All posts by sofiacapel

Tomatoes, by Jude Cook

Art:  An Education

He was finished with love, that much was certain, but his first glimpse of Marina – through the hinge-crack of the front door of her mother’s house – had made him reconsider.  Though only for a faltering moment.  She was seventeen, after all, and Joe (aged forty-two), was to be her private English tutor for the following year.

It was September, and he was still reeling with the heavy pain of separation from a woman who, coincidentally, had a daughter at Marina’s school – the formidably bourgeois Fortismere in nearby Muswell Hill.  He was used to paternal feelings for the frivolous, dramatic, serious, unique people that were teenage girls, but not the romantic.  Eva, his ex, and her sixteen-year-old daughter would have scorned his immediate besotted reaction on the Crouch End street.  They would have detected it at once, so well had they all got to know one another.  Growing up with a Portuguese matriarch and two sisters, Joe thought he knew how to get around women.  Much could be deliberately hidden (and much needed to be with Marina, he decided), but he had never been able to pull a fast one on Eva and her daughter, Daisy.

‘Why don’t you come in?’ said Marina’s mother.

‘Thank you.  Thank you –‘

It wasn’t that his new student was conventionally pretty, though her glassy-grey eyes and Nordic cheekbones would have honoured a Vermeer, it was more that she was the kind of girl he had yearned for, but could never find, as a teenager himself.  Where were you when I was covered in acne? he found himself thinking, as he followed Marina and her bumbling, forgetful, loveably middle-class mum into the kitchen.  With his long experience of daughters, he could see in Marina the vestiges of her old child-persona, retreating quickly as she adapted to the grown-up social situation.  Rebellious currents still showed under her freckles, in skin clear as a Bavarian brook; but she was grown up now.  So grown up.  And, unfortunately, juicy as a newly-plucked tomato.

‘I’m Joe,’ by the way, he smiled, as he set down his battered shoulder bag of books.

‘We know,’ said Marina, exchanging what he thought was a knowing glance with her mother, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’

‘Well . . . What exactly can I be of help with?’

So they sat down, and set about her stack of coursework essays; Marina’s dyed-black fringe drooping over the scrawled pages.  How he would have worshipped that hair at eighteen!  But he successfully put this thought, and many others, to the back of his mind.  Her set texts were Jane Eyre, The Duchess of Malfi, and Larkin’s poems, and it was the latter they tackled first around the rustic dining table, overlooked by a pelmet of cured saucisse, iron trinkets.  The kitchen was a pleasing space in which to teach: down-lit, with the aroma of freshly-baked bread; a wine rack and overflowing vegetable-basket in the corner.   Joe had once delivered a tutorial on Steinbeck in the bathroom of a council high-rise, so he was grateful for the ambience.

At first, Marina was the expected mix of shyness and teenage front, her essays full of the usual blunders – clause-heavy sentences that crashed into one another; missing prepositions, plagiarised passages.  She clammed up at criticism, and smiled like a sunrise when he praised her for her ‘close-reading’.  She wanted to study English at ‘Uni’, though he told her she had a long way to go.  Her school had been giving her Bs and Cs.  Nevertheless, there was a rare sensibility at work, of that Joe was sure.  Certain words and phrases fascinated her.  Despite hating Larkin, she was transfixed by his line, ‘the million-petalled flower/ Of being here’.  The fact that a lonely, sad old man could have come up with this in a Hull bedsit amazed her.  Only when Joe demonstrated that Larkin had pre-empted this criticism with his scabrous, self-directed line from ‘Posterity’ (‘One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys’) did she begin to warm to the Laureate of Loneliness.

Their next session was set for the same time the following Monday.  However, on arrival, Marina’s mother informed him she needed the kitchen to prepare for a dinner party.  ‘Would you mind awfully doing the tutorial in Marina’s bedroom?  I’ve made some tea!’  This, he knew, was against all the protocols of private tuition; but he reluctantly agreed, knowing the door had to be left open at all times.  After climbing the five Victorian staircases, Marina gabbling over her shoulder about hockey practise, her History A-level, her boyfriend, he was relieved to find the top-floor room even more enticing than the kitchen.  There was a high ceiling, with three wide sash windows letting in abundant light.  A wall of books (surely not all hers).  A bed – which he daren’t even look at.  And a wooden table under the third window, on which stood a tiny pile of books and the promised cups of tea, steaming in the early autumn light.

They sat down, Joe facing the panes of glass; Marina bunched on the harsh wooden chair he imagined her mother had acquired specifically for study.  She brought her knee up to her chin and said,

‘Jane Eyre is a slag.  Discuss.’

‘I’m Sorry?’

‘That’s what our English teacher said today.  Can you believe it?’

‘Is he trying to be, uh, progressive?’

She.  No, she’s just trying to be an idiot . . .  God, I’m so glad I’ve got you!’

Joe glanced out of the window at the satisfying elevated view of houses opposite on Mayfield Road; then up towards the horizon, where he could see Alexandra Palace with its radio masts; the stretching harvested fields of Hertfordshire beyond.

‘It’s a great spot you have here.  Let’s go back to the text and see why Jane could be called in any way, erm, loose.’

‘So I can’t use the word slag?’

‘No!  It’s hardly a technical term.’

‘So why did she use it?’

‘You know, the first thing we need to do is work on your critical vocabulary.’

Thus they spent the next hour wrestling with ‘mimetic’ and ‘prosopopoeia’ – terms he knew to be slightly too advanced, but which she would appreciate nonetheless.  Because Marina Hungerford was ravenous for knowledge, for experience.  A real appetite.  Many times she would stop Joe to moan that she ‘knew nothing’ or ‘hadn’t done anything yet’, despite the fact that she seemed to have visited more countries and had more love entanglements than he had had by the age of twenty-five.  She wanted to learn, she said, to be instructed, guided.  She had a sponge-like capacity for facts, insider know-how, strange words.

One thing was clear as he walked away after their second session, Marina’s smile lingering in the corridor:  they had a tremendous rapport.  An intellectual rapport.  Over the coming days, he puzzled this.  Sure, there was the intimacy of the one-to-one tutorial which always conferred a falsely conspiratorial atmosphere.  But it was more the instant mental access they had with each other that stunned him – like a hand thrust into the clear stream of the opposite consciousness, returning with a salmon.  There was the troubling dance of body-language too, but that he could deal with.  There were glances she intended as innocently flirtatious, which he would neutrally return.  He had experienced the same thing with Daisy.  ‘She’s just trying out behaviours,’ Eva had explained.  ‘Don’t be flattered.’  But he couldn’t help but be flattered by Marina’s rapt attention, or her girlish impetuosity when she scoured a text for a quotation he had requested, breaking the spine of the book on her desk.  And he couldn’t help but be troubled by the way his voice faltered as he explained the lascivious nature of Jacobean theatre (a stammer corrected by remembering he was three times her age; also the fate Dante gave to Paolo and Francesca).  Many times she would sit erect on her uncomfortable chair to tie her hair back with a scrunchie, thrusting her breasts towards him, giving him his cue to look out of the window.  But all this he could handle.  It was more the fact that, had he been younger, he would have been declaring Marina his life-long soul-mate.  This was what upset his interior balance.  By now, he would have proposed marriage, if not a long session in the forbidden bed.

After a month of tuition, she had become the highpoint of his week.  His life, even.

One day, as the October leaves fell outside, Marina pointed out something that should have been obvious to him from the start.

‘You’re looking at what Larkin would’ve seen.’

‘What’s that?  Ally Pally?  He lived in Hull.’

‘No,’ and she drew back and fixed him with the direct look she saved for quotations. ‘”The deep blue air, that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”’

Joe stared out of the window, into its gift of azure, and saw she was correct.

‘Of course, yes.  A resonant image of death.’

‘Why death?’

‘Because blue is the traditional colour of eternity.’

‘Really?’ marvelled Marina, her eyes clear prisms of light.  ‘I thought you would associate blue with the sea or the sky, not an abstract notion.’

She was improving, he could see, becoming more critically adept, articulate.  Within, he smiled to himself, but showed nothing on his face.  She would remember this moment, he thought, maybe in old age; the afternoon her love-weary tutor told her that blue was the shade of forever.

‘Well, that’s the metaphor there exactly.  The sky and ocean are sometimes perceived to be endless.’

‘Wow . . . Any others?  Symbols, I mean.’

‘The butterfly is another.  A traditional emblem of the soul.’

‘And it means the same in all literature?  Every time you get a butterfly it represents the spirit?  Across every language?’

‘Not all literature.  But much of it – painting, too.’

They paused, and contemplated – silently, separately – the world of symbols and the real things they attached to.  A kind of fresh wonder, like that experienced by the first voyagers on the Mayflower, was upon them.  Such rapture!  Such harmony!  So much of their conversation was fugue-like, exquisitely adventurous, that it almost begged for a bum note.  Marina cleared her throat.

‘You know, I split up with my boyfriend.’

Joe had heard much about this guy – some twenty-year-old roustabout with a motorbike, currently re-sitting his A-levels at a sixth-form college.  He knew girls of her age scorned their male contemporaries, but he was secretly content the beady little shagger wasn’t the wrong side of thirty.  Marina’s mother must have felt satisfyingly liberal to allow the liaison.

‘Really?  Who did the splitting?’

‘I did – no, he did actually.’

‘Well, well, well.  What a . . . madman.’

‘But I wanted him to.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

She was hunched on the chair, chin resting on her fist, in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker.  Joe decided young women nowadays were taught to be in control from an early age.  Unlike previous generations, they thought nothing of deciding everything, felt entitled to it.  Here was her first experience of not having any control at all.

And then Marina asked an unexpected question.

‘Have you got a wife, sir?  Or children?’

A vision of Eva and Daisy, on the last occasion he saw their faces, briefly assaulted him.  Or rather, the last time he saw Eva’s face, as Daisy had locked herself in her bedroom after a row with her mother, and had refused his gentle knock of valediction as he walked out of their lives for good.

‘Neither . . . And you don’t have to call me sir.’

‘That’s sad,’ she said, looking directly at him, her mental hand reaching straight into the stream of his heart.

‘Not that sad,’ Joe lied, smiling; luxuriating in the moment, the attention.  ‘They’re just the cards you’re dealt.’  Apart from his mother, no one had enquired about his love-life for months.  He wanted to sustain the poised, time-stopped beat for ever – the young girl next to him; her gentle questioning; the lapis lazuli sky blazing outside.

Instead, he coughed throatily and announced in his gruffest voice: ‘Why don’t we leave Larkin and spend the last ten minutes on Webster?  The exams come round quicker than you think.’

In December, while he struggled with various money-related adversities, Joe received some bad news regarding his health.  A sudden loss of balance at a bonfire night party, resulting in his almost falling into the flames, had led him to his GP.  After weeks of tests, of neuroimaging and a lumber punch to analyse his cerebrospinal fluid, the grave news came that he had developed multiple sclerosis.  The fluid had revealed a chronic inflammation of his central nervous system, his consultant patiently explained, though it was too early to discern which type he had.  Joe had faced the wall in the windowless room and tuned-out the bewildering taxonomies, while contemplating his future.  Relapsing-remitting, secondary progressive, primary progressive, galloping . . . He was flattened by the news.  Terrified.  He only decided to call his mother and sisters in order to enquire about family medical history.  He didn’t want to worry them.  With one younger sister in Brazil and another making waves in LA, he felt they should be aware of any advance symptoms lest they develop the condition too.  Along with the loss of balance, he had been experiencing a strange electrical zip of pain when bending his neck – Lhermitte’s Sign – coupled with muscle spasms that felt like he had a forest of small animals under his skin.  Classic symptoms both.  But neither sister, thankfully, had experienced any of these, only blurred vision, which he put down to alcohol.  They were concerned, upset, as was his mother, Maria, who was unable to name anyone in their family who had had MS.  So he was at a loss as to the aetiology.  A primitive man might have blamed his condition on his infatuation with Marina.  Sometimes, when he lay on his bed marking essays, his legs burning as if he had walked through a brace of stinging nettles, he felt this to be correct.  It was all he deserved for desiring forbidden fruit.  Now a physical disability had come along to prevent him putting his absurd longings into action.  With his jaundiced, Levantine skin that held sallow patches and stretches of indeterminate hue, he had never looked well.  But for once he was genuinely ill.  The term multiple sclerosis, his consultant had gently explained, simply meant ‘many scars’.  That made much sense.  Now he had the physical wounds to go with the mental.

He hadn’t intended to tell Marina and her mother, but on returning to teach in the glare from the three high windows he found their enquiry, ‘How have you been?’ eliciting the whole saga.  To his surprise, they were both mortified, especially the mother, who immediately ran off to fetch the number of a homeopathic doctor who had been of great value to her family, ‘Just in case conventional medicine fails.’  The latter phrase was both comforting and devastating.  Conventional medicine had already failed in the case of MS.  There was no cure.  He would progressively degenerate into slurred speech and impaired faculties until, wheel-chair-bound, his students would stop visiting him.  He would be forced to go back to scoring weed, like a teenager, for any kind of relief.

In fact, the spectre of losing his income loomed large in his mind.  He would have to make many adjustments.  Not only with a life of physical decay and discomfort, but practically too.  He had already looked into Incapacity Benefit.  Joe had been teaching English as a private tutor for just over four years, and the end seemed in sight.  He would have to return to proof-reading technical manuals, a job he had slaved at, largely at home, for a decade.  But how much of a loss would not teaching be?  The money wasn’t great, to say the least, and he was getting tired of the endless cancellations and flaky arrangements that families, centres of their own drama, thought nothing of inflicting on the army of people who catered for them.  Often, he felt like a tradesman, albeit an intellectual one, coming round once a week to sweep the mental chimney.  He found it illuminating that the many anxious parents he encountered imagined he made his main living from it.  Did they both share the same fiscal planet?  Without a small inheritance from his long-departed father, which leaked tainted funds into his bank account, like carbide gas from a processing plant, he would have been dead in the water of London long ago.  He had always known that he taught to remain in contact with two vital things: literature, and the human race – and the human race, its beauty and its future, now seemed embodied in Marina’s face.

With the revelation of his illness, Marina became almost daughter-like in her concern, a devoted Miranda tending on some sort of broken Prospero.  She enquired about his symptoms, his visits to the consultant; wanted exact, almost literary descriptions of his pains.  It struck him with a kind of relief that their age difference was the same as Woody Allen’s and Mariel Hemingway’s in Manhattan.  Of course, during that wonderfully delineated relationship (eating Chinese food in bed while watching old movies; riding in a carriage through Central Park), it is the painfully young girl who turns out to be the most mature character.  She sustains the drifting divorcee and acts as his rock, restoring his faith in humanity.  Joe’s pupil was serving much the same role in his life.  Despite the disaster of his health, the weekly euphoria from his intellectual engagement with Marina kept him going.  He would shift other students around to accommodate her schedule, even declaring her his ‘Star Pupil’.  Her grades improved until she was receiving only straight As.  He knew, when it came time to say goodbye, it might break his heart.

