Nobody Writes to the Fat Man
Holding a pair of darned socks and a hot water bottle, Albtraum stood outside the fat man’s room. The elf nudged the door open and peeked inside. By candle light, he saw his old friend, wearing nothing but his y-fronts, seated by the frosted window.
‘Leave everything on the bed, Albtraum.’
The elf placed the things down with deliberate slowness and then, light of foot, stepped just outside the door and watched as Santa continued to trace, on each of the frosted panes, the names of all the children, who no longer wrote him letters.
His sleigh alighted upon her roof. Despite the years, his descent down her chimney still sent butterflies up inside him. The rooms of the house, though changed, remained familiar. He placed his gloves on the bare marble mantelpiece, where once he’d have found a plate of gingerbread and a picture she’d drawn, her name written in crayon, always brick red, the letters becoming smaller over time.
Inside her room, she no longer needed a nightlight; instead a reading lamp shone above her, asleep, her cheek resting on an open book: her quivering eyelashes scratched at the pages. A pair of silk stockings hung from the bedpost.
She’d believed longer than anyone. But nothing lasted. He came closer, switched off the light, reached for her stockings.
Illustrations by Hannes Pasqualini
Sons of Sorrow
They rode into town at sundown, wild boys on black horses. Sorrow, on a white horse with no saddle, galloped ahead of them. It wasn’t enough that some called her a witch, others dared say that her sons were her lovers, too. Fathered by the devil all. In the saloon, they drank spirits, sang their songs; while the women locked their daughters up: girls who, stifled and broken-hearted, stripped off their bodices, and undressed. But the men, who could hold their drink with vigilance, stayed at the bar all night, until Sorrow and her sons rode back east at dawn.
The Bird Seller
Alfonso Dominguez Bécquer always wore a white suit with white shoes. The cages, too, he’d painted white. To the boys, who caught the birds, he didn’t pay much. Enough to keep them out of school. He sold doves, pigeons, canaries and lovebirds. But there was one bird he’d never sell. It was not a rare bird, but he watched over it like a hawk. He fed it the best seed, changed its water often and kept it in the shade. Nevertheless, every night the dream reoccurred: the small bird pecking out his eyes, blood all down his white suit.
A fly rested on the lamp nearby. Frank sat smoking; a deaf tap sent ash from his cigar falling like snow. Nobody was around. When a man has thoughts of tomorrow to contend with, a fly has no place being there. Breathing cigar air, he relaxed his hand, unfurled a fleshy palm. The fly edged across the lamp. Frank noticed the abundance of grey hairs entwined about his wrist watch; smoke fled from his nostrils. Time held, and the fly flew its erratic way nearby, where, closed in tight by soft flesh, death came so slow, it made no sense.
Grandmother gave Alice her first doll when she was four. The doll resembled her: the dark hair, brown eyes, and a complexion like porcelain. Cradling her doll, Alice sat on Grandmother’s lap to hear of the night the house burnt down. She was taken in her sleep, but escaping the officer’s grip she ran into the house to save them. Upstairs on a flaming bed sat the family of burning dolls. She could get no closer before the black glove grabbed her. But Grandmother swore that their once dark eyes shone like emeralds, and their little mouths cried out.
‘Were you there the day the sun got lost?’ she asked him. He said he wasn’t, hesitating because he didn’t really know if he was telling the truth. She might well have asked him if he’d been there the day the Berlin Wall came down or the day the music died. For all he knew he was and he wasn’t. She herself probably didn’t remember if she was or wasn’t there, but just to prove that she surely had been, she went on to describe how the sun that day was there and then, just like that, it wasn’t.
She ran, remembered never to look back. On the other side of the woods, she saw the old Mill – just how she’d seen it drawn in her story book at home. The door had been forced off its hinges then propped up, barring the entrance. The door was too heavy for her to move, but she was small enough to crawl through the gap. Sunlight broke through the windows where boys had thrown stones. Finding the darkest corner, she crouched down and covered herself. She could hear them calling out her name, but she knew not to answer.
