moon. The beach is empty. The sun catches on the watery sand and the pebbles; a glittering, blinding landscape. She can smell the cakes cooking in the oven. She sips hot black liquid from a little cup and feels a slight twinge in her lower back.

‘Go on,’ her friend Marie-Catherine says, holding out a packet of Gitanes blondes, ‘Go on, have one.’ Madeleine has never smoked. She is wearing a red skirt sprinkled with daisies. It is September and it’s raining. She takes a cigarette, smiling shyly at her friend. She lights the end, inhales and coughs. They are sitting in Marie-Catherine’s kitchen drinking coffee and peeling apples for compote. Florence is at school. Patrick is harvesting the potatoes. It is autumn; the orchards are full of fruit. Madeleine tries to smoke and peel and the knife falls and cuts her hand. A drop of blood settles on a crisp white slice of apple.

When Madeleine finishes her coffee, she takes the cup and saucer to the kitchen. She goes to the oven to check the cakes. They are ready. She takes the tea-towel from the back of the chair and slides the hot dish onto the work surface. The cakes are golden and brown. She washes her plate, her knife, her fork, her spoon and her little cup and saucer. She sits down on the chair and looks at the clock; it is nearly two. She must start making dinner. They will be arriving at six o’clock. Florence will be leaving Camille here and then going to spend the weekend at a hotel with Pierre. She has not seen Camille since Christmas.

On Sunday, Pierre, Florence, Camille and Madeleine will eat their lunch together. Madeleine will make roast chicken with little roast potatoes and a green salad with goat’s cheese followed by chocolate Paris-Brest, the big cream cakes that Florence adores. ‘You will order the Paris-Brest, maman?’ Florence asks. ‘Of course, my dear,’ Madeleine replies, and she knows that Pierre will shake his head when he sees the cakes. He will say that Florence should ‘Be careful, fais attention,’ as the weight will fall on her hips. Pierre is slim with tightly-drawn lips and plays tennis every week. His stomach is flat.

Madeleine is small and plump with a mole on her chin. Her hair is wiry and grey and short. She goes every month on a Thursday to see her hairdresser Nathalie. Nathalie is slim, blonde and pretty. She massages Madeleine’s tired old head when she washes her hair. ‘It’s not too hot?’ she asks as the water flows. ‘Pas trop chaud?’ ‘Non, non,’ Madeleine replies and lets Nathalie’s fingers work their way along her scalp, around the nape of her neck. She wishes this could last forever, the water, the hands, the tender kneading of soft tissue and bone.

Madeleine gets up from her chair and eases the cakes from their metal shells. She fetches a Tupperware and puts the cakes in the plastic box. ‘What would Camille like for dinner?’ she asks Florence. ‘Pasta, les pâtes, les pâtes,’ Florence says, laughing. ‘Don’t fuss maman, give her pasta, I have to go.’ Madeleine can hear Pierre muttering in the background. She does not want to feed her granddaughter pasta, she will make a purée maison, she has bought the potatoes especially. She will feed Camille homemade mashed potatoes and grilled sausages. She wants to put weight on the little urban bones.

She takes the potatoes from a sack in the cupboard. ‘Never put potatoes in the fridge,’ her mother said when the huge humming white metal boxes arrived in their kitchens. ‘The vegetables need a little warmth, the cold kills the taste.’ Madeleine goes to her fridge and takes out milk and butter. There are scant provisions on the shelves, this morning’s purchases; the strange Smartie desserts, the chicken, the radishes, a lettuce, green beans, goat’s cheese, plain yoghurts, a few slices of ham. Madeleine eats little, but does not seem to lose weight. The flesh hangs on her skeleton, a thick immobile layer like a heavy winter coat that she cannot remove.

She takes a knife from the drawer and puts the radio on. It’s nearly time for her daily quiz show. It’s the local radio station and they are talking about computers and Madeleine does not understand. This is part of growing old, she thinks, when the world speaks a language you no longer comprehend. Her husband Patrick would not even use a bank card to pay for the shopping at the supermarket. He cried when they took him from his farm to the hospital to die. ‘I want to die on my land, ma terre,’ he said.

