The duty of writers

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Our world faces catastrophic climate breakdown. True facts are now described as ‘fake news’, and biased media reported hailed by pseudo-Nazis as gospel truth. Political turmoil is growing as inequalities deepen across so many dividing lines in society. In such times, a challenge facing us all as artists, creatives and writers – but also simply as human beings – is to examine what role we ourselves have to play.

We have previously written about the need for writers to tackle the subject of climate change in their poetry and novels and non-fiction accounts – while we have also paid tribute to Ursula Le Guin’s rallying cry for all writers to imagine new alternatives to our capitalist system.

But what exactly is our duty, in these times, as writers and creatives? What stories do we need to tell?

What is the story of the world?

Fortunately for us, guidance on this question can be found from the minds of great writers – living and dead – who have pondered this precise topic. In East of Eden, for instance, Steinbeck opens the book’s 34th chapter with a mediation on the most fundamental foundation that sits beneath this essential question: if we have a duty to describe the stories of the world that matter, what exactly is the story of the world? Steinbeck writes:

“A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

Understanding human beings

In an earlier journal entry, Steinbeck even suggests that tackling the injustices in the world is not even possible if the writer first doesn’t understand the human beings who exist within it. He opines:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

In a similar vein, the novelist Zadie Smith argues that to believe anything can bring about fundamental change is in fact naïve – and to honestly understand what drives the world forward (and how to subtly shift perceptions) you have to first appreciate the motivations of humankind. In a speech given in Germany in 2016 after receiving a literary award, she says:

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Yet within this, Smith sees no reason not to use art – and writing in particular – to reshape narratives, to influence others, and ultimately keep striving for that which we are all searching for, especially in these sometimes dark times: human progress, and illuminating the path ahead on which we can strive to make a better world. She says:

“History is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

On the protection of democracy

Smith’s line of argument calls upon all of us to continually work to reimagine and challenge existing political and social structures. This calls to mind the thoroughly excellent arguments of that legendary titan of literature, Walt Whitman, who, in his collection Specimen Days, calls on all free-thinking people to continually challenge and probe the status quo. Whitman writes:

“I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

What it interesting here is how Whitman lived through times that do not sound dissimilar to our own. He saved lives through the Civil War, witnessed the “miserably-waged populations”, the corrosion of idealism and collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency. Yet the great American poet faces this dispiriting landscape with a defiant optimism, arguing that this is in a way the most countercultural act of courage available to us:

“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.”

Ultimately, Whitman notes that the only way to preserve democracy in America is also to preserve nature (to hark back to our call to tackle the catastrophic breakdown of our climate for a moment here). And, as current US President Trump and his collection of lunatic criminals in the Republican party continue to show flagrant disregard for the planet and its natural environments, this is a thought that is well worth revisiting. Whitman writes:

“American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

Truth above all

Of course, it is easy to present arguments in favour of protecting the world and become downhearted when these are dismissed by the despots around the world – from Trump in the US through May in the UK, Putin in Russia to the incompetent National Liberal coalition in Australia – and ignored as being part of some fabrication or over-exaggeration of ‘progressives’ (as though we would feel foolish if we were to accidentally be fooled into creating a better world for nothing). ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, as we are all told. Here, it feels fitting to draw upon inspiration from legendary journalist Rebecca Solnit, who presses upon us our need to continue to stick to accuracy and truth when writing stories. In her collection of essays, Call them by their names, she writes:

“Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record.”

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, where language is increasingly used for malicious purposes, Solnit strives to persuade us of the importance of calling things as they are:

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

“There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.”

Breaking the narrative

Ultimately, Solnit calls on writers to continue to strive towards that goal of truth – for exposing the truth, using language that is accurate, that lays bare the reality of situations. Through truth, she argues, we can break and reshape narratives and stories that have been spun by the powerful against the powerless – and hopefully move toward a world where the only thing that is fake is Trump’s hair. She writes:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.”

You heard it here first, comrades. So, what are you waiting for? Get breaking!

If youd like to contribute to our site – and show off how good you are at breaking narratives – please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book review: The study circle, by Haroun Khan

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘The study circle’, by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink Books.

The Study Circle

This debut novel by Haroun Khan follows two friends from a South London council estate. Ishaq is devout and well educated, a regular at the titular Islamic study circle. His education at a university may give him a way out of the brutal poverty of the estate. His friend Shams is less fortunate and is obliged to make ends meet anyway he can, even if the means are not entirely legal or safe. The pair are caught between the gentle and wise Ayoub, the leader of the study circle, and Mujahid, who justifies his own criminal activities with radical politics and mangled religion.

Khan, writing from some personal experience, gives an unrelentingly grim portrait of the estate. It’s a hopeless and forgotten place, where violence is never far away, and the police are more of a threat than a source of protection. Choices and opportunities are impossibly limited; the characters wonder if it is possible for them to ever truly leave the place behind. Again and again, it is emphasised that outsiders simply do not understand the everyday challenges faced by young people in such an environment, abandoned and alienated while at the same time demonised and discriminated against by the society they live in.

This is a very timely, of the moment book that deals with issues of Islamophobia, racism and poverty in modern Britain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with them in the context of an always engaging novel, but sometimes heavy-handedly in the form of extended essay passages between minimal slices of here and now events.

The last third of the novel is the first time that I had any sense of interest in what would happen next, any sense of drama. This welcome change of pace redeems at least some of what has come before, but how many would persevere to this point? It is not a long novel, but it would benefit from some editing.

The writer himself admits to feeling uneasy while writing this and says, ‘There is a lot I have said here that people can take issue with.’ That’s unavoidable when dealing with such heavyweight issues of race, religion and class. It certainly gave this reviewer uncomfortable things to ponder.

About the reviewer

tandrews

Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Horrible Feet

Dancer's feet

When I was ten I saw a ballerina tear her Achilles tendon. I was sitting on the side of the stage during a recital rehearsal, unrolling a leg warmer on my left thigh. It was April, and I could hear heavy rainfall beating against the emergency exit doors of the theatre. My face was warm, and one of my legs was aching with a cramp. I sipped some water from my bottle as I looked at the girl who was going over her pas de deux behind the curtains opposite me. I knew her name was Camilla because she was the most promising dancer in our school, even though she was only fifteen. She was talking angrily to her dance partner, Alex, but I could not hear what she was saying. He was a handsome boy with wavy hair, and all the girls in my class were obsessed with him. Through the white empire-waist costume Camilla was wearing, tight on her flat chest and broad around her thighs, her ribs and backbone were visible. When I saw her walking towards me, I hastily looked down.

“Is this yours?”

I raised my eyes. Camilla was pointing at my water bottle. I nodded. From up close, I noticed that her hair was dirty and that she had a violet bruise on her neck, the shape of a jellyfish. She had an unlit cigarette in her right hand. She grabbed my bottle with her free hand and gulped like she was dying of thirst. Then she put it back next to me.

“Camilla!” Maria, our ballet teacher, joined us on stage. She was pregnant at the time, her belly round like a melon, bags under her eyes that were puffy and purple. “What are you doing?”

“Smoking.” Camilla talked to Maria as if they were equals, which surprised me, as I feared Maria more than anyone else. Maria took the cigarette from Camilla’s hand and broke it in two.

“You’re rehearsing.” She stared into Camilla’s eyes until she nodded, like a rebellious daughter annoyed by her mother. “Get ready now!” Then Maria noticed me, sitting at their feet: “Cecilia, after Camilla bothers to try her choreography, it’s your turn.”

Camilla and Alex danced like swans. She looked pale and weightless, while he touched her and lifted her. They ran away from each other and then jumped back into each other’s arms. I counted her pirouettes as her gown opened like a moonflower. Then I heard a snap, and Camilla fell. It was an audible pop; it echoed all over the stage. Alex stepped back, unsure of what to do. The music went on. Camilla was not crying.

“Fuck,” she screamed, panting.

Maria hurried on stage as I looked from behind the curtain. She knelt next to Camilla and caressed the back of her ankle.

“It’s the tendon,” Maria said, “I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No!” Camilla almost shouted and grabbed Maria’s arm. Her ankle was twisted, quickly swelling up. I wanted to go closer but I couldn’t.

“She’ll be fine.” I turned, and Alex was right behind me. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or not, but I could tell from his face that she wouldn’t be fine at all.

*

I straighten my back and grit my teeth. I can feel blood staining my pointe pads; I did not have time to place them properly on my toes.

“Smile!” Maria shouts to the entire class, yet it feels like she is addressing me only. I’m her favourite, but she hates me. She has been my teacher since I was three. Now, after thirteen years, nothing has changed. She still treats me as if she doesn’t understand that I have feelings. I suspect she doesn’t have any.

I complete the sequence of assemblés and échappés, my ballet shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor, my hand holding on to the barre. When the music stops, the smiles drop off every girl’s face at once. Maria takes the CD out of the player. We are all waiting for her response, our necks sweaty, our legs shaking with exhaustion. Once, she took the CD out and threw it on the floor, then started shouting at me, saying that I was “rude”, “stupid” and “unfit” for the class. Turns out I kept yawning before starting the choreography.

This time, Maria turns to us and says: “Class is over.” She never says “well done” or “good job” or anything like it, but, if she doesn’t complain or insult any of us, it means she’s satisfied. I’ve learnt that silence can also be a compliment.

We leave class dragging our feet, looking forward to getting rid of our uncomfortable tights. In the changing room, the radiators are not working. I take my bag and clothes and walk to the bathroom; I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Sara follows me. She is older than me, like everyone else in the class. This year, her acne is gone and her blonde hair has grown long and glossy. When she rehearses without tying it in a chignon, it swings and arches like a golden rainbow.

Sara sits on the cold floor of the bathroom and wipes her sweaty chest with toilet paper. She starts removing her shoes slowly, first the heels and then the toes, which have become glued to the pointe pads. I remove mine quickly; I’d rather feel the pain hitting me all together. I stuff the pointe pads in my bag, then I rapidly place my feet under the freezing water coming out of the sink. Sara does the same. Our feet look terrible, mine covered in blisters, hers missing a couple of nails.

“Ballet shoes are not for everyone,” Maria has always told us. When we were ten and got our first pairs of pointes, we all looked at them with excitement. The satin was shiny and the sole was hard; it smelled of leather. I used to put them on at home, and jump and spin around my mother’s grand piano, coming up with choreographies that I would then perform in front of my family.

After getting dressed, we walk back to the changing room through a narrow, poorly lit corridor, then to the entrance, where all the other girls are waiting for someone to pick them up. I walk past them, stuffing my hands inside the sleeves of my coat. I see the lights of the cars driving away from the parking lot, chasing one another until they fade into darkness. I look at the illuminated windows of the terraced houses and at the floating moon. The outlines of other passers-by seem ghosts under the lamp posts, and I am glad they cannot see my horrible feet.

*

Alex has come to class today for a new pas de deux assignment. I haven’t seen him in six years, since the day Camilla tore her tendon. Sara, whose mother is friends with Alex’s parents, says he passed the auditions for the ballet school at La Scala Theatre but then quit because he wanted to go to university to study psychology. He has changed: he has tattoos on both his hands, his skin is stretched on his muscles and a hint of beard has appeared on his chin. He is sitting on the floor next to Maria and watches us as we perform the choreography alone, one after the other. I see him out of the corner of my eye: sometimes he stares blankly, other times he checks us out in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Emma, our headmistress, paces back and forth in the room, clapping her hands to the rhythm and shouting “posture!” She is in her forties, her hands are rough and wrinkly, and her long black hair looks dry. Still, when she moves, only hinting at the steps of the dance with her graceful limbs, she seems younger than any of us.

