Friday, 20 December 2013

Things I Have Learnt This Year OR One Thing I Have in Common with Madonna

Everybody is piling the internet with things they've done this year, books they've read, good wishes they want to share, more stuff that they've done, anything they can think of. Well I'm going to add to that pile of virtual, often useless and sometimes warming information.

What have I learnt through another year in northern Italy, trying to write my way out of a wet paper bag?

That I love getting up before dawn. I like the blankness, the unwritten quality, the last coursing of the night between trees in the yard. The way stars fade or the moon delivers its final beams. I like having a clean mind, breathing in cold air.

That I dislike jellyfish. Although I have a gigantic shark phobia that makes each swim I take in Corsica a risky trial (I see them snaking along the sandbed, I imagine fins.. everywhere), I have now realised that jellyfish are not-so-loveable. I had my first huge jellyfish sting this summer and it lasted a month. Ha! And due to global warming the global jellyfish population will only double, triple, quadruple in the next few years. Jellyfish have no predators - not even man! They appeal to certain Chinese palates but otherwise none of us have devised a culinary way to cull the jellyfish population. This could mean more jellyfish stings for all of us. Speaking from experience, it ain't funny.

photo:Paul McVeigh/Word Factory
That I like reading in public. When DLC came out last year I had shaky hands and BREATHE written all over my speech. I even had a speech! These days I've learnt a couple of reading tricks. Practice your piece as though it were a sonata to be played for Carlos, my maestro. No mistakes! Oh and a pint at the pub around the corner is essential.  

That there is a God. This higher entity encouraged my current favourite writer to walk through the bookshop door at my reading in Soho last Saturday night. This higher entity allowed the tongue in my head to move and speak words in English.

That I understand the rain. Going to London quite a few times this year means I've learned what it means to have rain trickling down your face, into your scalp, down your back, in your shoes. It means nothing. It means that you will dry off later. It means that you will go into a bookshop and drip on the floor. It means you will smell like a dog on the tube. Before, I used to despise the rain. Now I've bought chunky boots that are as eager as frogs for a good puddle. As Madonna says, damp weather is good for your skin.

That it's hard to sell books. This is not a surprise to me, although it is. I thought some uplifting force would thrust my books into the public eye and they would be purchased over and over. That uplifting force is me. And I can't even lift more than three bags of shopping. I am skinny and distracted and my internet connection is weak and my computer makes me cry. I have learnt that my efforts are not in vain, but just about. This no longer upsets me. What sells, sells.

That a writer should go home and write. Ha! you laugh. She didn't know that? Oh I've heard it bandied about many times. Writers write. Builders build. Musicians perform. But I wasn't connecting the dots. I was writing - yeah - but I wasn't putting up a brick walled fence between my writing time and my social media time. Things were getting mushy. Lately, they are not.

That most of our problems are very minor.

Let me know what you think you have learnt this year. Are we taking ourselves too seriously here? No chance.


*  * * * *


Thursday, 5 December 2013

How to Love the Cold

The cold is here in the north of our now topsy-turvy world. How is it hitting you? We have frost ahoy outside in the mornings and it is so beautiful to see the dawn lifting her tinkering icy skirts. And yet I have many friends and family who shrink from this season, who fail to see its distinct pleasures and delights.

Buy a moose hat
You might ask how a skinny person such as yours truly, born in a sub-tropical climate, who spent 15 years in tropical East and West Africa, who spent her fourth pregnancy (electricity cuts and there was no AC anyway) lying mostly on the cool tiles of the floor, who was once seen frozen with bare ankles in the coldest winter known to Paris ('85), and who used to beg to stay in the car, with the heating on dammit!, whenever she was dragged to the friggin' Dolomites...can speak positively about this even crueller season.

Well, what happened sista? How did you of all people come to love the cold?

It's been a long hard ride and now I will share my secret tips. These range from walking with bare feet in the snow to - of course - succumbing to the sales. And also involve mulled wine and mulled wine.

