David Butler – Judgement

David Butler
Judgement

It was the awarding of ‘costs against’ that finished the old man. That the case might finally be lost was a prospect he’d gradually come to accept, as he’d once come to accept that mother’s illness was terminal. As the appeal drew near, Finley, the family lawyer, began to warn with increasing frequency and alarm; had advised again, on the very steps, to settle out of court, even though it would mean conceding the bloody point. My father was not the man for turning.

The case of ‘Cafolla versus Grogan’ began in the most trivial way imaginable. At the bottom of our drive stood a magnolia. This tree was mother’s pride, transplanted the very month they’d moved into the place. Ever since the chemotherapy had meant she’d had to quit being an English teacher, she’d become devoted to the garden. Gardening, and also bird-watching; these, she’d say, were her consolations now, because although she continued to write occasional poetry, the Muse seemed to operate increasingly at the whim of her noxious treatment.

At first the Grogans were sympathetic. The Grogans were builders, which is to say, Paddy Grogan was a builder, as his father had been. Indeed he’d built our place, all those years before, when there was nothing about but fields. I’d just turned two, so have no first-hand memories of how it was back then. I’ve seen the photos though, the rough field planted with improbably tiny shrubs and my mum and dad with their improbably long hair. Good fences, they say, make good neighbours, and sure enough, no sooner had he laid the foundations of our house than Paddy Grogan had had planted a row of leylandii on his side of the wire fence. The last point is not without its significance. The row of trees was on his land, not on ours. Also significant, that our property, which we held on a hundred year lease, lay to the north-east of that line of sombre monsters.

The years went by. The leylandii topped twenty foot, thirty. I entered secondary school. Then came mother’s dark diagnosis. I say dark, because of a poem she penned after her treatment began. She’d wanted it to be her epitaph, but for once father put his foot down. Alright, just so you don’t give my headstone any of your Cafolla photographs! ‘Malignant’, she titled the piece. I can still recite the punchline, which describes the dull ache abutting her ribcage: ‘an eyeless tuber grubbing the dark earth / to give birth to what Lilith?’ I never really got poetry, still don’t. Especially my mum’s. To my ear, it sounded like when she’d put on her telephone voice. I doubt my father got it either, any more than he ever really understood his Irish wife. But that one has stayed with me, down the years. Quitting her job was tough, but then, my mother was one tough lady, and before long the acre upon which our house stood became not merely her world, but a living sculpture.

She’d been on chemo about a year when one day one of Grogan’s trucks – they were forever going in and out of his place on weekends – took a few branches off the magnolia. Now as said, relations were still pretty amicable between the two families. They weren’t unsympathetic people, just so long as you didn’t cross them. Yes, there had been a spat about the tom that was continually fouling our beds and whose caterwauling on moonlit nights was the wail of a demonic infant. Several times, coming across a garland of feathers on the lawn, my mother had cursed the malicious beast. But he’d disappeared months since. I won’t say that my dad was directly involved; I will say he’d throw me a sly wink on any occasion the subject had been broached by Maureen Grogan.

But the magnolia was another matter. The affair caught Paddy Grogan at a bad time. There was all that business with the Riverside estate: the flooding and the backed up sewerage. And then, my father was never the most subtle of men, certainly not when it came to wording. As much as on her frail body, chemotherapy had wrought havoc on my mother’s nerves, made her prone to mood swings and fits of temper as though to make up for the long hours of lethargy and listlessness. Usually, she vented it on my hapless father. The morning she discovered the mutilated branches, she was coldly furious: pure fecklessness had devastated the great plant whose arms, she’d always said, stood like candelabra each March. I seem to remember a poem in which she compared it precisely to a candelabrum in the hand of Persephone, thrust up from the gloomy underworld to herald her return. Why, then, she entrusted the letter to my inarticulate father is anyone’s guess. I’m being unfair. I’ve no doubt he was articulate in Italian, or whatever dialect of Italian they speak around Palermo. After twenty years in Ireland he still spoke with a thick accent. But then, he was a computer programmer, and I guess interpersonal skills were not exactly at a premium in his workplace.

I never got to see the note he penned (and actually posted!) to our neighbour. Whatever it contained, it must’ve put the builder’s nose right out of joint. A couple of weeks went by, and then one morning a registered letter arrived from the firm of Bradley and McCoy, solicitors. There was some sort of a deposition; or a professional opinion (I was only fourteen at the time, and have never been entirely au fait with the legal shenanigans). In any case, an opinion was expressed, on National Road Authority paper, that the magnolia had become something of a hazard – both of our driveways gave onto a bend – and that it needed to be either removed or drastically cut back. The councillor who’d signed the letter was Grogan’s brother-in-law. Needless to say, mother was livid. Father, too. Something in his Sicilian blood must have been roused by the blatant chicanery of the move.

His first instinct was to go to law. Two can play at that game, he said (he had the love of cliché and saying of the imperfect speaker). Mother prevailed. She’d have a word with Maureen Grogan, first. They could take her tree after she was gone. Would it kill them, to wait? After all, she’d remind her, when the Grogans were looking for planning permission to put in that extension with the picture-window into their roof and the Farrellys had objected, which side had they supported? ‘But dear, we object was too high,’ shrugged my father. ‘Well it was too high! But we didn’t object outright. That’s the point I’m trying to make. If we had’ve objected outright with the Farrellys, there’d be no picture window now for them to look out of. That’s the point, Fabrizio. It’s as well to remind them.’ If that tack didn’t work, then we might try a countermeasure. In proportion as the leylandii had grown, so too had their shadows. By this time half of the garden was in perpetual shade, the lawn mossy and threadbare. ‘Go you,’ she instructed, ‘and have a word with Fergal Finley. Tell him what the situation is. If they so much as touch my magnolia, I’ll have them take down their precious leylandii so I will. We have a law in this country called daylight saving.’

