A fun little Sunday read for you. I’m thinking of starting a once-a-month Lazy Sunday read series with flash fiction. Just for the sake of writing something different.
A great crime writer had once shared tips for the perfect murder at a conference. All Camille had done was tweak a few details. There were no coastal walks in her area, so she had to improvise with glaciers. He was too vain to use hardcore winter gear, not vain enough to never go out on winter walks. She had carefully drained the batteries of both his mobile phones. He never checked. No hardship disabling the avalanche tracker on his ski-jacket – he had never given her sufficient credit for a scientific mind.
It was not science she detested, only his relentless droning about it.
‘With his height and weight, you were very lucky not to get pulled in after him, Madame.’ The Salvamont rescue team told her.
Luck had nothing to do with it, but Camille nodded, gulping the hot, sweet liquid gratefully.
‘He always told me I was hopeless at knots… little did I think…’
Today I would like to share with you an excerpt from my WIP. I am enjoying myself almost far too much with this bitchy character (tentatively named: Betty-Sue) who contributes quite significantly to the story, but from the shadows. The person she addresses is the main protagonist, who also has chapters from her point of view.
What a skittish colt you were! How impossible to tame and befriend! But those who think it’s men who enjoy the chase have got it completely wrong. They can’t have had much experience of the stamina of women pursuing their prey, over months, years, even decades. The prey is usually a man, often a man with another partner, or, as in this case, a woman’s friendship. Us women, we think long-term.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to entice you with invitations to charity balls or ladies’ lunches. You hated those events, obviously felt sartorially challenged (quite rightly so!), unable to keep up financially, or perhaps you considered yourself so vastly superior to us intellectually?
I tell you now: underestimate the Trophy Expat Wives’ Brigade at your own peril. Many of them are second wives who’ve spent years plotting the demise of their predecessors. Or first wives who’ve swapped career ambitions and a frazzled lifestyle of never quite living up to expectations (as a mother, wife, worker bee, PTA stalwart) for an enviable pampered existence. Both of these categories now have a single role: keeping husbands happy and eternally grateful. They focus their formidable intellect, energy and ambition on staying trim, up-to-date and making sure no one gets to play the same nasty tricks on them that they played on the first wives.
For whatever misguided reason or childish prejudice, you let me know that this wasn’t your scene. I’d have to play the ‘intellectual game’ with you, while also appealing to your heartstrings. You East Europeans can sometimes be so heavy and sentimental! But that was fine by me. It would give me something to amuse myself over the winter months, when Geneva turns into a ghost town, while everybody migrates to the mountains and pretends to enjoy themselves doing strenuous sports (and après-skis).
I started calling you for short catch-up conversations, offering my help or advice on the practicalities of expat life. You proved to be a harder nut to crack than I’d expected. Your replies were so gruff and curt, they bordered on the rude. I mentioned pet insurance (you didn’t have any pets, thank you), holiday clubs for the children (you preferred to take them skiing with you), season tickets for concerts or theatres (you couldn’t find a regular babysitter).
‘I don’t have any recent experience of babysitters. As you know, my children are all grown up now. But I could help you find an au-pair…’
‘Oh, no, thank you. I don’t fancy having a stranger live in my house,’ you said quickly, as if you’d been debating it internally for ages. ‘Anyway, I’m not working at the moment, so I can look perfectly well after the children myself.’
I thought perhaps you were secretly afraid that your husband might succumb to the temptation of a nubile foreign girl, darting half-naked in and out of shared bathrooms. I’ve never known a man so susceptible to feminine charms as your Graham, nor one so blind to women’s deliberate use of flattery as a weapon of mass seduction.
I could have told you, however, that you needn’t fear the oldest cliché in the book: master and servant relationship – or, translated into modern speak, father and nanny relationships. I could have told you that he was already busy getting entangled with a far more formidable adversary. But you were behaving so much like a sulky teenager, for whom I could do nothing right, that I didn’t feel like warning you. Besides, I usually have a strict policy of non-interference. True, I like to set things in motion. Rather like a puppeteer: setting the stage, preparing the props… But then I allow the puppets to take on a life of their own and get their strings snarled and knotted. Which, oh, they are so good at doing all by themselves!
And here is the image I have in front of me on the moodboard for this character: poor Jessica Lange, if only she knew what evil plans I have for her…
Sacha Black has a ‘Writespiration‘ this week themed around a nostalgia that hurts in less than 200 words. I’ll give you first the flash fiction, then the back story.
When you are thirteen, your cousin’s best friend is the knight from fairy tales: tall, dark, handsome, blue-eyed. How could he walk, talk, breathe amongst us mere mortals? And yet he looked at you, kissed you, so you wrote to each other for two years. You lived for your brief meetings. No cross word ever passed between you.
You parted as good friends, moved on to other lives, other people, marriage, children, divorce, remarriage. You studied and worked in different countries, met again on LinkedIn. Grey hair, little paunch, wrinkles – and that’s just the flattering pictures. Older yet not much wiser, you knew he had been The One, but you were both too young to understand or to need each other all those years ago. No going back, no proof of discontent with your present life, but you wanted to let him know how you felt about him back then.