The Last Librarian
The library was abandoned. The librarians long dead. Yet the books remained impeccable upon their shelves. A hollow sound rippled from the volumes as Jane ran her finger along them. She had removed one, opened it to the middle page, when uneven footsteps shifted across the polished floors with the echo of a tiny, insistent cough. Jane replaced the book, and turned towards the way she’d come, but there, at the top of the winding staircase, stood a woman of indeterminable age with a feather duster, the scepter of her reign, gripped in her blue-veined hands. ‘They’re not for reading.’
The Sicilian Defence
Giuseppina was a relentless cook. Never had the pasta been anything but al dente. The boy sat in the big armchair in the darkened lounge at the same board, as if nothing had happened. He knew the old man’s opening game better than he knew his own. He played with the caution his adversary had not. His mother would look in on him once in a while, wiping her hands on her apron, before returning to the kitchen. She had used the same knife she now used to chop onions. A good wife knows the way to her man’s heart.
All afternoon I lay on the couch, staring at the picture on her wall: a ballerina sitting, lacing her shoe, a raised leg, a bended knee. Then her key turned in the lock. I pretended to be asleep, but she’d seen my dangling feet in socks. She put down her purse. In a while I followed her into the bedroom. The curtains were drawn and the room was dark, and cool. She removed her stockings, and everything else; her dress lay on the floor. Her pale body seemed the source of that coolness. ‘I’m tired,’ she said. ‘Let me sleep.’
The circus tent came down. Joseph the clown returned the poodle to its cage. Back in his caravan, he sat at the mirror. The show had been a success; the dog made every hoop. ‘Joey! Joey!’ People cheered. A success, until, amidst the laughter, he’d seen that boy in the front row: pulling a grimace. Joseph glared at the mirror, tore off his wig. But left his face on. As a schoolboy it had always been grimacing boys, grimacing girls. Soon the bearded lady would be coming over. She liked to after a show. Tonight he would let her have it his way.
The spaceman drifted farther out into space. The coiled silver tube that had attached him to the mothership, severed by his own hands, resembled an umbilical cord. Death crept gently in, and life seeped out. The spaceman came to look on the galaxy that was so infinitely vast, and yet about to crush him. He’d come as far as he could go – further than he had imagined – only to see that the stars were no closer to him now than they’d ever been on earth. Yet still, with everything that was his last, he reached out.
He awoke oddly famished. Then, on his way down to the corner café, he noticed they were all gone, vanished from the world. The very idea was absurd. He had not expected the solution offered by the Agency to be quite so final. He supposed that the mediators had altered his vision, removed or transformed them maybe, rendering them unrecognisable. But it was not long before he stopped wondering about them altogether. He was too busy collecting the fleshy rib bones he found everywhere: on the streets, in parks, and offices. Too preoccupied by his bizarre desire for the meat.
The jury was out. The newspapers had their front page. Tommy’s parents turned off the television; they’d seen enough. His mother, knitting another sweater for the hard months to come, stared red eyed at the framed photograph at her bedside: little Tommy with his curly locks, stark blue eyes and strange pouting lips, sat, dressed in a sailor suit, sword raised, on a rocking-horse; while his father, the good minister, gently rocked him back and forth with his foot, reading aloud from the book of Revelations: the opening of the second seal, the horse of red, a slayer of men.
He awoke in the middle of the night with the feeling that someone had just sat on the empty couch in his head. How he’d missed the tickle of those springs, collapsing then bouncing under the pressure of a soft behind. He lay back slowly down on his pillow, closed his eyes, and waited for the sweet warmth that soon would gather there. Gently, he began to hum when he felt a pair of legs come up to fill the remaining space: two feet nestling in at the opposite corner, and a rosy cheek, asleep upon the arm rest.
Illustrations by Hannes Pasqualini ©
Zhanna is ebullient on the bus into central London. The National Theatre is exhibiting the winners of the National Geographic Traveller Photo Contest. She holds Tom’s arm and squeezes and draws his attention to people in the street, points out buildings of interest. For a Russian girl who has only lived in the city for a year, she knows a lot about London. Her energetic curiosity means she knows more than other Londoners; certainly more than he does. She knows London like she knows her home city of Orenburg, and from books alone she knows other cities too: New York; Cape Town; Istanbul.