At this time, as said, the Riverside estate was weighing heavily on Paddy Grogan’s mind. To that extent, as my old man repeated with glee, we had him over a barrel; the last thing he wanted was another lawsuit on the books from another disgruntled plaintiff. The upshot was, without any recourse to Finley, not only was the magnolia left intact; the builder even agreed to have the leylandii trimmed. But he wasn’t altogether the eejit. ‘I don’t mind doing it, Fabrizio, if it gives your missus a bit of pleasure. The only thing is, I think you’ll agree it’s only fair we go halves on the expense. Now, how does that suit you?’ My dad held the other man’s gaze, behind each of their eyes an entire ancestry of cunning. He too could be magnanimous. ‘And we forget about magnolia?’ ‘That’s what I’m saying to you. Have we a deal?’ They had, they spat, and they shook on it.

It took two full days to trim that hedge. Special machinery had to be brought in; a cherry-picker, two workers, a truck to take away the branches. A week later, the bill arrived. ‘The guts of three grand, are you mad?! Well the cheek of the man! He’s charging us for the hire of his own machinery, look it Fabrizio!’ Examining the invoice, this was certainly the case; even the two workers (on overtime) were employees of Grogan & Son plc. ‘You’re not thinking of paying this, I hope.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ declared my father. ‘You think I’m born yesterday?’ And that was when he was allowed follow his first instinct, to the law.

Fergal Finley had been the Regan family lawyer from time immemorial. Never mind the present house, it was Finley had signed the contracts on my maternal grandmother’s house, up in the village. It was Finley who’d drawn up, and seen executed, three generations of the Regans’ wills (a taxonomy of cancers had played havoc with my mother’s side of the family tree). But he was semi-retired now, all his life had been a small-town lawyer, whereas Bradley and McCoy were city solicitors. ‘Am I correct in saying there was no actual contract drawn up between you? The trees, d’you see, are entirely on his side of the boundary.’ He and my father were pacing the bald lawn to our side of the mutilated hedge. ‘No, is wrong. We shake on it.’ ‘Yes but Fabrizio, the point in law is that there is nothing in writing.’ They paused at the magnolia by the gate as Finley sized up his client. ‘Was there a witness, itself?’ ‘My son. He witnessed.’ Under wild eyebrows the lawyer eyed me. I shrugged, as much as to say, what do you want, that’s my old man for you! He’d have to find a tack more sensitive to Sicilian notions of honour.

The result, of course, was a foregone conclusion. It was round one to the Grogans. To be fair to Paddy, he’d tried to reason with us. ’Do yourselves a favour. It goes to court it’ll end up costing you ten times as much. There’s no one wins from these situations only the lawyers and with your poor missus the way she is, well…! Look, you can pay me back in instalments if you’d find that easier…’ He may as well have spat on Fabrizio Cafolla as add that last suggestion about paying by instalments. Perhaps that was why he said it; because as we were to find, that man had a vicious, vindictive streak in him. But then, as he was to find, where my father’s sense of honour was concerned, reason could take a back seat.

Still, things might have blown over if fate hadn’t intervened. A full year had passed since the affair of the damaged magnolia. Mother’s condition had deteriorated, and that week she’d been admitted to Castlebar for observation. She was due back out on the Saturday. It was early May, the month where promiscuous country roads have their hedges massacred, so that I wasn’t surprised to overtake a leaf-eating tractor as I cycled home from school on the Thursday. But the council truck pulled up at the foot of our drive was another matter entirely. I immediately phoned my dad, but by the time his car pulled up the damage was done. Mother’s splendid magnolia was no more. I followed the train of dark Sicilian curses to the Grogans’ front door. Now, it may well be that Paddy Grogan had forgotten all about the affair, as Maureen insisted. In all likelihood he had, for he had far bigger fish to fry. The downturn had left his business with a mass of debts and lawsuits. That’s as may be Mrs Grogan, the point was, from the moment he’d involved his brother-in-law, the councillor, he’d set in motion a process that had led to this crime. Yes, crime! And he must pay.
 
 
In proportion as mother’s condition worsened, father became more intractable. Perhaps it was his way of feeling he was fighting her disease; perhaps his way of not thinking about it too closely. One way or another, the less time my mother was able to spend in her garden, the more my father fought over every square inch and every legal scruple. I’m sure there’s an irony in that, but if there is, for my money it’s an admirable irony. Now, one unforeseen consequence of chopping twenty feet off the giant leylandii was that our house was now overlooked by the Grogans’ box window. Worse, it overlooked the patio, which was south-facing, and so was where mother liked to sit out, on her good days. ‘We should never have allowed them to build that monstrosity,’ she sighed one weary morning. And whether that was the germ that infected my father, or whether it was a campaign over which he was already sitting in brood, from that day he began to show up at work less and less, and to be seen more and more in the offices of Fergal Finley and of Castlebar Town Council.

Mother died that August. It did nothing to dampen his agitation. If anything, it poured fuel on it. The kitchen table was taken over by plans and blueprints. A land surveyor was called in, and for several days, our garden was host to all manner of tapes and tripods. Grogan looked on with sarcasm and derision. He’d fought his own losing battle with the banks, but he’d be damned if a crackpot Italian was about to get the better of him in his own back yard. And what it all came down to, in the end, was a matter of six inches. (I’ve endeavoured to be as accurate as I can in this, but Finley is an old man now, and from my father, of course, there can be no hope of accurate information.) At the time of the proposed extension, unlike the Farrellys who had lodged their objections in the strongest terms, our family had objected only to the scale of the affair. The plans had been modified, the extension completed in record time. All that was old history. The Farrellys had sold up years since. If it was out of scale, the window had never been an issue between our families. But, meticulous measurements were now revealing that, all along, the bould Paddy Grogan had flouted the new plans by a matter of three inches. ‘We have him!’ cried my father, his fist pounding the table. Finley wasn’t so sure, but they went to court on it.