Christmas arrived and departed in a blur of baubles and kind wishes from friends.  If before his diagnosis there had been a vague possibility of love and starting a family, there certainly wasn’t now.  It was the compound failure of love that filled him with hopelessness, that had ended his dreams of a future.  Not just the lost decade he had spent with Eva and Daisy (he had known the daughter from ages six to sixteen – a whole evolution), but all the failures that preceded it.  He had sent Daisy a festive card, his deep mourning at not seeing her ever again kept hidden under a barrage of exclamation marks.  He thought better of addressing one to Eva.  They were both receding into his past now, getting dimmer, like the memory of their one deliciously rich holiday in Tuscany.  He was resigned to the role of leathery old bachelor, and would joke about this to Marina when he resumed teaching in what the educational system idealistically called the Spring Term.

One day in February, Marina revealed her plans for the upcoming half-term break.

Her bedroom was so cold, he found her sitting in her coat and scarf.  Just recently, she had begun to really blossom, becoming more womanly by the week – her legs pleasantly plump in her tight jeans, her face fuller and more proleptic of the shape it would settle into.  And intellectually she was broadening out too.  Now their hours were free-form rambles through Plato, Aquinas, Montaigne and the films of Martin Scorsese, using Webster as a jumping-off point.  Every visit he would find her brighter and more delectable, full of big plans.  She wanted to try for Oxbridge now, then work in arts administration or the film biz (anything but the waitressing job she now yawned through in a Crouch End bistro).  They talked of futures (hers), of UCAS forms, and how, in her words, love could be both ‘simple and complex at the same time.’

In the steely light of a winter afternoon, she swished back her scarf and touched his wrist to get his attention.  She gave him her wry-eyed smile.

‘I’m going snowboarding at half-term.  I feel terrible for telling you that, what with your condition.’

‘God, no, don’t think in those terms!’ Joe thundered, feeling pierced within.  More than ever, recently, he felt he resembled not Woody Allen, but the jealous, drunken Michael Caine in Educating Rita.  He thought of the Alpine mica-light, and the boys that would pursue Marina during a week of sybaritic après-ski orgies.  If only he were twenty years younger, not a smoking wreck of separation and, now, chronic illness! ‘You have to live your life.  God knows, I did –‘

‘But you never want to tell me anything about it!’ Marina exclaimed, coquettishly twirling her hair around her right forefinger.

It was true they still knew virtually nothing about each other.  From the cheques he received, he could tell the mother had remarried or was using her maiden name, as Marina’s surname was different.  Certainly, there was no father, or stepfather, or other siblings around.  But it wasn’t his place to enquire, or even care.  He could see how Marina would grow to resemble her mother in a superficial way, in her enthusiasms, her hunger for life, the way she held herself and bustled around.  However, the girl herself, the unique consciousness, was her own creation: a developing individual – like a hot wax seal newly imprinted by life and everyday experience.

‘Listen.  I’m here to teach you English Literature.  If you get anything less than an A now, your mother will want her money back.’

He didn’t really believe this, but knew he had to keep the sessions on some kind of straight and narrow.  Maybe in sympathy with his furtive ardour, she had developed a vague teenage pash for him.  Knowing mothers and daughters, he was excruciatingly aware that the two had probably already discussed him together.  Marina was being prepared for the hard world of men and their imperatives, of being independent.  Joe had observed this process – an almost physical one he’d seen many times before – of a mother gently but bravely setting a daughter free into the world, like a vet releasing a captive animal into the savannah.

‘So you won’t mind me telling you about boarding and all the fun I had when I get back?’

‘Look.  I’m a crumbly bachelor of two-and-forty, as Charlotte might say.  How could I possibly be jealous of your life?’

‘That’s brilliant!  Because I need to experience things.  Really.  Honestly.  I’ve done nothing in my life so far –‘

‘Don’t be in too much of a hurry.  Life happens to you in unexpected ways.  Especially when you’re not looking.’

‘As you’ve found out.’

‘As I’ve found out.’

They were both staring deep into the interior of the other.  A silence revealed a rustle of branches in the stripped trees outside.  Squirrels maybe, or a trapped bird.  In a parallel universe, they would be kissing.

Then Joe noticed something on the small table, a paperweight holding down a sheaf of practise exams.  It was red and dome-like, with a hollowed interior holding crudely painted pips.

‘What’s that?’

‘A tomato.  Or half of one.  I made it in Year Seven.  Clay into a fired oven, then glazed.’

‘May I?’

Joe picked up the halved tomato and weighed it in his palm.  It was wonderfully smooth, and surprisingly heavy.

‘It’s great.  Nicely achieved, as they say.’

‘Thanks,’ and she went to tie her hair back, her chest expanding into his personal space.  ‘I’ve got the other half somewhere.’

Joe put the tomato down and waited for her hair to be fixed.  When it was safe to meet her eyes, he said,

‘Let’s look at Mr Rochester one last time.’

When the end came, it was neither as sudden nor as brutal, nor as sentimentally overblown, as he had feared.  In May, Marina turned eighteen and she threw a big party, to which he was invited, but declined to attend.  The musculoskeletal weakness he had been experiencing, coupled with the bowel upsets and blurred vision meant that he only left the house to teach and buy groceries.  Also, he didn’t want to be stuck with a bunch of swearing teenagers dangling Ipod headphones, all going down the long bloody slide, talking in an argot he failed to understand.  He didn’t want to be paraded or shown off like some kind of mascot of maturity.  Plus the exams were upon her, as they were everybody, conferring a frenetic ‘showtime’ urgency to the last tutorials.  There was much to go over, much to get out of the way.

In Marina’s penultimate session, she announced she had read Lolita.  She had ‘grown fond’ of the old pervert and madman Humbert by the end, which gave Joe some kind of hope, though for what he wasn’t quite sure.  He now felt like the old bugger that every young girl has in their lives, the one they whisper about with their best friend in tones of wonderment and occasional disgust.  He was both sad and strangely happy that their time together had come to an end – relieved that the strain of keeping things hidden was about to be over.  And a new maturity was definitely upon her, post-birthday.  While having a great time on the slopes in February, she said she found the après-ski antics ‘childish and boring’.  Her face no longer occasionally revealed its lost young-girl persona, but instead gleamed with a womanly vitality – as if the years of teenage turbulence had been definitively hurdled.  She positively glowed; ripe and burgeoning.

Despite the fact that her exams were only a week away, they still spent the second-to-last session with their usual round of jokes and flirtations, under the high windows that now showed trees coming fully into leaf.  He even managed a potted history of Enlightenment thought and late eighteenth-century politics, while reminding her to gather the books he had lent her together for the following week.  These were volumes of Wollstonecraft, Ruskin and Berger, all of which, in his secret heart, he wanted to leave as mementos of his visits.  Realising the session had overrun by ten minutes (as it often did, finding they got on like an American flag on fire), he sidestepped all her customary personal questions and asked her, as usual, to show him out.

In the corridor downstairs, with her mother for once mysteriously absent, he gave her his spiel about ‘not working too hard’ and the importance of sleep, then turned to leave.  To his surprise, as he heard Marina’s goodbye, he felt her finger trace a quick line down his spine, giving him an electric shock of such sublimity he almost keeled over.  She had touched him!

The door opened, and he was gone, but she had definitely touched him – impulsively, spontaneously.  Both shocking, but intensely right, somehow . . .

All through the trembling journey home, as he drove back to his empty flat to heat up a chillie con carne, then sink a bottle of red wine to relieve the pain in his back and legs, he obsessed over this action of Marina’s.  It was astonishing.  Then, after twenty minutes, he began to doubt it had ever happened.  Maybe she hadn’t touched him at all – maybe it was merely Lhermitte’s Sign, back again, with its strange ghostly finger tracing a route down his spinal column.  Finally, he turned in, mad as old Humbert, Marina’s face haunting all his dreams.


Their last tutorial came around all too swiftly.  Everything about it turned out to be strangely memorable.  The drive to Mayfield Road in the Mediterranean heat; the trees scintillating in the glossy parks.  The way he found Marina asleep in the downstairs den when he arrived.  The way she appeared, groggy from revision in a low-cut top and unseasonal scarf.  The way her mother closed all the windows in her room against the gathering rain, as she set the cups of tea on the table.  How they sat together, the strong glare through the sash lighting them, riffing on Wordsworth and Kant and Newman and everything in between.  Putting the question of her touch from the previous week to the back of his mind, all he could think of now was how paternal he felt towards her.  A mantra was in his head: ‘You will go far!  Yes, you will go far!’  As the clock inched its way into their last half hour, she told him to think of his illness as ‘Just another of the million petals.’ To which he barked back, quoting Woody: ‘Don’t be so mature!’

Then he asked her, regretfully, to gather all his books together.

When she disappeared downstairs to find them, Joe took a last look at her room. The low bed.  The groaning bookshelf holding everything from Plato to Murdoch to old Penguin Classics.  Then his eyes alit on two shiny red objects: the clay half-tomatoes, together on a sheaf of papers.

Marina reappeared, holding a stack of paperbacks under her chin.

‘You found the other one!’ Joe declared, with an odd ecstasy.

‘Yeah, it was under my bed.  Been there for years.’

Picking them up, he surprised himself by asking: ‘Is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?’

‘A fruit.  For definite.  We learned that in Food Tech.’

‘Oh, dear . . . ‘

‘Why “oh dear?”’ she asked, setting the books down; moving so close he could smell her stirring aromatic scent.

Joe stared out at the trees, which were indeed like something almost being said. Then he announced: ‘It doesn’t matter . . . Let me settle up with your mother before I forget.’

He got to his feet unsteadily, and began packing the books into his satchel.  Finally, he made for the doorway.

‘Okay,’ she murmured, defeatedly.  And he turned to see her, stranded in the centre of the floor, as if waiting for something further to occur.

But nothing further did.  In the corridor downstairs, Joe urged her to ‘Get some sleep’ before the exam.  They joked for a while, aware a parting that might prove eternal was upon them.  And then she spontaneously hugged him.  It felt, to Joe, like the melting of summer ice cream.

‘See you,’ Marina smiled at the door, her eyes very old.  But he knew she might not.


In August, his MS now settled into Progressive Relapsing, he heard via email that Marina had received three straight As.  He was delighted, vindicated.  She also wrote that she was taking a gap year to go surfing on the beaches of Hawaii.  For this, too, he was oddly happy.  He always knew she would go far.  She urged him to stay in touch, requested a list of books that would teach her about the world.  But he resisted.  She would have to find all that out for herself.

Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. Cook’s first novel, Byron Easy, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013.

The Original Ambition Of Claude Bryce in Twelve Shticks, by Max Sydney Smith

Art: Omar Moreno

Shtick One: Claude On Claude

Claude Bryce stands in the rain looking up at himself. He is on a billboard. On the billboard, he is wearing a baggy, yellow jumpsuit, large red shoes and a white wig. Heavy, black lines circle his eyes. He is struggling to push a ball that is the same size as him. Small pieces of paper resembling snowflakes spin past him. He is pushing against the wind, wearing an exaggerated expression of melancholy forbearance.

Claude Bryce is standing on an overpass on the thin strip of raised tarmac that constitutes the pedestrian walkway. He is looking across the four lanes of the dual carriageway at a billboard advertising The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular. The headlights of a passing car momentarily illuminate him.

Claude Bryce had wanted to be a clown since he was a boy. Many people suffer from coulrophobia, a fear of clowns. So perhaps you would say Claude Bryce suffered from coulrophilia, a love of clowns. He gave up everything to become a clown.

Tomorrow is the opening night of The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular, the show which will move from London to Dublin, and then Paris, Lille, Lisbon, Santiago, Berlin, Zurich, Vienna, Warsaw, Malmö, and on into towns whose names Claude Bryce cannot correctly pronounce.

He has seen the image before, outside the theatre after rehearsals and on the sides of buses. But he has stopped here, now, because he wants this sighting to symbolise his success.

Yes, Claude Bryce wants moments to have the capacity to be important. He wants to link these moments together into a story that means something, a story where he is the hero. But if Claude Bryce is the hero, we need to rethink what we mean by heroic. What is his most heroic quality? Well, he has always found it easy to make people laugh.


Shtick Two: An Exposition on the Parentage of Claude Bryce

It was easy to make his mother laugh. Sometimes it seemed he could say anything. When she asked him how his day had been he would tell her stories. To begin with, the stories were true, but her laughter was addictive and he began to embellish things that had happened and invent things that had not.

He learnt that she loved stories about the naughty boys in his class and his impressions of teachers shouting at boys, boys talking about girls or girls swooning over teachers.

“Jimmy was trying to shoot elastic bands into the bin,” he said, “but he missed and it hit Mr Fischer.”

She gasped and splayed her hands over her face, as if she didn’t want to see what would happen to Jimmy.

“And Mr Fischer turned round and said -” (here, Claude knelt on his chair, leaning over the table the way Mr Fischer had towered over Jimmy and shaking his finger at his mother) “- if you do that again James Kelly, you’re going home in a body bag!”

She tilted her head to the side and laughed, a light, tinkling laugh of delight. Claude saw that his mother laughed for the same reason every time: because she was delighted by him. Sometimes, as her laugh subsided, she would look at his father as if she was trying to pour the joy she took in Claude out of her eyes and into his. But his eyes would invariably be narrowed in a scowl.

It was so easy to make his mother laugh, that her laughter became almost worthless. It was his father he wanted to make laugh.

Claude’s father rarely laughed at home. In fact, he rarely appeared to want to be at home at all. He was always the first to empty his plate, and would go into the lounge before the others had finished eating, leaving no trace of himself at the table.

Even at an age when Claude did not fully understand, he sensed that his father resented his mother and Claude for curtailing his freedom. If his mother was the coffin in which his father had buried the life that he wanted, Claude was a nail in that coffin, a final and unequivocal responsibility sealing him away from his desires.

The only way Claude could counteract this was to make his father laugh. If he laughed, it would be possible for Claude to imagine that his father wanted to be there, with them.

“You’re going home in a body bag!” he shouted, affecting Mr Fischer’s smoky, Glasgow growl.

“Claude!” His father looked up from his food, his face twisted in annoyance. “Not so loud!”