These are suggestions that work:

1. Walk tall. One of my BFFs, an ex-ballerina, told me not to hunch to keep warm. She said, Throw your shoulders back and straighten your spine. It's so true. Hunching means your impoverished circulation will never warm your extremities. Walk the walk, preferably in a pair of beautiful, double-soled boots (*see ahead*)

2. Turn your heating down. Or off. At least twice a year I forget to top up the gas tank outside, or it's a public holiday, or a bill hasn't been paid, so our cold stone house drops to 7 or 8 or 9 degrees inside. What to do? Get used to it. Pile on layers. Enjoy your hats one by one. One time I polished all of my 1930s plantation furniture from Togo. Of course I'm not suggesting we all live in iceboxes but it is possible to do with so much less. Before renovations, there was barely any heating in this house, and it was tough but we survived. Read the passage in Silas Marner where the mother freezes in the snow, try to imagine the rags she was wearing, and you will feel hot where you are sitting.

3. If you don't believe *2*, try removing your shoes and running in circles in your yard or local park in the snow. I promise this will make you a better, fun-lovin' person who laughs at the cold.

4. Get half-naked and go to pool. Friends shiver when I say this and - silly people! - I saw a wetsuit for sale at my local pool today. The temperature is the same as it was before you ninnies! It's only coldish for the first three laps and then, by degrees, you warm yourself from your very core. This is a lingering, enrichening warmth which is almost as good as, well, lingering with your precious one, who may not always be on call.

5. Clean your rafters. I say this because I vacuumed mine this week, in a fit of I-don't-know-what, probably because I was locked between stories. How the layers of clothes and scarves and beanies came off!

Fall in love with a mountain (this one's mine & I climbed it)
6. I learned to ski as an adult and made a conscious decision to try to understand mountain people, mountain hardship, mountain car (bloddy) problems, mountain sports. In the first years there was one older gent who skied in a pair of boxer shorts. That's it. Ski boots on bare legs. It was said he had a disease and could not wear cloth against his skin. He wore sunglasses and lots of suncream, and looked very odd sitting outside lodges with everybody else in their mitts and goggles and cool jackets. Can you imagine? This man helped me feel warmer, much warmer.
I also advise mulled wine. Lots of mulled wine. In every ski lodge you should have mulled wine. And if there is no mountain or ski lodge nearby that's no excuse. Google the recipe! Red wine-brown sugar-cloves-cinnamon-orange peel in a pan. Go for it! It will make you a better winter person.

7. Next trick: if you are writer, then write about hot places. How I love doing this!! And if you are a devoted reader, then cast your eyes over literature from stinking hot places. It truly works. Egypt! Australia! Nigeria!

8. Come January, come the sales. That means boots. Although as you know I have already purchased these to help with my work. My writing work. My showing-up-stylish-for-readings-work.

**HOT NEWS** I'll be reading from my short story collection at the FREE Word Factory Christmas Party at The Society Club Bookshop and Cafe in Soho, London on December 14th, if you'd care to join us do book your place as the stylish venue is quite small. Wine and stories and wonderful company! Cannot wait for this!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Somewhat Empty Nest Syndrome

Birds engage in brief acts of sex. Mother bird makes a nest lined with down. Baby birds cheep-cheep-cheep. Mother bird finds worms and rams them down their throats. Baby birds get restless, peering out the world above, below, about. Baby birds take off, wobbly and at risk. Who said the world is your oyster? It's a freakin' galaxy out there. Mother bird slows down, hangs out more at home, not having to be such a tireless provider. The nest is quiet. No more squabbling over worm bits, long discussions and reprimands. The nest is very quiet. Mother bird can... relax.

I don't know how it is with you but this nest is emptying. There is an uneven flow going on, and though Youngest Man is still here advancing through high school, my Older Kids are disappearing. Contrary to what goes down in Italy where men have been known to remain until 50 obeying Mamma's calls to breakfast, lunch and dinner, my kids are mostly out of here. The Boyz in town for study and work. And SopranoDivaDaughter - following her calling to Verona - has moved out to that glorious city.