It was thrown out. The judge, a woman, was not impressed. Fabrizio Cafolla was not impressed by the judge. By this time he was no longer an employee of Horizon Computing, and could devote all his energies to the niceties of the law. Finley he cajoled, bullied and begged, and between them they drew up an appeal. Justice Deirdre Brennan had ruled that the breach was trivial. That in itself was scandalous! No breach of regulation could be deemed trivial. There was a point of law to be ruled on. But then, added to that, my father had brought in a civil engineer, an expert on soil mechanics. He could demonstrate that, over the eleven years since the monstrous room had been added, there’d been a subsidence of a minimum of three inches. That meant that that the original breach, the original flouting of the law, was a matter not of three but of six inches. Six inches, minimum! ‘We will see that in this country there is justice!’ cried my father. This time, it was not on the table that his defiant fist came down. This time, it was on the headstone of my mother’s grave.

The appeal was dismissed, in even rounder terms. The old man still held out the hope that, in the matter of costs, the judge would be a Solomon. Surely he must understand that a point of principle was at stake. Finley shook his head, and the gravel voice of the law berated my father for wasting the court’s time with such trivial nonsense. Costs, in their entirety, were awarded against, and Bradley and McCoy, solicitors, did not come cheap.

The costs were ruinous. We would be forced to sell up. But that in itself wasn’t the worst of it. Two days after the Judgement, catching sight of Grogan’s smug countenance peeping through the leylandii, my father seized up a garden shears. He made it two-thirds the way across the lawn before a stroke felled him. It was the first in a series. These days he sits, hour after hour, in the nursing home, one side of his body stupefied with paralysis, his mouth depressed, his eye indignant. There are times, few enough, when I have succeeded in raising a spark in it. When I told him that the Grogans, too, had had to sell up, for instance. Or the time I told him that his father had died. Thanks to the small inheritance, I would after all be in a position to do a law degree.

Pat Seman – The wind

Pat Seman
The wind

The wind comes knocking. It comes from the sea. I remember the taste of it, salt on my lips, as together we walked the cliff path, I and Dimitris. How it would tear its fingers through my hair. I won’t let it in. It catches hold of the shutters, slams them against the wall, they bang and bang until my head aches. I close the shutters tight. My room is cool and dark and silent like a cave under the sea. But the wind is sly, it comes back at night. Skittering across the roof, fretting and pulling at the tiles, it finds cracks. First the dust seeps through, falling like fine rain. Then the mouths come, stuffed with scorpions, swarming whispers that sting. And I can’t sleep for the pain of it.

My mother is there every morning sweeping up the carcasses. They are hollow and light and when the breeze lifts them they rustle across the courtyard. With her stiff broom she flails the flagstones, harrowing leaves, fallen petals, the tiny shells of insects, driving them into a corner with the dust, where the wind cannot find them.

I watch;

as my mother carries the broom across the churchyard. Keeper of the church. She has the keys. She cleans the churchyard every morning. Begins by the sea wall, sweeps up the ice cream wrappers, the empty crisp and cigarette packets, stoops to pick up tins, drops them into a plastic bag. Sometimes she’ll pause to greet someone. Tiny, determined to hold their gaze, she looks up into the deceitful faces. Old Nikos slowly taking the steps up from the harbour, leaning on his stick; Michaelis on his way to the taverna, hair slicked back, just married, impatient, keys jangling in his pocket; the children running, bags bumping against their shoulders, late for school. They never look up, they don’t even sneak a glance at the shutters. They’ll be thinking their thoughts no matter how closed their faces, they’ll know I’m watching them, feel my eyes on their backs burning.

When I walk through the village the bodies part like a wave. I wear black; a silk blouse I bought in Athens, the kind you can see through, with an open back, straps crossing. My shoulders are bare. I try to hold them straight, to walk in a straight line, not to falter, as I turn into the full sun, into the square. I don’t look to either side of me, but I know what they’ll be doing. The men in the shade of the mulberry tree outside the cafenion, grouped around two tables, sticks propped against the chairs. A lull in the conversation as I appear, their heads turning to follow my passing, and then, folding their newspapers, they’ll be clustered over their coffee, intent now, the talk charged with drugs, black arts and couplings and each one offering exact and salacious knowledge of when and where, as if I were one of their goats being mounted, over and over. The women, cardigans draped over their shoulders, clustered on the steps of the post office, faces hardening as I approach, they turn their backs. I pass my father’s grocery shop, the windows plastered with old newspaper, the paint peeling and cracked. This morning my mother screamed, ‘Your father’s better off where he is now, safe in his grave. The shame would have destroyed him’ Now the butcher’s shop. He’s hauling a lamb’s carcass off its hook, head drooping, the eyes glazed. His sharp cleaver descends fracturing the bone, slices through flesh.

Flesh and blood of Dimitris. Neither by birth, nor by way of consecration in the village church. Our bond greater than anything this tight community could contain. The moment his head hit the rock, blood oozing through his thick, black hair – our flight arrested, dreams shattered – I became all they’d imagined, ever wanted me to be: seductress, whore, murderer. I am no longer one of them, Every tie severed. They are butchers all of them.

They have taken his body, imprisoned it in the family tomb; with their sanctimonious scrawl on the marble headstone have claimed him back as their own ‘for eternity’. But for the dead of this village, there is no sleep. The wind is on the prowl always. It sweeps in from the sea, ticks upon the windows that shelter the fading photographs, the flickering flames. Fingers probing, it loosens the glass panes. A continuous tick, tick, like the click of bones.