Claude sank back into his chair. His mother put her hand over his, silently. It did not help. Claude’s attention was directed at his father, who had returned to his food, the creases of his frown deeper than before.

How unspeakably sad and guilty this made Claude! He was only doing the impression to make his father laugh, to make him want to be there, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. It was making him want to be there even less.

Children are so self-centred. They assume everything is about them. Claude did not understand that whether his father laughed or not depended on many things that were nothing to do with Claude. He was unable to imagine, for example, that there was any correlation between how much his father laughed at dinner and the length of skirt worn by the surgery receptionist. But of course, there was. (And it was not a simple linear correlation: sometimes its shortness inspired him with its possibility, sometimes it depressed him because it was a reminder of what he could no longer have.)


Shtick Three: Claude Makes His Father Laugh

Claude remembers the first time he made his father laugh. He remembers, because it has happened so infrequently that each time remains something of an event. He was ten years old. They were driving to Brighton to see Claude’s uncle and aunt for Sunday lunch. Claude was in the back with his sister. That morning Claude’s mother had taken them both to church. Claude’s father never came to church because he was old enough to reason for himself that God did not exist.

‘I’m hungry!’ his sister complained at large.

His mother made a soothing noise, but absently and without turning round. She was staring at the green banks of grass and wild white flowers which rose up on either side of the road. The sun made everything bright and vivid. Even the few white rags of clouds were smeared in yellow light. Claude’s father did not respond. His eyes were fixed on the road ahead and he hummed and drummed his fingers on the wheel in time with the radio waltz.

‘Mum, I’m hungry!’ his little sister said again, louder this time.

His mother turned round briefly. ‘Ssh. We’re nearly there, sweetie.’

Claude saw his father frown in the rear view mirror. He looked at his sister and saw her preparing to shout again. Two things occurred to Claude at this moment. First, he sensed that if his sister shouted then the spell cast by the radio waltz and the sun would be broken and the day would be ruined. Second, he remembered that before they filed up for communion, the priest had knocked three times on the pulpit, glared at front pews of the congregation and said, ‘Have you eaten the word of the Lord?’ This is when Claude thought of the joke.

He leant forward as far as his seat belt would allow and said, ‘You know why she’s hungry. It’s because she hasn’t eaten the word of the Lord.’

His father looked at Claude in the rear view mirror, as if Claude had only just now come into existence, and laughed. He began laughing only with his eyes, but his mouth crumpled into a smile and then he was laughing from his belly, his arms shaking on the wheel.

“What?” His mother half-turned in her seat.

“He said she hasn’t eaten the word of the Lord!” his father said, jerking his thumb back at Claude, and his mother laughed too, the light, tinkling laugh that Claude knew so well.

Claude did not want that moment to end. He did not want to sit back in his seat and stare at the green banks of grass and wild white flowers. He wanted them to go on laughing. It could not be clearer, could it? Claude wanted to make his father laugh because he wanted to make his father love him, and the laughter was only a symptom, the joke only a tool.


Shtick Four: Claude Falls Out of Love with His Father and In Love with Fame

When do we stop treating our parents like gods? Only when they are in the ground do we fully believe in their mortality, but I think the cracks begin to appear when we lose our sexual innocence. The moment Rachel Tyler let Claude worm his finger under her pink and white polka dot pants was the moment Claude began to fall out of love with his father.

One afternoon, several weeks after his fifteenth birthday, Claude was curled up on the couch flicking through the glossy pages of a Sunday newspaper lifestyle and entertainment supplement. His father was outside, pivoting the lawn mower and himself round the corners of their garden. He was a large man and it was a small space. He would never look comfortable in it.

Claude came across an article about Slava Polunin, the most famous clown in Europe. There was a photo of Slava: he had his hands in the air and was surrounded by a flurry of snowflakes that were really small pieces of paper.

“Look at that!” Claude said to himself.

He read the entire article and then went back and studied the image, his face wrinkled in concentration.

In that moment Claude wanted to be Slava Polunin. Because Slava was everything Claude was not. He was a man and Claude was a boy. Slava lived in Russia, that dramatic land of snow and high drama and Claude lived in a terraced house on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. Slava had long, mad hair and Claude’s hair was short and neat. (His mother took him to expensive hairdressers every half-term, because, she said, it was important to look nice). Slava was known worldwide while even the teachers at school often forgot Claude’s name.

On the other side of the glass sliding doors, Claude’s father tripped on the lawn mower cable.

“Shitting little -” he muttered, hopping, trying to uncoil the orange wire from his shin.

Claude studiedly ignored him. The thing about Slava, he thought, is that he seems so certain. Slava said that the true art of clowning was to make people remember what they dreamt about as children and to bring them closer to it. At the end of his shows, he bore witness to the sublime transformation of adults into children, from experience into innocence. He saw grandmothers running ahead of children to catch balloons and army generals bouncing in their chairs. The meaning of life, Slava told the journalist, was to follow your dreams.

How this thrilled Claude! He could feel the hairs prickle the back of his neck. Because he had no certainties. He did not even have the confidence to put his hand up in class. Ever since Claude was old enough to reason for himself that God did not exist (the age of thirteen), he believed in nothing. He thought of himself as a nihilist and had a few friends at school who thought the same. They went round together and said clever, corrosive things that they thought were great satirical truths.

Claude fell in love with Slava, but of course, the glossy image of Slava could not love him back. It was only paper. When we love the image of a famous person, it is a one-way street. What can we do about this? We can stamp out our love, but this is repressive. We can stalk the famous person and try to make them love us back, but this is creepy. Or, we can supplant the desire to be loved by the image of the famous person with the desire to be in its place. The only way for our love to be requited is to get to the other end of fame’s one-way street, to be famous ourselves. Then, it follows, although we will not be loved by the initial object of our affection, we will be loved in turn by people like ourselves.

Claude Bryce sat on the sofa, listening to the ebb and gutter of the lawn mower’s hum as it turned and turned in ever smaller circles. He dreamt of standing at the centre of a vast stage, a numberless crowd mounting in the darkness beyond the glare of the spotlight. He dreamt of being looked at and loved by hundreds of people. He dreamt that other people would want to be him the way he wanted to be Slava Polunin.

There was a crash outside and the sound of the lawn mower stopped.

“Fucking fuck-fuck!”

Claude looked up, but did not move. The lawn mower cable had caught on the larger of his father’s two garden gnomes and, as his father turned, had knocked it off the wall so it fell on the small patio and broke into pieces.

“Don’t just sit there, Claude! For god’s sake! Bring that newspaper!”


Shtick Five: The Originality of Claude’s Ambition

The world tells us to earn money. Earning enough money to enjoy the good life is the default ambition. The world says the good life is a lover, children, family, friends, good health and comfortable living. What can be more important than all this?

When Claude’s family asked him what he wanted to do when he finished school, Claude began to answer: “I want to be a clown.” He could not remember the first time he said it, but he liked saying it and the more he said it the more he believed it.

“How wonderful!” his mother said, smiling down at him.

“Very admirable,” his uncle nodded.

His father slapped Claude on the back and laughed nervously.

Perhaps you, too, think this is admirable. Perhaps, like Slava, you believe that the meaning of life is to follow your dreams. And how easy it is to believe this, when nothing has yet been given up.

None of them saw how unflinching Claude was, the hardness in his eyes. It was only years later that they came to understand how much he was prepared to lose. It is harder to admire someone who follows their dreams at the cost of the good life.

“He has left home to become a clown?” his uncle will exclaim.

“He has split up with his girlfriend to join the circus,” his mother will whisper.

“He is living in squalor,” his father will spit, “So he can spend more time on his juggling!”

And the final, heavy question will spring on all their lips: “Is he mad?”

It seems that the moment the good life is compromised, any original ambitions are fiercely interrogated. Common sense is suddenly called for and under its hostile light, someone who is choosing the meaning of their own life is suddenly transformed into a psychological deviant.

Well, let us turn off this light! Let us assert something uncommon and nonsensical, something clownish: it is possible to choose our life’s meaning!

In this story, I present you with a man who will dismantle the good life for the sake of his original ambition, who will give up his family, his lover, his future children, his friends, his health and his comfort. I present you with the one and only Claude Bryce.


Shtick Six: Claude Gives Up His Family

Claude was sitting on his bedroom floor, trying to lift his left leg over the back of his head. He had been practising for months. Every night he came a little closer, and now he was almost there. His foot shook above the top of his ear. He slipped and his foot hit the floor with a thud. He began again. It is the weather, he thought. Muscles and ligaments were less flexible in the cold.

There was a quiet knock on the door.

“Yes,” he said.

Claude was nineteen years old but he still lived with his parents. This was the year the credit default-swap jugglers dropped the money and the masks were peeled off the mortgage lenders and none of the young could afford to move out.

The door opened. It was his mother. Her eyes were puffy with sleep and she was wearing white pyjamas.

“Claude. It’s quite late.”

He looked at her stonily.

“And there’s a lot of banging. On the floor.”

“I am trying to put my leg behind the back of my neck.”

She nodded. She picked at a splinter in the wood of the door frame. “Claude,” she said, “We’re all having to make a lot of adjustments for your clowning and your father and I wondered if you might make some adjustments too.”

“What do you mean?” Claude stretched his leg a little further, so the arch of his left foot was now lining the curve of his scalp.

“Well, the noise Claude,” she rubbed sleep from her eyes. “It’s one thirty in the morning.”

Claude did not speak but rolled his weight onto his right buttock in preparation for the final phase of the move.

“Perhaps you could practise more in the day?”

“In the day!” said Claude, “I practise in the day and in the night. It is not one or the other. Do you think Marcel Callow practised only in the day? Do you think he was born being able to touch the small of his back with his big toe?”

“No, -” his mother said. She could not refute it.

In truth, Claude practised part of the day and part of the night, because he needed to earn enough money to eat and he needed to sleep. Claude earned money by working as a baker. Why a baker? He was already several steps ahead of us: he worked as a baker so that when people asked – “What do you do?” – he would say – “My passion is clowning but I work as a baker to put bread on the table.” Claude was not building his jokes around his life; he was building his life around his jokes.

Every month, Claude would put aside a few hundred pounds. He was saving for a Foundation Degree at the best clown school in the country. But Claude knew that only one in three applications were successful and so he began to practise. He practised every day he was not seeing his friends or his girlfriend Rosie, which is to say, almost every day. He learnt how to do forwards and backwards rolls, cartwheels and bridges, somersaults, handsprings and flicks. He learnt how to stand and walk on his hands. He learnt how to paint masks that looked cruel and sad, masks grotesque, animal and innocent. He paced between his mirror and desk, practising, refining, naming and cataloguing forty-one different facial expressions. He learnt how to juggle three, five, seven balls in front and behind him, low and high, and he did the same with skittles, saucepans and knives. It is hard to live with someone who is doing all this in the early hours of the morning. His parents tried. For nine months, they tried. But people cannot give without return for long.

There was the sound of heavy feet on the stairs and Claude’s father appeared in the dark of the hallway behind his mother, blinking, adjusting his spectacles.

“What’s he saying?”

Claude watched his mother put her hand lightly on his father’s chest.

“Leave it. I’m talking to him,” she said.

His father brushed her away and came to stand in the doorway beside her. “Claude. What on earth are you doing?”

His father noticed with disgust Claude’s spidery body, the bulge of his genitalia against the fabric of the leotard. Claude did not answer.

“Look at him,” his father muttered.

“Don’t,” his mother said, softly.

“It’s one thirty in the morning,” his father hissed. “This is not the time to be prancing around in a leotard. Untangle yourself for god’s sake.”

He had hoped his son would study medicine at university as he had done, and sleep with lots of women as he had failed to do.

“No,” Claude said, “I’m practising.”

“This is my house, Claude,” his father said, “And I’m telling you to stop.”


His father turned off the lights. Claude made a long, loud animal noise. If he had been sitting he would have stood, but he was unable to move any part of his body except his right arm, so he smacked his palm on the floor in exclamation.

“I am leaving!”

“Good,” his father’s voice came out of the dark.

Claude heard him turn and go down the stairs, leaving only his mother, a ghostly shape in the doorframe.

“Claude -”

Her love is so easy, it is worthless, Claude thought, absently. His attention was still directed at his father.

“I will live with Rosie,” he said, “We are in love.”

Claude loved his mother, but he hurt her now because he was unable to punish his father. He was trying to leverage her love for him against his father, to make her blame his father for the loss of her son.

She left, silently. He heard her go slowly down the stairs.

At this moment, Claude succeeded in wedging his foot against the back of his neck. Alone, in the dark, he smiled. I will need to check into a hostel, he thought, and call Rosie. It will work out. It is my parents, not I, who are impossible to live with.


Shtick Seven: Claude Gives Up His Girl (or, His Girl Gives Up Him)

“You’re impossible to live with,” Rosie said.

She was sitting in front of the TV, the remote in her hands, but it was off. Claude had just come home from clown school.

“How long have you been looking at the TV?” he said.

She turned to him. “What?”

He saw her eyes were filled with water and her cheeks were red and swollen. He gestured to the TV but did not say it again. The answer no longer seemed important.

Someone put a flyer through the letterbox. It shuttered on the floor.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

He realised his bag was heavy and put it down. He pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I don’t know,” he said.

She sighed impatiently.

“I can’t live like this.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her left hand, the hand that was not holding the remote, and said again, stronger this time, as if she was more certain of it, “I can’t.”

She stood and brushed past him. He heard the bathroom door slam shut. He wondered how he had ever made her laugh, how she had ever adored him.

In the four years since they moved in together, something had changed. At some point after starting clown school, Claude realised that the only asset worth measuring was time. More time was more time for clowning and money was just time that he had spent. He cut down his hours at the bakery to the minimum he needed to live. He stopped drinking because he reasoned that every drink was half an hour of work thrown away on top of the time it takes to drink it plus the time it takes to recover from it. He no longer watched TV or films or read books or newspapers or listened to music or to the radio, unless the subject was clowning. And because he did not do these things, he gave up the world itself. He could talk about nothing but clowning.

How boring it was for Rosie! And how patient she was! He talked about the shticks he had written and the shticks he was hoping to write. He talked about the difficulty and the beauty of reinventing Beckett and Bausch for the brutal democracy of the street performance. He talked about which shticks worked on young and old people, rich and poor people, kind and cruel people and which hecklers to ignore, which to argue with and which to clasp in a silent embrace. He wanted to become a clown and he did, but he became nothing else but a clown.