Of course there are nights where there is a familiar invasion of young people when a massive bowl of pasta must be prepared, choc-peanut butter brownies made (plus banana cake); beer stuffed in the fridge. And then the thumping music goes on until the next morning and I find bodies on the couch.

But lately things have been quiet.

Unbelievably, I have had stretches of unbroken writing time. I'm no longer running a taxi service. I'm no longer filling my car with as much fuel as the green tea I drink in a day. There are fewer desperate phone calls about buses being missed or pains in the belly, or appointments to see angry teachers about wayward sons. Well, okay, it still happens, but less now.

The wildest thing of all, is that someone has given me my brain back. Not totally - there is always a heap of garbage going on - but little by little I'm regaining lost territory, lost time. I'm not so tied up in knots. The neverending span of my years of mother-of-toddlers/kids/teens might be setting in rosy panels in the west. I'm almost ready to open another bottle of red wine.

Is that allowed? Wasn't I supposed to feel a gulf, a chasm, when they all started to leave? Is it okay to be so, um, relaxed about it? Looking at friends still strugging with small kids, is it okay to think oh what a long ride it was?

I'm not saying it hasn't been good. Or authentic. I've even managed to write a lot, considering. But that's been broken up, busted through, harangued, left there like a lover I've treated badly. Now, I think it's time to roll up my sleeves, put on my writing beanie, get cracking at dawn when I come back from the bus stop and there is nobody in the house to rouse. This is what I have been doing lately.

Writing bliss. The nest almost empty. Is this allowed?

Friday, 8 November 2013

A Reading, a Visit to the Queen's Front Yard and the Inevitable Pair of Boots

Those who know me well know that I pack a good suitcase. I've been doing it for a number of years now. Even with house-moves I excel, though after nearly twenty of them that's a talent I don't wish to exercise any time soon thanks.

So late last week I packed two-and-half outfits, two pairs of shoes (one high, one low), the book I couldn't bear to leave behind, a stash of face cream samples; I adorned myself in my beloved Ethiopian silver and took off.

This time it was just me and my work. No auditions for the soprano. No great social happenings. No shopping moments. Not even very much food on the menu except for a Lebanese meal and an attempted Yummy Mummy morning tea. I took the cheap bus from London to Plymouth, where I'd been asked to read from my story 'Montgomery Akuofo, Father of Twins' at this year's launch of the review Short Fiction, at an event within the Plymouth Book Festival. ('Montgomery' is in Pelt and Other Stories.) The issue is full of touching artwork and well-crafted stories. It's an absolute thrill to see one's work in such a beautiful production.

As you see here I spent a sunny morning wasting time along the seafront, before a quick run-through with colleague Rachel Fenton in her hotel room.

Of course I have no photos of the way I was clutching my book that evening, not looking up (AT ALL) at the university lecture theatre above. Or showing the way I tried to plant my feet a little apart to lessen my chances of toppling over - a real risk given my thumping heart and new slick boots. Or how I steamrollered over the rude words ('cock', 'bush' - twice!) so as not to laugh or meltdown.

I had a good half-pint beforehand. This is strongly recommended.

One of the best things was of course meeting writer Rachel Fenton, especially over from New Zealand, with whom I had a drowned-rat experience in the driving Plymouth rain the night before. Rachel won this year's Short Fiction Short Story Prize and read a section of her wonderful story - and I'll interview her later on the Pelt blog and grab an excerpt. Other wonderful aspects were the cocktail afterwards at the university and a lovely dinner where I was able to speak more with Chief Editor Anthony Caleshu, and Assistant Editor Tom Vowler, both of whom are top writers with good tips.

After the endless journey back to London my bum was so paralysed I walked halfway across town with my gypsy bag rather than sit down again. The Queen was in, perhaps.