It’s a computer mamie,’ Camille giggles ‘A computer, grandma.’ She takes Madeleine into her bedroom at Christmas and sits in front of the screen. Camille is proud of her new plastic box. The little girl’s fingers tap on the keyboard, her pupils enlarge, she moves the mouse and is lost in the phosphorescent surface. ‘Yes, Camille,’ her grandma answers, watching, and sits heavily on the pink princess duvet cover on her granddaughter’s bed.

It is three o’clock in the afternoon. The radio quiz has finished; Madeleine managed to answer a lot of the questions, she was always good at General Knowledge. She can still recite the 100 French départements, including those situated overseas. She spreads a sheet of newspaper on her kitchen table. She puts the knife and the potatoes on the paper. She takes a saucepan from a cupboard, fills it with water, adds salt and puts it on the gas ring. She takes matches, lights the gas ring under the saucepan and sits at the table to peel the potatoes. She removes the brown skin in neat thin slices. By the time she has peeled ten potatoes the salted water is boiling. She drops them one by one into the saucepan. The telephone rings. She walks into the living room and looks out at the sea. The tide is rising. She picks up the receiver. It is her daughter, Florence.

‘Hello maman.’

Hello darling.’

Maman, Pierre has a problem with work. I am sorry, we won’t be coming this weekend. I’ll ring this evening and we’ll book another time soon. We’ll try to come before the summer. I’m sorry I can’t talk for long. I’ll ring this evening. I’ve got to go. Kisses maman, bisous.’

‘Au revoir, Florence.’

Madeleine puts the phone down. She looks out at the sea. The tide is coming in. She walks into the kitchen and turns off the heat under the saucepan. She takes the pile of peel in the bundle of newspaper and puts it in the bin. She stands by the table and her thick stubby fingers smooth the tea-towel hanging on the back of the chair. Madeleine closes the kitchen door. She takes the tea-towel from the back of the chair and pushes it into the gap at the bottom of the door. She closes the kitchen window. She opens the oven door, she turns the gas on, and she eases her head inside the oven, smelling the soft, sweet vapours. She closes her eyes and feels a pain in her lower back. She lies on the cold white tiled floor, her gnarled toes shift inside her brown felt slippers. Slowly, she falls asleep.

At six o’clock in the evening the tide is high, the waves are lapping the shore. Madeleine does not mash her potatoes; she does not grill her sausages. The little rectangular sponge cakes wait in the plastic box on the kitchen surface. Camille will not eat them. In the fridge the chicken sits with goat’s cheese, the lettuce, the radishes, the Smartie desserts, the yoghurts, the ham and the green beans. Madeleine’s telephone rings; it is Florence. Madeleine does not answer the telephone. In the distance is the sound of the gentle clinking of the sailboats, of rope falling against metal.[/private]

Susanna Crossman

Susanna Crossman is a writer, drama-therapist and lecturer based in North-Western France. She has just completed her first novel, Walking on Stone. She also writes short stories (Glimmertrain, Pygmy Giant, Bristol prize short-list) and plays (Festival Mythos, Compagnie VO). Her academic work has been published internationally (Elsevier Masson, Frank & Timme, Kangwon University). Read more at: www.susanna-crossman.blogspot.com




An extract from The Foundling by Agnès Desarthe

‘A fireball cartwheeling right across the road, then, suddenly, after the bend, blat! Into a tree. This fireball smashes into the trunk and burns the lot, leaves, branches, even the roots. I thought it was like some paranormal phenomenon. But actually it was the boy. The boy on his bike. Apparently that don’t never happen, bikes catching fire like that, for no reason, but it happened then. I was there. I watched it from above, from the bridge over the main road. That’s where I saw it. A fireball.’

[private]Jerome is rereading the eye-witness account in the local paper. His hands are shaking. His stomach too. He reads it yet again, wonders why the journalist didn’t ‘massage’ the words of this Yvette Réhurdon, farm labourer. For a moment he manages to take his mind off it by imagining the editors’ meeting during which they agreed to transcribe, verbatim, the words recorded onto a pocket tape-recorder by the primary school teacher who writes their news-in-brief column in her spare time.