I feel its breath through the slats of the shutters, gentle now, whispering of that wild, open space within sight and sound of the sea, its vast horizon, where I stood so often with Dimitris.

I close my eyes and am back there on the high cliff, close to the cry of seagulls. Only now I’m alone. At the very edge. A dizzying drop to the black huddle of rocks, the restless sea below. I look down, sway, lose my balance. The wind comes, rushing over the bare highland, scoops me up, thrusts me forward.

I’m flying. Free.

Susan Lloy – End of Rapture

Susan Lloy
End of Rapture

The gold-painted angel fell today. His ceramic limbs splayed all around. She should feel saddened by this, as it was given to her in a time of love when she lived in the Dutch capital. Handed to her by her former lover who had ripped it off the exterior of an Italian villa when he was playing there in a travelling quartet.

It has made her bitter. Staring at it year after year for more than thirty. She has many objects from Amsterdam strategically placed in her flat. Often a guest will inquire, ‘Oh, how lovely, where did you get it?’ ‘Amsterdam,’ she replied.

 
For many years she had boasted that she had lived there feeling like she had an edge up for the experience. She kept her Dutch language books on deck ready to brush up before travelling back more than twenty times, rolling her G’s and toning her tongue to Nederland standards. She constantly thought of her former lovers who became good friends, but of late, had wandered far from her.

 
Tourists always irked the Dutch. When she had inhabited its tiny streets more than three decades ago, they had annoyed them then. Yet, she had been able to blend in like an Amsterdammer. She remembered travellers that came for smack holidays. Seeing many a folk retching on cobbled streets. One doesn’t witness this now. On her last visit it made her nervous. Crowds tightly packed like little fish in a can. Tourists are more loathed now. Pouring into the small cafés, cluttering the squares. Boisterous Brits on bachelor stags.

When she had lived among the locals she had tried to absorb their mirth. Listening to them sing while riding their bicycles along the canals. Now bikes are full of danger. With cyclists roaring along texting, not a single eye on the road.

 
She felt a pride that she had retained her Dutch. And for the most part, Amsterdammers are happy to spar with her broken words. Still, during her last trip, when she sat at a small theatre café and left a decent tip, she had overheard the bartender turn the name, tourist, around like it was a cancer.

She has many framed photographs of her former lovers, but it pains her to hang them on the walls. They sit, hidden, in an old armoire waiting to be dismantled. Yet, she can never bring herself to complete this task. She immortalized them in print during their shared time in Amsterdam, but they never stole a peek.

So, when she looks around at hints of her Dutch past it is as if a knife sears her heart. She can’t imagine strolling the streets, sitting on a sidewalk terrace, seeing the ghosts of her past. And besides, she would be just another tourist in Amsterdam. AQ

Lianne O’Hara – En route

Lianne O’Hara
En route

Another car must have turned unexpectedly, as I was nearly catapulted all the way to the front window when the bus came to a sudden halt.

‘Alright love,’ the driver yelled without looking. I politely told him I was fine and refrained from asking any more questions; this would only trigger a monologue about his wife’s absence, his daughter asking him for money but no longer for advice, she had outgrown that, but money they never outgrow! and endless variations of similar topics of conversation. For now, however, the bus was empty, and I was thoroughly enjoying the silence, supported by the soft humming of the motor, and the sound of raindrops ticking against the window in a neatly patterned sequence.

‘I see you’ve brought an umbrella.’

I looked up, and in the seat opposite from mine a man had taken up position, folded newspaper in hand, ready to attack. In a desperate attempt not to be too obvious I looked around the bus, but it was still empty, save for the one seat opposite from where I was sitting. I couldn’t get up to sit somewhere else, it would be rude, but I could also not ignore him, since evidently he had been talking to me, as there were no other passengers on the bus. I did have an umbrella, parked against the aisle seat left from mine, so as to avoid anyone sitting down there and striking up conversation.

‘Yes, I have,’ I told him, and turned my face to look out the window again.

‘Will you believe,’ he said, ‘that I once owned an umbrella just like yours.’

From the corner of my eye I checked my umbrella, thinking of something to say, but what was there to say really about a fairly generic black umbrella? I told the man, who introduced himself as Rey, with an E not an A, that I did believe him. ‘Umbrellas like these must have been around for a good few centuries now.’

He frowned, and said I must have misunderstood. ‘When I said just like yours,’ he continued, ‘I meant there is a greater similarity between your umbrella and mine than between any of these other generic, as you called it, umbrellas floating around town.’

‘Floating,’ I said.

Rey looked as if he wanted to sigh, but instead he sat up a little straighter and continued. ‘In Amsterdam, in 1974, I met a woman. Her name was Sheila, or Sharon, one of the two anyway, and she was the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. Maybe her name was Shannon, come to think of it. In any case,’ he said, ‘she was beautiful. Not only beautiful, she was also highly intelligent, and was one of the nominees for the 1974 Miss Mind Awards. She didn’t win the prize, in the end, but it didn’t matter. For me, she’d always be the best candidate.’ Rey smiled a little when he said this. He had a small mouth, with very wet lips, which he occasionally licked in the intervals between sentences, where most people pause to breathe. His hair, which was quite thin so I was given a good view of his scalp, was tied back in a ponytail. I could see flecks of dandruff on the shoulders of his suit jacket, which was a little tight around the waist. His most remarkable feature, however, was his nose. It was a large, Roman nose, proudly sprouting thick grey hairs in all directions. Balanced on its bridge, there was a pair of glasses, held together by a thin golden frame, which Rey pushed a little further up multiple times, almost in sync with the licking of his lips. ‘Where was I,’ he said. ‘Oh yes, Sylvia.’

‘Sheila,’ I said.