So this author has come back to the ranch buzzing. In fact, after even further writerly talks in London she woke up sleepless and frazzled last night and had a terrific idea for a bit in a story she is revising. So what did she do? She picked up her phone and half-blindly typed it out. There. This is what writers do, isn't it? The 2.43am brainwave?

I read my brainwave this morning after the alarm. What garbage. Even worse than before. Cancelled.

The one thing I did grasp from each writer I spoke to, is that there is a greater shared passion for words, a yearning to read the works of others and to get our own work right, to produce the very best from the bowels and bones of us.

And we are all so fragile and disbelieving and moneyless. The lot of us.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Rooftop Dancing for Wanton Women

This is what can happen.

It's Saturday and you play your Haydn sonata, the second and third movements, over and over in pieces on your maestro's divine grand piano. He whizzes through the trio you are going to play together.
You walk out onto the street, pooped.

You sit in a bar where the internet connection is so much faster than the Fred Flintstone pace you have in the sticks.
You spend two hours on just one ginseng coffee. One euro thirty.
There are lots of flashy families about. Men who've thought way too much about they're going to wear.
And they are wearing it.
You read the words to the Frost Scene in Purcell's King Arthur, which on the CD you've never been able to decipher.

What power art thou, who from below, who from below,
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow,
From beds of everlasting snow?
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old, 
Far, far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

You realise this music was created in the late 1600s and it kills you.

On the way back to the car a very nifty Nigerian beggar called Kevin asks you for his fare to Bari. Says he came up here looking for work for the vendemia - grape-picking.
You tell him the vendemia was over ages ago and you admire his crocodile tears.
You know exactly how much petrol is in your tank.

Some hours later you park the car in another city, the evening is closing in. You pass by a Pentecostal church milling with Ghanaians in green printed shirts, all of them the same material.
Your eyes fill with tears.

You walk into town with mates, walk through the people, over the cobbles. You try on those boots you've been ogling as much as you would ogle a man. More perhaps.

In a bar an old painter who has had a very bad accident tells you you are a fairy and he wants to paint you.

You are led up to the bar on the roof of the Basilica, unexpectedly. You are invited to drink by some rowdy men from Emilia Romagna, one of whom has a chequered blue and white sweater which is a little startling.

The setting is flawless. Palladian sculpted statues are set along the balustrade, each naked stone body hoisted upright by curved iron supports that look like bondage devices. The light is rosy on the broad stone wall reaching up into the copper dome against the night.

You hear some good music and take your gin tonic up to the small area where two older German ladies from Dusseldorf with spiky haircuts are dancing in crazy eighties movements which are totally off the beat.

Somehow, they have made your night.   

Monday, 14 October 2013

Weddings, walnuts, exes and sad dirty truths

There was a wedding. Not a huge one, nor too boisterous. It was a little stiff, with much joy however, on a cold crisp day.

There were exes present. Plus fluffy new partners. Kids darting off. Teetering heels getting trapped in the cobbles.

A certain young soprano we all know sang an aria beautifully, in a frescoed chamber.

Later, at the other end of the day there was a big dancing party at the ranch here. My homie DJ mates delivered us into soul heaven and I swapped my spiky boots for some chunky heels and grooved.


But as we danced and recovered and cracked walnuts the day after, there were other, larger events happening along the peninsula.

Way down south, near an Italian island that lies not far from the Tunisian coast, people were crowded into a leaky vessel that would soon find its way to the bottom of the sea. Three hundred lives were lost. It has been said that a fire was lit to attract attention when engine trouble slowed the boat. The fire took hold and people pushed to one side of the vessel, causing it to capsize. The boat was within sight of the shore. Despite valiant efforts by locals and coastguard, most people drowned.

Days afterwards, when bodies were still being recovered, another disaster occurred. More drownings. More coffins lined up along the shore, teddy bears for kids who've probably never held a teddy bear in their lives.