Maria is quiet, as always when Emma is around. Earlier today, I heard them talking about the costumes we have to wear for the next recital. Emma suggested we paint our faces red, which did not sound like a good idea to me. I still remember the dance contest when we had blue paint on our cheeks and so much glitter on our eyelids that some got into my left eye. It started to ache and water right in the middle of our performance, and everyone thought I had become emotional.

After she has observed all of us carefully, Emma says: “Cecilia will dance with Alex.”

The other girls whisper in disappointment.

“Does anyone have a problem with that?” Maria asks. Anna, who is shorter than me and as skinny as a twig, speaks up: “The best choreographies are always assigned to the same people.” Last week she almost fainted. I think she doesn’t eat much anymore; she keeps swallowing weight loss pills before class.

“Like who?” Maria stands up, walks closer to her.

“Cecilia is the only one who did a solo.” Anna’s top is slick with sweat and sticks to her back.

“Cecilia remembers the steps of the choreography and doesn’t complain.”

Anna flushes, and I notice her hands are shaking. Emma takes me by the arm and turns to everyone else: “You can leave early today girls. Good job everyone.”

I remain alone with Emma, Maria and Alex. He stands up and stretches. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

“This is not a pas de deux as you imagine it. It’s not too graceful, too perfect, too clean,” Emma says. I look at Alex’s tattoos and then at my pink bodysuit.

“I want this to start quietly. You smile, you touch each other gently. Then you let go. Can you do this Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Good. Then let’s just try one sequence before you go home. Alex’s running after you, he catches you. So you stand and your arms reach out… remember?” We both nod and get into position.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex runs after me, and his hands brush against my naked back. He takes me, and I raise my arms to the ceiling.

“Hold it!” says Emma, “Hold it Cecilia, you are a tree, a tree in the wind!”

I let my arms swing gently, and wonder what kind of tree I am.

“Your arms are branches, your hands are leaves!”

I feel Alex’s hands tight on my waist, his breath on my neck. I move my fingers and wrists, and tilt my head back, laying it on Alex’s shoulder. I decide that I am a weeping willow, like the one that grows in my grandmother’s garden, shading the daisies and cobblestones against the sun. Its branchlets turn yellow in autumn and look like a cascade of golden tears.

After class, Alex lights a cigarette outside, cupping his hand around the end. The tattoos on his hands are feathers, one for each finger. He has nice knuckles. I wonder if he remembers that I was there when Camilla got hurt. But that was a long time ago.

“Are you sad?” he asks me.

“Why would I be?” I remove the pins from my hair and let it loose on my back. He watches me as if we were intimate and not two strangers.

“Your friend hates you because you got the part.” He tilts his head a bit, his smile is cheeky.

“She’s not my friend.”

He laughs, ties his curly hair in a knot and walks away.

“See you tomorrow,” he says, without turning around.

*

Back home, I skip dinner and fill the bathtub with hot water and vanilla soap, as the smell of minestrone comes from downstairs. I undress slowly, my muscles tired and aching. I throw my clothes on the floor like waste paper. The water burns my skin but I slowly sink until I am completely immersed, my hair dancing around my face in slow motion. I close my eyes.

I hear a muffled knock on the door. When I re-emerge, my mum is folding my clothes, crouching on the bathroom floor. I rub the soap from my eyes and look at my toes that creep out of the suds, covered with plasters.

“How was class?” my mum asks.

“Tiring.”

“And this new guy Alex?”

“Too good.”

“Better than you?”

“Yes.”

My mum runs her fingers through my wet hair: “Should you practise more?”

“I already practise two hours every day. I also need to study.”

“But if you want to do the auditions for La Scala…”

The moonlight filters through the slats of the blind, striping her face. She takes my feet into her hands and rubs them gently.

“It’s my life not yours,” I say.

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

My mum wanted to be a ballerina but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her ballet classes. Once, I saw a photo of her dressed up in a light blue tutu, taking a bow in front of an invisible audience. The colours were faded and there was a blemish on the lower part of her face, so I couldn’t figure out whether she was smiling or not.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”

“I’ll bring you something to eat.” She leaves the door slightly open, the light of the corridor illuminating the flowery tiles of the wall. I fall asleep in the cooling water, my head resting on the edge of the tub.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex and I rehearse two hours every day after my class with Maria. Emma supervises the choreography, sitting on a white plastic chair, swinging her head left and right to the rhythm. Alex does not seem to struggle with anything. I sweat too much, weigh too much, forget too much.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Some days Emma dances with Alex to show me what I do wrong. As they sway around the room in perfect harmony, they seem to hear each other’s thoughts, their steps echo in tune. I feel like an off-key note.

“We have to do this together, you know,” Alex says to me as we take a break, stretching at the barre. “It’s like finding a compromise.” I think that I’m not good at compromising but I nod.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

My horoscope says: “It is important for you to keep at least one foot on the ground, as powerful emotions are likely to take over the scene.” As Alex lifts my body in the air, his hands on my thighs, my back arched backwards to form a right angle with my hips, I wonder if the “foot on the ground” thing is physical or metaphorical. I start liking our practise, our stretching breaks, the cigarette he smokes before we go back home, hungry and exhausted.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

I learn that he is always a bit early with the tempo, that pirouettes are not his strength, but he jumps so high he seems to defy gravity. I learn that our bodies have a way of reading each other that slips beyond the things we tell – or fail to tell – each other. When my fingers brush against his shoulders I imagine I am opening windows, letting his light peek through the clouds.

When he runs after me, Emma repeats: “Cecilia is the direction you are going Alex! She is your path!”

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Emma hasn’t come to class today because her daughter is sick, so we have to practise without her. I look at Alex and myself in the mirror, at how his tattoos jar with my pale skin, his hair band that barely holds his curls back with my perfect chignon. The floor is dusty and covered in signs left by my pointes. We try the choreography until the sunshine does not come through the windows anymore, and we are left with the feeble light that comes from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

“I’d better go home for dinner,” I say as I put on my oversized sweater. Alex nods.

“Do you want me to walk you?” He has never asked me that before.

“That’d be nice.”

He smiles, picks up his bag. I open the door and, as I am about to walk out, he closes it from behind me, covering my hand with his. He kisses me, and I taste mint and smoke and remember when, as a child, I was looking at him with Camilla, wanting to be like her. I am like her now but I’m not sure it is a good thing.

*

On Saturday Sara insists that we go to a house party thrown by a boy from Anna’s high school. I drink too much beer, the kitchen table is sticky, and the people keep jumping in the swimming pool with their clothes on.

I love you like a love song baby. Anna and Sara drag me to the centre of the living room to dance. I look at them and copy their moves; the rhythm is repetitive and shallow but it’s nice to let go. And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat. Anna takes my hand and makes me spin; she doesn’t seem to hate me now, she looks beautiful in her leather dress, her curls loose. A tall boy comes up to me, offers me a plastic cup filled with wine. I, I love you like a love song baby.

“That’s Marco, he’s from my school, go and talk to him,” Sara whispers in my ear and pushes me towards him.

“So you’re a dancer,” Marco smiles, a bit awkwardly. He is wearing a nice, ironed shirt. I take the cup from his hand and gulp down the wine.

“Yes, but what I should really have been is a singer. Everyone kept saying it for years.”

“Wow. Really?” He sips from his drink. He seems more confident now, enjoying the idea of me singing for him.

“No. That was a joke. No one has ever told me that.”

He stares at me, confused, then laughs out loud. Before he can say anything, I feel the weight of someone’s arm across my chest and I turn and see Alex, a cigarette between his full lips, a wrinkled blue shirt looking too big on him. The music grows louder and Alex carries me outside, leaving Marco and his ironed shirt empty handed. The street is quiet and still.

“Let’s go home,” Alex says. He drops his cigarette, and I watch it glowing and bursting into sparks as it hits the ground. He drives me home, in silence. Re-peat-peat-peat-peat. The screen of my phone illuminates with Sara’s message: “you okay? Why did you leave?” I type: “practise tomorrow,” and wonder why I keep doing this, going to ballet classes, spending most of my days with people I don’t really like. I come to the painful realisation that I don’t have an answer.

Alex kisses me goodnight in front of my door, then drives away. From outside, I see my parents’ faces lit up in front of the television screen. I unlock the front door with difficulty, then walk up the stairs to my room. I hear the soft steps of my father’s slippers following me from the living room. I jump on my bed and hide under the sheets, my alcohol smelling clothes still on. My father’s head pops in, accompanied by a gentle knock.

“How was the party?”

“Fun.”

“Your mum is upset. The recital is in one week.”

“Tell her it’s fine.”

He nods. Doesn’t leave. It looks as if he is about to speak but then he closes my bedroom door behind him, and I am left alone in the dark.

*

I draw a big amount of brown eyeliner across Sara’s eyelids and smudge it with my fingertips, as we have run out of eye shadow. She is struggling to flatten her chest inside her bright red tutu.

“Can you stay still?” I ask.

“Why do I have big boobs?” she moans.

I spread some glitter on her cheeks and chest, then I fix my own headdress, whose orange and yellow feathers won’t stay in place. We are standing in a corner of the changing room, next to a harlequin costume that is hanging from the ceiling and keeps ticking our necks with its sleeves. The room is an explosion of colours, as girls and boys of every age walk around, trying to find space for their own bags and costumes, swearing whenever a hairpin falls and gets lost on the messy floor. Most of the older girls are stretching, leg warmers wrapped around their ankles and feet. The place smells of sweat and deodorant. The music that is playing upstairs, on the stage, is muffled by the buzzing that reigns backstage. Every now and then, the head of a ballet teacher pops in and tells us to lower our voices.

I crouch on the floor and close my eyes, focusing on the sound of Sara’s hands rifling through my make-up bag. I wonder where Alex is; he is late and I am meant to perform with him right after the dance with Sara and the other girls. I feel Sara’s fingertips finishing the touches of my winged eyeliner.

“You’re up next,” Maria’s voice comes from the stairs. I know she is talking to us, even before she walks down and repeats: “Cecilia, Sara you’re up next. Then I want Anna, Clara, Francesca, Paola! Quick!” She grasps Sara and me by the arms and drags us upstairs. We leave the changing room and enter the darkness of the stairs. We go past younger ballerinas who are already waiting in their yellow tutus, biting their nails. Emma’s husband is smoking by the door at the top of the stairs, keeping it open; the cold air makes me shudder and paranoid abut my muscles.

Maria speaks on my behalf: “Shut the door, Mario! Can’t you see they’re about to go on stage?” She keeps holding our arms, as if we weren’t able to walk by ourselves.

I stand behind the curtains with Sara, looking at the girls on the other side of the stage, as they twitch their hands and fix their shoulder straps and headdresses. Emma presents our choreography, a dance inspired by The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky. Then the audience applauds, and the lights go down.

My pointe shoes do not make any sound as I walk towards the centre of the stage with Sara, the other ballerinas spreading around us. I look up and smile; the light suddenly illuminates me, and the music starts playing. I stare at the upper part of the audience, where faces seem to melt into one another. My arms are wings, my fingers are light and long, my palms are speaking. When I jump near the curtains, I see Maria’s apprehensive face. She is counting to help us keep the rhythm. I finish the dance landing on my feet after an assemblè. The audience claps and shouts, I can see my mum’s proud face in the crowd; she is sitting in the front row.

We run backstage, and, in a second, a thousand hands are touching me, removing my tutu, working on my chignon and make up.

“She’s up next!” Maria says. Sound and light operators make room, pushing younger girls behind. Alex, already in his white costume, is stretching his neck with his eyes closed as if I wasn’t here. I stand half naked behind the curtains, trying to fit into my empire dress, as Maria wipes off my Firebird make up with a wet tissue. An assistant covers my cheeks in white foundation and my lips and cheekbones with red lipstick.