‘Whatever,’ Rey said, and pushed his glasses up a little. ‘Sylvia and I met, as I told you, in Amsterdam in 1974. It was the beginning of, let’s say, a little more than a beautiful friendship. We adored each other. See, in my younger days, I was quite the catch. Some, of course, still think I am’ – he gave me a little wink – ‘but I won’t deny age has left its mark. Round here, mostly!’ He grabbed his stomach with two hands and shook it in my direction.

‘Right,’ I said, and wished I had taken an earlier bus.

‘It was a warm summer’s day,’ Rey continued, ‘and we stared at each other for a good few seconds before she came over. Why, she asked me, on a delicious summer’s day like this, are you walking around with an umbrella? See, if I had known she was right on her way to leaving me after having emptied my pockets, my bank account, and whatever I kept stored in the boot of the car, I would have never answered that question, of course. But I didn’t know that, and she was, as I’ve told you, incredibly beautiful. I took her hands in mine and I said darling, beautiful delicious darling, this umbrella is to shield you from harm, come hell or high water. I will fend off any interlopers, no one but Rey shall elope with you, my love!’ As he said this, Rey threw his hands up in the air dramatically. He was an animated talker, and once had been, he told me, a very successful actor.

‘So then,’ he continued, ‘naturally, she went home with me. I was quite the charmer, back then in Amsterdam in 1974. Three beautiful weeks we spent together, wining, dining, dancing, the lot. And then, one day, she was gone.’ She’d phoned him once after from a pay phone, to ask if he could wire some money to Berlin. Berlin, he had said, have you lost your mind? She’d called him a sad old miser, and hung up the phone.

Rey had stopped licking his lips, and kept them pressed together very tightly for a while. ‘You see,’ he went on, ‘she even took the umbrella. The money was replaceable, that wasn’t the problem, but I had carried around that umbrella for nine years.’ Admittedly, he had used it to charm women before, it seemed to lend itself very well for these occasions. ‘But she didn’t know that,’ he said and glanced at my umbrella, which was still leaning against the seat adjacent to mine. ‘If you don’t mind,’ Rey said, ‘perhaps you could lend me your umbrella for a week or two?’ AQ

Samuel Prince – Amsterdam Winklepicker Moon

Samuel Prince
Amsterdam Winklepicker Moon

He was looking into the wheelhouse. It was a man – I was sure of that by his size and definition, although his back was turned as he stooped to peer in the window. The lights were off, we’d locked the door and there wouldn’t be much to see in that cramped upper compartment, fit for a small table between two rows of cushioned benches and the steep ladder descending to the living area. It had begun to hail – a slight peppering as the first ice pellets fell, but growing ever more percussive and intense. I stopped in front of the splendid Spinoza statue and continued to observe the man who’d adjusted to a different pane, but still bent, seemingly peering intent into the cabin.

This was our houseboat – our weekend rental – and this was the last night of the booking. Only I would be staying and sleeping here after Rob had left for his early flight home, but check out wasn’t until the morning. Who was he? The owner? That was a woman, Brigitte, with whom we’d corresponded when making the booking. Her partner? A friend? An opportunist snooper – or worse? Nobody was home – the dark interior testified to that – so why would he be so inquisitive? Brigitte had our numbers, too – she said she’d call or text if she needed to get hold of us. The houseboat was intact, dormant, sheathed in shadow, moored alongside two others on this stretch of the Amstel – both unoccupied, it being late winter, but both similarly quiet and idle.

I could see now that he was moving towards the terrace on the deck. He took another, penetrative look in the wheelhouse through the windows from that new vantage, and then sat down on the wooden bench, facing the towpath. He was waiting, as the pitch of the hail further increased and the chill sharpened in serration under the vivid winklepicker-toe moon.

             *

I didn’t know as much about Spinoza as I’d have liked – but then, who couldn’t I confess that about? I’d once included his name in a list of writers and thinkers I meant to sample, to flaunt at least a cursory knowledge. However, this became another casualty of questing, adolescent ambition conflicting with my innate laziness and slack attention span. Gramsci and Breton were fellow fatalities, I remembered this – how I’d written those names and a ream of related books and titles in a bid to impress, but as to who, well, I wasn’t sure then, or now. That was, that is, the rueful truth of my life: the things I’d done as if somebody was constantly looking over my shoulder. A somebody I’d always be looking back to check they were still there, still watching. But there was nobody there. There never is.

             *

Rob had caught his taxi to Schiphol from the Green House Namaste Coffeeshop on Waterlooplein. Sunday evening, it had been mostly empty beyond the guy working the counter, who sold us a gram of pineapple kush and two wan lattes. He was sinewy and pallid in complexion, beneath his baseball cap, in a too-tight t-shirt and paint-flecked baggy jeans. The décor was a mishmash – some loose hung throws on the walls depicting mystical symbols, Western saloon-style doors for the bathrooms, a muted flat screen TV showing a compilation of snowboarding feats and mid-volume house music seeping from the speakers stacked in the corners.

We sat on one of the large, low slung, tan pleather couches and Rob prepared the joint while I sipped coffee. This had been our third long weekend away together in Amsterdam – it had become an annual fixture. Four nights on a houseboat and an itinerary of walking, talking, light drinking and heavy sinking into the brain-braised and blazed fug of the occasional hour or two in Coffeeshops. That morning Rob had received word that some unmovable meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the day after our flight back, had, in fact, been moved forward to Monday. He’d hastily rebooked his travel plans while we crossed on the ferry from Centrum to Amsterdam-Noord. This had meant I’d be spending the final night of our stay on the houseboat alone.