In Italy these boats arrive every day and they are not turned away. Or shot at. Nor are people put in camps. They are clothed, fed, medicated. They begin the long legal path towards possessing a visa or, if necessary, are simply sent home. But every time I stop to think about this - as everyone in the country has over the past two weeks - I wonder what type of determination is required to undertake this perilous journey. Even in a sound vessel the sea at night is treacherous - have you ever been cupped in its waves? And on a leaky vessel as a fearful non-swimmer, with no life-jackets, depth sounders, good captaincy or enough fuel, I can't imagine the level of terror. Is it foolishness to hand your life over to these human traffickers? Or does the blind desire to reach Europe cancel everything else out?

Once I employed a West African guy, a friend of a friend, to help me plant a row of trees. The guy was a rascal and we got talking. He'd come over in a boat. Twice in fact. The first time the boat broke down and they were sent back to shore - Libya it was, before the war. He lost his money and had to work as a labourer for another six months. Oh, and before that he said he'd crossed the Sahara (don't know if I believed that, but it was easier then). The second time he said they made it. I don't remember whether to Lampedusa or all the way to Sicily. On the way there were bodies thrown overboard. The sick, the weak. This guy was tough. He dug deep holes in moments, swinging the pick with huge muscly arms. He was a survivor. A rascal, but a hard worker. I'm sure he's flourishing somewhere.

The saddest story to emerge from last week's events is a mother and her newborn son discovered in the shipwreck. Why did a seven-months' pregnant woman attempt this journey? To rejoin family members? To give her son an easier start in life? To escape a war-torn country?

We will never know. The divers who found her - grown men, heroes - broke down when they found her.

Our masks were full of tears, they said. Our masks were full of tears.

Monday, 30 September 2013

When Women Come Together (2)*

Some say that when women come together there are too many hormones in the air. A gaggle. Shrill voices. Too many handbags and side-glances.

Some people won't even teach the books women write. Have you heard about that one? I feel like thrashing a very cheap handbag over his head. Say, a group of fifteen of us.

And yet I suppose there are ladies who read only women's thoughts, women's words. Do you have a leaning? Do you read more guys? Or more dolls?

I'm somewhere between the two. And I must admit that when I see an author who uses initials only - so as to step away from immediate gender indicators - my ears prick up. Think of A.L. Kennedy. Think of M.J. Hyland. I thought of doing that too years back when I started publishing stories. I wanted to be neutered in a literary sense. Or viewed neutrally. I wanted to appeal to men as much as women.

Still, I confess, I love it when a bloke says he likes a story of mine. Though I won't be putting anything under David Gilmour's nose.

A morning view
That said, the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera is a highlight in my year. Matera is steeped in history and though there are the exquisite piazzas and architectural jewels we lazily come to expect in Italy, there is something more. Dig deep and you will see.

The town was originally dug out of the rock in the folds of the land in Basilicata, near Italy's heel. Caves dot the nearby hills and the new town of apartment blocks, shops and busy southern streets hems in the side of the old world. It is a precious enclave. On the poor side of town cave dwellings are still visible, dug from the porous tufo rock, while along the wealthier valley a conglomeration of houses, each a vaulted pocket of rich warm stone with a stunning outlook, have been built over layers of civilisation.

Building blocks for writers
But at the beginning of last century Matera was a degraded, immensely poor backwater, diseased and forgotten. Then in the 1950s in a rash of cleansing, communities were forcibly removed from cave dwellings and resettled in the crisp new town. The area lay fallow for decades before Unesco declared a Matera a heritage site in the 1980s. Gradually, people crept back. The area came alive again, especially after Mel Gibson's biblical blockbuster, 'The Passion of Christ'. Now, Matera is equipped for mild tourism which each time I go south seems to expand gracefully. More bed-and-breakfasts, more groups with backpacks and sensible shoes over the uneven (heel-unfriendly!) cobbles.

But enough tourism info. The Festival was brilliant. We heard about the clash between English and American publishing models. We heard about dying bookshops and blooming ebook companies. We heard about how to optimise self-publishing opportunities. We warmed when independent bookshops were mentioned. We shyly pitched our new manuscripts to agents on both sides of the Atlantic. We bravely spoke to European publishers who might translate our works. We scribbled in notebooks, heard about trends, dreamed about film deals while big-talking Hollywood guys filled the air with largely impossible tales.