“The hair!” Maria removes the pins of my chignon, pulling the skin of my head. My eyes tear up but I have no time to recompose myself, as Maria pushes me towards the stage. I feel Alex’s hand into mine and I follow him.

There is only the two of us now, our bodies curved one on the other like two piled up spoons. We start dancing in the silence and our shoes echo on the floor, our breaths fill the air. We dance in circles, as if there was a revolving door between us, its glass never letting us touch each other. Then the music starts, his fingers grip mine, and I start doing my pirouettes. In a second, my neck paralyses. I lose my balance and fall; I feel Alex’s hands letting me go as I land on my ankle. A shooting pain makes me gasp. I try to stand up as gracefully as I can, but my leg cannot carry me and I fall again. I hear Maria’s whispers behind the curtains: “stop the music for fuck’s sake.” Silence, followed by Maria’s and Emma’s light steps on stage.

“I am sorry but we have to interrupt the recital, our ballerina has been injured, nothing serious, no need to worry.” Emma speaks into her microphone, and her words echo in the theatre. I raise my eyes and see the audience, all silent and staring back at me. One small figure detaches from the mass, the gracious silhouette of my mum, running towards the stage. She is wearing her best silk dress.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whisper, as Maria and Alex lift me up and carry me backstage.

Back in the darkness of the curtains, the cold pavement is like freezing water against my back. My mum and Alex remove my ballet shoes, exposing my damaged feet that I don’t want anyone to look at.

“You’ll be alright,” Alex tells me.

*

The parking lot is empty in the early morning light, except for Maria’s light blue beetle car. I know I can always find her here in the morning; she prepares the choreographies before the afternoon classes. From the window of the ground floor, I see her standing at the barre, stretching her arms. I limp inside with my crutches.

“You look better,” Maria says when she sees me. There is a freshness in her face that I have never noticed, maybe it is the summer air or her blonde hair, always messily tied up, now loose and brushed.

“Last week before I can put these crutches away,” I smile.

“When do you finish your physical therapy?”

“Two more months.”

“So you can only do the winter recital. That’s fine. You can catch up with the choreographies afterwards, maybe you can come here every day after lunch, we’ll work together.” She speaks hastily, as if she was eager to make things go back to the way they were as fast as she can.

“I’m not coming back here,” I blurt it out all at once.

“What did you say?”

“I’m not coming back to classes in September,” I repeat.

“Why?”

“I want to focus on school, then try to go abroad for university.”

Maria takes a strand of my hair and smoothes it with her nervous touch.

“Think about it. You still have time to change your mind.”

“Yes,” I say, but I know I won’t. “Thanks for everything you have done for me. I’ll come back and visit.”

Maria seems to struggle with words.

“You are one of our best dancers,” she says.

“You have been a great teacher. You pushed us to our limits.” I turn around, the wooden floor creaking under my crutches.

Her voice follows me: “Alex says you haven’t been replying to his calls.”

“Say sorry to him from me. I’ll see him around, I guess.”

About the author

CostanzaCostanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.

Will Eaves makes Goldsmith Prize shortlist for second time

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Will Eaves makes the shortlist of the Goldsmith Prize for the second time.

The Goldsmith Prize – the literary award for “fiction at its most novel” – has nominated the author for the second time for his acclaimed novel Murmur, inspired by the real-life tragedy of Alan Turing.

Published by CB Editions – an exemplar of quality in independent publishing – Murmur follows The Absent Therapist as the second of Eaves’s books to be nominated for the prize.

It should perhaps come as little surprise to see Eaves on the shortlist once again. His work has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of modern literary writing, with Murmur, in particular, a real treat. As Nothing in the Rulebook’s own Professor Wu wrote:

“For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.”

The Goldsmith Prize was co-founded by Goldsmiths and the New Statesman in 2013 to reward “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. In its four years it has launched new literary stars – Eimear McBride, who won the first prize – and changed the debate around what readers and publishers look for in a novel. Ali Smith has credited the prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller in 2015. “That, to me, is like a miracle.”

At a time when mainstream publishing so often seems concerned with publishing novels that are little more than copies of previously commercially successful novels, literary awards like the Goldsmith Prize are vital in supporting and promoting the work of new and adventurous writers.

Eaves has been joined by five other excellent authors, each with searingly original books of their own that very much hold the potential to reshape the way we approach the construction of novels.

Indeed, as Professor Adam Mars-Jones notes: “the 2018 shortlist offers a tasting menu of all that is fresh and inventive in contemporary British and Irish fiction. There’s poetic language here, not all of it in the verse novel selected, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take.  There’s the language of the streets, fighting to be heard, in Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City and the language of an overmediated world in Olivia Laing’s Twitter-fed Crudo. There’s a cool survey of the unbalanced present in Rachel Cusk’s hypnotic Kudos, while the deceptively quiet unspooling of Gabriel Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes shows the powerful effects that can be achieved without ever raising your voice.’

The full list of shortlisted books is below:

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Rachel Cusk – Kudos

Will Eaves – Murmur

Guy Gunaratne – In Our Mad and Furious City

Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes 

Olivia Laing – Crudo

Robin Robertson – The Long Take

The winner of the award will be announced on 14 November. More information on the award can be found online.

Check out Nothing in the Rulebook’s interview with Will Eaves here. 

Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

Not to be published for 100 years: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang is the latest author to join the Future Library project

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You will have to wait a century before you are able to read Han Kang’s Future Library submission. 

Man Booker prize-winning novelist Han Kang has been named as the fifth writer to contribute to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Han Kang joins Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Elif Shafak as the latest writer to contribute to the public artwork, which was first conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson said there was a familial bond between the authors involved in the project:

“I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.”

Speaking about Han Kang joining the project, Paterson said:

“Han Kang expands our view of the world. Her stories are disquieting and subversive, exploring violence, cruelty, fleeting life, and the acceptance of human fragility. As 2018’s author, Han Kang makes us confront uncomfortable issues: injustice, pain, mourning and remembering; a shared loss of trust in humankind, alongside the belief in human dignity. She leads us into the very heart of human experience, with writing that is deeply tender, and transformative. I believe her sentiments will be carried through trees, received decades from now, still timeless.”

An entire forest planted to make books

As part of the project, one thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

“Pray for the fates of both humans and books”

Speaking about joining the project, Han Kang said:

“My first impression of the concept of Future library, was that it was a project about time. It deals with the time scope of one hundred years. In Korea, when a couple gets married, people bless them to live together ‘for one hundred years’. It sounds like almost an eternity.

I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write? Then I imagined a world, where no-one I love exists any longer. And in that world, the trees in Norway still exist, who I once met when I was alive. The clear gap of the lifespan between humans and trees struck me. This meditation is so strong that it has the power to directly open our eyes to the impermanence of our mortal lives and all the more precious fragility of our lives.

Ultimately, Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

Han Kang will hand over her manuscript in the Norwegian forest on Saturday 25 May 2019, everyone is welcome.

I Said I Like It Like That

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Justine’s mother bought herself a new phone when she moved to the States and, after that, Justine had trouble getting hold of her. She had the new number supposedly, sent to her via email from an unfamiliar address. She assumed the email was from her mother because it was characteristically brief and contained only the words ‘new number 4 florida’, followed by a string of unfamiliar digits. She tried the number a few times, locking herself in one of the guest bedrooms so that no one would ask who she was calling. Who would want to speak to you? But she never had to explain herself because no one ever picked up.

It was five years now since she’d spoken to her mother, which was a long time when your mother was eighty-seven and your siblings were dead or in prison. All apart from Dawn, her sister, but Justine never knew whether to count Dawn as a living relative. Living seemed to imply movement; a sense of the passage of time. Dawn had barely moved from her the sofa in her dark front room for over twenty years. Surely that was a kind of prison; Justine would rather be dead.

Now, she leaned against the granite workshop in her bespoke kitchen, holding a spatula of fluffy egg white with one hand, her phone with the other. The call echoed into nothing. Into Florida, if that’s where her mother still was. Justine had been to Florida once with Nigel and the kids when they were little, when Nigel became Head at St Faith’s. New house, new car, expensive holiday. Florida had been sun, sand and fat people. Was her mother fat now? Justine glanced at the clock. Florida was five hours behind. It was half-past one in Lincolnshire, the huge skies scorched by the midday heat. Half-past eight AM in Florida. It was fine; Mum had always been an early-riser. Probably because she’d never gone to bed in the first place, a constant haze of cigarette fumes fueling her from dusk until dawn.

But the phone rang on and on and Justine brought the spatula close to her face, the mixture shining a few centimeters away from her nose. She was about to stick out her tongue and lick it, when an American woman said her call couldn’t be taken at the moment but that she could leave a message after the tone.

‘Hi Mum,’ said Justine. ‘I don’t even know if this is the right number or what, but Travis has gone missing again and I was just wondering if he’d tried to contact you. It’s probably nothing, but anyway…’ She trailed off, staring out through the kitchen window into the garden. Her daughter, Chloe, was spread out on a sunbed next to the pool, the gleam from her belly-bar blinding. ‘Just give us a call when you get this. If you get this.’ She hung up to stop herself from saying anything else and put the phone screen-down on the worktop. Then she picked it up again. Nigel had told her not to call Travis again and with good reason. She was only filling Travis’ voicemail. Calling him had never brought him to heel in the past. If it had, he would be home already – here in this room, hunched over a bowl of cereal. The kitchen was clean, the surfaces shiny. There was only the mixing bowl, the meringue mixture and Justine, one hand on her hip, the other tapping at the screen of her new iPhone. Not available right now. Please leave a message.

The messages had documented perfectly her transition from best mother in the world to worst. At first, she’d been understanding: ‘Travis, love, it’s mummy here. Just wondering where you’ve got to, sweetheart. Just drop us a message when you can.’ She’d been very impressed with herself and had imagined telling somebody, a vaguely friend-shaped shadow, about parenting: how there’s no point pushing them, you have to let them come to you. But Travis hadn’t come to her and it was getting on for seventy-two hours which, with his track record, was a problem.

She began to speak just before the tone. She didn’t introduce herself – he knew who she was. ‘Listen to me, you little shitbag,’ she said. ‘This is enough. This is the final fucking straw. If you’re not home by the end of the day, don’t bother coming back at all. I bend over backwards for you and you piss in my face. Well that’s it. You’d better work out where you’re going to live.’ She hung up, finished the pavlova.

‘Sometimes,’ she said to the shadowy friend in her head. ‘It’s a firm hand that does it.’

*

The pavlova was for Martin and Rebecca, who were coming for dinner. Martin was Nigel’s right-hand man at the Federation of Academies and Rebecca was his new wife. For fifteen years, it had been Martin and Sharon. For the last five Christmases, Justine had incorrectly addressed their card and had to throw one out each time. This was unfortunate, as Justine liked to buy good-quality cards, the ones you could only buy in packs of five or six. Not the flimsy, charity efforts that came in multipacks. Each time she forgot Martin’s divorce it was another couple of quid down the drain.

‘I don’t know why you’re so bothered,’ Nigel said last December, as she swore over an embossed pop-out angel, its wings tipped with glitter and tiny sequined stars. ‘It’s not like we’re paupers.’

Justine couldn’t blame herself entirely; Rebecca was forgettable. She had the same long blonde hair as Sharon, but fewer lines around her eyes and her tanned skin didn’t yet have that leathery, tea-stained finish. She probably had another few years left. Halfway through whisking the egg whites, Justine realised she didn’t know if Rebecca even liked pavlova but then, with the KitchenAid whirring away at maximum speed, Justine decided it was too far gone now. You couldn’t unbreak an egg.