Zhanna and Tom visit museums whenever they can. It is something they both like to do, and no surprise that they first met at the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of Albrecht Dürer engravings. From across the room he noticed her, sitting on a wooden bench so immersed in a work that she would not move from it. Other visitors ambled from piece to piece, making occasional comments, but Zhanna sat so captivated by this single picture that it seemed as though she were setting it to memory, or planning to steal it. She gazed at the engraving while he gazed at her. And so it was with other exhibitions they visited. He knew what to expect, but was never quite prepared for it. Whatever it was that came upon her so unexpectedly. If he were to be clinical, he might refer to such moments as episodes. She would be bright and talkative one moment and lost to him an instant later.
At the National Theatre, they buy a drink at the bar and go upstairs. The landscapes interest her more than the portraits, and as they come to a series of pictures taken in the Turkish area of Goreme, Tom feels her slipping away. She seems to enter each photograph, inhabiting it as the photographer might have, focusing like a lens, extending herself, finding her own preferred depth-of-field, venturing to the furthest point and spreading herself out across the landscape, covering all possible space, embedding herself in the grainy surface of the photograph.
As always, he is stubborn and tries to intercept and retrieve her, much in the same way a jealous child might when their playmate seems happier playing on their own. But Zhanna will not allow interference or be hindered by anyone. She simply cannot be brought back.
They move slowly along the series, Zhanna saying very little, until they come to a picture entitled Sunrise over Cappadocia. Hundreds of hot air balloons floating above the dreamlike rocky desert landscape. The picture was taken from one of the balloons further adrift and, caught by the sun rising over the distant mountains, the other balloons, splayed out in a haphazard dance across the sky, are imbued with an iridescent glow.
Her light, olive-green eyes grow lively. The expression of a city child in the woods for the first time, witnessing the flickering glow of fireflies. A moment when the real outshines the limits of the imagination. He reaches for her hand but she withdraws it, smiling but not speaking, unable to look him in the eyes. Guilty of some sin.
Later, they walk along the South Bank in silence. He suggests they get something to eat at Borough Market, and a drink, which is one way of reviving her. She nods and they walk on. He watches her as one watches a stranger, as he watched her months ago at the Courtauld. She looks up at the sky and at the river flowing downstream. But not at him.
Do you have many regrets? she says.
If he is hoping for her to speak this is not what he wants to hear. He makes some flippant remark not wishing to philosophize every angle of their experience. Tom likes art for what it is, technically. He likes to think that he is able to distinguish good works from bad ones by the execution of skill, whereas Zhanna tends to examine art for its intentions. She searches for meaning. For her technique is a given, and therefore secondary.
She does not try to insist that he answer her, nor does she elaborate. Instead, she drifts back into her silent space. The mood has soured and he would like to suggest they head for home but does not want to be the one to have completely ruined their day out.
That evening she does not work on her cushions. Before they left that morning she had been hard at work on a new design, but now her embroidery, strewn on her work desk, is forgotten. It is a new hobby of hers, one he urged she try after they met a woman in Brick Lane selling cushions embroidered with graffiti. The cushions sold well and Zhanna said she had some ideas. It has turned out to be an obsession and cushions, embroidered with her own designs of weird birds and insects, fill every room. To free some space, he arranges them out on the swing in front of the house. The neighbour’s cat seems to appreciate them.
They both read a little, drink tea and make small talk before going upstairs to bed. Things are not perfect, but they seem to have clawed back some sense of normality. They make love, which like his view of art seems to be all technique, and for her, this once, without meaning. She falls asleep before he turns off the light.
Later, he wakes up to find her sitting naked at the end of the bed. She has opened the blinds and her skin is striped with shadow and moonlight. She is startled when he touches her.
I didn’t mean to wake you, she says.
Just a dream.
He shifts beneath the covers, prepared to fall back asleep. He has work in the morning.
Perhaps more than just a dream, Thomas.
Tell me about it, he says.
We were at the Courtauld Gallery.
Where we met?