Almost immediately the trembling, which had subsided, starts up again. Jerome wants to cry, he thinks it would be a release, but his tears won’t come. The boy wasn’t his son, he was his daughter’s sweetheart.

Is that what you say, sweetheart? He doesn’t know. How did Marina put it? My boyfriend? No. She said Armand.

Jerome is sitting in the living room and, through his daughter’s closed bedroom door, he can hear sobs, moans, occasionally a cry. He has no idea what he is supposed to do.

Before leaving for work this morning he went to see her. He turned the handle very softly, so as not to wake her, just in case. But she was not asleep. She was lying on her front, crying. He went over to her.

He thought he might stroke her shoulder. But when Marina heard him, she looked up. Jerome saw her face and fled.

It’s completely natural for her to resent me, he thought. Why isn’t it me who’s dead? That would be easier. That would be normal.

Jerome is fifty-six years old. And the boy, how old was he? Eighteen, like Marina? Maybe nineteen.

Armand.

Such a pretty sounding name, Armand.

Jerome fiddles with the fish-shaped placemat in the middle of the table while his thoughts wander. He puts the newspaper down. He would like to read the account of the accident once more. He daren’t. What’s the point? There was nothing left of the boy. A boot buckle, perhaps. The zip from his jacket.

Jerome thinks of Edith Piaf’s song about a man on a motorbike in a leather jacket. Hates himself for being so easily distracted. He wishes he could be submerged in grief, inhabiting it, like Marina. But his mind gallivants around. He comes up with all sorts of rubbish. Perhaps, he thinks, if he reads the interview with Yvette Réhurdon, farm labourer, enough times, he will eventually manage to concentrate.

Why bother? He doesn’t know. He feels he is expected to give some sort of reaction. But what sort? And who is expecting it? Who is waiting for him to react? He has been living alone with Marina since Paula left him. That was four years ago.

Paula, that was a pretty name too, Jerome says to himself.

He loathes being in this state. Mawkish and aimless. But he can’t do anything about it. He feels he is no longer in control. He is coasting. Death has that effect. It’s very powerful, death.

No. I really can’t be thinking crap like that, he tells himself. But he is. That’s exactly what he’s thinking, that death is powerful. He thinks it with the same intensity as when, three seconds ago, he thought Paula was a pretty name. Paula was also a pretty woman. He still doesn’t understand why she married him.

If she were here she would know exactly how to handle this. She would run her daughter a bath, talk to her, give her a hand massage. She would let fresh air in through the window. Tell her all sorts of twaddle about the soul, about memories we hold inside us for ever which give us strength, and about life which picks us all up again eventually.

Jerome admires her. How does she do it?

He always felt that Paula had unravelled the great mystery of … all the great mysteries, in fact. After the separation she bought herself a cottage in a picturesque village in the south. With a big lavender bush and a wisteria in the courtyard. She drinks rosé with her neighbours at sunset. He sometimes thinks about her, and the life she has made for herself a long way away from him. A successful, harmonious life. Through the grey days, and the weeks when the thermometer doesn’t get above minus five, he dreams of joining her. On the weather report in the evenings, he looks at the map of France, and there is almost always a sun over where Paula lives, while where they live, he and Marina, it’s all freezing fog, morning mists and unsettled periods brought on by a low front from the north-east.

What are they doing here? Why didn’t Marina leave with her mother when they separated? You would expect a daughter to go with her mother. He doesn’t remember discussing it, not with either of them. And all at once it comes to him: Armand. He and Marina must have been at school together. She was only little, but she was already in love. Marina didn’t choose between her mother and her father. Marina chose love. Jerome is sure of it. Yet he only recently discovered the boy existed. Marina is a discreet young woman. She had never brought anyone to the house, then one day, six months ago, she said she wanted to ask someone to supper.

‘I’ll do the cooking,’ she offered. ‘I’ll do a roast.’

And in the red of her cheeks and the ‘o’ of that roast, Jerome could tell. He could tell without really knowing. He didn’t say to himself my daughter’s got a lover, or she wants to introduce me to the boy she loves. He didn’t say anything to himself. His thoughts don’t produce sentences. They stop just short.