Claude went into the kitchen to prepare his packed lunch. He could hear Rosie brushing her teeth. She went into the bedroom. He packed his bag with his face paints, hair net, white wig, yellow jumpsuit and two-foot-long red shoes. He heard the click of the switch as she turned off the lights and the creak of the mattress as she climbed into bed. He brushed his teeth quietly and crept into the bedroom. He took off his clothes, put on the old t-shirt he slept in and sat on the edge of the bed. He could hear her breathing. Gingerly, he reached out to hold her. She pushed him away and curled up tighter. It hurt in his stomach. He realised she had more power over him than anyone in the world. He lay on his back unable to sleep, his hands clasped over his chest, as if he were dead.


Shtick Eight: Claude Gives Up His Friends

“You must feel so alive!” Stephen said, “To be doing what you want to be doing.”

Before Claude could stop him, Stephen raised a glass and looked around the dining room table. Everyone fell silent: his wife Laura, Paul and Marie, a couple Marie knew, and Claude.

“Claude here has made the bravest choice of all,” Stephen said. “I am full of admiration and, to be honest, a little envious. Claude has joined the circus.”

Everyone beamed at him. They made the sound people make when a firework goes off. Claude smiled weakly. The men were still in their suits from work, although they had removed their ties and loosened their collars. The women were a shine of chiffon and a dazzle of jewels.

Claude’s gums hurt. His diet was shot. After graduating from clown school, he had started an unpaid apprenticeship at Circus Rêvelle in Leyton. He ate the same, cheapest foods and rarely went out.

In the mornings, he worked at the bakery, resenting every hour. He was surly with the delivery drivers, lippy with the pastry chef and he bickered with the cashiers. In the afternoons, he sanded and repainted the boards at Circus Rêvelle and made endless cups of tea for the stage director. In the evenings he worked on his act: The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular. He did not know how many cups of tea he would have to make before it would be appropriate to ask the stage director for an audition. He only knew that when his moment came, he needed to be ready.

But it was hard. There was so little room for error. He had moved out of his flat and into a self-storage unit in Leyton which cost twelve pounds a week to rent. There was no light and, now that summer was ending, it was incredibly cold. If Circus Rêvelle didn’t take him on when it went to Blackpool for the Christmas season, Claude didn’t know what he was going to do in winter.

“It really is incredible,” said Stephen, turning back to him. Stephen had a reasonably well-paid job that he moderately disliked. “What you want. That’s what’s important. Screw everything else.”

He threw back his head and drained his glass, pleased with his analysis.

“You know?” Stephen said when Claude did not respond.

“Absolutely,” Claude said.

He wondered if it was appropriate to do a routine, perhaps one where he tripped on a chair and fell flat on his face. He chastised himself. He knew he was being adolescent. But what do I want, he thought, if not to perform for them?

How can something said with the best will in the world produce such confused pain? Claude’s friends are well-meaning people. They do not want money to be a divisive issue. It is Claude who has made it one by not having any.

Claude ate in silence as the conversation sparkled around him. Occasionally he saw the opportunity for a joke, but he felt no inclination to make it. There was a voice inside him urging him to make it, to close the distance that had sprung up between him and his old friends. For some years after they left school, they would joke the way they used to. But something changed. Perhaps money or age or the tender, iterative struggle of moving in with their partners had changed them, had made them serious. Or perhaps it was Claude who had changed. Because the voice urging him to make the joke was the small voice of a version of himself that had been all but replaced by the One and Only Claude Bryce. And the One and Only Claude Bryce was not interested in laughter for laughter’s sake. When he honed his act in the early hours of the morning, he was not aiming for the loudest or the longest laugh. He wanted the joke that was honest, that said something true about the world. But it was hard to fit such jokes into the conversation, between the courses and cutlery. Yes, there was not room for the One and Only Claude Bryce at the dinner table.

He left early, without saying goodbye. He would not see them again. Losing friends is not like losing a lover. They go, not with tears and shouts, but quietly. Perhaps this is because they are not close enough to challenge you. But perhaps it is also because the loss is one-sided: you are just one of many to them, even though, collectively, they are everything to you.


Shtick Nine: The Last Rehearsal

The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular bore little relation to the shtick Claude performed for the stage director of Circus Rêvelle eight years ago. It had grown. He had a two minute shtick when he performed for the first time in Blackpool, but audiences liked it, and over the next nine months it grew so that when they returned to London he was doing four shticks of three minutes each and was mentioned in promotional materials. The night before they were to leave for Blackpool again, a well-dressed man approached Claude in the bar after the show and offered him more money and larger audiences as part of a circus that toured cities across Europe. Claude did not hesitate. He worked for the well-dressed proprietor for six years. After two years, it was Claude’s picture on the billboards, his name in the strapline. After four years, it was he who the journalists called to interview before the show and he who the children asked to sign their programs after. He was famous. He liked touring, and for the first time in his life, he was earning more money than he could easily spend. But he began to dream about his own show. He did not know when the idea was first seeded, but it became an obsession. He talked about it to anyone who would listen. It would be his great work, he said. The proprietor got wind of this, marched into his dressing room and shouted at Claude for ten minutes. Claude wiped the spittle off his cheek and walked out. He moved back to London and set to work on his dream.

The evening before the show’s opening night, Claude sat in the front stalls of the Royal Festival Hall, making small alterations to the lighting instructions as the performers filed past him. He had handpicked them from circus schools across Europe and worked with them late into the night for many long months.

“Who in the audience will care about juggling skittles?” he would say. “No one! And yet are they not all jugglers! They try to juggle the love of their families, their lovers, their friends! They juggle their dreams and ambitions!”

The other performers laughed at him when his back was turned, but in some small part of themselves, they believed in him. They though he was ridiculous and sublime; they resented and worshipped him.

“Have a good night,” they said, as they passed “See you tomorrow!”

Claude ignored them. He was frowning, his pen poised over the paper. The noise of their many conversations annoyed him. Abruptly he looked up.

“Leave quietly. Please!”

The way he enunciated ‘please’ was not polite. It was instantly silent. A handsome skittle juggler, who had almost reached the exit, sniggered.

Fools! Claude thought. They do not understand. I am trying to give them something more than themselves, to raise them up. I am trying to give their lives meaning!

The last of the performers left. A caretaker came in. He moved around the left side stalls, collecting the empty plastic bottles and health snack wrappers the performers had left. Claude did not notice.

But are they grateful? Are they aware? No, they are dumb children, excited to be going home!

He was scribbling furiously in the margins of the paper now. The caretaker, who had not seen the man bent over his papers in the front stalls, turned off the lights and left. Claude stood and looked around, furious. But the caretaker was already gone. Alone, in the dark, he threw the lighting directions to the floor and sank back in his chair.

Claude had not been happy for a long time. He was angry with the performers because he was envious of them. They were going home to their families, lovers and friends. He would go home to no one. He thought of his mother and father, Rosie, his old friends: how lightly he had cast them all away! And how heavily he felt them in his belly now. Yes, the weight of what he had given up finally came to rest on his original ambition, and his ambition struggled to bear it.

For many months, the joy in his work had been so pale he can hardly make it out. He had been aware of this, but vaguely, the way you are aware of the darkening of the sky when watching television. But it became more and more obvious and now, it was suddenly clear. If he no longer enjoyed clowning, why was he doing it? He could not answer. The meaning of his life was suddenly illegible. His ambition to become a clown, he realised, was arbitrary. It was no more than a line he has drawn in the sand, a test of his own tenacity. It was absurd.

This is what Claude Bryce realised, on the eve of his show, within a circus lion’s whisker of greatness: there was no point in going on.


Shtick Ten: Claude Lucid

So now, Claude Bryce stands in the rain looking up at a billboard advertising The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular. He is standing on an overpass, on the thin strip of raised tarmac that constitutes the pedestrian walkway. He is looking across the four lanes of the dual carriageway at the billboard. And he is shaking.

He has come here, now, because he wants to give himself one last chance to consider his success. He wants to say to himself: Look! Look at what you have achieved! But there is nothing: it is like trying to wring water from a towel that is already dry. And this is why he is shaking.

He turns away from the dual carriageway. There is a gap in the wire netting, where two sheets which had been stapled together have been torn apart. He steps through them. Behind the netting is a waist-high crash barrier. He places his palms on the concrete. It is cold and wet. He looks down at the tarmac. It is not far, but he is confident in his ability to land on his head.

He climbs carefully over the crash barrier and stands on the rim of the overpass, the drop behind him. His weight rests on the balls of his feet, his heels rest on air. He wavers in the wind. He grips the crash barrier and looks up, one last time, at the billboard.

He is a splinter of a second away from jumping when a lorry stops in front of him.

He has seen me, Claude thinks. Panic flickers in his chest. He does not want to deal with the driver, or anyone, right now. He wants to jump alone. But then he glances to his right and realises there is no way the driver can have seen him. A large sign obstructs his view of oncoming traffic, and, conversely, the traffic’s view of him.

But why, then, has the lorry stopped? Claude looks left and right along the road. There is nothing. Claude will never know why the lorry stopped. But, staring at the dirty white side of the lorry, Claude forgets his own question. It is eclipsed by five thoughts that occur to him in such rapid succession, they feel simultaneous.

One: Claude realises he can no longer see the billboard advertising The One and Only Claude Bryce Spectacular.

Two: the billboard is still there, only he cannot see it, because the lorry has hidden it.

Three: his joylessness has always been there, only he could not feel it, because his ambition to become a clown had hidden it.

Four: if he jumps now, his joylessness will still be there, only he will not feel it, because his death will hide it. Yes, staring at the dirty white side of the lorry, Claude realises that if he jumps, the life he could have lived will still be there, wet with anticipation of being lived, of being drained to the bitter end.

Five: the instant the lorry stopped, the will to jump had guttered and died in his stomach. He felt it immediately, but his mind only now catches up.

Claude flicks his hands up as if each part of each thought is a tiny piece of paper and he is throwing them – hundreds of them – up into the air. In this moment he is utterly lucid and he laughs, a soft laugh that is beyond words.


Shtick Eleven: The Grand Finale of Claude Bryce

The stage goes dark and a ramp and a giant ball are hurried into the ring. The audience waits, hushed and expectant. There are excited children, condescending parents, innocent grandparents and bemused lovers. They crowd the rows of seats, their hands sticky with candyfloss, smelling of popcorn. Some of the children are holding plastic windmills which shine with red, blue and green light. They wait for Claude Bryce.

They saw the other performers. They saw the topless man who stood on his hands, his feet in the air, and moved his body with the taut, rippling motion of a slinky. They saw the skittle jugglers dressed as Morris dancers and the man who juggled five footballs while standing on a sixth. They saw three roller skaters swivel and twirl, in pinstripe suits and bright skirts, like a pack of liquorice all sorts in a salad spinner. They saw the man with the whip crack pompoms from the elbows of his beautiful assistant, crack the clothes from her body. They saw five male trapeze artists dressed like angels and three female trapeze artists dressed like geishas hang and leap from the swinging bars. They saw seven men dressed like toy soldiers with rictus smiles catapult themselves from a Russian swing, to somersault once, twice, three times in the air, before landing on a mattress and executing a crisp military salute.

Claude Bryce stands in the darkness at the edge of the ring, waiting for the audience to quiet. There is a two sided ramp across the stage. It rises out of the stage door, is at its highest point a few metres into the ring and then slopes down to the audience at the other side.

Claude crawls up the ramp and the lights come on. He is pushing a ball ahead of him. The ball is as tall as a man. He is wearing a baggy, yellow jumpsuit, large red shoes and a white wig. There is a small plateau at the peak of the ramp on which the ball might feasibly rest. Claude makes out that the ball is far heavier than it is, as if pushing it is a strenuous effort.

He is within arms’ length of the peak of the ramp when a storm of snowflakes descends from the darkness above the scaffold. He stops crawling as if he can go no further. He pushes only with his arm, his head dropped. The ball nears the plateau but rolls back. Claude pushes with his arm again, leaning forward. The ball comes to the lip of the plateau but again rolls back. Claude pushes a third time, leaning forward and splaying his fingers and the ball crests the lip and comes to rest on the plateau.

But Claude does not see this. He is looking to the floor. He reaches out again and when his arm meets no resistance, Claude pretends to lose control. He pushes his arm forward faster and topples forward onto his belly (onto his face!) and as he does so he looks up. He looks up just in time to see himself touch the ball with his finger tip. It is the lightest of touches but the ball moves. It rolls away from him, down the other side of the ramp. Laughter.

Claude yelps and jumps upright. He runs after the ball, overtaking it, reaching the other end of the ramp, and turning to ready himself for its impact. It hits him and he falls over. A ripple of laughter.

He stands and dusts himself off. He peers round one side of the ball, up the ramp, and then peers round the other side, up the ramp, and sighs. His sigh is so long, it visibly deflates him. Smattering of laughter.

The audience understands he is going to try to return the ball to the plateau. But why? For the same reason that Claude wants to be a clown: for no reason at all! What is more absurd than a shtick about a ball and a ramp? Nothing! In trying to push the ball up the ramp, Claude Bryce is giving them no less than the story of himself.

So Claude Bryce begins to push the ball up the ramp again. After several steps, he stops and leans on the ball. It rolls away from him, up the ramp, and he loses his balance and staggers. The ball begins to roll back. Claude looks startled. He turns, runs, stops, turns and faces the ball. It hits him. He falls back and the ball comes to rest on top of him. There is a moment of stillness. All you can see are Claude Bryce’s hands and feet forming four corners of a square around the circumference of the ball. Cackle of laughter.

Again he pushes the ball up the ramp. He is angry this time: he takes three steps and then shoves the ball. But then he freezes. The ball pauses, almost to the top, and begins to roll back. Claude readies himself, his legs and arms apart like a goalkeeper awaiting a penalty. But he looks afraid. He makes a small, guttural noise like an animal in pain. The ball hits him, he embraces it and allows it to roll on, over him, so he goes under and up the other side of the ball and over it so he lands back on his feet at the very edge of the stage. He teeters back, into the audience. There are squeals and screams from the seats behind him and, from the rows above, laughter.

For a final time, Claude pushes the ball up the ramp. He goes slowly, doggedly, step by step. When he is a third of the way he turns and pushes with his back for several steps. When he is two-thirds of the way, he gets on his hands and knees. He is within arms’ length of the peak of the ramp when a storm of snowflakes descends from the darkness above the scaffold. He stops crawling as if he can go no further. He pushes only with his arm, his head dropped. The ball nears the plateau but rolls back. Claude pushes with his arm again, leaning forward. The ball comes to the lip of the plateau but again rolls back. Claude pushes a third time, leaning forward and splaying his fingers and the ball crests the lip and comes to rest on the plateau.