*

The problem with this kitchen was that nothing slammed. When they’d had it fitted, soft-close drawers and cupboards had seemed like a good idea, with two teenagers that moved about plugged into iPhones, deaf to their own inconsiderate behaviour. But the kids ended up spending very little time at home. Chloe was always out with friends, friends with names like Jemima and Frances, whose fathers were always ‘in’ something. ‘In’ property, or ‘in’ banking. They never just ‘had’ a job. But whatever they did, they could afford houses that Chloe seemed to disappear into for whole weekends, only coming home when she needed a clean pair of pants or because she’d forgotten her swimsuit. Over time, these swimsuits got smaller and smaller, until there was really very little left to forget; barely a few pieces of string, tied in a knot over the gusset.

And then there was Travis. Justine didn’t like to think about where he was, or who he was with. He just wasn’t around, so it was her own anger that the kitchen ended up moderating. No matter how hard you threw the cupboard doors closed, they refused to slam. Over the years, they had somehow assumed the personality of Kimberley, that smug-bitch therapist she’d been sent to see. ‘Why don’t you try breathing?’ Kimberley and the cupboards asked her. None of them were any help whatsoever. None of them understood. If you wanted to cause a scene in this kitchen, you had to generate the noise yourself, which was exhausting. She’d found it was easier to drink from the wine glasses than smash them on the antique Minster-stone tiles.

Half-one was probably too early for a glass of wine. She’d allow herself one before the guests arrived. Maybe at half-five. Or five.

She spooned the mixture into a mound on the baking sheet and gouged out a crater in the middle. The idea was to bake the meringue and then cover up the hole and the cracks with a load of strawberries, cranberries and fresh cream. You had to let it cool completely before you added the fruit; Justine had learned that the hard way. In the early days of her marriage, when she’d still been in shock at having her own kitchen, she got over-excited about recipes and could never last the whole cooking time before going on to the next step. The very first time she’d made Nigel dinner, he’d come home from work to find a runny shepherd’s pie in pride of place on the kitchen counter, the meat not yet browned, the mash lumpy. He’d laughed, in the easy way he had back then, ruffled her hair and they’d gone upstairs to have athletic sex. But that was then. Now, she waited the appropriate time for the meat to brown, for sauces to reduce. The lasagna would be the highlight of her evening.

Even the oven door was polite. She watched the meringue in the orange glow for a few seconds, the first of the air bubbles beginning to prickle in the heat, before checking her phone. Her wallpaper was a picture of herself and Chloe, heads tilted together, clinking glasses of prosecco on a balcony in Paris. Her birthday last year. An hour after the photograph was taken, she’d had to restrain herself from throwing her daughter over that balcony, onto the Avenue Montaigne, when Chloe decided she was going to meet some old uni friends for cocktails that evening, instead of going with her mother to the dinner they’d booked at the Four Seasons. ‘I’ll be, like, an hour,’ Chloe had said, already slurring as she slung her Birkin Bag over her shoulder and tottered out of the room. Justine spent her fifty-eighth birthday alone in the hotel suite, watching old episodes of French soaps that she didn’t understand at first but seemed to gain poignancy with every mouthful of prosecco, swigged from the bottle like a hooker in a teen comedy.

The photograph of Justine and Chloe was clear of notifications – no one wanted to speak to her. And if she was honest, Justine didn’t want to speak to them either but, while one child baked in the sun, the other was loose, out of the pen. And he’d done enough damage already.

*

It was Nigel that came up with the idea that Travis should change his name. ‘It’s not just the fact you’ve been in jail,’ he’d said.  ‘It’s the fact you were in jail for something like that. You’ll be on a list.’

So now Travis was Trent, except Justine couldn’t keep it up all the time. To the family, he was still Travis. They didn’t offer an explanation as to why the young man brooding under his greasy fringe had two names and no one asked. Everyone knew better than to question the Carter family quirks. At the Federation of Academies, people didn’t ask Nigel Carter to explain himself. Which is why Trent Briggs could be employed at St Francis’ C of E Academy as a groom in the new Equestrian centre. Under the guidance of Nigel Carter, the school had become an Academy, had government funds coming out of its ears. Travis Carter was on a list, but Trent Briggs was a stranger.

Travis had always been twitchy. Nowadays, he would probably be diagnosed with ADHD or something – one of those conditions that meant you got a note from a doctor saying you could do your exams in a small, quiet room with a laptop, instead of slaving away with pen and paper like everyone else. Travis would have liked that – a bit of extra attention. But Travis ended up sitting barely any of his GCSE exams because he had fallen into the wrong crowd and was often high on the sofa of some little twat’s mother, deep in the labyrinth of the city council estates. Or shooting up behind the back of Sainsbury’s. It made you wonder if it was in the genes. All her hard work gone to waste. The drugs were one thing, but the other stuff – exposing himself in that way to those kids – made her think of her Uncle Brian, with his moist smile and his hairy hands. The thing that had passed from Brian to Travis, did it run through her too? She’d thought she’d done a good job of stamping it out, keeping the kids away from all that, but it was a lifelong game of whack-a-mole. Just when you thought you’d exorcised all the demons, a new kind of fresh hell would crawl out of the pit.

It was a good job that Nigel had been able to get him the equestrian training once he was out. He’d only been inside six months but that was enough. Six months and a black mark next to your name could follow you forever. But Travis became Trent and he went on the residential course. They used the Federation credit cards – the state had taken six months off him, so it was only right that it paid for the course. Fair was fair.

The Academy Federation had acquired properties in France, for use by the schools during residential trips. Nigel had taken Justine with him to scout out the various locations. She’d fallen in love with a place in Normandy. It was £1.9 million, situated barely an hour’s drive from Bayeux with a banqueting hall and spaces easily divided into apartments. Justine had been such a help on the visit that Nigel had paid her a consultant’s fee – an extra £55,000 for the year’s work. It had been a blast, picking out the bathrooms, deciding which bedrooms would open onto what. She’d liked the floor tiles so much that she’d chosen them for their own en-suite upstairs. As an additional thank you, Nigel had suggested she take some friends for the weekend when it was all finished. He was so busy at work at that time that he didn’t seem to realise she’d shed most of her friendships. Intentionally, of course. As she became more involved with the academies, after she transferred the kids to single-sex private schools, after they moved from the city centre to the six-bedroom, hundred-acre Lodge which presided over the Fens and had its own pool, she found that looking at those people made her depressed. She didn’t want to think about the conversations they’d had in the playground of the inner-city Primary School all those years ago. She didn’t want to think about the grotty Starbucks coffee dates, or the aqua-aerobics classes they’d taken together, dodging the floating plasters and leering pensioners. She was a different person now and needed new friends. In the end, she’d joined a salsa club and asked a few people from there to come along. They’d shimmied and swayed across the floor of the banquet hall to Pete Rodriguez, drinking sangria and laughing. She was pretty sure Sharon had been among them, or was it a different woman, with a similar shaggy blonde hairstyle? Someone else – Jules? Julie? – had accidentally broken a pane in the French windows when she’d kicked her foot backwards into an arabesque and her wedge heel had flown off, shattering the glass.

‘It’s ok, really!’ Justine had said as the woman apologised over and over again. ‘The kids aren’t going to come here for ages.’

In fact, Nigel hadn’t mentioned any school trips to the Normandy retreat yet. Mind you, there was so much in the curriculum these days. So many exams and whatnot. The kids probably didn’t have time.

*

In some ways the Academy credit cards made life much easier, but when things went wrong, it was complicated. Like when Travis went missing, for example. To be fair to him, since he’d come out he’d been better. He still sloped around, disappeared for the night without telling them and came back reeking of marijuana. But he was in his twenties – young men did that kind of thing. Justine was able to tolerate the odd wild weekend. It was when he did things like this – disappearing for several days in a row – that people started to ask questions. It had been the St Faith’s sports day yesterday for Christ’s sake. He had responsibilities – mowing the grass in preparation etc. People noticed if he went missing now. And someone, any one of them, might call the police. Justine didn’t know much about how the police went about their business, but she assumed it wouldn’t take them long to realise that the person everyone knew as Trent Briggs had once been Travis Carter and that Travis Carter was on a list. Trent Briggs worked at a school. They would also see that Trent Briggs had been on a training course funded by the Academy and they might start looking at credit card statements. Salaries paid to Justine Carter and Chloe Carter, for ‘consultancy’ work. Business trips to Paris. Which is why Travis had to come home.

*

Martin and Sharon – no, Rebecca – were coming at seven, which meant the lasagna had to be in the oven by six. At five, she was chopping mushrooms, the mince browning in a thick-bottomed saucepan. It had been a bad idea, cooking a lasagna on a hot day like this. She kept having to wipe away her sweaty fringe with the back of her hand. She’d been crying earlier, because of the onions, and could feel gritty bits of mascara worked into her eyeballs when she rubbed them. It made you thirsty, cooking in this heat, and so when she opened a bottle of merlot for the Bolognese, she also poured herself a glass. Usually, she preferred rosé – something sweet, like a White Zinfandel or a Grenache Rose. It didn’t seem like such a terrible indiscretion, if you didn’t drink the thing you really wanted.

She was adding the mushrooms to the pan when she heard a car door slam. Nigel. She’d told him to be home at a decent time and, for once, he’d listened to her. The front door opened and closed. She could hear him breathing in his usual, huffing way, could hear his shoes on the parquet and almost cried again for no good reason. The onions were cooking in the sauce, had lost their edge, so it must have been the wine making her eyes prickle. When he stepped into the doorway, his paunch appearing first the way it always did now, she wanted to fling her arms around him, or as far around him as she could reach, and bawl her eyes out onto his expensive white shirt.

But he was already snarling like a Pitbull. ‘Tonight,’ he said, slamming his briefcase down on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. ‘If Martin asks if you’ve heard from Travis, I need you to tell him you have.’

Justine scraped the last of the mushrooms into the pot and gave it a stir, the little baldy bastards drowning in the thick red sauce. ‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Because I’ve told him you’ve spoken to him.’ He said this painfully slowly, as if she was deaf. Sometimes, he behaved like she was a teenager, a student at one of his academies. She’d flag this up in future, when all of this had blown over.

‘Why did you do that?’ she asked, setting her knife and chopping board safely out of the way.

‘Martin’s getting twitchy. He thinks I’m losing control. He’s worried this is going to blow everything open.’

She turned to look at him. ‘Are you?’ she asked.

He’d loosened his tie and was getting himself a glass from the cupboard. My god, from the side he looked particularly hefty. She’d have to let out the waist of his trousers soon. ‘What?

‘Are you losing control?’

‘Am I fuck.’ He sloshed wine into the glass. ‘Just tell him he’s texted you or something.’ The wine gushed out of the bottle.

‘I need that for the sauce.’

‘How much?’

‘Just don’t pour any more,’ she said. Once the glass was full to the brim, he set the bottle down on the counter. Justine stirred the pot. ‘So you haven’t heard anything?’

‘No,’ he said, taking a swig. ‘He’s pushed it too far this time.’

She moved to the fridge. For years, everyone had asked her what the secret ingredient was in her Bolognese. It was the Thai Sweet Chilli Sauce that gave it its zing. It wasn’t much of a secret ingredient, actually, as she told everyone who asked.

‘No idea what he’s risking. No way of beating it into his thick fucking skull.’

She squeezed the bottle of Sweet Chilli into the Bolognese and it spurted up the sides of the pan. ‘Don’t say things like that,’ she said.