Then when school was out we went drinking. And carousing (the word was used up on stage and I thought Yeah! we went carousing!). Some of us were dutiful and kept up with our social media. Some of us fell asleep in our cool rooms. Some of us talked into the deep of the night about exile, about words, about stories and hopes.

Night strolling
We read our work. On Saturday night the town turned off all electricity in the cavernous buildings below and a laughing knotted crowd pushed through the streets under ancient stars. We stumbled. We laughed. We drank glorious red wine at the after-party.

Thank you Matera! Thank you to a hard-working team of organisers and translators and contributors. Thank you to the fab mates I've met - a bunch of astute readers and hard drinkers and marvellous thinkers.

Ladies - and guys - I'm booked for next year*

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Claudia Cardinale's Flesh-Coloured Lips

Next week this author is running away. Not with Claudia Cardinale. More likely with a suitcase full of copies of her new book. She is going on her annual pilgrimage to Matera in southern Italy, where a wonderful Women's Fiction Festival is organised by a wonderful, hard-working group of people, in a location that is breath-taking.
I'm sure Claudia Cardinale has already been to Matera. She probably filmed a raunchy film there in the late 70s, with her pout and her frown and her bouffant hair, her splendid curves and tight waist, a pair of killer pointy heels.
Well, next week I will be there, probably wearing my stylish Campers (can you see all those stone steps?!) or my new fake Coco Chanel's Grandmère pumps. Heels, mmm, are not recommended (I speak from experience).
I will be joining the Literary Marathon through the lamplit streets of Matera next week, reading an excerpt from this short story from my new collection 'Pelt and Other Stories'. Readers, do what you do best...


Marina came in when he was eating grapes in front of an old Claudia Cardinale film. Unannounced, since last weekend had ended in a cloud of mutual, unrepenting bad will. Sebastien Tempels wanted to hear how she would get around it.

‘Her breasts look like a pair of Tupperware containers,’ she said as she tossed her bag.

She sat down, taking a sprig of his grapes, staring at the delicate scene of love that he had been waiting for. A glance told him she had been plotting these moments all week. On the screen, Claudia Cardinale’s flesh-coloured lips locked with those of her partner.

‘Hello, Sebastien.’

He went into the kitchen without speaking. During the week he had gone through vulnerable moods. On a dreadful day he had invited another girl back to his place. She had lain out on the kitchen bench, strumming herself and laughing.

Now tell me if this isn’t something you’ve seen in a second-rate movie, she had said.

It was, he had told her. He’d told her to get down.

He took out a cup and switched on the kettle. The evening light drifted down from a rooftop window onto the lids of things. He took out a second cup resignedly, and the cheap brand of tea he knew would keep him awake for the next few hours. He took a swig of vodka to compensate for it.

That week he had failed a fairly important exam. In essence, it had been about the composition of blood. Sebastien hadn’t been able to access the knowledge he knew his brain was holding from him. He’d accused Marina of pillaging his concentration, but he knew it was his brain that had slammed shut.

He held his mug and thought about the other girl, the one who’d lain back on the kitchen bench the night he’d failed the exam. She followed his course at the university. She was tricky: she slept with one of the female lecturers, it was rumoured, although he hadn’t had the nerve to ask if it were true. The girl was called Caroline. Sebastien, until the moment on the bench, had thought he desired her. When he had told her to get down she’d had a torn look and had asked for a glass of milk.

Sebastien came back out into the low-ceilinged room with the two cups of tea and fairly good intentions. But it was empty and the television was blank.


A year later Marina was hit by a car as she crossed Chausée de Vleurgat at night. She was taken to a nearby hospital to be treated for a deep cut on her chin, where she had received the impact of her fall. She had no other injury apart from bruised, jarred limbs which would pain her for a full week afterwards. She called her father who lived back in Devon and told him that she would be kept under observation in hospital for twenty-four hours. She begged him not to come.