But Claude does not see this. He is looking to the floor. He reaches out again and when his arm meets no resistance, Claude pretends to lose control. He pushes his arm forward faster and topples forward onto his belly (onto his face!) and as he does so he looks up. He looks up just in time to see himself touch the ball with his finger tip. It is the lightest of touches but the ball moves. It rolls away from him, down the other side of the ramp. There is a swell of forlorn laughter.

Claude yelps and jumps upright. He runs after the ball, off the stage.


Shtick Twelve: Epilogue on the Many Different Kinds of Laughter

Light, tinkling laughter of delight or surprise. Generous laughter at a child’s joke to make them feel loved. Concealed, private laughter, like light glancing on water. Laughter that comes from the deliciousness of being flattered by someone you like. The ring and thrum of flirtatious laughter. Laughter that goes hand in hand with discovering someone. Laughter with no discernible bottom that is really love with no discernible end. Full, deep laughter that blooms from the belly into something more than itself. Thin, awkward laughter, papering over anxiety. Laughter at people who are not like us. ‘Look at us having a good time!’ laughter. Laughter just to be seen to be laughing. Laughter that is only in the eyes and laughter that does not reach the eyes. Last laugh laughter when something is won and sad laughter when something is lost. Laughter at the absurdity of the world. Tears laughter. Laughter that is about no less than the human condition. Laughter beyond words.

Max Sydney Smith graduated with an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University last year. His work has appeared in the literary magazines Structo, Open Pen, Shooter, and Noon.

Perfection, by Andrew Kooy

Art: Her

Adam leaned his temple against the bulkhead and looked out the window while the plane waited on the tarmac. He watched for any mistakes made by the people in the tower that would allow another aircraft to land where they were and smash into his plane.

The couple next to him had a dog stowed in a box under the seat. “Don’t worry,” the man said, “she’s a good flier. Didn’t make a peep on the flight out to visit my folks.”

Still, Adam tried to keep his feet from moving. His knees dug into the seat ahead of him, and he could feel his restless leg syndrome kicking in. He didn’t want to bump the dog and set it off.

Adam continued to scan the runways as the jet engines ramped up, and the plane sped toward takeoff. He tried to keep his body limp. He had read that drunks often survived car crashes because they couldn’t react fast enough to tense up before impact. He tried not to think of the front of the plane being sheared off. The screams. The fire. He tightened his seatbelt, only closing his eyes when they were fifty feet off the ground. At that point it didn’t matter how vigilant he was. If something happened up here, only a miracle would save him.

Adam woke as the flight attendant came by with the drink cart. He ordered ginger ale and stretched his neck. He had been asleep for barely twenty minutes, but his left foot was cramped tight with an ache that started at the base of his skull. These seats were almost perfectly uncomfortable. They must have been invented by an economist: No thought for comfort when money is on the line. Fit as many people on the plane as possible to maximize profits. Take the average adult male and calculate the smallest amount of personal space that can be abided for a five hour flight, and then add one more row so they can sell six more tickets. Adam had four inches and fifty pounds on the average adult male, so there was no way for him to get comfortable. If the airline removed one row, there would only be about an inch more room for each remaining row. Even one inch would be nice, but this seat would still be torture.

There’s got to be a perfect seat out there, Adam thought. A seat all others are modeled after. Perfect back support and a place to lay his head. The seat would be the perfect height so that his feet would be comfortable tucked under him or stretched out while lounging. Could a seat be comfortable for all people? He couldn’t imagine how it would, but if it was the perfect seat he was sure it would find a way.

Adam remembered a college class that dealt with perfect forms, but he was pretty sure they used the word “ideal” rather than “perfect.” Perfection sounded better to Adam. More solid. More final.

Would the perfect chair have three or four legs? Four, he decided as he dozed again. The perfect stool would probably have three legs.

Adam waited for his bag to come by on the luggage carousel at SEA-TAC. He stretched his back twisting left then right, trying to work out the kinks. A bag went by with a camping chair strapped to it. He wondered if that was the perfect camping chair. Somebody obviously cared enough about it to bring it to or from Colorado. He thought about asking the middle-aged woman who picked up the bag, but his obsession seemed too strange to explain and besides, his suitcase was finally emerging onto the carousel, and he wanted to get home. He had to work in the morning.

Before going to bed, Adam sat in every chair in his apartment. The kitchen chairs were a bit too tall, putting pressure on his hamstrings. The couch was comfortable enough, but as he reclined, he noticed that there was space at his lower back where it should be snuggly pressed to support him. He lowered and raised his desk chair in an attempt to find the sweet spot of perfection, but soon realized that his tailbone still ached from the perfectly uncomfortable seat on the flight. He gave up and went to bed.

“How was the seminar?” Adam’s boss, Nancy, asked him the next morning. He was only in charge of data entry, but he had still taken it as an honor when she offered to fly him halfway across the country for training.

“The new software has a lot of the same problems as the old, but the reports it generates are real slick,” Adam said.

“Well at least it’s something,” Nancy responded.

The seats in Nancy’s office were too soft, which made sense. She met with high-end donors and the elderly men on the board. The plush faux-leather bespoke of success while still conveying need. Her desk chair looked pretty nice, though: good back support, it swiveled smoothly, and leaned back a little bit as well.

Adam went back to his desk and sat. His chair squawked as he shifted about, trying to get comfortable. Two of the wheels on the bottom of his chair were gummed up with age and he stopped moving when he heard a crack as a piece of the plastic wheel splintered off. Nancy had gotten one of the board members to cover the cost of the training seminar. Would she be able to convince one of the others to foot the bill on some new chairs? Maybe next year, he thought. The economy had everyone stretched pretty thin and he was only sent to the training because it was deemed a necessary expenditure. But if his chair broke completely it would become a necessary expenditure, wouldn’t it?

It will have to look natural, he thought. It will have to look natural and it will have to be irreparable.

He spent the rest of the day installing the new software on all the computers and giving Nancy a walkthrough of the changes.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Can you still import the figures into Excel for me?”

“Well yeah, but the reports will be—”

“Good, then you can keep doing that.”

“But if you want to make any changes, I’ll have to input them manually and then send you a new report.”

“That’s your job, Adam. I’ve been keeping books, wrangling accounts, and running this business for twenty-five years. When I started, we used calculators, not computers, to keep things straight. I was forced to learn Excel and I’ll be damned if I’m forced to learn another program when I could be doing my job with a calculator and a pencil. You got the training, so you keep the program in order.”

Adam had hoped that the training meant he would be getting a raise or at least a slight increase in responsibilities so he could pretend that his job was more important than moving information between two computer programs. He went back to his desk to make sure the new program was installing properly and started jotting down a plan for a spreadsheet to track the disintegration of his chair.

The Platonic ideal, Adam realized as another plastic shard cracked off his chair. That’s what he had been trying to think of in the airport. But Plato thought that the perfect form of things existed solely in an abstract realm. Adam didn’t like that. It was beautiful to hope that perfection existed in the material world. He pretended to tie his shoes while he measured what was left of his fracturing wheel.

It was a rare, sunny afternoon in Seattle and Adam was happy to walk home without having to open his umbrella. He lived about a mile from work, and this was the perfect day to detour from his usual path home to walk around Green Lake. It was man-made and looked like a quintessential lake: unevenly round with a small island near one side. Can man craft an ideal form or must it occur naturally, he wondered. Man must be able to create perfection from time to time otherwise what would we be working toward?

He stopped to wait for some goslings to cross the path and jump into the lake. Stupid geese. The small island they were heading to was called Duck Island, but he never saw ducks out there. The geese probably drove them off. The foliage on the island was so shit upon and downtrodden that it looked gray. Adam wondered if there was a perfect form of goose. Some ultimate, aggressive shit-machine that attacked people and dogs even though its neck would be such a simple thing to break. No, he thought, there is no perfect form of goose because geese are only an aberrant version of a swan: A beautiful bird whose long neck is part of its grace. Maybe that’s where their aggression comes from. Geese hiss and bite because they know they are shitty facsimiles of a bird that is praised in poetry.

He thought about the ideal form of swan and how its perfect grace would put to shame the common grace of common swans not to mention geese, but his revelry was interrupted by a sharp pain in his left thigh. Adam turned. An adult goose was flapping its wings and hissing at him. It was ugly and monstrous. It cracked him across his knuckles and he dropped his umbrella.

“Goddamnit,” he shouted as the goose charged him. He tried to circle around to give it access to the lake so that it would leave him alone and he could pick up his umbrella. Two more geese were coming toward him, hissing and waving their heads. A group of kids stopped to laugh.

“Could I get a little help here?” he pleaded as he tried to keep the geese from surrounding him.

More people were watching and laughing now. The first goose stood over his umbrella while the other two continued to attack.

Adam waved his hands and stomped, trying to scare the geese into retreating to the lake but they just kept hissing and snapping at him while the people pointed and laughed.

Just a fucking aberration, he thought as he decided to meet aggression with aggression. He ran at the goose standing over his umbrella and kicked at it to make it move. The goose stood its ground and Adam’s right foot connected soundly, sending the bird into the air to land at the edge of the lake and flop around in pain.

“Holy shit, that dude just booted a goose.”

He collected his umbrella and attempted to hurry down the path.

“What is wrong with you?” a woman pushing a stroller said and blocked Adam’s path. “You can’t kick geese.”

“I was just trying to get my umbrella,” Adam said. “Look, it’s fine. It’s swimming away.”

“Someone should call the cops. You’re a maniac,” she said to his back as he dodged past her down the path.

At home, Adam calmed himself by searching the internet for the perfect desk chair. He found lists of the top five, top ten, top twenty best desk chairs. The chairs were all beautiful and futuristic and extremely expensive. There was one chair he saw over and over: Aeron True Black by Herman Miller. He had heard the name listening to NPR. Public radio wouldn’t accept money from a bad company, would it? Plus, every single list put the Aeron chair in the number one spot. At nearly a thousand dollars, that chair represented almost two weeks’ pay. Clearly out of his price range. A pipe dream. But a pipe dream with a breathable mesh back, fourteen points of articulation, and a sleek black finish.

At work, Adam’s chair continued to deteriorate. He flopped into his chair as hard as he could without seeming obviously destructive and smiled every time another plastic shard broke free. According to his calculations, it should have taken nine to fourteen working days to destroy his chair. After six days, though, one of the wheels disintegrated completely and he tried to hide his pleasure when he informed Nancy that he needed a new chair, only to be dismayed when she got him a wrench and told him to take all of the wheels off because she thought the chair still had some life left in it. He had to be mindful of his balance in his crippled chair afterwards. The tension of keeping himself upright throughout the day left him with a constant pain in his neck.

As the quarterly reports approached, Nancy became even more demanding. She continued to refuse to use the new software and eventually stopped using her computer altogether. Nancy would have Adam print out reams of Excel spreadsheets. She would mark them up by hand and give them to Adam to put back into the computer, only to have Adam print them out again the next day.

Two days before the reports were due, Nancy put a stack of papers on Adam’s keyboard.

“It’s all wrong,” she said. “The columns are sloppy and there’s no header. Make it look professional, Adam.”

The papers Nancy left were covered with pencil marks. Little arrows and boxes and indecipherable chicken-scratch. He knew better than to ask any questions to clarify what it was that she wanted. She never wanted anything specific; she only wanted something different than what he gave her.

Nancy left her pencil as well. Adam picked it up and was about to call her back when he really looked at the pencil. Dixon Ticonderoga #2. No bite marks. Clean eraser. Sharpened to a point about three-quarters of its original length. It was perfect. Adam closed his eyes and conjured up every image of pencils he could imagine. They were all this pencil. He opened his eyes and searched his desk for another pencil to compare it to, but there were none. He brought the pencil up to his nose and inhaled: it even smelled perfectly like a pencil.

His hands were shaking, and he set the pencil on his desk so he could gaze at it. What could he do? What should he write? This was the perfect pencil. This was an instrument to write sonnets and plays and things a man could call his magnum opus. This was the pencil that could sketch a modern day Mona Lisa. This pencil could draw the plans for architectural wonders or jot the note that inspired the cure for cancer. Ad agencies would kill for even one look at this perfect pencil.

A board member walked in and knocked on Nancy’s door. The man was nothing but lines. Touching perfection had changed Adam. He knew that if he picked up the pencil he could draw the man with perfect skill. Through the pencil he could calculate where the man had been and where he was going to go. Everything was a series of lines and this pencil could connect them all. Adam looked at his desk and realized he could draw a map that led to the forest and the exact spot the tree was cut down to make his desk.

Adam reached out to hold the pencil to assure himself that it was real. His fingers slipped, and he knocked it to the floor. He reached down to the side of his chair and stopped. The lines were gone. It was only a pencil again. The tip of the lead had broken off and it was no longer perfect. In the shock of seeing something perfect become so mundane, Adam forgot about the precarious balance of his chair and fell to the right. He scrambled to find the pencil. Maybe he had been mistaken. Maybe it was just bad lighting that made the pencil look broken.

He found the pencil, cracked in half by the chair, and he started to cry.

“Are you okay?” Nancy asked as she peered over his desk.

He couldn’t tell her about the perfection. She wouldn’t understand now that it was broken. Adam lifted his hands to cover his tears and for a disorienting second, thought he now had two thumbs on his right hand. As he blinked, he realized that the chair and his weight had landed on his right hand. He had snapped his pinky finger at the base. It was jutting out sideways from his hand.

He raised his right hand to show Nancy and the board member, now gathered at his desk. “I think I broke my finger,” he said as he wiped his tears with his left hand.

On the way to the hospital, Nancy couldn’t stop apologizing. “I’m so sorry, Adam. I should have gotten you a new chair when the wheels fell off that one. I’m ordering you a new one as soon as I get back to the office. What kind of chair would you like? You can pick out the color and everything. How’s your hand?”

Adam smiled as he shifted the Lean Cuisine from the office freezer onto the backside of his hand. “Well, there is this one chair. Most online polls claim that it is the best office chair on the market. The company who makes the chair is pretty famous too. Their chairs are so well designed that they are even in the Museum of Modern Art.”

“Whatever you need. How’s your hand feeling?”

“Well, it is kind of an expensive chair, but you asked and that would be the chair I’d want in an ideal world. Spending forty hours a week in a chair kind of makes you want it to be nice.” His voice trailed off, and he winced as he shifted the frozen box to another part of his hand. She would never get him the Herman Miller Aeron True Black chair. He had reached too high too quickly.

“Oh, of course, of course. You’re such a hard worker and it’s the least I could do. Tell me the name of the chair and I’ll have it for you by Monday morning.”