‘Well it’s true,’ Nigel said, wiping wine from his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes flickered over to the window. Chloe was still stretched out on the sun lounger, plugged into her phone. Watching something, messaging someone: rotting her brain. Nigel jabbed a finger in his daughter’s direction. ‘And that one’s a waste of fucking space.’

‘Nigel…’ The sauce had to simmer for a while. In the meantime, she’d make the cheese roux.

‘I’ve got Simon on the job.’ Nigel said.

‘What?’

‘Simon. Simon Withers, you know,’ Nigel said. ‘He’s going to find Travis.’ Justine stopped stirring and stared at her husband. ‘Simon?’ she asked, her heartbeat suddenly loud in her ears. Simon was the youngest member of the senior management team. He had coiffed hair, an unnatural tan and was a little too pleased with his company Audi. He was probably about thirty, but Justine always thought of him as being seven years old, could imagine him making ‘broom, broom’ noises behind the wheel of his car. He’d been for dinner a couple of times and Justine had resisted the urge to ask him if he wanted her to cut up his chicken into little pieces. She’d felt fond of him initially and then less so later when, a couple of glasses down, he’d lost minutes at a time staring into Chloe’s cleavage. This was the man that Nigel had enlisted to find her son.

‘You asked Simon?’ she asked.

‘Everyone else in the senior team is busy and I’m not involving anyone lower. There are enough people running around as it is. It’s only me, you and Simon that know.’ Nigel said. Then he frowned, putting his glass down on the worktop. ‘And Chloe, unfortunately. She’s not told any of her stupid friends has she?

‘You’ve given this to Simon?

‘Simon’s a smart lad. He’s very bright.’

‘He’s fucking twelve!’ Suddenly, she was shouting, which was alarming even to her. ‘He still gels his hair!’

‘Justine, get your shit together. I’m not having this conversation with you when you’re like this.’

‘Our son is missing, Nigel,’ she said.

‘Actually, we don’t know what’s happened,’ Nigel said, resting one hand on the counter, the other on his hip. There was the headmaster again.

Justine left the wooden spoon in the pot and folded her arms. ‘You want me to lie,’ she said.

‘He’s probably fine. He’ll be off his face somewhere, the little shit. ‘

‘Three days, Nigel. He could be hurt,’ she said and then, before she lost her courage to say what she’d been thinking all day, she added: ‘he could be dead.’ She had intended this as a bombshell, thought it would shake Nigel out of his aggression, force him to take her seriously. But it did the opposite.

Snorting, Nigel reached for his wine again. ‘He wouldn’t be that bloody considerate,’ he said into the glass.

‘Nigel!’

‘He’ll turn up in a few days and then I really will kill him.’

Justine stared at her husband for a second and then her eyes drifted to the clock. It was five-past six. Fuck. The roux, the fucking roux.  She had to walk past Nigel to get the flour out of the cupboard, the butter out of the fridge. Sticking her nose in the air, she fully intended to give him the silent treatment but, on her way back across the kitchen, her resolve crumbled.

‘But what if he doesn’t?’ she asked, slamming the butter down on the scale. Fifty grams the display said, meekly. ‘What if he doesn’t and people start asking why we haven’t called the police.’

‘No.’ Nigel threatened her with a podgy finger. ‘Don’t even go there. Don’t you dare.’

‘But what if that’s what happens?’ Flour billowed out across the worktop in a cloud. ‘What will we say then?’

‘He’s going to turn up.’ The finger was still pointing at her. ‘And in the meantime, you’re not going to tell anyone.’ Something must have flickered across her face, a kind of guilty shadow, because suddenly Nigel was in front of her, wine on his breath. He was surprisingly fast, for such a lardy bastard. ‘What? What have you done?’ he breathed. ‘Who have you told?’

‘I need to get to the hob.’

‘Who have you fucking told?’

She was almost certain he wouldn’t hit her. She looked up at him, at his bloated ruddy cheeks, his black eyes squinting into hers. ‘My mother,’ she said.

Nigel blinked, stunned. ‘Your mother?’

Justine stepped around him, pulled a saucepan out of the cupboard. ‘I didn’t actually tell her. I just… I left a message on her answerphone.’ The butter slid around in the pan, shining wetly.

‘For the love of fucking Christ.’ Nigel had his hands over his face now. With his arms up like that, she could see the sweat patches blossoming under his pits. He smelled oniony, or was that just the sauce? ‘I’m trying to keep a lid on this thing and you’re blowing it wide open.’

She stirred the butter with a metal spoon; Nigel was blocking the drawer that held the rest of her wooden ones. ‘Have you thought for a moment what it’s like for me?’ she asked into the pan. ‘What it’s like on my own in this house?’

‘Oh yes it must be really hard for you,’ Nigel crooned. God, she hated when he imitated her like this. Her voice wasn’t that high. ‘With the pool and the wine and the-’

The metal spoon was out of the pan and in his face. She waved it at him and a drop of hot butter must have flicked into his eyeball as he recoiled, rubbing it and swearing. ‘I have no one to tell, Nigel,’ she hissed. When she was mad, she went quiet. That was where Nigel’s impressions always went wrong. ‘No one. That’s why I called my mother, who wouldn’t even pick up the bloody phone. I’m going mad here, Nigel. People are going to start noticing something’s wrong, but it’s not going to be because of me.’ She stared at him a second, while he rubbed his eye like a baby, and then she grabbed the flour which was behind him on the counter. ‘You’re in the way,’ she said.

He eased himself away from the worktop. She could feel him glaring at her, hear him breathing, smell him – it wasn’t the Bolognese. She stirred the roux, the flour bubbling, turning biscuity.

‘If you’re going to go mad, do it silently,’ Nigel said. ‘Don’t make a fucking noise.’ She heard him gulp down his wine. ‘If you tell another living soul,’ he said. ‘This family is finished.’

*

It was handy, therefore, that she never knew whether to class Dawn as a living relative. Nigel was a clever man and Justine respected his achievements, but he didn’t know everything. He hadn’t grown up in a house where sons did time the same way other boys went to scout camp. He would thank her and repent, down on his knees, when she was the one that brought Travis home.

She did it when she was still upstairs, just after having a shower but before she got dressed and did her makeup. The lasagna was in the oven – the cheese bubbling away like the hide of a living, breathing animal – and the pavlova was setting in the fridge. Justine stared at her reflection in the mirror for a minute – a minute too long, really, without any makeup on – unlocked her phone and tapped out a text to Dawn.

Travis missing again. I need your help. She pressed send at the same time as she took a sip from the glass of White Zinfandel she’d brought upstairs. So, she’d had a glass of red before five o’clock and was on rosé now. That was probably an extra three hundred calories right there, but it had been a trying day. And anyway, she’d forgo the pavlova later. Give hers to Nigel. Perhaps, if she was lucky, he’d have a heart attack.

*

When, in the future, she thought back to that evening and the dinner with Martin and Rebecca, she’d struggle to remember the order of events. It would have been easy to blame the wine and, honestly, she had drunk a fair quantity even by the time she opened the door. She flicked her hair over her shoulders and said ‘hello’ in the breezy way she’d adopted, as though they’d just interrupted her in the middle of tai chi or caught her having an intellectual debate with one of her many erudite offspring.

In fact, she hadn’t spoken to Chloe for several hours and only realised she was going out when she tramped downstairs later in a pair of stilettos and an unflattering jumpsuit. ‘Taxi’s here,’ Chloe called, seemingly without any need for a response. It was just as well. By that point in the evening, Justine wasn’t up to arguing with her daughter. She was already dealing with Martin.

She knew that Martin and Rebecca had been on time; she remembered them handing her a bottle of wine as they stepped from the porch into the hallway. She couldn’t recall the colour of this wine, or what had happened to it. She was sure she hadn’t drunk any of it. Was it the one that was smashed, much later? Perhaps. But they’d definitely handed her a bottle and she’d put it on the countertop in the kitchen, next to the toaster.

The evening was tinted gold, the dying sunlight streaming in through the French windows. In her memory, shadows lengthened and shortened again, snapping back with every event placed out-of-sequence. By the time Martin stood up, scraping his chair along the wooden floor, and frog-marched Rebecca out of the room, there weren’t any shadows because the main light was on. They could see each other clearly while they destroyed the relationship that had united the two men, five schools and amassed millions of pounds over the last twenty years.

She’d put too much Sweet Chili in the Bolognese. The tang stayed on her tongue for the next few days, forever merging in her mind with betrayal. The spice made them all drink more, which was no doubt a factor in the proceedings. Smug-bitch therapists like Kimberley would no doubt be able to flow-chart the shit out of that. But that was all very easy in retrospect, when you were charging a hundred quid an hour. In the moment, with your mouth on fire, you just knew you needed a drink. You didn’t stop and think about it.

Over the course of the evening, Travis came up by name on three occasions – moments she recalled with perfect clarity as they had sent a flash of cold panic through her body and prompted her to find something to do with her hands, like folding napkins or topping up glasses. Though his name was mentioned only three times, Travis’ presence (or rather, his absence) was heavy at the table, as if he himself was lying spread-eagled over it, his greasy head resting on the condiments tray, dirty trainers in the lasagna dish.

‘He’s with friends,’ Justine remembered saying, as she cleared away the dishes. Looking back, she wasn’t sure if these were the dishes that had been used for the garlic bread she’d served as a starter or if they had been stained orange with oil from the pasta. About two things she was completely certain. The first; they weren’t the plates intended for pavlova, as they’d never got around to eating dessert. Second, as she leaned over Martin, as he removed the scrunched-up napkin from his lap and put it on the plate, her eyes were caught by his. And it was clear beyond all doubt that he didn’t believe her.

Nigel had made it sound easy. Say you’ve heard from Travis. Say he’s texted you or something. But ‘or something’ was a dangerous realm. She’d thought there would be strength in ambiguity but – what had Nigel said? – she’d ‘blown it all open’. Well he should have done it himself. He should have got up off his fat arse and found their son.

There was a sense of something simmering from the beginning; the feeling of performance, like the house was an elaborate set and Nigel and Justine were crap actors on some over-funded BBC Two drama. Nigel had always been a sweaty bloke but he’d soaked his shirt within the first hour. Rebecca was laughing at everything, even things that weren’t supposed to be funny. ‘I accidentally chipped this bowl’, ‘I got this tablecloth from a nice boutique but it’s closed now’ and ‘would you like a top-up?’ were all met with her warbling, high falsetto. Justine just stood there, wine bottle in hand, while Rebecca laughed herself silly. When the laughter showed no sign of abating, Justine went ahead and refilled the glass. It seemed as though Rebecca needed it.

Through it all, Martin sat back in his chair, arms crossed. He was a small man and he and Nigel had always made a good team – little and large, chalk and cheese, bad cop/good cop. While Nigel raged, Martin – painfully polite – would talk you through the restructure, explain to you why you’d lost your job, why your funding had been cut, why he was leaving you for his secretary. And all in such a civilized manner that you couldn’t possibly blame him. While Nigel’s body was broad and flabby, Martin’s power was concentrated, dense as a ball-bearing. The longer she watched him sitting there – arms crossed, eyes narrow – the more certain she became that tonight, David would take down Goliath.

‘He’s with friends,’ Justine said as she took Martin’s plate. ‘That’s where he is.’ She concentrated on stacking the dishes, so that she wouldn’t have to look at Martin again or listen to his silence. It was as she was moving from the dining room to the kitchen, crossing the parquet floor in the hall, that she heard him mutter, ‘We all know that’s a load of bollocks.’