At this stage in her life Marina was alone. She had tried to paint after following a course and for six months or so she had heard herself say she was a painter to people she met for the first time. The thought of this now stung her. Since she had left Sebastien she had applied for a job as a translator and been unsuccessful. Her father was supporting her and she was collecting unemployment benefits from home.

She woke up the first morning after her accident with Sebastien’s face forming in front of hers. A shiver travelled over her body and her vision blurred with tears. She felt a rush of everything she had failed to experience that year, culminate.

When she was released from hospital their story resumed. Their bodies fell into a duel ease that coincidence had blessed.


          Marina came to sleep at Sebastien’s each Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. During the week he worked long, odd hours and told her he didn’t like the idea of someone waiting for him. He earned little money, and what he could spare he was saving for a holiday in Argentina. As far as he was concerned, the question of money hadn’t been resolved between them. Sebastien felt that Marina could have cooked a little, or offered to replace some of the bottles of vodka she guzzled regularly. For when Marina was with him all she could do was admire him from a stool in the kitchen, make cosmetic rearrangements of his possessions, and wait as he did for their inevitable collapse into sex.

‘Oh, this is such a cute little vase! Did you get it at the markets? If you had a pair of them you could put them on the mantelpiece and look entirely Art Deco. Is it Art Deco?’

Sebastien never told Marina about Caroline, the woman he had nearly slept with when he was a student. For him Caroline had provided a small flare when his study was at a critical nexus. He had kicked himself for months afterwards, and gradually he had forgotten the reason why they had never had sex. Then one morning in October, Caroline rang the buzzer downstairs when he was having a second round of coffee. That night in casualty an old, unclaimed woman had grasped him before the life fled out of her. Sebastien’s hands still carried the chill.

They embraced at the door. He brought her into the kitchen and for a time they talked easily.

‘Tell me, Sebastien, last year, why is it that you didn’t want to sleep with me? Why did you back down?’

Sebastien flushed. He’d forgotten the sensation and momentarily followed the flaring capillaries along his skin. The explosion.

‘There was someone else. I’m back with her, actually.’

‘You know that doesn’t count. You knew I had it, didn’t you? You suspected it.’

‘Had what?’

‘The plague, you fool. I’ve got the damned plague and you’d have it too if you’d been with me.’

He watched her break down. He expected the encounter was the idea of some therapist helping her come to terms with the disease. She left after they had talked about hospitals and where the best treatment was available in Brussels. Sebastien never saw her again.

Later, in traffic, he thought of that night when she had hoisted herself up onto the kitchen bench and smoothly lain back. He had wanted her until then. He had wanted her until she had said something about a second-rate film. If she hadn’t said whatever she had said he knew he would have bonked her, easily. But he hadn’t.

Thereafter, every time Sebastien entered Marina the shock of this potential collision acted as a charge. It became a part of him, scar tissue webbed on his nerves. The thought that he had not had Caroline Moreau was a sickening impulse he continued to feel first hand. With time, even after he learned that Caroline had been buried in Metz, this feeling neither softened nor went away.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Gift-wrapped in Verona

Aida props plus serious author
Some of you may remember this post. It was a small thing, forgotten after a while, but at the time quite devastating. It made us very upset.

Last week, on the day my book 'Pelt and Other Stories' happened to be coming out, we went to this city. Many of you have probably been there. You may have sat on the steps of the Roman Arena and watched Aida, or Carmen, or Nabucco, operas that are often staged there. You might have seen a contemporary performer like Alicia Keys, while cursing the slippery Roman marble, your wet numb bum and the guy in front with a tartan umbrella. You might have even been married there, like a small woman I once knew, in Juliette's frescoed tomb, with a Shakespearean sonnet read out from nervously held paper.