By the time we were mouldering in the Green House, Rob with his weekend bag at his feet, me in my fully-zipped anorak and slouch beanie, we were in a conversational holding pattern over the banalities you tick-off when a parting of the ways is imminent. Plans for and a recap on what our jobs held for the week ahead; coming football fixtures; a last sombre sweep of news on mutual or former friends. We were in the desultory drift and dredge of the kush and its effects – monosyllabic, deliberate of movement and sluggish in thought, semi-transfixed by the TV images of snowboarders shredding and searing down the Aspen slopes. I dwelt on the contrast of their speed and vim, the luculent mountain air and fabulous blue skies with my lassitude, smoke-tangled lungs and arid eyes.

             *

I couldn’t linger and pretend to be absorbed by Spinoza unduly. Not as the hail poured and ricocheted all around and over me. He didn’t seem perturbed by this as he sat in position in his mysterious vigil, hood-up, on the deck, but that only served to heighten my increasing concern. I wasn’t going to stand from this distance and stare back – what he wanted or represented, I didn’t know, and if he was looking for me, or Rob or both, I didn’t know either. The Amstel as far as I could see was deserted of cruise or passenger boats and the Amstelhoeck bar behind me was closed, so even if I wanted to slip in, find a table with a view of the houseboat and surreptitiously observe the watcher, I couldn’t. Besides, that wasn’t me. I wasn’t a man given to stealth or discretion and I feared I’d crack; that I’d wilt in such a stand-off, burst out of there and demand he reveal himself and his intentions. I had coward blood. I resolved to walk on, to walk by the houseboat, continue along the Amstel, past the Opera House, turn left on Waterlooplein and circuit back, but slowly, slowly, to check whether he was still there and if he was…? I’d rethink then, again in front of Spinoza.

             *

Rob and I had said our goodbyes and made an imprecise pact to meet up again in London soon. He heaved his bag over his shoulder, more elaborately, almost slow motion thanks to the kush we’d shared and the accumulative impact of all the others over the weekend. With a thumbs-up salute to the guy behind the counter, who raised his head from looking at his phone to acknowledge, he left to meet the driver who was less than a minute away.

I sat back down on the couch and contemplated the remainder of the joint perched like a fishing rod over the ashtray. I could finish it, descend ever deeper into the dappled daze, wallow in front of the snowboarding supremos, then perhaps roll a new one, all for myself, and see out the evening in a zoned-out bliss. But I was done with weed. My chest was crinkling with every in-breath, it was significantly less fun solo and, more pitifully, I’d never been able to roll a joint with any structural integrity. I left the remainder of the gram in its seal bag on my saucer and made to leave. I resolved to head back to the houseboat, hydrate, recalibrate and get an early night before flying back tomorrow. The temperature had plummeted and the forecast told of hailstorms – at least it would be atmospheric and dramatic on board. I could watch the moonlit river being assailed by the weather and make a memory of the moment.

             *

I affected a gait and stride that I thought best conjured cold and bothered but purposeful, with somewhere to go which categorically isn’t the houseboat this eerie figure is sitting on… I put my hands in my pockets and kept my hatted head bowed forward and made towards the mooring dock. Closer to the houseboat I raised my eyes and clocked the watcher, as he clarified from hail-obscured shadow to something more monochrome, but better defined in the glare from the lampposts. The snapshot glance I took told me he was wearing a long dark overcoat with a hood which shrouded his face and features, but he was gazing square in my direction as the only other player on the scene. The hail, as all hail must, had switched from sustained bombardment to a slighter strafing and some drizzle had now joined the downpour, but despite this he was prayerfully still and composed – a squat counterpart to Spinoza, who oversaw all.

The temptation flashed through me to confront, challenge, contest who he was and what he was doing sitting on my houseboat? Sheer fear has a way of rumbling to a boiling point of hot anger, but I’d never mastered the elusive cocktail of stern tone, authority and firm words when trying to be assertive, and this truth froze my tongue. Instead, I veered left, as planned, and quickened my pace, as if a fleeting look at a hooded stranger sitting on a houseboat in foul conditions was wholly typical.

             *

My first visit to Amsterdam was with my Dad in 2005. We’d never been on holiday together previous to that, and we’ve never repeated it since. It was an anomaly – a perfectly pleasurable anomaly, but an anomaly all the same.

I have a cachet of photos from that trip, somewhere in a box file with several others which survive the periodic purges of possessions I pursue to maximise space in my tiny London flat. These photos, they serve only to prove my relative youth – the glint and sheen of my early twenties – and my Dad before his hair turned a shade of ashpan and he still wore heeled shoes. There’s one of me in a duffel coat in front of a bicycle stand outside Centraal and one of Dad beaming on Nieuwmarkt with The Waag in the background. We had stroopwafel and oliebollen and bought little cigarillos which we smoked by one of the canalside bars. Tourists always feel obliged, compelled to visit national museums and landmarks. As if you can’t satisfactorily claim to have done a place until you’ve communed with and paid heed to its past. We got lost on our way to The Resistance Museum, which proved worth the confusion when we did eventually find it, while the Rijksmuseum, undergoing renovation, was overwhelmingly busy and neither of us knew how to appreciate Art. I remember queuing interminably on a staircase and suggesting to my Dad we could leave, and go to Vondelpark, if he wanted to, or the pub, which I knew he would and willed him to choose.

As I walked away from the houseboat, I thought of Dad, that weekend and how he might have reacted to the watcher. My Dad was mild-mannered, decent and unassuming. He barely had a temper or proclivity for indignation beyond the odd sarcastic retort to news readers on the radio, but there was also a deep-rooted hardiness and resolve, albeit I only saw simmer to the surface the once, when I was about 12.