Looking back, this was the moment when everything changed. Or at least, the moment when everything that had already been changing for some time came into sharp focus. These seconds would stay with her for years to come. A spasm of guilt and she was back there, standing in the dark hallway with the plates trembling in front of her – they had traces of lasagna on them she remembered now – the cutlery quivering as she hovered between rooms. The hallway was safe, free of allegiances. But she couldn’t stay there forever. She was stuck in the middle, with the dining room and Nigel behind her, kitchen and pavlova in front. She could go back to Nigel. In the glow of the John Lewis chandelier, she could put her hand in his and they could face it all together. Face Martin, the police, whoever.

The refrigerator hummed in the dark kitchen but the dining room was quiet. She turned her head slightly, twisted an ear towards the open door.

‘You want to say that again?’ This was Nigel, low and dangerous. It was the only tone he seemed to use these days. After a while, it lost its effect.

She shuffled into the kitchen and turned on the light. The room gleamed, welcoming her with its shining surfaces. She set the plates down and opened the fridge. The pavlova had been waiting for her, glistening patiently on the middle shelf. Some of the berries and cream had bled into the meringue. Or was her eyesight just blurry from wine?

When she arrived back in the dining room, carrying the pavlova in front of her, both men were out of their seats, gesticulating over the table. Rebecca was making feeble attempts at grabbing Martin, as if he was seriously going to take Nigel on. She was dimly aware of her own name coming up, amongst the profanity and hysteria – ‘That psycho is going to drag you down, Nigel; you, Justine and Chloe…’ – but set the pavlova down on the table anyway, twisting it round so the most impressive side faced her guests.

‘Plates,’ she murmured to no one in particular and was about to go back into the kitchen to get some, when Chloe darted through the hall, a flash of tanned skin and satin.

‘Taxi’s here!’ Chloe called. The door slammed.

Justine blinked before starting towards the kitchen again. She needed a knife to cut the pavlova, or maybe a spatula of some kind – the cream might be gloopy.

‘I’m not going to let you drag me down with you, Nigel. Not a chance in hell.’

And then Martin and Rebecca were in the hallway, standing in front of her. Martin ripped open the front door and stalked out onto the driveway. From somewhere in the darkness, the lights on his car flashed. Rebecca hovered for a second in front of the door, her lips quivering at the edges.

‘Did you bring your coat, Sharon?’ Justine asked. Rebecca made a shallow noise in the back of her throat and followed Martin out into the night.

*

There were very few instances over the course of Justine’s life when she hadn’t been to bed at the end of the day, not even for an hour. There was the night when she was fifteen and her brother Jonno had been caught up in an armed robbery. He was on the run and the police were stalking her street, waiting for him to come home. She waited up too, in her only pair of pyjamas. Justine and Dawn watched the television in the lounge, the cartoons nothing but blurry shapes and sounds, as their brother slipped between houses into the crenellations of the shadowy estate, finally captured in the haze of blue lights.

Then there was the night she’d given birth to Travis. He’d been a difficult baby. Perhaps she should have taken that as a sign. She’d screamed as he’d split her open and was then unable to make a noise for hours afterwards. She could only stand mutely by the window in her private room, watching the lights of the cars as they moved in and out of the parking spaces beneath her.

But they were the only times – she liked sleeping. After Martin and Rebecca left, however, the house groaned and ached and there she knew there was no way she could go to bed.

‘Can you not hear that?’ she asked Nigel.

‘What?’ he asked, eyes drooping, whisky glass resting on his paunch. He’d started in on the drinks cabinet immediately after dinner and, by ten, was in a stupor. He always had been able to sleep through anything anyway. When the children were small, it was always her that their cries woke, Nigel numb to the world on the other side of the bed, his body an immovable mountain.

With Nigel checked-out of consciousness, she set herself up in the study in front of the huge monitor of the desktop computer, a glass of rosé at her side – definitely her last for the night. She scrolled through her own Facebook feed, then logged into Chloe’s account – her passwords were all written in the back of the diary she kept in her bedside cabinet, silly girl – and scrolled though Chloe’s messages. She appeared to be currently obsessed with a young man called Jasper, whose profile pictures all showed him in nightclubs, pointing at the friend next to him. There were a lot of messages from Chloe to Jasper and not so many from Jasper to Chloe. Justine cringed as she stumbled across an animated gif sent from Chloe to Jasper earlier that evening, of a cartoon cheese beckoning seductively. There was no question that Chloe was doing the pursuing.

In Justine’s day, the girl waited to be pursued. She’d met Nigel in a crowded pub when she was out with her sisters and cousins. They only had one set of rollers and three lipsticks to share between the lot of them and so she remembered feeling pretty smug that evening as she’d managed to use both the rollers and a lipstick before they came out. Sure, one side of her head was curlier than the other, but that hadn’t put Nigel off when he’d accidentally jabbed her with his pool cue as she walked past on her way back from the ladies. He’d grinned at her and offered her a drink. She wasn’t related to him and he wasn’t from the Estate, which was enough.

Depressed, she logged out of Facebook. Travis didn’t have Facebook, said it was for ‘poofs’. She went onto YouTube, to find some Peter Rodriguez music to cheer herself up, and stumbled across some sort of remix, featuring a woman called Cardi B. Cardi B shouted over most of it, about ‘flexing on bitches as hard as I can’. Justine swayed in her wedges in the middle of the study as she swigged from her glass. She even did a few mariposa moves, imagining she was dancing with Mateo, her salsa instructor. She amused herself in this fashion until three in the morning, when there was the sound of glass shattering from downstairs.

She found Chloe in the kitchen, balancing on the heels of her stilettos as if they were stilts, in a pool of broken glass and red wine. Eyeliner and mascara were streaked down her face, her tongue so heavy in her mouth that, when she saw her mother come into the kitchen, she was unable even to apologise. She just stood there, clutch bag hanging limply from one arm, blinking in the harsh light of the kitchen spotlights.

Justin moved her to the sofa and, once Chloe was safely horizontal, cleaned up the wine and glass. A bag of oven chips was open on the counter, now semi-defrosted and useless. Chloe’s culinary skills knew no bounds. Justine made her a peanut butter and jam sandwich, the way she always had when the kids were little, but by the time she brought it over to the sofa, Chloe was fast asleep. A string of drool stretched from Chloe’s mouth onto the upholstery. Tomorrow’s problem. Justine fetched a throw from the lounge and draped it over her daughter, before turning out the light.

She went outside, even though it was freezing, and sat by the pool. The goosebumps on her arm were sharp and painful but still she stayed there, shivering in the darkness. She’d brought a bottle out with her and poured herself another glass – this really was her last. She’d always said she wasn’t going to be her mother, awake all night, a cigarette burning through the hours as her children cavorted in the estate around her, stealing, robbing, stabbing and spitting. But look at her how.  Was that why her mother had up and left for the US? Because she was sick of the cold?

*

There was no doubt that she was over the limit but, at seven-thirty in the morning, she was pulling out of the driveway onto the main road in her little bug, her face scrubbed clean, hair pulled back into a clip. She was absolutely fine – kept pushing her Tom Ford glasses up on the bridge of her nose to tell remind herself so. She’d avoided Nigel – he’d been in the shower when she’d left – and Chloe was still asleep on the sofa, so she hadn’t had to answer any questions about where she was going.

Dawn still lived on the Estate, trapped in the labyrinth of red brick and spray paint. As she pulled into the first grim street, rolling the car over a speed bump, Justine remembered how slowly you had to drive in this place, as if something was pulling you back, weighing you down. A group of young men, faces shadowy under their hoods, turned to watch as she passed and she locked the car doors.

It was eerily quiet before an Alsatian launched itself at its garden gate, howling, jerking backwards when strangled mid-air by the chain attached to its collar. One of the youths yelled at it and Justine accelerated, lurching over the next speed-bump.

Justine was last here for the christening of one of Dawn’s many children. Was it Ashton or Ashley? That was getting on for four years ago now, just after their mother left for the US. Justine had come on her own – Nigel had been outraged at the very idea of eating Iceland sausage-rolls in Dawn’s tiny kitchen and making small talk with whichever tattooed bruiser she’d taken up with that week. Justine hadn’t much fancied it herself but did feel a sense of duty to Dawn, in whom she saw herself, the other Justine, the one that hadn’t been skewered by Nigel’s cue. And anyway, she’d didn’t have to eat anything. She could just chug a cup of weak tea and leave.

Since that day, when Dawn hadn’t seemed all that pleased to see her and hadn’t even offered her a plate for the miserable-looking buffet – ‘You’re always on some kind of diet, so what’s the point?’ – their communication had been terse and infrequent. She assumed she still lived at the same house, number nine, and left the engine idling for a couple of minutes as she stared at the chipped front door. Curtains twitched around her. One neighbour, a man in a string vest, came and stood outside his house with his arms folded, watching her with narrowed eyes. On the fence that skimmed the perimeter of his yard, a handwritten sign read: ‘Shut the fucking gate’. Justine killed the engine and got out, closing the door as quietly as possible.

It was only in the few seconds after she rang the bell, waiting for an answer, that she realised how early it was. It was eight o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. But surely the children would need to go to school? Dawn would be awake, wouldn’t she?

The man was still watching her. A flash of hot panic set her backing away from the doorstep, fleeing back to her car, but then the door snapped open and she was trapped on the path, quaking in her wedge heels.

Dawn was fatter, sadder. She was wearing a faded Minnie Mouse dressing gown and her fluffy, over-dyed hair hung in strings over her eyes. She squinted into the daylight like a mole and, seeing Justine, opened her mouth in loose incomprehension.

‘You didn’t get my text?’ Justine said, shifting her weight, suddenly ashamed of her neat, coral-coloured toenails.

Dawn blinked. ‘I changed my number,’ she said. A child appeared under her arm, dressed in half a school uniform. Justine smiled at it weakly.

‘Mum changed her number too,’ she said. ‘I tried to leave her a message.’

Dawn wrinkled her nose. ‘Mum’s dead,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Justine. She knew she should ask how it happened and when, but this seemed as though it was the end of a conversation, not the opening of a new one. ‘Right.’

‘What do you want, Justine?’ Dawn said, crossing her arms to mirror the man still standing on the other side of the road. The child blinked up at Justine, began to pick its nose. ‘Never thought you’d be caught dead back here.’

‘Travis is missing,’ said Justine, who detected that the time for bullshit was long past. ‘I wondered if you’d seen him.’

‘Yeah I saw him,’ Dawn said and Justine had to hold a hand to her chest, to steady her heart. ‘Couple nights back. He came to ask if he could stay here for a bit, until things died down.’

‘What things?’

‘You know. Things.’ They both knew what kind of things.

‘What did you say?’

‘I told him to fuck off.’ And then Dawn expanded in the doorway, smiling as she swelled. She was still smiling when she said, ‘Don’t want any of your type round here.’

Justine opened her mouth and closed it again. Travis was in trouble and, because of Dawn, was on his own. Or was it because of Dawn? Was it not because of Justine herself, because she didn’t eat semi-defrosted sausage rolls at the christening of – Ashton, Ashley? Because she’d tried to shed this place, her own past, from her body. Peel it off like a snakeskin.

It didn’t matter, there was nothing left to say. Justine managed to totter back to the car and, as she unlocked the door, caught sight of her pedicure. She wouldn’t wear that colour again.

*

The drive home took her past the police station and she swerved suddenly into the carpark. She was beeped by a woman in a Citroen, with a baby on board sign hanging in the rear window. Fuck off, bitch. No one cares about your offspring.

The reception area was full of posters about binge-drinking and reminders about staying safe online. Justine pretended to read them, one hand holding her phone to her chest, the other in the back pocket of her jeans, clutching onto her buttock, pinching it for no good reason. After a while, a young woman in uniform came up to her and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

Justine stared at her face – it took a few seconds to focus. ‘No,’ she said. ‘There isn’t.’