I'm talking about Verona, a city an hour or so away that I barely know. It is where you go for concerts. It is full of Germans. It is full of that Romeo and Giuletta parlaver. I've been told I'm not romantic.
Screamin' Young Soprano

Once again I left the young soprano at the scrolled doors of an ancient building. We've done a bit of that over the past year. As much as I despise being pointed out, looked at and still sweat when I'm playing for my own piano maestro, my daughter the Young Soprano is at home on the stage, speaks to the audience, reaches unwavering high notes in the same way (seemingly) that she flicks her hair.

I didn't want to transfer my nerves. My dry mouth. My overall confusion masked not-at-all by my stupid conversation.

Mum, shut up. Sit here.

So I sit for two hours in a bar. I order juice. I order ginseng coffee. I write to an ill friend, trying to send her the beauty of the September light in the piazza, the facade of the church, the hedge of potted plants, my hopefulness. I blab about my book.

We are often told that what happens is what is meant to be, even though the icon of my early adulthood - Simone de Beauvoir - explained that you are responsible for all choices in all corners or your life. Is that so? Are we really steering ourselves towards our destiny? Or is our destiny a collision of forces - as flimsy initially as the dust of this planet sparked to life.

This summer I learnt that Mme. de Beauvoir, whom I always thought was a tower, wept, took valium, raged and suffered with the same nauseous pain as all of us. She threw herself onto Sartre's coffin in the ground, in the end.

Well, she's in. The Young Soprano was accepted into her course. It's done. Congratulations young lady.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

I am sorry Cécile

Dear Cécile,

I am sorry that you were insulted once again at work today. I am sorry that you were called a prostitute by a deputy mayor of this country, and that a local wine producer made insulting comments I'd rather not repeat.

I'm sorry that bananas were thrown at you while you were speaking at an assembly - I'm glad you told them it was a pity to be wasting good food. And I'm still unable to believe that the Northern League politician who also said unrepeatable things about you - slimy Roberto Calderoli - is still in office.

In Italy it's hard to be taken seriously as a female. And you are a black woman. The first black politician in this country. Okay, the USA has Obama, but there is no comparison there. Cécile Kyenge in Rome is almost like putting a black lady politician in Ku Klux Klan territory way down south. No KKK here, but take a look at the awfulness of the comments directed at Kyenge, and I promise you will feel queasy.

So Cécile, like me you have been hanging around Italy for over twenty years. I've just read that you're a doctor, trained in Italy, founder of an intercultural association, so that makes you much more of a useful citizen than this lowly writer. Somehow, I imagine you must be a pretty normal lady, raising mixed-race children, getting things done, seeing to everybody else. A strong, dedicated woman. Work, school homework and meetings, sports in the afternoon, exams passed and failed, bills.

From the outside it seems that you are weathering this storm well. Your comments are minimal, and measured, and you have a lot of support. In this way what you are doing is breathtaking - not only are these oafs being shown up for what they really have inside, but their opponents, the people with good hearts, the people who made a human chain along the Sicilian beaches where so many immigrants have paid hard-earned cash to traffickers and died - the existence of these people is now thrown into relief.

Before you, Cécile, we didn't know there were so many of them. We didn't know that it was possible to throw off hatred, to make these people recant and feel shame, (as a couple of them have done so despicably, citing stress or taxes for their horrible comments). Possibly this shame is superficial - as I find it hard to believe that beliefs change - but what is becoming clear is that the new, mixed generation that will comprise the Italy of decades to come, will hear different voices, will hopefully choose what is good and just.

I wonder, did you realise these horrible words would come? Did you think it would be this bad?

Do you sit at the kitchen table at night, thinking back over the hating faces, the nauseous insults, and wonder whether - looking at your kids' faces or the hands of the clock - it is worth it?

Madame Cécile, Italy needs you. My children need your strength and your representation. Migrants do, open-minded people do, African factory workers do, sex workers (who goes to them, huh?).

Believe me Cécile, we are with you, and it is worth it. 

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'Pelt and Other Stories' is out!