The bell rang at eight thirty. Jerome went to open the door. There was the boy, bottle in hand. Jerome remembers thinking he was tall. He had to look up to his face. What a good-looking boy. His skin … his cheeks … his thick dark eyelashes, the sparkle in his eyes …

Jerome is crying. He puts his head in his hands, for the space of two sobs. One for the bottle of wine in the boy’s hands, the other for his good looks.

Then it stops. No more tears. No more images.

The church clock strikes. Jerome stands up and looks out of the window. The hill dropping away outside, the road down below, right at the bottom, and the other hillside beyond going up to the woods. The rows of russet-coloured vines, the bare earth between their gnarled feet. The sun in the white sky. Sap freezing inside plants. Some tiny little purple flowers have opened in the shadow of the holly hedge. Jerome looks at them and thinks how Armand will never see them.

He remembers reading in some book about people putting bottle ends over the eyes of the dead before laying them in their coffins. He doesn’t remember the book’s title. Was it a novel? Maybe just a newspaper article. He can’t remember but he likes the idea. These eyes will see no more. Or only through bottle glass. Paradise is so far away, so high up, that you need a magnifying glass to see the earth.

Jerome wonders whether he should go to the funeral. Meet the in-laws who will never be in-laws. He feels awkward and shy. He’s afraid. He doesn’t know how you shake the hand of a bereaved parent. The physical contact strikes him as sacrilegious. I would never dare, he thinks.

 

The telephone rings. It is Paula.

‘How are you, big boy?’ she asks him.

Jerome’s heart swells in his chest. A hot air balloon between his diaphragm and his collar bones. I love you. I love you. I love you. That’s what he wishes he could say to his ex-wife, for whom he has only ever had modest feelings. Instead, he replies:

‘Not great.’

‘How about Marina?’

Jerome says nothing. Not a single word comes to him.

‘I’m so fucking stupid,’ Paula blurts. ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry. The funeral’s tomorrow, isn’t it? I’ll catch a plane and then the last train this evening. I’ll get there late. Can I sleep at the house? No, that’s not a good idea.’

‘Yes, yes, it’s a very good idea. I’ll leave the door unlocked.’

‘You are kind.’

‘It’s only natural.’

‘It’s awful.’

‘Yes.’

‘What exactly happened?’

‘I don’t know. No one knows. The bike caught fire. No one knows why, or how. Apparently he hadn’t been drinking.’

‘How will anyone ever know?’

‘There’s no way of knowing.’

‘What sort of boy was he?’

‘Perfect.’

Jerome is surprised by his own answer. Paula falls silent. She feels swindled. She never met her daughter’s perfect boyfriend. She herself only ever had awkward relationships. Her marriage? Nice, that was the word she most often used to describe it. As if to rub salt in her wounds, Jerome adds:

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. A … how can I put it? … a connection … a … you see, when they were together …’

‘Don’t do this to me, big boy. Don’t do it.’

She hangs up just as he is saying ‘lots of love’. He thinks of ringing her back just to say it, to say ‘lots of love’. As if it were important, as if their lives depended on it, world stability, justice.

I’m going gaga, he thinks, and smiles, because of the word, and the way he cradles the phone in his hand, like a frog, a mouse. A pleasant feeling suffuses him, a warmth, a very slight euphoria. For a moment he forgot Armand’s death because, instead of thinking about the catastrophe, he thought of woodland animals, the sort you come across on a walk, and catching their eye feels secret, furtive, incomparable. It was just a reprieve. His smile falls apart. He goes over to the door. Whoever it is has rung three times now.

Through the frosted glass he recognises Rosy’s silhouette. Rosy has always been fat. She and Marina have been best friends since nursery school. She has huge cheeks, like high Manchurian plateaux, Jerome thinks. He doesn’t know why Rosy has always been associated with the word Manchurian in his mind, perhaps because of her very dark, slightly slanting eyes, her small flat nose and her pony-like quality.

‘Hi, Jerome,’ she says, offering her unbelievable cheeks for a kiss.

‘Hi, Rosy,’ he replies, giving her a hug.