She got back in the car and drove home. The pavlova had been left out all night and was wilting on the dining table. The strawberries and cranberries had all run, leaving a huge pile of bloody meringue and cream. She could almost hear it breathing and she knew what it was waiting for. She sat down, in Nigel’s place at the head of the table, grabbed a spoon.

She was still there when Simon Withers came to the house an hour later, but by then most of the pavlova was gone. He found her at the table, mouth sticky with meringue, her cream blouse stained red.

‘Is Nigel in?’ Simon asked. When Justine didn’t answer, he went on: ‘I wanted to tell him I’m not up to it. I don’t think there’s any more I can do.’

Justine looked up, mouth covered in cream, and tilted her head to one side, frowning, as if listening to the death throes of a small, pathetic animal.

‘I think,’ Simon said. ‘I’m out of my depth.’ Travis had now been gone at least ninety-two hours. Wherever he was, Simon wasn’t going to bring him back.

Justine picked up her spoon, scooped up a weeping strawberry. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are out of your depth, Simon.’ She brought the spoon to her mouth and Simon glanced away, the colour high in his cheeks. ‘If I were you,’ Justine went on, mouth full. ‘I’d get out before you drown.’

About the author of this post

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

Familiar history: fascists attack bookstore in London

bookmarks.jpg

With news that a small group of fascists have attacked an independent bookstore in London, it is easy to feel this may be a case of history repeating itself.

Bookmarks announced on 5 August that the store and its staff were attacked by “far right protestors wearing masks” the previous evening.

The owners of the store remained defiant, writing: “We will not let this happen! Never Again!”

Although physical damage to the store and its staff was minimal, the escalation in tactics deployed by right-wing protestors to specifically target a bookstore will appear to many to be a worrying turn of events.

burning books

Nazis burning books in Germany

Watching the video of the attack – described as “an ambush” by one individual recording the video who appears to have the intellectual ability and wit of a rotting dog turd – certainly makes for troubling viewing.

Nothing in the Rulebook‘s very own Professor Wu said:

“Nothing in the Rulebook has previously cautioned against comparing the rise of extreme right wing groups in the US, the UK, and western Europe to the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Yet, as a creative collective (indeed, one which even has the word ‘book’ in our name), attacking a book store is where we draw a line.

There are too many similarities between events taking place today and those witnessed by those generations before us who were forced to live through the horrors of fascism; of persecution, censorship, suppression, restriction of individual liberties, and, ultimately, genocide.

Independent bookstores like Bookmarks play a crucial role in investing in new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds. Attacking places that allow truly free expressions of thought that seek to illuminate new ways of thinking speak to the fear those on the right have of genuine intellectualism. It is a clear sign that they fear the power of the written word; that they wish to disengage with what it represents (creativity; enlightenment; knowledge) so vehemently that they are willing to turn to violent, extreme methods of breaking free from its potential to influence and persuade those who are not so ignorant as them. Such violence is a sure sign for concern.

We now find ourselves in an age where the largest bookseller in the world pays virtually no taxes. Although Amazon allows micro-genres of fiction, such as Dinosaur Erotica, to flourish, it is no friend of the free-thinking liberal, or indeed anyone who would like to see the power of language used to fight the ignorance that threatens to bloom across the world.

At its heart, this attack was an attack on freedom of thought; not simply freedom of speech. The far-right often accuse the left of using political correctness to censor them; yet they are the ones attacking independent bookstores.

We therefore wish our comrades in Bookmarks and in independent bookstores across the world solidarity, success, and friendship. And we urge all readers to sign up to the Bookmarks solidarity event planned to take place in London. More than that – we urge you all to go out and buy books; to read books; and to go out and write them. Fascists wish to silence us, but we will not be silenced.”

As elegant as a violin

violin

but suddenly it would come over her, If he were here with me now what would he say? – some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people;

-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

The first time I met Leo was one year ago, on an oddly warm night of October.

The party was in a small semi-detached house in the suburbs, not far from the train station. The small living room was already overcrowded when I arrived, and smelled strongly of smoke and beer, like every self-respecting student house during a party. There were two threadbare black sofas, a coffee table covered in half-empty plastic cups, and not a single face I recognised. In the middle of a dimly lit kitchen, a wooden dining table had been turned into a beer-pong table. At the back there was also a tiny, untidy garden, where a few people went to get fresh air or, mostly, to vomit.

He, curly-haired and not much taller than me, looked even more out of place than me, wearing a perfectly ironed shirt and a forced smile.

I had an assignment about Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to write, and wasn’t even thinking about stepping outside my room until the end of term.

‘There’s no way you are going to miss this party,’ said Marta, blonde-haired and three years older than me, whilst the two of us squeezed in the back of a taxi.

‘I don’t even know these people.’ I tried to discourage her, despite knowing it was too late.

She pretended not to hear me, ‘we’re going to 4 Wells Terrace,’ she told the driver instead.

As I predicted, I didn’t know anyone, even though we were all students from the same year. The curly-haired boy was constantly and annoyingly waving at whoever entered the front door. His housemates – two look-alike Spanish girls and a skinny Greek boy – had arranged the party. I remember that all of them came up to me and introduced themselves as hosts, while he looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but in his own house.

‘So, Sofia, right? I’m Paula. Feel free to have beer,’ said one of the two Spanish girls, ‘and ignore Leo, he’s a bit moody tonight,’ she nodded in his direction.

‘Yeah, a beer sounds fine, thanks,’ I said and smiled, even if I hate beer and I’ve barely drunk one in my whole life.

The first thing Leo said to me during that party was so irrelevant that I don’t even remember what it was. Maybe he said he liked my dress, or I asked where the toilet was. I guess it is normal, when you have shared so many great and so many awful moments with someone, not to remember the first thing they said to you. Certainly, at one point he said to me: ‘Guess who’s going to clean up this mess? Yeah, me.’

I spent the whole night leaning against the wall of his kitchen, which was too small to contain all of us and the beer-pong table, and then Leo’s eyes, a surprisingly weird mixture of green and blue, exploring my face.

*

‘Look,’ he whispered to me one morning, in the silence of the library. He put two tickets on my desk, forcing me to look up from the book I was reading. ‘It’s a quartet. Two violins, a viola and a cello. Tonight, 7:30.’

The classical music concert was held in a bright and spacious hall, in a Georgian spa town, where the two of us went by bus on a rainy evening.

The music was filling up the hall, and I was trying so hard to push away any thought, to focus on every note of the music, to black my mind out. No matter how hard I tried, I could only feel his elbow against mine. Leo was sitting next to me, eyes closed, deeply lost in those abstract sounds, and in that actual moment I did not even exist for him: what only existed was himself and the music.

He had been studying violin since when he was a kid, fair-haired and red-cheeked, revealed by some old pictures. He then became an adolescent completely different from the others, completely devoted to his violin and little else. He always had very few friends, very little time for himself or for anyone else. I envied him for this special and visceral relationship with his musical instrument,  which had always been far more than only an object for him. That violin, its strings and its tapered handle, meant ambition and success, fear of failure, and will to reach the top.

Despite having always loved classical music, I have always been bad at playing any instrument, to the point that it became ridiculous. After a few disastrous piano lessons with a private teacher, a broken guitar and a pair of mental break-downs, I gave up and decided that I would always love the music that other people would play for me. My affection for that kind of music was something I deeply nurtured, by myself and for myself only, too afraid to fail to even commit myself to it. That exclusive relationship with an instrument was something I wanted desperately, but could never reach. For me, that night, during that concert, Leo was himself like a violin: as beautiful, as elegant as a musical instrument, and equally painfully unreachable. I was sitting next to him, closer to him than ever, his elbow against mine, but he could not see me or even hear me, over the sound of music. And ironically enough, no other situation we lived could better sum up our entire story.

After the concert we ran under the rain and got on the bus back home. I put my head on his shoulder, we stayed silent for a while. The bus was empty, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain on the windows.

‘Can you hear it?’ I asked him, my eyes still closed.

‘What?’ I could feel his breath on my cheek.

‘The rain is playing for us now,’ I replied, and even if it sounds silly now, in that moment, after the concert, everything I could hear was musical.

‘Thank you for coming with me,’ he said.

*

The first time Leo played his violin for me I was sitting on his bed, cross-legged and completely speechless. Like everything that mattered in our relationship, that moment came unexpectedly. It happened by chance, with a fluidity and an astounding perfection that I have only experienced when with him.

We were having dinner at his place, the kitchen was untidy even if he used to do everything he could to keep it clean. It was me who cooked that time, because he used to say that pasta with carbonara sauce tasted different when I cooked it. I have always believed that care is what makes the difference: if made with care, everything tastes better. And every time I made pasta for both of us, I found myself putting as much care as I could into it.

‘It’s really easy! I only need two eggs and parmesan… and black pepper,’ I told him, opening his fridge as if it was my own. ‘Oh! And of course, pancetta.’

‘Can I do anything to help?’ he asked, standing in the doorframe of the kitchen, his left shoulder leaning against the jamb.

‘No, I’m happy to do it, and you can learn from a real expert,’ I replied, the pinch of pride in my voice made him laugh. He came closer and watched me carefully breaking two eggs on the edge of a bowl, and then mixing the two yolks and only one egg-white. I then added just the right quantity of parmesan and a sprinkle of black pepper powder.

‘Is that it?’

‘Almost, it’s not difficult, is it? Can you pour the boiling water from the kettle into that pan, please? We need to boil the pasta now,’ I said and opened the pack of pancetta to cook it in a frying pan, with a tiny bit of olive oil.

We ate facing each other, both perched on the stools in front of the kitchen counter, my pasta getting cold on the plate because I had too many things to tell him to stop and eat my portion.  After two or three ‘It’s getting cold! Why don’t you eat it, for God’s sake?’ he gave up and ate his share, listening to my random comments.

‘I can’t believe they’re actually planning to host another party here!’

Leo shrugged his shoulders the way he always did when he wasn’t feeling like talking.

‘Do you remember Halloween? I basically followed you around this house with a bin bag for the whole night,’ I continued, in the attempt of provoking some kind or reaction from him. ‘For the whole night.’

‘I know,’ he replied, still chewing his pasta. ‘Not the best party of my life, to be honest.’

‘And your Greek housemate is still smoking weed in his room, isn’t he? It smells disgusting,’ I said and then ate the first bite of pasta since we sat for dinner, while his plate was already empty. I finally started eating my cold pasta, whilst he talked about the new melody he was learning for a concert with the orchestra.

‘Do you think about something when you play?’ I asked, we were now standing in front of the kitchen sink, doing the washing up together.

‘Other than the musical notes themselves, do you mean?’ Leo looked up from the pan he was scrubbing, white soap bubbles on his hands.

‘Yes. Do you imagine something? Like, I don’t know, fields, mountains… or the sea,’ I said, because to me classical music had always felt as infinite, as mysterious as the sea.

He didn’t answer straight away. I kept washing the plates and the forks in the warm water, his face looked lost in far thoughts. ‘I only think about the music’ he finally said, ‘there’s only the music … and the pressure of doing the best I can.’

The house I visited for the first time during our first party now looked like a whole different place, weirdly silent and tranquil. I had been in his room only once or twice before then: it was on the second floor, small and bare, a single wide window just above his double bed, which was often left open. It smelled like fresh air and his cologne. The view from up there was ordinary and grey, on a busy road, and the noise of traffic jams could easily wake you up early in the morning. The view from that window is printed in my memory so clearly, so fiercely, and it provokes, every time I think about it, a profound sense of calm, of shelter.