He had underestimated her shame over his injury. Was she afraid that he would sue her? She laughed and joked as she waited with him in the emergency room as if to make him feel that they were not only boss and employee, but friends. Adam was happy. He felt like Nancy was his friend. She was getting him the perfect chair, wasn’t she?

His finger wasn’t broken, only terribly dislocated. The doctors set it and taped it to his ring finger and gave him a protective cast that strapped to his wrist. Nancy dropped Adam at home after taking him to get his pain medication and told him to take a long weekend to recover, assuring him that he would have a new chair when he came into the office on Monday.

Adam’s weekend was a mix of sleeplessness and dreams made strange by the pain medication. He read every article, every advertisement, every blog comment he could find about the Aeron True Black chair. On Sunday evening, he dozed off at his computer and dreamed of a website that allowed users to create avatars of themselves that could sit in a simulated Aeron chair and fiddle with the settings in order to familiarize potential owners with the chair’s controls and help them maximize comfort as soon as their chair arrived. When he woke he spent the next twelve hours looking for this website.

As the sun came up on his fruitless search, Adam was pleased to find that he was full of energy and ready for work. He swallowed a pill for the pain in his hand and headed out the door. It was mostly overcast and cool: the perfect weather for a brisk walk to work. He could hear the geese out on Green Lake, splashing and honking and probably attacking some poor jogger. It didn’t matter to Adam, though. He was taking the most direct route to work and didn’t have to worry about any geese.

Adam hurried to his cubicle in the back. He could see the chair behind his desk but not clearly until he turned the lights on.

This was not the Herman Miller chair.

This was not a new chair.

This was Nancy’s chair.

He sat down. The seat was too soft and sunk down to the point that he could feel the hard frame of the chair press into his right butt cheek. He leaned back. The back support was too short and did not even come all the way up to his shoulders. He swiveled. The wheels squeaked and he stood up to glare at the chair.

The light was on in Nancy’s office. Adam hadn’t heard her come in and didn’t know how long he had been contemplating this imperfect chair. He knocked on the door.

“Oh hey Adam, how are you feeling?” She was standing next to her desk holding a wrench and the armrest to a Herman Miller Aeron True Black desk chair. His Herman Miller Aeron True Black desk chair.

“You look a little pale, Adam.”

Adam focused on his breathing. You promised, he thought. My hand gets messed up because you were trying to save a couple of bucks, and you buy the chair you promised me for yourself.

Adam started to put his hands in his pockets to hide the shaking and winced as he bumped his finger. You wouldn’t have even known about this chair if it wasn’t for me, he thought. This perfect chair.

He cleared his throat. “Heh, so they make you put the chair together yourself? You’d think for that price they would assemble it for you.”

“Oh this,” she said gesturing with the armrest, “I actually just took this off. I kept bumping my elbow on it when I answered the phone so I figured no armrest, no problem.”

Adam closed his eyes as he leaned against the doorframe and rubbed his brow with his left hand.

“Whoa, are you okay?” Nancy asked. “You don’t look okay.”

“I’m just. . . I think I’m still getting used to the medication.”

“Well why don’t you sit down a minute?”

“No,” Adam said a bit too loudly. The thought of sitting anywhere near the perfect chair, purposefully mangled by this idiotic woman, was more painful than his dislocated finger. “Maybe I should just—”

“Go home and rest,” Nancy finished. “The reports are fine, there’s nothing pressing for you to do today. Just get some rest and come back tomorrow.”

Rain was lightly misting and he had left his house without his umbrella, but he still decided to take the long way home and walk around Green Lake. He felt like kicking a goose.

The piddling rain stopped as he crossed the street to the jogging path around Green Lake. Lying near the curb was a large orange tabby that had been hit by one of the drivers on their morning commute. Steam rose from the intestines that spilled out of its lower abdomen where it had been struck. A crow pecked at the offal, oblivious to Adam’s presence.

This seems like a good place to start, Adam thought as he took a couple of quick steps and drew back his right foot.

The crow hopped away and spun around to face him, spreading its wings and cawing at the disturbance. Adam fell to his knees next to the dead tabby as he looked into the crow’s yellow eyes. This was not a crow, this was Crow. The perfect form of crow that all other crows were modeled after. He could see that now, with its wings outstretched. The feathers were perfectly arrayed and of a black that would make the moonless night jealous. Its beak was sharp and covered with gore, and the sound that came out of its pink mouth was pure poetry.

As he stared into Crow’s eyes, Adam began to believe he could understand what Crow was saying. He had never truly really known perfection before: the pencil, the chair, they came close but were mere shadows when compared to the real thing. Perhaps man cannot make perfection. Perhaps true perfection was grown rather than manufactured. Adam thought of the perfect chair again. He did not see the Herman Miller Aeron True Black chair. His mind was filled with the vision of a lightning struck stump, carved by wind and rain to perfection.

Crow hopped toward its meal and Adam looked down to see a filet mignon steaming on the curb next to him. He could smell the garlic in the potatoes and the vinegar in the dressing of the salad that was arranged next to it. Crow bent down and pulled a cherry tomato from the salad, tilted its head back, and swallowed the beautiful red orb. Crow cocked its head to the side and cawed at Adam once more. This time he understood.

“Perfection,” Crow said.

Adam bent over and joined Crow, stuffing handfuls of the glorious meal into his mouth.

“Perfection,” Adam said between sumptuous mouthfuls and laughter and tears. “Thank you, Crow, this is perfection.”

A man came around the corner of the jogging path with a wiener dog and turned toward Adam and Crow. Crow called out to the man and Adam laughed, waving for the newcomers to join in the feast. The man did not understand, could not see the perfection of Crow, gagged and bent over. The wiener dog saw Crow and heard Crow and understood. The man gagged again and a fountain of buttery popcorn shot from his mouth. The wiener dog spun and barked, gobbling up the popcorn as it fell. Crow hopped over and picked at the kernels before inviting the wiener dog to the bounty in front of Adam with another cry of “perfection.” Next to Crow, the wiener dog was nothing more substantial than a balloon animal. It bounced over to the meal, trailing its leash. The dog sniffed at the mashed potatoes before opening its mouth and spraying popcorn across the salad.

“You didn’t have to bring anything,” Adam said as he laughed. “We already have all we need right here.”

Andrew Kooy received his MFA from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. His work has been published in Blood and Thunder and Barely South Review. He currently lives in New Orleans where he is a stay-at-home dad and a member of the Peauxdunque Writer’s Alliance.

Poetry by Frankie Mace

The Beat

I feel for you——-sideways
Out of a corner
Ghost like a song like a song
Or more three times but
Only that even
It doesn’t matter won’t forget
It’s a weakness of mine.

Can it be
Simply not possible
Maybe fourth of all expanse of
There’s never being home
For dinner
Never cold skipping out we’re
Out till dawn
Sweet as ever as anything but
Worrying doesn’t get anyone anywhere

Life is sideways though
The beat
Of it swells in glorious circles
That I have memorised for you
Looking directly
At a portrait in profile
Like a song it comes around
But ends always
In the middle

Frankie Mace was born. She writes poems. ACAB.

Truancy, by Doina Ruști, in translation by James Brown

Art: Diary of a Teenage Girl

When the ten o’clock break ended, she took a last look at the stinking toilet bowl and cautiously pulled the door ajar. She couldn’t hear a thing; not even the cleaning lady’s rubber shoes. The water spilt during the break still glistened on the blue tiles, and someone had left their lipstick on a sink.

She had two maths classes, which she absolutely had to skip. The Whale always quizzed them in alphabetical order, and her turn was coming up now. So she had no choice: either she played truant, or she’d be called out to the blackboard and made a laughing stock before the whole class. So she’d hidden in the toilet, and was now planning on sneaking out into the schoolyard and from there to Cişmigiu Gardens. After maths, she had P.E., which didn’t matter anyway. The school day was over and the thought of that was as refreshing as a mouthful of Coke.

The corridor was deserted; ahead of her she could see the students’ entrance door opening slowly, and in the white light of morning a figure appeared that she would have recognized even enveloped in London fog, not just slightly blurred by the summer air. It was Dani. She could see how his fingers gripped the strap of his rucksack, while the soft soles of his sports shoes struck the spotted cement. Dani was now only a few metres away, exactly as she’d dreamed—just the two of them in a deserted corridor: he tall, striding forward, and she more determined than ever to not miss this opportunity.

As usual, he was going to pass by without a glance at her, looking straight ahead, towards the other end of the corridor, so she thickened her voice and said with a certain indifference:

‘Hi, Dani! Sorry… could you…?’

For an instant, he looked at her over his shoulder, as if he had no intention of stopping.

It was a bad start, but if he had stopped it would have been worse.

‘I really have to ask you something!’

She wasn’t even going to take any notice if the blood that, scared to death, was trying to burst out of her cheeks. She had to push ahead, without a plan, to ask him for something, anything, so that he would realize she was there, in front of him, in the silent corridor.

‘Actually, I’d like to ask you a couple of things, and I was wondering if you’d maybe have time at some point, one day.’

Dani finally stopped and look down at her, very carefully, as if he were out at the blackboard.

‘You’re in the ninth grade, in that classroom next to ours, aren’t you?’

‘Yes. I’m Monica, actually Moni. We’ve seen each other before on the corridor and I have been wanting to ask you for a long time now…’

‘Well, ask me!’ he interrupted, smiling in a tolerant but absent way, and Monica immediately understood that he was treating her like a girl from the ninth grade, not one you’d take seriously when you’re about to finish high school.

She felt as if the overheating of her blood was now coming out through her eyes, and two little muscles under her kneecaps had gone all soft.

‘I know you have to study for your baccalaureate and university entrance exam and that’s why it’s hard for me to… I’d like to ask you if you could explain some day to me a problem in …’

Monica had been going to invent something about maths, but the thought that she was just skipping a class with the Whale, who was Dani’s form teacher, made her switch tracks at the last moment.

‘A problem in philosophy,’ she said finally, and Dani burst out laughing.

He answered her, however, and as he talked the high windows filled with the summer sun: ‘Who told you I was interested in philosophy?’

He was looking at her now, and his fingers were moving rather restlessly as they gripped the cloth of his rucksack.

‘Look, if you want, there’s a lecture today at the University. Just where you enter the University building, there on Academy Street, if you’ve ever been before.’

Monica didn’t know, so Dani explained to her in more detail, and then said as he prepared to leave, ‘See you there at one thirty and, if you like, we can talk afterwards.’

For Monica, this was the turning point. She was so happy she had decided to skip school that she promised herself she’d do algebra equations all weekend, out of gratitude to the god of mathematics.

As she turned into the path, she realized she had no idea how she had got there. The whole road from school, and then from the entrance to Cişmigiu as far as the lime tree path had remained outside her brain, filled to the brim as it was with Dani’s words, which only now, gone over again and listened to in slow motion, in the warm, secret chamber behind her eyes, acquired their true value and started to shine. She had a date with Dani from the twelfth!

Monica sat down on the first bench she came to, and drank in for a moment the clear the sky over the lime trees in full leaf. And as she lit up a cigarette, without any of her usual precautions, she felt a great terror coming down upon her, an ominous and overpowering feeling of panic: what if they didn’t meet? He wouldn’t come; she wouldn’t see him; or even worse, she wouldn’t get there on time. She automatically checked her watch, it was twenty past ten. A good three hours still to go before one! It was impossible for her not to make it. What’s more, in this time she could spruce herself up a bit, or at least take a look in a mirror.

She was so overwhelmed that she didn’t even notice that someone had sat down beside her until she felt her cigarette being snatched from her fingers. By a completely bald shithead.

‘Can I take a drag, poppet?’

Monica jumped up and took off, while the caveman went on talking.

‘Where are you going, poppet? You upset?’ he crowed, and his words rose up to the treetops. ‘Stay here with daddy, and I’ll give you a thicker one!’

The man had utter contempt in his voice and no intention of stopping. ‘Smoking’s bad for your health,’ he yelled after Monica, ‘but my dick never killed anyone.’

Only when she got to the end of the path did she realize that there were quite a lot of people in the park, even some guys from her school, and she quickened her pace even more, as far as the boulevard and then farther, without making any more plans, miserable because of the scumbag’s words, which had seeped in through all her pores. Why the hell was she so affected by the words of a lowlife that she’d left behind a while ago, instead of concentrating on the big event of her life: the date with Dani?!

She went instinctively down toward the Town Hall and from there she took the side streets, until she came out at Unirii, and all along the way she tried to forget the Cişmigiu incident and to resume her thoughts from before. But a wish was slowly and painfully growing in the lining of her heart, to go back and crack open the head of the creep, slowly, from forehead to chin. She could even see herself forcing open the crack in his pumpkin head by moving a screwdriver from side to side, until he gave up the ghost on his knees before that bench in Cişmigiu.

When she entered the mall, she felt as if she had been she’d been wrung out and hung up to dry.

There weren’t a lot of people there, and the voices of OneRepublic could be heard drifting out of a shop. Monica took a deep breath and felt she was coming to life. Beside the banisters of the stairs a woman said something to her with a pleading look in her eyes. Because Monica hadn’t heard what the old dear wanted, she stopped and raised her eyebrows. But the woman was silent. She looked like her grandma.

‘Can I help you?’ she asked, more out of politeness than anything, and to her surprise, the woman smiled at her very humbly and said a bit more loudly, ‘I need some money, even just a little, to get myself a piece of bread.’

Oh come on! The only person she hadn’t paid her contribution to was this old biddy.

‘Really, granny? Have I got “sucker” written on my face?’

And still thinking what gall beggars had, she headed for the cosmetics department, straight towards the perfume testers and then on to make-up. She’d stink like nothing on earth, and Dani would realize that she was wearing perfume especially for him. She goggled at the jewellery, and at a shop with gag gifts and she felt again the time weighing on her.

It was ten to twelve. She went up the boulevard to the University, and a few minutes later she was already hanging around in front of the building. She’d got there too early and, as she was hungry as well, she counted her money and reckoned she could easily go into the Springtime on Academy Street. The crowds inside intimidated her so she was a bit flustered by the time she had squeezed through to the till. It was the first time she had been somewhere so crowded all on her own. She chose a salad, even if the smell of French fries made her mouth water. But what sort of fries would they be if they didn’t have garlic sauce? Better to limit herself to an honest mixed salad and a juice.

She dragged it out as much as she could and at one twenty she went through the door of the University.

The lecture hall looked imposing to her. There wasn’t much light, or rather, it was a light already licked by the tongue of the evening.