We were waiting by a bus stop outside the back of one of the large department stores in our local town centre when a motorbike purred out from an alley next to the store loading bay, but instead of turning onto the road, mounted the pavement as a shortcut and accelerated towards, but then swerved by us with reckless abandon. I felt the sensation and airflow of him building speed as he cut past. I noted his khaki cargo pants tucked into large black boots, the crimson streak of racing stripes on his leather jacket and the chrome helmet, lustrous as a clairvoyant’s ball. Dad didn’t hesitate, as if something ignited within him. He leapt to his feet and yelled, but it wasn’t in protest, it wasn’t plaintive or pleading, appealing for reason or awareness – it was something guttural and splenetic that carried weight and righteous might.

The rider looked back, some 20 metres away, then abruptly braked to a stop. He waddled off his bike and then marched back towards the bus stop and my Dad, stood up with his arms held out wide like a spirit-possessed Baptist, stepped forward to narrow the distance between them. Motorbike man was shouting and unfastening his helmet strap at the same time, and when it came loose and he took it off, I could see his face contorted, his mouth snarling and shooting back at Dad. He had a close shaved head, covered with a membrane of sweat. He was all threat, bile and stiff-moving menace. Dad maintained his position, stood his ground and returned verbal fire, until the biker was mere feet away, his right hand plunged into his helmet as though it was a big bauble-esque boxing glove. I sat on the bus stop bench and marvelled at the exhilarating choreography as they went nose-to-nose.

             *

It had been 15 minutes since I walked away. I’d reduced my pace to a shuffle on Waterlooplein, heading north. The further I’d retreated from the houseboat, the more unsettled I became. It struck me that I wasn’t even sure how to phone the Police in Amsterdam, and even then, what was I going to report or ask for? A tourist calling for Police assistance because someone was sitting on their rented houseboat – a tourist who’d been in the Green House Namaste Coffeeshop not more than an hour ago – didn’t sound credible or without reason for skepticism. I considered calling Rob, who must be at the airport now and explaining the situation, but again, I’d knew he’d laugh, tell me I was hallucinating, paranoid, but that the kush was as premium as promised.

There were only few people on the sodden streets. The rain wasn’t abating and I was beginning to sniffle and shiver. Even if I did return and find the watcher had vacated his perch, was no longer waiting, I doubted I’d be able to endure the long night on my own. The houseboat was riven with creaks, strains and jarring sounds – and that was without the potential menace of a trespasser skulking on the deck whose potential footsteps and padding would be indistinguishable from the rat-a-tat of the rain that was expected until dawn. I toyed with the prospect of walking around Amsterdam and deferring the showdown until sunrise, but in the wet bitterness of a Sunday in February, the city didn’t feel heady, happening or accommodating to that whim. There was nowhere I wanted to go, or could go, other than the place I was afraid to face.

             *

My full navigation of the square was almost finished – I’d turned onto Zwanenburgwal, next to the Rembrandt Corner café. It was just shutting up – a man in a white shirt and serving apron was bearing the elements and stacking chairs outside in columns of four. Two women, the last customers, were leaving. One of the women made an exaggerated teeth-chittering sound to register the shock of the chill. They linked arms, laughed in unison, swaddled in Puffa jackets, gloves and woollen scarves, and turned right on Jodenbreestraat.

I began walking down Zwanenburgwal, helplessly nearing judgment time. In a few more steps I’d have a beeline on Spinoza, and once I was at his feet, I’d be able to see whether the watcher was still there, eyeballing my approach, waiting for me to stop pretending and come home. And if he wasn’t there? I’d be no better for his absence, spending the rest of the night in dread suspension.

Earlier in the morning, Rob and I had strolled down this street and the market which lined it during the day. I’d abstractedly inspected the stalls selling tulip seeds, ceramic windmills and Jenever gin and bought a black and white postcard of a canal scene at night. It depicted a small bridge, a shimmery river, a silhouetted lamppost with a bicycle leant against it. As I held the postcard to pay, I noted how my thumb also obscured a thin moon – a silver circlet or archer’s bow – in the top right corner. It occurred to me then, and came back to me now as some hail seeds returned to spike the rain, how I’d wanted the picture, without seeing it complete. I’d wanted it without spotting the essential detail which made it what it was. AQ

Nancy Ludmerer – Cell Phones for Seniors

Nancy Ludmerer
Cell Phones for Seniors

Yesterday I answered my phone at 7 a.m. It was the 11th robocall offering me a cell phone deal for seniors. The robot claimed this was not only the best deal of the century but the best deal since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who didn’t actually receive gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense while hanging out in the manger, but instead was offered three cell phone plans — the Gold Plan having the most features, including, of course, eternal life. ‘I de-myrrh!’ I shouted before hanging up.

I’d only been 65 years old for five minutes when the calls began. ‘Who told you I was a senior?’ I demanded. The robot snickered. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ I hung up and immediately the phone rang again. I gave it my sternest stare, the stare I tried to perfect when my son (now 32) was a four-year-old hooligan. I’d read that some parents could discipline their children with a single look, and I wanted that look — a look that would strike fear in him, or at least shut him up. But I was look-less, as well as luckless, in the look department. So whenever he misbehaved in public, I had to raise my voice or threaten him that he was in ‘big f-ing trouble.’ This led otherwise doting old ladies — who I now realize were suffering from a lack of cell phones – to mutter that I shouldn’t have a child (much less a curly-haired angel like him) if I was going to yell at him. Nowadays those same old ladies would probably photograph me with my mouth open – a la Edward Munch’s The Scream — and post it on Instagram claiming child abuse.

How I long for the days before cell phones, before Instagram, before Facebook — but nobody else shares that view, with the possible exception of my husband, Malcolm. When we met, Malcolm was nearly a decade older than I, and shared my lack of — and near-hatred of — technology. At that time, over two decades ago, neither of us even owned an answering machine or a microwave – much less a mobile phone.