You let him in through a gap in your armour. You held out the shivering pulp of raw heart. You try to be fair, not see disgust or hasty retreat where none was intended. But the silence was thunderous.
He was my cousin’s neighbour and best friend. He was like something out of fairy-tales: tall, dark and handsome, with the most amazing blue eyes. I couldn’t believe someone as beautiful as that could walk and talk and do all the normal (i.e. silly) things that my cousin and I were doing.
Whenever I passed through the town where my aunt and uncle lived, we would go out in a large group of friends for walks, go rowing on the lake, get lost in the forest, linger through cemeteries. The usual teenager stuff. We laughed, we talked, and I dared not hope that he would ever think of me as more than Bobby’s little cousin.
And then one day our fingers brushed against each other. A silence fell between the two of us, as our hands found each other. The others continued to walk and joke, but we felt set apart. Our eyes were drinking each other in.
We never lived in the same town, so for a couple of years after that we lived on letters and phone calls. There was one public phone at the post office in the village where he went to boarding school and he was only allowed to use it once a week. I would try to plan my weekends around that call, never quite knowing at what time it would come.
But life went on and others entered our lives. We parted as good friends. We both married young, divorced, formed new relationships, had children. We found each other again online, with careers taking us all over the world, with a few extra kilos and greying hair.
The moment has passed. Our courage and idealism have withered, even if a small seed beneath remains unchanged. There is no use asking: ‘What if…?’ We were too young then to know that we had already found the perfect partner all those years ago.
So we beat on, boats against the current….
This was one of the very first stories I wrote for Cowbird on the 14th of February, 2012 for the Valentine’s Day collection. The theme was ‘First Love’. I felt the story would be incomplete if the above-mentioned first love did not get a chance to read it. We had recently got in touch again after decades of not hearing much about each other (he had found me on Linked In). We had parted on good terms, we had moved on, had rich and fulfilling lives, so there was nothing desperate or stalkerish about my email to him with the link to the story.
I just wanted him to know how much he had meant to me at the time. Because I was too young and foolish back then to express it.
It’s been four years since I sent that email. I have not heard from him at all since. Not on Linked In or email or anything else.
I know emails can get stuck in spam folders or deleted. People can get busy or forgetful. The heartbreak is minor, negligible, easy to laugh at wryly, easy to explain away. It was, after all, so long ago. Spring has come and new life is budding forth. I am full of energy and plans, I do not look back.
But beyond all the excuses and shrugs… there is a younger, more tremulous heart within this hardened crust which does now have scars. And the memory of that first love is no longer quite so serene.
For every inspirational quote, there is another that yanks us down to the bottom of the murky river bed. For every kind thought from a stranger, there is an sharp thrust of unkindness from a near one, all for your very own good, of course.
The way to hell is paved, crenellated, wallpapered and sandblasted with good intentions couched in cruel terminology. There is often no subtlety involved (‘obese’, ‘bags of fat on two legs’, ‘heart attack waiting to happen’), while at other times a theatrical sigh will underline that another poison arrow is striving to reach its mark: ‘I’ll only stop praying for you when you finally have found a decent job.’
Good old Dobbin, you work horse, you clothes horse. Keep on plodding and don’t take your nose out of your snuffle-bag or wardrobe until you find the right job, that makes them proud rather than you happy, the perfect dress that covers your stumps, denies your belly, turns your liabilities into assets and doesn’t cost a fortune either, into the bargain (bin)!
Then there are all of those black-and-white world views, all tinged with horrific fatality. All children of divorced parents end up drug addicts or lunatics or worse. All men cheat, all women suffer. Women punish by cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They imprison the man into vengeful marriage, piercing snide remarks, alimony payments, guilt, guilt, guilt. No matter how much men might pressure you into having babies, you will end up with the precious bundles and all their messes – they will only take the glory and successes. A boast at the office and nothing too tangly to weigh yourself down.
Meantime, princess, you’re too old, your pink too soiled, far too busy doing the things you should be doing, to waste time on creative nonsense. Life is to be endured, not to be enjoyed. We have no right to expect happiness. To be selfish. To scratch meaningless little words in short lines and call them poetry. Exchange your heels for flip-flops and wait out the ice-cube tinkling cocktail hour. Jump in and drown in the pool of your perfectly content disapproval.
We have every right to expect happiness. We were the apple, the peach, the light of our mother’s eyes. She did all she could to make us happy and was expecting you, quite frankly, to do more of the same. We cannot be happy with someone who is unhappy. What on earth do you think we should do when that happens — we’re not equipped, not trained, not interested… We twiddle our thumbs defensively. We look down, shuffle our feet, speed out the door, no longer want to be seen with this person in public. We do not want to rock the boat… unless it’s us doing the rocking. We’re worth it, but she isn’t because she wants too much, she wants the impossible. Because she is illogical, irrational, all emoting gushingness – so like a woman!