‘I bought you a book,’ I said in one breath, my back leaning against the wall and my legs crossed, I was sitting on his bed. Leo did not look surprised at all, he must have known exactly what that meant. Books were for me what his violin was for him. I had spent nearly two hours in the bookshop, trying to make up my mind, to decide which book I really wanted him to read. In the end, I went for the first one I had  looked at, when I walked in the shop. I chose The Solitude of Prime Numbers: the story of two best friends that never found the courage to tell each other they were in love. The main protagonist, an aspirant mathematician, beautiful, shy and socially awkward, reminded me of him.

Whilst he unwrapped my present, his violin had been on his desk the whole time. I thought it looked strangely lifeless when not in his hands. He must have noticed that I kept looking at it with curiosity, because he said ‘do you want to hear the piece I’m playing with the orchestra on Saturday?’

He did not even wait for an answer. Before I even realised it, Leo was standing in front of me, the instrument on his left shoulder, his right hand holding the bow. The room echoed from the very first note, while I did not know exactly what to look at; whether at his beautiful and deeply focused facial expression, or at his hands on the violin. What he was doing was more intimate than anything else he could have done for me: he was establishing a connection that has never ended.

I do not remember the melody. I do not even remember what I thought about it or what I said when he finished. The only sound I remember is the sound of his breath, how he held it and then released it, in order to follow the tempo. Hold and release, hold and release, that was the intimate melody Leo played for me only.

*

Spring came, warm and unexpected, and we were laying on a field, one of the few green spaces in town. I was supposed to go to a lecture, when Leo called me saying that it was too sunny to stay inside. ‘Also,’ he added, ‘hurry up because I need to tell you exciting news!’. One hour later, I was on the bus on the way to the park, where he met me with a striped blanket and a warm smile. A chilly wind was ruffling my hair, as can happen only in a fresh afternoon of March.

‘So, tell me all the amazing news!’ I encouraged him as soon as we sat down on the blanket. He laid next to me, facing the sky.

‘I got a summer internship in Venice! Isn’t that insane?’

‘You got it!’ I hugged him, he wrapped his right arm around me. I smelled his familiar odour on his jumper.

‘It’s crazy how fast this year is going,’ I said at last. My jacket rolled under my head to make an impromptu pillow, the sun on my face and Leo’s eyes so close that I could not see anything else, I felt like I had suddenly woken up after a hibernation.

‘It is. But I’m excited to see my school mates again for spring break.’ He told me about his friends, how he knew most of them from elementary school, how they had some kind of tradition of spending New Year’s Eve together, how they went on holiday in Greece the summer before.

‘So this guy, Nick, is your best friend, right?’ my head was now placed on his chest and he was playing with my hair, I enjoyed the light touch of his fingertips.

‘Yes, but I don’t think he’ll be there during spring break. Things are complicated with his girlfriend. She lives in another city, you know…’ I noticed indecision in his voice.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘I mean that things are often complicated when you’re with someone.’

‘Are they? I don’t get your point.’ I moved so I could look at his face, he stopped playing with my hair.

‘It feels like they only have each other, nothing else exists, do you get what I mean?’ Leo said, and I thought it was a beautiful thing to say. But for some reason his voice tone didn’t match the words he was saying.

‘Isn’t that beautiful, though?’ I answered, ‘I mean, having such a relationship with someone.’

‘I guess. I don’t know, I’ve never been in a proper relationship.’ He didn’t look at me in the eyes.

‘Because you didn’t want one?’ I asked, almost without thinking. I regretted it right afterwards.

‘Because I feel that my freedom is more important.’ He sounded serious, his gaze was lost in the blue sky above us, so I looked up as well, trying to see what he was looking at.

‘But being in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t be free.’ I sat up, his eyes followed me, he could see my silhouette against the clear, bright sky. My words slipped out of my mouth so easily: ‘I feel I know a lot about you. But still, there’s something I don’t get. You do not entirely open up to me.’

He looked at me through his dark sunglasses and waited, then I heard again his luminous laughter. ‘I think it is because I am not prepared. I am not ready for –’ he opened his arms, as to include the two of us, the blanket, the sun and the astonishing spontaneity of it all, ‘ – this’. I lay down next to him, silent: all I could see was the blue of the sky above us. We stayed on that blanket until the sun went down and we started feeling cold.

*

The first and last time I got drunk was because of Leo. We were out celebrating the birthday of Rose, my Portuguese friend, in an busy pub, of which I do not even remember the name. I only remember it had a terrace, from which, on clear nights, you could see the stars. At midnight she blew the candles on her cake, and we drank champagne. Neither Leo or I could really tolerate alcohol. After a few rounds of a drinking game that involved us drinking straight vodka or answering embarrassing questions, all our inhibitions were gone. All the walls I hadn’t been able to overcome broke down. All I wanted was knowing what he felt. All I wanted to know was if he could feel my elbow against his during that concert. If he could see the care I put in preparing pasta for him. If he understood that freedom is also choosing to share your life with someone else.

I kissed Leo on the lips out on that terrace, in front of the stars, the wind blowing through my hair. He kissed me back, he tasted like the champagne we drank together. It was a pure, chaste kiss, the only one we have ever shared.

That night, we slept in the same bed. I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, his left arm, where his violin usually rested, now around my shoulders. I, even if for one night only, took the place of his violin. I felt, even if for one night only, as important, as beautiful, as elegant as a violin.

The sounds of the traffic out of the window woke me up a few minutes past 7 a.m., my head spinning around and my stomach upset. Flashbacks of the night before, of the candles, of the music, of Leo’s hand in my hand, of us on the bus back to his flat, came to me and made me feel nauseous.

I remember him saying ‘please, come home with me, I need you to come with me,’ and then his arm around my waist and his eyes deeper than the sea, and his voice louder than any music he had ever played for me.

‘But if you come with me, promise me you won’t expect anything,’ he continued, and I promised myself I would enjoy the moment, without thinking about anything else.

When the morning came, I felt emptier and more confused than ever before. Leo was still asleep next to me, covered in white sheets, looking peaceful, helpless, oblivious. He had long, fair eyelashes. His blonde hair was messy on his forehead.  I kissed his naked shoulder but he didn’t wake up.

*

When I went to Venice, it was summer, thirty-nine degrees Celsius, and Leo was at the station, waiting for me to get off the train. We spent forty-seven hours together in Venice: I believe I’ve counted them to make them seem more real.

We sat on the steps of a bridge and ate Chinese food from a take-away bag. Leo ate his and my portion too, I was busy enough telling him how much I loved the city and pointing out tourist attractions on a map to have a single bite of food.

‘It’s so busy today! Is every day like this?’ I felt naïve, as if I was seeing the world for the first time. From the bridge, I observed the boats and the gondolas full of tourists in the canal, and people walking on the fondamenta – Leo taught me that was the name of the streets in Venice – or sitting at tiny tables in front of the many bars, drinking orange Spritz.

‘It is, and it’s exhausting, especially when it’s hot like today. But, you’ll see, at night Venice is even more beautiful,’ he answered.

‘Is it even possible?’ I handed him my take-away bag.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to eat more?’

‘I am, go on.’

‘I like it better at night. All the bars close and all the one-day tourists go back to the mainland. It becomes empty, noiseless,’ he said and finished my food. I looked again at the map and tried to figure out how to reach Piazza San Marco from where we were.     He convinced me to go on a ride on a gondola, his hand sustaining me whilst we boarded the wobbly boat. The sun was slowly going down and the canals reflected the shades of orange and pink like I had only seen in paintings.

At night we wandered around the city, the damp air smelled like sea-salt and  algae and I could not feel my feet anymore, but I did not care. I could have walked until sunrise. Leo was right. When night comes the city becomes silent, it looks almost abandoned, unreal, like the deserted setting of a noir film. I was out of breath. The only thing I could hear was the echo of our footsteps and of our laughter, and the occasional sound of a lonely boat in the canal. The only relief for my sunburnt cheeks was the fresh, salty air of the night. When we felt tired, we sat down on the ground, which was still warm from the hot day which had just finished, and watched the reflections of the lights in the water, without saying a word. Venice was all for us that night.

After forty-six hours, Leo took me to the train station. The city was bursting again and the magic was over. I kissed him goodbye in front of the train, touching his lips briefly, because I knew he would have not kissed me back. I have learnt that goodbyes are always bitter-sweet.

*

Leo called me on the phone one evening. I was busy so I did not answer. It was October once again. He called me twice. I picked it up the third time, it must be something important, I thought.

‘Hi Sofia,’ he said. He was crying on the other side of the phone. ‘I have to tell you something, can you talk?’

I closed the book I was reading and told him that, yes, I could talk. I had missed him. I just can’t help it, when I hear someone I love crying, I start crying as well. Some call it empathy. I guess it’s never comforting for the other person, I get puffy eyes and I’m not good at giving advice, so I’m not sure I’m really empathetic.

‘Tell me,’ I said, a first teardrop on my cheek.

‘Sorry for not being in touch.’

‘That’s alright Leo, we are both busy,’ I said, even though I’ve always thought that it’s the most pathetic excuse ever invented.

‘I should have called you.’

I remained silent, trying not to give away the fact that I was crying too.

‘Do you remember?’ he asked, ‘Do you remember that we kissed and then you slept next to me and –’

‘I do, of course I do. And?’ I pressed my phone closer to my ear.

‘– And nothing happened. We just slept. And do you remember Venice?’

‘I do remember Venice.’

‘Let me speak, please, it’s hard.’

‘I am just answering your questions.’

‘Just listen, ok? Don’t answer. Nothing happened, even though I love you, and I know that what we have is unique, and you are the only one who understands, and I’ve tried, I swear I’ve tried.’

‘But?’

‘But it didn’t work. It didn’t work. It will never work. I have tried. I can’t give you what you want.’

*

Leo told me he liked a boy during high school. He was a class-mate, had beautiful, intense brown eyes and never knew about this. No one knew, because Leo had always been too afraid to reveal it to anybody. Despite having known it since forever, it was then that it became reality. He told me he tried to date girls, because after all, they seemed fine. It seemed easier. In the last year of high school, he went out to a club with his mates and kissed a girl he had never seen before, because the other boys were doing the same. He felt guilty for months.

Leo told me how he had never properly dated neither a girl or a boy, because he was too scared. He was not ready. ‘My dad could have a stroke if I told him, I think,’ he sighed, then waited for few seconds. I realised I was holding my breath. I thought about his dad, he had a white beard and worked as a dentist. I also thought about his mum. I had met her once, she had offered me coffee and asked me about my degree. She looked a lot like him, same green eyes, same passion for classical music. ‘But I have told my mum. She asked if it’s only a moment. She hopes it will pass.’

Leo told me how he thought I was the right person, the only one who could finally help him through this. ‘I tried,’ he said ‘because if I could decide who to love, it would have been you.’ I was listening, silently crying, ignoring his do you remembers and do you understands, as they evidently were rhetorical questions. ‘If I could decide who to love, it would have been anyone but you,’ I thought, but did not say a word.

I cried a lot. But I did not cry out of pain or despair.

‘Why are you crying? Did you expect this?’ Leo asked after a brief silence. ‘Say something.’

‘I am so glad,’ I said at last. I watched my own reflection in the mirror and I dried the black teardrops of mascara on my cheeks with the sleeve of the jumper I was wearing. ‘I’m so glad I met you.’

‘You know there’s nothing wrong with you,’ he continued.

‘I know,’ I replied.

That evening, Leo called me on the phone and we were both broken, rifted, cracked. But they say that a crack is where the light comes in.

 

About the author

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.