Yes. I’d wandered into a room on my own. Large scrolls, painted blue, Chagall blue, hung suspended from the ceilings. Coming closer I saw writing on the scrolls. Handwritten in fine black ink, the script was illegible to me. But somehow I understood, and it seemed as if the truth about my whole life was there, written, illegible, but clear, upon Chagall blue.
She tells dreams this way. An outpouring, a chant, repetition. Beautiful. But he wants her to stop, and go back to sleep. And then what? he asks.
You were there, in the next room, and I called out to you, excited. I wanted you to see the scrolls. But when you approached your expression was indifferent. I could not believe it. I felt angry.
He touches her back, feeling irritated for consoling her and assuaging a sense of guilt for something he has not actually done.
When I tried to look back at the scrolls I couldn’t move, she says. Not my head, my body, not even my eyes, which were fixed on you and your expression, on your apathy.
He is silent, and withdraws his hand.
I had become the artwork, suspended above the ground. Immovable, and looked at by you, only you were so indifferent.
It’s just a dream, he says.
She stands up, the broken moonlight fluttering down the length of her naked body, and leaves the room.
In the morning she is gone. Tom goes out into the front garden. The sun has not yet risen. The wooden swing, her birthday gift to him, the one he didn’t care for much, is stacked with cushions. He picks one up. It is light, lumpy and covered in cat hair. These cushions, whimsical things that are left scattered across the garden when the wind blows, do not serve their purpose. The cushions, he thinks now, were made simply to punish him for not liking the swing in the first place. The effort she must have made to have it fitted without him knowing, the childlike anticipation of surprise she must have imagined he’d feel as she led him out on to the terrace on the morning of his birthday. The disappointment when she saw the look on his face. His indifference.
Since then it has become a white elephant, buried under cushions, home to the neighbour’s cat. And yet here he is, this morning, still dark, sitting on the swing, a cushion on his lap. With birdsong slowly beginning to replace the call of crickets, he is aware of the significance of his position, because it is a first, something unforeseen. Do you have many regrets? she’d asked.
He begins to rock, his feet firm on the ground, pushing him back, his knees bending, bringing him forward. Hung on chains threaded through thick brass rings bored into the wooden beams of the extended roof, the swing does not squeak. Rather, the sound is similar to that of a moored boat, rocking on gentle waves.
The sun begins to rise.
In the distance, beyond the cityscape, like strange mountain peaks, birds fly in formation, migrating to a warmer climate, and for a moment he imagines her flying with them. The sun catches their wings, setting them alight: a Chagall orange, against a Chagall blue; without regret.
The rain never let up. And all the while she could see him standing out on the street across from her apartment, looking up at her window, his blue umbrella always open but held so far back that the water got under his skin anyway. She fought the urge to shout down to him, to tell him to be sensible – to go home.
A part of her wanted to let him in, take off his wet clothes, run a hot bath, together maybe. But then she remembered the rain, and how much they were alike. He never did let up.
The Great War was firmer in his mind than the raised butter knife in his hand. He saw himself in the glint of the blade and hid it beneath a napkin. His daughter came in with tea on a wooden tray, printed with a depiction of a provincial French scene.
He walked forever before coming to a stone house just out of the woods. Stepping over a soldier’s boots, stuffed with lavender flowers, he went in – rifle on his back. There was a sad laughter coming from behind a closed door. And on the kitchen table, a glass of anisette on a wooden tray.
It was noon and the bar was closing for siesta. By the fountain, in the shade, his mandolin held against his chest, José stood waiting. The sun burned directly above as Mariana, the barista, stepped out into the deserted street. She walked across to the fountain and José began to play. He played her song; he played until his fingers bled. But as he played, the sun drifted, and so the shade departed, taking Mariana, without a glance, back to the other side of the street. Tomorrow the sun would burn again. Tomorrow José would be waiting.
illustrated by Hannes Pasqualini
There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.
I believe – I know that writers need solitude, and seek alienation of a kind every day of their working lives. Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement ; or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment… The tension between standing apart and being fully involved, that is what makes a writer.
I steal into their dreams, he said. I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I’m in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion. Roberto Bolaño, 2666