Pipe down, you shrew, your ranting is giving us all headaches! Who wants or needs feminism now anyway, when it’s proven women can have everything they want, but they don’t know how to choose wisely?
Why should we help when she ends up doing it alone anyway? How else can we prove our independence, our maturity, our love for our father, or that she is needed? These moments pass so fast, we grow up so quickly, she’ll cry later, when we leave home. She already feels the loneliness whenever we leave the house for a day, for a week, for a lifetime. She talks too much, she repeats incessantly and what she has to say we have long since stopped believing. What would each member of our family be if we were animals? A koala, a panda, a giraffe – the cuddliest and tallest all sorted. Mother? A bookworm.
Does the worm ever turn?
This piece of prose above has its origin in some family history, the great voices of feminism and the quote below from French writer Virginie Despentes.
Parce que l’idéal de la femme blanche, séduisante mais pas pute, bien mariée mais pas effacée, travaillant mais sans trop réussir, pour ne pas écraser son homme, mince mais pas névrosée par la nourriture, restant indéfiniment jeune sans se faire défigurer par les chirurgiens de l’esthétique, maman épanouie mais pas accaparée par les couches et les devoirs d’école, bonne maîtresse de maison mais pas bonniche traditionnelle, cultivée mais moins qu’un homme, cette femme blanche heureuse qu’on nous brandit tout le temps sous le nez, celle à laquelle on devrait faire l’effort de ressembler, à part qu’elle a l’air de beaucoup s’emmerder pour pas grand-chose, de toutes façons je ne l’ai jamais croisée, nulle part. Je crois bien qu’elle n’existe pas. (Virginie Despentes)
[The ideal of the white woman, seductive but not a slut, well married but not faded, working but without being too successful so as not to crush her husband, slender without becoming obsessed about food, forever young without having to resort to cosmetic surgery, a mother in bloom without being too overcome by nappies and homework, good housekeeper without becoming a traditional housewife, well-read but not quite as much as a man, this happy white woman that they keep brandishing under our noses, that we’re supposed to try and resemble (except when she goes ape-shit about insignificant things), well, I’ve never met her anywhere. I do believe she doesn’t exist.] (my translation, with apologies to the original)
It was the first summer she was allowed to go to the seaside by herself. She was working as a guide, so there were still rules and timetables to conform to, supervision and rebukes to endure. But the clothes were uncensored, the lipstick was hers to wield. She could laugh loudly and often, she could dance as if no one was looking. Her light no longer concealed by the well-meaning protective shade of her parents’ bushel.
One dazzling older man painted her portrait. He sprinkled praise as liberally as his colours.
‘You’re not quite ripe yet. Not yet at the peak of your beauty. Give it another two or three years and you will be truly unforgettable.’
So she waited for her irresistibility to commence. All year she lived in preparation for that delicious delirium, like the lilac bush in her parents’ garden at home. The green leaves so bland to casual onlookers, but she knew it was expectant, ready to burst one day into intoxicating flower.
By the end of the summer, she’d met the sensible young man with a future ahead of him, the kind of man her parents had always craved. By the following summer she’d persuaded herself that this was her dream too. They got married, setting up a tiny home in a capital city that was much too expensive for them. She worked three jobs at once and still their money ran out mid-month, while he pursued studies which would carve out that promising, tantalising future. In her rush from night-time proofreading to early morning classes, from private lessons to the vegetable stalls at the marketplace, from cooking to cleaning to washing to bill paying and housewife-playing, she forgot to check for her bloom in the mirror.
She made a modest name for herself, a tiny bud in a scholastic tree of excellence. Invited to study abroad, she worked even harder: to fit in, to catch up, to keep up, to maintain the respect of those who funded her. There was no more room for housewifely contortions. Her marriage withered on the stalk. She sought refuge in the life of the intellect. She scraped, she scrabbled, scoured and swept, till she rebuilt a small nest fo herself in that new country, new language, new group of friends.
Then, one day, she looked up. She paused just long enough to catch a glimpse of the person in the mirror. The lilac bush had grown blowsy, the flowers curled up with frayed brown edges. The scent was now tinged with the onset of rot.
She’d blinked and the flowering was over.
This was written as an exercise at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday morning. We were discussing metaphors taken from the natural world. Did I tell you what a wonderful bookish Saturday I had? Literary workshop in the morning, going to the theatre with my younger son in the afternoon and then a poetry reading in the evening. Days don’t get much more inspirational than that.
Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.
Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)
The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.
A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:
When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.
When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.
When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.
Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.
You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.
How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?
He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.
Adam Wyeth: Silent Music
A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.
There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all. ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom. The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.
Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.
Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto
Nothing moves but cars.
First one passes, then I see
a second coming.
By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:
… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.
At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.
‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys, crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.
‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.
Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).
The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:
– T’as vu le métro?
– Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?
– J’ai vielli.
Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).