Suddenly she felt millions of stiff stalks growing all over her from head to toe, and she was convinced that Dani was looking at her. But she couldn’t guess where he was. She scanned the lecture theatre and noticed that there weren’t quite so many people there as she’d initially thought. A lot of them seemed to be students, rather thinly spread out in the cathedral-sized hall.

She hadn’t even decided where to sit, when the speaker appeared. He was a rather fat man with completely white hair, wearing a checked shirt.

Monica hurried into a row, pushed by someone who wanted to sit down. She was still adjusting to the seat, when the philosopher started talking. He had an annoying voice, like a choked engine, and the words seemed to be linked together, glued together, in fact, and hard to follow. He was saying something about a book of his and from his tone it was clear that it would never even have entered his head that there could be someone in that large hall who hadn’t read it.

Five minutes in and Monica was already bored, and thinking of the amount of time she still had to listen to the asphyxiated old chap made a disgusting venom rise up from the bottom of her stomach to her mouth. She turned her head and looked around the hall again, then over the heads of the people in front. Dani was definitely not there. What if she’d happened on another lecture? For a moment she let herself be overwhelmed by panic but the next instant she calmed down, as she read again the poster behind the speaker.

She took a deep breath, heroically determined to stick it out to the end, and a ray of summer sunlight hit her directly in the face. Between the tops of the lime trees she could see the sky and she could feel someone pulling her cigarette from under the pressure of her forefinger. She was so surprised by the world’s new appearance that she didn’t even think about the disgusting bald lowlife who’d nicked her cigarette. How the hell had she got here and where had the lecture hall gone?

Monica stood up and looked around, to check that she was in Cişmigiu, and while that toerag talked filth at her, she took off at a run down the path, this time not sparing the time to notice who was around and who’d heard what he’d said, because she felt as if an invisible mouth had swallowed her.

In an instant, the landscape changed again. She was in the mall, in front of the old biddy who was saying with her honeyed voice ‘I need some money, even just a little, to get myself a piece of bread.’ She could see her clearly, even better than the first time, because she also noticed her platform sandals.  She didn’t leave immediately, as she had done the first time, but instinctively decided to stay there rooted to the spot, as if that way she could stop the flow that had ripped her from the lecture hall.

But before she could finish that thought, a mist came down over her head for a second, and the next she was sitting at a table in Springtime. She was eating her salad in no hurry and sipping her juice through the green straw, while her eyes quickly scanned over the faces of the others, very trendy people, she thought, probably students, in any case wearing gear that she couldn’t take her eyes off, trousers with tons of zippers, designer blouses, hair dos, glasses. Right in front of her were two guys, but she didn’t have time to study them as she found herself back in the hall where the speaker was sullenly speaking the same sticky words she’d heard before. You’d think he’d been forced to give the lecture.

It was a long sentence, which Monica had heard before and which she would hear again and again, as the only reality of this small world that she had sped through.

And not once or twice but perhaps thousands upon thousands of times, until she knew it by heart, word for word, first as a condemned prisoner, then getting annoyed, protesting, or going up to the lectern to shut the moron’s mouth. But he continued to say the same words, as if her gestures and insistence just hadn’t registered on him.

Monica went like a whirlwind through the four compartments, from the scumbag in Cişmigiu to the old beggar in the mall, then through Springtime and finally to the lecture hall.

For a long while she couldn’t get herself together, and just felt tossed from one place to the next. Then, by willpower, she learned to use to best advantage the limited time she spent in each of the four places. She had timed it and she knew that one full tour, from Cişmigiu to the lecture, took a quarter of an hour. Each stop took roughly four minutes, a short time, but she forced herself to make use of every detail, because each time she planned her movements, trying not to repeat any, to discover the hidden nooks and crannies or to guess the reason for each happening. It was just like in Groundhog Day or tons of other movies, of which Monica had seen a few and, thinking about them, she clung to the belief that at some point she would be able to stop the madness and get out of the whirlwind unscathed.

Her first thought had been that the old woman at the mall was the key to the problem. She should have given her money, shown pity, like in fairytales, where some helpless creature always appears. And, for all her conviction that the old dear at the mall was nothing but a fraud, she tried everything she could think of to win her over. At the first opportunity, she went through all her pockets and gave her everything she had. But nothing happened. The woman was still there, with her look of an old charlatan out to get money for another drink. Monica kissed her, showed all her good will, then, losing her patience, shoved her or turned her back on her immediately, trying to see other people, do anything that crossed her mind, good or bad, from messing up the shelves in stores to making the most beautiful declarations that a mind chased through four worlds could come up with.

But at least she couldn’t complain about monotony.  Every moment had its surprises, because each time she discovered something new. For example, although the scumbag in Cişmigiu continued to say the same nauseating words, he couldn’t get up from the bench! He stayed in the same position, nailed to the spot. As soon as she got to that bit, she threw a punch at the idiot’s head, while he continued to say his line giving no indication that anything had bothered him. Then, she noticed that there were some white flowers next to the bench. Sometimes, she ignored the bald guy and just took off in various directions, so that after a while she came to know that in those four minutes she could get to the bridge over the lake or to two of the park gates. In the same way, during the lecture, she could walk around the hall and stare at various individuals, who, although they didn’t speak, would signal for her to be quiet or at least allow themselves to be examined.

In this life divided into four-minute intervals, Monica noticed with surprise that the philosopher was slightly changed. There seemed to be something wrong with his physiognomy, as if he’d got scrunched up, had shrunk in the wash, or was about to fall asleep. Even his voice seemed more gooey and more bored.

As she continued to study these small changes, which she kept thinking about even after leaving the lecture hall, leaning against the trunk of a lime tree in Cişmigiu, or looking at the jewellery under the glass of the display cases in the mall, it came to her as a revelation that the chubby man who was mumbling on about happiness was looking the worse for wear. His cheeks had drooped a bit and his eyes had got smaller because quite simply he was ageing. This discovery unlocked the old shivery feeling that she hadn’t felt in a long while and that had remained hidden in her memories, now quite remote, about the meeting with Dani in the deserted corridor.

Monica looked for a full four minutes at the beggar in the mall and realized that she too no longer looked the way she had on the first day. The knowing little smirk had gone. It was the lecturer who was the most marked by the passage of time, but everyone was showing their age. Even the toerag, whom Monica had stopped looking at for some time now, had deep furrows in his brow, like a great thinker.

Electrified by a sinister sense of foreboding, at the first opportunity she ran to a mirror in the mall. Her intuition was projected onto the silvery glass without sparing her feeling. Nothing of what she knew she was could be seen anymore. She couldn’t say she was displeased by what she saw, but it was altogether someone else, a face smooth as a balloon, with a rather hungry look.

For a while, she lived only for the next chance to get to that mirror in the mall, to put on makeup at top speed in those four minutes, only for it to lose all its effect immediately afterwards anyway. She never entered an episode with what she had acquired in another. She kept starting again, with the resources she had had at fifteen, when she had landed in that cursed lecture hall or when she had lit up that wretched cigarette in Cişmigiu. She didn’t even know when and why she had stepped onto this iron-toothed carousel.

Overwhelmed by the uselessness of life, she hardly even noticed what happened to others. So the death of the philosopher took her by surprise. He had barely stepped in when he collapsed with his forehead on the desk. Someone ran to examine him close up, and someone else called the ambulance. The excitement of these amazing changes left her speechless, so that she almost didn’t realize when she had passed into Cişmigiu.

The death of the lecturer made his world disappear too, and Monica’s life was reduced to just three entrances: into the park, into the mall, and into the fast-food restaurant.

She now had the impression that time was passing slowly. The dirtbag on the bench finished his line, and she was still walking by the side of the lake. Under a willow, some guys from her school were playing backgammon. She had noticed them a long time ago, on her first day in Cişmigiu, but she hadn’t spotted them since then. She lit a cigarette and, when she’d got to the middle of it, she slowly passed into the mall. The beggar was pretty run down and Monica understood that she didn’t have long to go either. She let her say her piece, then she said with a certain compassion:

‘I think you’re going to die, and that this world will pass away with you!’

The old woman didn’t answer, but to Monica it seemed that there was a vague trace of regret in her eyes.

From the mall, she passed into the fast-food restaurant, which no longer seemed so crowded. In front of her were the familiar guys eating pizza, who also seemed more mature, with stronger shoulders and more assertive gazes.

She looked at her watch and realized that she had stayed quite a while, but she scarcely had time to think about that change, because straight away she was back in Cişmigiu.

For a while, she divided her quarter of an hour between Springtime and Cişmigiu. The dirtbag was more and more decrepit, and Monica supposed that he too would soon disappear.

The day she spent a full quarter of an hour in Springtime for the first time, she knew she was rid for ever of the words that had poisoned her first happiness.

At long last, she could now change her order. In several episodes, she ran to buy a kebab with French fries and garlic, and sometimes she even managed to finish her meal before she found herself in front of a salad again.

Apart from the fact that every action had to be completed within the hallowed quarter of an hour, her life had changed radically. She now had so much time that she got bored, gawking at people or inspecting the various rooms of the establishment. She couldn’t go outside. In the glass door, there was an invisible bouncer, who shoved her back mercilessly.

Sometimes she thought about what she could do if once she left Springtime, and the invisible tail of an infernal animal would gently stroke her cheek.

In the restaurant’s toilet, there was a large mirror, in which she examined her wrinkles and wondered how much longer she had left to live. It seemed to her that twenty years had passed over her. Anyway, she now looked like her mum, except she was still dressed in the same clothes that she had worn on the fatal day of her meeting with Dani. They had grown together with her and in spite of the passage of time that had left its marks on her flesh, the clothes looked brand new. in the pocket of her jacket, she still had her packet of cigarettes and her yellow lighter.

Monica would sometimes remain rooted to the spot, for one-quarter of an hour after another, so that she hardly felt the dividing line between her fragments of time. In this last location, there was no main character. She hadn’t talked to anyone there on that first day. Consequently, she could hardly hope that some exhausted individual would take away her prison with his own passing. She had the feeling that this anonymous place was to be her tomb.

She sat down at the table of the pizza eaters, who were by now two grown men. She tried to chat with nearly everyone, including the security guard who dozed on a chair by the entrance to the toilet. He was the oldest character in this last scene and it occurred to her that maybe, miraculously, he might be the master of the space and her liberator.

Sometimes, she looked at the people passing on Academy Street, always indifferent, never stopping or responding to her friendly signals. Only occasionally would someone spread their fingers in the air, as if responding to a stupid child. And, of course, everything flowed in the same quarter of an hour, the same, without surprises, so that she ended up knowing how many people passed by the door, what they were wearing, and in what order they appeared.

Once she went into the manager’s office. She had been there before and knew that there wasn’t much to see because the room was dominated by a large desk, with an open laptop on top of it. The walls were completely bare; there wasn’t even a coat hanger in that room; and in the drawers of the desk there was nothing but papers: tables, registers, and bills. On top of one pile lay a CD.

She idly moved the cursor over the three folders, which were balance sheet, payments, and leonard, and decided on the last. Inside was an unnamed MPEG. She tapped lightly with her forefinger on the austere touchpad, and a virtual screen opened on the desktop. In two seconds the screen filled with the image of a shop – first the shelves, which were so familiar to her, and then the video camera swept the corridor on which there were rows of shelves and displays, even going under the stairs, on whose bannisters the old beggar woman was leaning. Monica looked at her tenderly as if at a cherished memory. It was absurd that she should go soft at the sight of the old biddy, especially after she had been so happy to be rid of her. And yet she felt as if she had found a lost family member. This thought attached itself to her parents’ memory and a tear erupted from the corner of her eye.

Then the film flickered hazily and the growling philosopher appeared. It was back at the beginning when he was still in full strength. The eye of the film scanned the hall, and then suddenly came upon the bald head of the bastard in Cişmigiu, the sight of whom made her instantly nauseous.

Monica spent her time walking among the tables or looking into the street through the glass door, but every few quarter-hours she would run to the manager’s office and watch the movie about her departed times. It had become her little pleasure, although there was nothing new there. Even the words of her lowlife admirer, with his shaven head and face like broken tarmac, made her smile, just as the speaker’s interminable sentence now seemed to her to hide a secret clue that might eventually point to the unravelling of the happening that had made her a prisoner.

And as she searched the film, stopping it at certain images, she made a discovery that immediately filled her so simplistically amputated life. In the lecture hall, where the same minutes she had learned by heart had passed over her so many times, at one point, the door opened. It wasn’t something that would attract attention, just a detail at the edge of the screen full of listening heads. Through the slightly open door, for a fraction of a second, a new face, a latecomer appeared, and it was Dani.

Monica looked at the film several times, examined the image and, with a crushed heart, wept for several quarter-hours. Dani came in precisely a second before she descended into the Cişmigiu episode. How come she hadn’t noticed him all this time? And even if she had noticed him, what could she have done? She wouldn’t have had time even to call his name. While he slipped in through the door of the lecture theatre, she was flying toward Cişmigiu.

Seeing Dani again brought back to her their meeting in the school corridor and, along with it, the numerous small desires that were stuck into each fibre of her flesh. She even relived the embarrassing rebellion of her blood, and from the way the pizza eaters, who had now reached the starting age of the stinker in Cişmigiu, were looking at her, she realized that she was blushing.

She got off the chair and headed for the door. The same people she had come to know in detail were passing on Academy Street. A muffled chuckle came from behind and Monica instantly knew that someone was laughing at her. She didn’t remember ever hearing that laugh before. She half turned and looked straight at the pizza eaters, who were pretending to be extremely preoccupied, although there was an air of irony floating about them that was confirmed by the playful look in the corners of the two men’s eyes. They looked about fifty years old now, and for an instant Monica remembered them young, at the beginning of her adventure, and thought to herself that she too had let herself go in the meantime. She was loath to go to the bathroom mirror, especially since in a second she would be sitting again at her usual chair anyway, where the quarter of an hour of Springtime started.

She leaned with all her weight on one shoulder, resigned to this thought, and the glass of the door vibrated a few times. This was something new too, but she didn’t have time to analyze the distant hum of the glass because the next moment she was on the pavement.

Monica stood motionless, still looking at the two men eating pizza at a table in the restaurant, not even daring to lift her eyes to look at the people passing by her shoulder. The summer air was heaped with smells whose unseen weave she had forgotten, especially the dust and petrol smell of the Bucharest streets. Finally, she lifted her gaze and was struck by the completely unknown figure of a passer-by. She was in front of Springtime but the people going to and fro on Academy Street were different from those in her quarter of an hour penance.