They hold the embrace for a moment, clumsily rubbing each other’s backs, then pull apart abruptly, embarrassed.

‘It’s good of you to come.’

‘Of course I would. How is she? I’ve brought her schoolwork.’

‘Oh, well, you know, I don’t think …’

‘No really,’ says Rosy very confidently as she sets off down the corridor, her huge body swaying from one leg to the other. ‘Mustn’t let go. Mustn’t let anything go.’

How does she know? Jerome wonders.

He watches her heading for the bedroom door.

He can still see them, her and Marina, when they were seven years old. One resting her head on the other’s stomach and saying, ‘I love you because you’re comfortable,’ and the other replying, ‘I love you because you always say nice things.’ He thinks they are both very good reasons for loving someone.

When the door opens, the din Marina’s making pervades the house. It is violent as a blast of wind. Jerome’s hands fly instinctively to his ears. This noise must stop. But the moment he is aware of his gesture, he orders his arms to drop back down. This is his child crying, not the asshole next door trimming his hedge.

Rosy doesn’t lose heart, she goes in and closes the door behind her. The sound level drops immediately. Jerome takes a few steps down the corridor, and listens. He hears Rosy’s voice. Then crying. Rosy’s voice again. Then nothing. Rosy’s voice singing a song in English. A deluge of sobs, gulps, a wail, sobs, several cries. Rosy is still singing. The crying stops. Rosy sings. Louder and louder. All of a sudden the door opens. Rosy catches Jerome with his ear almost flat against the wall.

‘I know this is a non-smoking house, Jerome. I completely respect that. But this is a bit of an exception. I think we need to smoke. I wanted to ask your permission. If we open the window?’

Jerome shrugs his shoulders, nods his head. Right now he would give anything to be able to smoke too. He has never touched a cigarette in his life. What a mistake! He should have started at fifteen like everyone else. If he hadn’t wanted to be all different, he could offer them one now, smoke with them – as Indians would a peace pipe – without a word. Not needing to talk to be together.

‘No probs,’ he says, because he heard a teenager say it a couple of days ago in the car park by the post office.

Rosy smiles at him, more Manchurian than ever, and closes the door again.

The stupid expression he has just used lingers in the house. Jerome goes into the kitchen and ‘no probs’ follows him. He opens a cupboard to make himself a coffee and ‘no probs’ pops out. He goes back into the corridor in the hopes that the crying will drown out its persistent echo, but there isn’t a single sound coming from his daughter’s bedroom now. This is the silence of a smoking session, the infinite calm of inhalation. ‘No probs’ bounces from one wall to the other along the corridor. Jerome hurries into the living room, unfolds the sofa bed, making all the springs creak, launches himself at the cupboard, throws it wide open, takes out a sheet, a blanket and pillows, and starts making up the bed like a chambermaid possessed by the Devil. He is sweating. He would like to make a lot more noise, but the fabrics slither and mould against each other mutely. Jerome can hear only the internal hubbub of his own body, heartbeats and the click of joints. ‘No probs.’

Luckily, Rosy starts singing again. She has a lovely voice, both high and rich. He doesn’t recognise the tune, a sad, heartbreaking melody. He would never have thought of that: singing a sad song to his weeping daughter. And yet it seems to be working: since Rosy arrived, Marina has stopped crying.[/private]

Excerpted from The Foundling by Agnès Desarthe, translated by Adriana Hunter, to be published by Portobello Books in February 2012, at £12.99. www.portobellobooks.com

Agnès Desarthe

Agnès Desarthe was born in Paris in 1966 and has written many books for children and teenagers, as well as adult fiction. She has had three previous novels translated into English: Five Photos of My Wife (2001), which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Jewish Quarterly Fiction Prize, and Good Intentions (2002) and Chez Moi (2008). The Foundling was awarded the Le Renaudot des Lycéens Prize on publication in France. www.agnesdesarthe.com.

Adriana Hunter has been working as a literary translator since 1998, and has now translated nearly 50 books from the French, including, for Portobello Books, Véronique Ovaldé’s Kick the Animal Out (a finalist for the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize) and And My See-Through Heart. She has three children and lives in Norfolk.