She took her first steps without haste, almost creeping, but by the time she turned the corner into Queen Elizabeth Boulevard, she was already walking like someone in a hurry. She cast her eye at the Pizza Hut window and was amazed to see herself: taller, fatter, older, but in the same jeans, same jacket, and with her little rucksack on her shoulder, just as she had left school. She looked like a pensioner on a tour of Europe. And all of a sudden a terrible anxiety took her in its iron grip. Where could she go? What would she tell her parents? What if perhaps they had died … in the meantime?

She was breathless from walking fast, and the feeling of freedom weakened her knees from time to time. She crossed at Casa Armatei and walked in a veil of sadness all the way to Cişmigiu. The park hummed faintly; between the green bushes she could see the crests of the water jets from the sprinklers. If she went through Cişmigiu she would be at the back gate of the school in five minutes, and from there it would take her exactly ten minutes to get home. And yet she didn’t dare to go in. A prudent thought told her to stay away from her old prison.

She continued on her way, measuring the pavement with firm steps. Her eyes licked the school façade, and then she turned and went in through the student entrance. The yard was exactly as she remembered it, shadowed on one side by the high wall that separated it from Cişmigiu. Through the open door, she could see the corridor where she had talked for the first time with Dani. An impulse like a raging wind pushed her in. Surely she could look around? To breathe in the smell of sports shoes and hastily mopped cement!

When she entered the poisoned light of the corridor, the bell was just ringing for a break, and students were already pouring out of several classrooms. An alarm sounded vaguely in her blood, which was alerted and chased in all directions. The toilet where she had once hidden was still there, with its blue tiles, in which she got the impression that she saw her face as it had been then, bent down and on the lookout. Just a few steps further on was Dani’s former classroom, and on the doorplate of the one next door was written in black letters: ‘Class 10 A’.

Monica stopped next to a window, with her eyes trained on the door as it opened slowly. First she saw the register, then, bit by bit, the bulky figure of the Whale. She felt a scarf of ice tighten around her neck and then immediately breathed a sigh of relief at the thought that, aged as she was, she wouldn’t recognize her.

The teacher passed her by without even glancing at her, and, a few slim figures scattered beside the open classroom door. Monica stood leaning on the edge of the window a bit longer to gather strength before heading off, but her eyes ran over the stinking fibre of the parquet, the chipped edge of a desk, and the irregular fluttering of the net curtains. To her great surprise, she discovered that they were the same curtains, and then the doorway was filled with students, who seemed undecided if they wanted to go in or out of the classroom. She cast a fleeting glance at them, like a nail driven into the body of a magnet. In the door, there was a face that looked familiar and so peaceful that it seemed to have been wiped of all emotion. It took Monica a good few seconds to realize who it was. The melancholy eyes, the reserved smile, and the hair moulded to the shape of the head seemed inappropriate accessories on a face she knew like the back of her hand, her own face.

She stood up straight and took a couple of steps towards the girl, who was still her, her hair cut, serene and a bit bland, but still her, as she had been before she had met Dani. When she got close enough, she stretched out her palm towards the tense shoulder. Not the touch so much as the mutual recognition came like an acid rain that closed in on them violently so that each knew that she alone mattered. Into the mind dazed by the quarter of an hour prison, as into the brainwashed by the pressure of a summer day, the entire flow crept at the same time, with all its great events and with its details lost in the folds of a happening of a year before.

And the new Monica went back to the day in which she had decided to skip maths, when luck had brought Dani into her path and when the living world had ended.

After the meeting at the University, her life had been turned completely upside down. She hadn’t even had a chance to feel the magic taste of that event. A dirty old shitbag had embittered her soul. The trip to the mall and then the stop at Springtime had exhausted her so that, by the time she reached the lecture hall, she was left only with a vague trace of the enthusiasm she had felt initially. She sat tensely for five minutes, and then the door to the lecture theatre opened discreetly and Dani entered.

She jumped to her feet. She hadn’t planned anything; she just stood up, just like that. He stood there rather confused, right by the door frame, and then his eyes found her and in the same vague and hazy instant, she saw him melt slowly, like an ice-cream collapsing over the cone. Monica gave a short scream, not the way one does when facing a danger, but a pathetic and distressing scream, like a threatened turkey, so that all heads turned in her direction. The speaker himself was scared into silence.

By the time Monica got to the door, others had got out of their chairs as well.

Now she recalled how she had bent over him and touched his face. Two trails of blood, like two match heads, were trickling out of one of his nostrils. She wanted to call out his name but all that she could get out was the same yell, piercing at first and then chattering, while he slid to the floor lost and gone. Monica took his head in her hands and, because she didn’t know what to do, sat down beside him, bending over him so that she could clearly see the movement of his eyelids and the hairs growing on his chin. Someone handed her a tissue, and she dabbed at the blood under his nose. A drop sparkled in the corner of his mouth, and she would have liked to wipe that away too. But she didn’t have the courage to touch his lips. From hiding places among his twisted locks and from the top of his head came waves of heat that passed from his inert body directly into her own blood, which was under attack from all directions.

And it was then that contact was lost. Not between him and her, but between her two beings. Her restless, floating side jumped under the greedy wheel of a quarter of an hour. While the other, worldly one, continued on her way without hesitating and especially without some of her cherished memories. She went home, continued to go to school, and filled a whole notebook with algebra exercises. Only one person was erased from her memory, and that was Dani.

Standing in front of the 10 A classroom, with her eyes illuminated by the window in the corridor, Monica remembered all the apathy of the last months, in which she hadn’t been able to find her place or even a single point of interest. Right after the ambulance had disappeared into the chaos of the boulevard, taking with it Dani’s helpless body, she had gone home and cut her hair, scaring her dad, who joked, not unkindly:

‘What’s the matter, eh, pet? Why have you cut your hair like that? You look like a Nazi soldier in a Russian movie!’

But his remark evaporated without making the slightest impression on a numbed and quasi-amnesic brain.

Then, day by day, she entered the classroom quiet and indifferent. She had no complaints and she didn’t feel besieged by desires. There was nothing that could move her. In one break, she now remembered, in the summer light that had broken in through the window, a tall, cheerful boy had opened the classroom door; it was Dani.

‘Is there any Monica in your class?’ he’d asked as he scanned the faces turned towards him.

‘Depends who’s asking,’ one of the girls tried to joke, but several fingers were already pointing towards her, as she sat glumly, resting her chin on her hands.

‘Oh, it’s you! I didn’t even recognize you,’ said Dani, as he headed for her row.

But she didn’t answer him. He seemed a trivial apparition, not worth the slightest effort, like getting up to greet him or going out into the corridor. Dani stopped by her desk and said, a bit awkwardly, ‘I’m sorry about that business at the University.’

And as Monica kept looking at him blankly, he added, as if wishing to explain, ‘I probably scared you to death… just when you wanted to ask me something or other, remember?’

And that was the real problem: Monica couldn’t remember anything, not even that she had been to the University. She vaguely knew that she had tried to skip class and that she had wandered the streets, but she had no idea which streets she had been on. And she wasn’t even much bothered about this obscure, amnesic episode in her existence, which now was now running on smoothly like a ball of butter spread on freshly toasted bread. Without emotions and without any disturbing thoughts.

‘I’ve no idea who you are,’ she said, looking up at him, with her eyes comfortably buried behind her eyelids.

‘Weren’t you at the University when I took ill?’

Monica made a face as if to say ‘no way’, and then, finally lifting her chin from between her palms, she added with some eloquence, ‘I think you’re mistaking me for another girl!’

That had been all. They hadn’t even met again in school, especially since the baccalaureate was drawing near and the twelve graders had melted away without a trace.

And, remembering this short, stupid meeting, while she still stood in the classroom doorway, Monica was at last filled with that vital syrup that wrecked her well-ordered plans and made all her blood vessels sprout wings. In the desert territory, which for a whole year had been untouched by the breath of life, the sound of flowing blood could at last be heard. It was only her impulsive side that loved Dani, the side driven to consume itself, her aged being, in which lived all the urges and the serpentine motions of a desire hard to control.

When the break ended, and the clang of the bell fell again over the classrooms, Monica picked up her rucksack and was off almost at a run. She hadn’t even got past Dani’s former classroom when she heard the Whale’s heavy voice: ‘Where do you think you’re going, young lady? Not thinking of skipping class, I hope?’

Monica looked up and the Whale started in surprise. Between the restless eyelashes there shone a new, devilish look. The teacher stopped and examined her sideways, almost curious to hear the response of the girl, who smiled and said in an almost confidential tone, ‘You had an outstanding student last year: Dani.’

The Whale lowered her voice too and offered a warm and open ‘yes’.

‘Do you know what’s happened to him?’

‘What’s happened?’ the Whale asked, alarmed.

And because Monica was waiting with the same drunken eyes, she answered with a certain indifference, ‘He’s a student at the University.’

While the teacher was still reflecting, bemused, on her question, Monica was already heading away to the exit, straight into the fluttering wings of the summer day, determined to cross the Cişmigiu Garden, to take the boulevard head on, and to go into the University building, even if what was waiting at the end of the journey might be a new quarter of an hour with its diamond teeth.

Doina Ruști’s writing has been translated into several languages, covering a wide variety of topics, most of which are published by Polirom. Some of her novels are: The Ghost at the Mill (2008), awarded the Prize for Prose of The Romanian Writers’ Union, Zogru (2006), republished in Top10+ Collection, and, Lizoanca at the Age of 11 (2009), awarded The “Ion Creangă” Prize of The Romanian Academy. She lives in Bucharest, where she works as a professor and script writer.

James Christian Brown, originally from Scotland, has lived in Romania since 1993. His recent translations from Romanian to English include the collection of short stories Small Changes in Attitude by Răzvan Petrescu, (University of Plymouth Press, 2011), the play Mihaela, The Tiger of Our Town by Gianina Cărbunariu (in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, XXXVIII:2, 2016: 89-111), and the volume of philosophical lectures About the World We Live In by Alexandru Dragomir (Springer, 2017).

Eight poems by Chelsey Minnis

Art: Three Women

You’re a pretty attractive burglar.
Can’t you do me a lot of favors?
But, let’s not have any lines of dialogue between us!
I’m trying to make you last a long time.
You see, my boredom is legendary.


I don’t like to be bored. I love to be bored.
It’s also time to be terrific.
I couldn’t live without being so terrific.
Now give me your drama,
like little bits of flesh among the diamonds.


Now, I’m going to stay dumb.
I’m going to need some help.
Baby why don’t you give me some money so I can get rich?
Oh, how many times I’ve hurt you!
And each time is precious to me.


Let me tell you how I know things.
I just think about them very hard.
And then I get ideas.
And maybe they’re the right ideas and maybe they’re the wrong ideas.
Now, can’t you try that?


This is better than an action. It’s a word.
A word like a piano in a submarine.
What will you do? Fall asleep in your fur coat?
I won’t even try to be civilized where you’re concerned.
I like parties where half the people wear swimsuits and the other half wears tuxedos.


I am sorry for slapping your face!
And now let me begin 77 sunsets without you.
Let me whisper into your dictaphone.
“I murdered my pet canary.”
Behold my dazzling mental illness like a chandelier.


Now we’re going to go down to the bottom and see if we like it.
I’m going to maul your head with my words.
I have to gesture with a turkey leg while I argue all my points.
This poem is a display case for expletives.
And all the baby dolls have recorded cries.


This is the time to be congenial but I can’t make it.
I’m the type who never likes your type.
Don’t you see?
We’re filthy in love.
Let’s get some rice thrown on us.

Chelsey Minnis was born in Dallas and grew up in Denver. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of Poemland (Wave Books 2009), Zirconia (Fence Books, 2001), Foxina (Seeing Eye Books, 2002) and Bad Bad (Fence Books, 2007). She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Writing is solitary. Writing is social. SRL No 19 foreword by Sarvat Hasin

Art: Lemonade


I have been thinking a lot about tribes lately, about families and the people you twine your life with. I don’t mean the people you’re born with. I don’t mean romantic love: I mean the other thing, the stuff that comes in between that people forget to cling on to.



In the pub, after my book launch, a friend wraps her arm around my shoulders. There has been talk all evening of how good it is to be around each other. We discuss living as a commune. She says: I think we should form a coven.

I say: I thought that’s what we were doing.

Everyone at the table laughs but I am not joking.



Writing is solitary. You do it in a room alone. Properly speaking, you should do it up in the hills with no one around for miles, just someone to bring you milk in the mornings for your coffee (except you’re a serious writer and probably you don’t drink your coffee with milk anymore.) You have no interests other than running or playing the cello or anything you can do on your own.

The myth of the Writer is that aloneness is inherently literary. If you could get walled in like an anchoress, you would probably win the Booker prize, the T.S. Eliot and the Pulitzer all in one year.



An article on the internet tells me that staring at a screen for too long is bad for my skin. I should be writing but I am reading this instead even though, if I’m honest, most of the time I don’t give a damn about my skin.



I love being friends with writers. I hate being friends with writers.

I feel envy over everything: awards and accolades are easy targets. But the strongest jolts of jealousy come from reading, when you come across a sentence, a phrase, a plot twist in a friend’s work that knocks you for six. The twin knives come for you together. I know the person who did this, sings one blade. I will never be this good, says the other.



It comes in drips and drabs. Some days, writing is like pouring salt into a wound. Like pulling teeth. Other days, it rushes out of me, the words coming faster than my fingers can move. The latter much rarer than the first.

Take the myths you know about writing and burn them. The secret no one tells you: it’s like anything else, really. You shove at it till it works. And it doesn’t always work.



I do mine in an attic. Or in a pub or a cafe or a library. Sometimes I do it at a kitchen table with other people. Their fingers clack at keys. They bleed on their pages. We do it together and we do it alone and magically, it does not make us worse writers or less literary. We are crowded together in a conservatory in Oxford where it is cold even in the summer months, or a beautiful house on the Norfolk coast or in Italy, the sun glowing over the hills outside our window. The circus of us, travelling from one place to the other, packing books and laptops and notebooks, our voices as frantic as our fingers. The hush and noise of work. The magic of us all doing it together. The complete madness when we share something and these people can fix mistakes that we would never have seen in a million years.

We will rise and fall together, good days and bad, mixed reviews and new anxieties. But I don’t want to talk about that: I want to talk about this. The clacking of keys. The familiar eyes on our work.

It does not sap my power to write with them: why on earth would anyone think it might.

SRL issue no 19 will go live on 11 am, Sunday 26 March and feature fiction by:

Doina Ruşti
Max Sydney-Smith
Jude Cook
Andrew Kooy
Magnus Ottelid

and poetry by:

Florence Lenaers
Peter Surkov
Chelsey Minnis
Frankie Mace
stephanie roberts