Remarkably the age difference between us didn’t go away, even after we married and settled down. Malcolm became a senior citizen nine years before I did – and although he resisted for as long as he could, he eventually purchased a cell phone. This wasn’t a betrayal of our shared values, mind you. He only purchased a cell phone because all of the pay phones he depended on when he needed to make a call had been vandalized, ripped out, or gone to that great phone bank in the sky. ‘Enough is enough,’ he said to me one night, with grim resolve, and the next day he went out and got one.

The way he bought his cell phone was this: He went into Best Buy and asked: ‘Do you sell cell phones?’ The salesman put his thumbs in his suspenders and said, ‘I believe we do.’ My husband asked, ‘Do you sell the kind that criminals use?’ The salesman looked my husband up and down; a sorrier specimen of a criminal, with his white socks, frayed black chinos, and horn-rimmed glasses, the salesman had never seen. ‘What do you mean?’ the salesman asked, wondering if he was actually going to get a sale out of this. ‘On TV, the criminals all have cell phones and once the crime is committed, they throw them away so they can’t be traced.’ ‘Yes,’ the salesman said, twirling his suspect-looking moustache, ‘we have those.’ ‘That’s what I want!’ my husband said. He came home bubbling with excitement, with something called a flip phone. It was red. The plan was 20 cents a minute, and the phone was $29.99.

After multiple attempts, my husband finally got the answering message exactly as he wanted it: ‘This is Malcolm — but don’t bother leaving a message. I only check messages once in a blue moon. If you don’t know when that is, look it up in your almanac. By the way, if this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911, or try my landline, or come on by 7E and knock. And if you don’t know my land line or street address, that’s your problem — you shouldn’t be calling me anyway.’

As you can imagine, Malcolm’s cell phone doesn’t get a lot of use. In fact, nine years later, it’s in the same pristine condition as when the Best Buy salesman took it out of its box. Which in my opinion is a good recommendation for a cell phone — even if it means that most of the time I can’t reach Malcolm.

Yesterday in the midst of those robocalls, after I hung up multiple times and gave the landline phone my sternest look, it rang again. I meant to ignore it, but out of habit, I picked it up. Remarkably it was a real person this time at the other end. ‘I’m calling on behalf of Cell-Phones-for-Seniors Sweepstakes and I have good news. You’ve just won a cell phone – and not only that, but you’re entitled to our Gold Plan, for golden-agers like yourself!’ I thought of screaming bloody murder or even Jesus Christ — but imagined my face on Instagram. Instead I put on my sternest stare and my sweetest, most moderate voice. ‘Do you have the kind of cell phone criminals use?’ I asked.

This time, they hung up on me.

Jo-Anne Rosen – Family Again

Jo-Anne Rosen
Family Again

The last time I saw my father I was six. He had driven from Miami to Flatbush for Christmas and was sleeping on a mat near the flocked tree. Mama was sleeping with her second husband, Eduardo Aguilar or Daddy Ed, a wiry man who tolerated my mother’s mood swings and visiting ex-husband.

For years afterward I confused my father with Saint Nick. He was round and jolly with a thick blonde beard and suitcase full of gifts. And then he vanished like smoke. We relocated to a hippie commune in northern California. Daddy Ed and Mama had two more children. Eventually they divorced. But Ed raised me, so he’ll always be my real father.

I was a smart-ass boy who rarely sat still. Mama would say I was going to wind up in the nut house like Daddy Jack. ‘He checked into Bellevue for six months,’ she’d say. ‘Watch your step, buster.’

‘Where’s he at now?’ I’d ask.

‘I have no idea. On the moon for all I care.’

Thirty-five years after that Christmas in Flatbush up pops an email from Jack Nelson. Subject: Family Reunion? He’s tracked me through the Internet. My grandmother has left a small bequest for me. (What grandmother? I was told she’d died before I was born.) He’s living in Oakland and would like to drive up to Red Bluff to see me. I reply that he might also like to see his two granddaughters. His next email is signed “Grandpa Jack.”

I phone my mother. She isn’t interested.

‘I’m a little curious,” I say. “Aren’t you?’

‘The SOB thinks he can buy his way back into your life,’ she says in that flat voice that means end of story.

My wife is more excited than I am.

‘I’m not going to work up a lather over this, Anita,’ I tell her.

‘But he’s your natural father!’

I shrug. ‘He abandoned us, remember?’

‘Blood is blood,’ she says.
 
Jack pulls up on schedule in a beat-up VW bug, its back seat piled high with bags and tools. He extracts himself slowly. He has gotten quite fat, his beard and hair white, his cheeks red-veined. He is wearing black pants, a black sweater and beret, and he walks with a cane. The two girls and Anita hang back shyly while we shake hands and eye each other.

I do resemble him physically. I see the ghost of Christmas future, my own belly billowing hugely. He doesn’t seem to be a lunatic though. In fact, he is a genial, witty fellow. There are gifts in one of the bags for the children, who warm up to Grandpa Jack quickly. He watches them through bifocals with a bemused expression. They are thin and dark like their mother.

Anita brings out dish after dish, and our guest eats it all with relish. We learn that he never remarried but has lived with several women and traveled widely.

‘I’m a jack of all trades and master of none,’ he says cheerily.

We stay up late drinking the bottle of cab he brought us and reviewing the past three decades, then on to film, books, politics, art. Our tastes are eerily similar. He likes Italian and French films, Tony Hillerman mysteries. We both have dabbled with painting and sculpture. He plays mouth harp, and I noodle around on a guitar. Even our voices sound alike.

When we are alone, Anita says, ‘So what about that diet, Andrew?’

I’m up early the next morning as usual. Jack is already in the kitchen drinking coffee, his imposing bulk still swathed in black; hair and beard damp, smelling of soap. He’s brought in the newspaper and filled in my crossword puzzle completely, in ink. Everyone else is asleep.

We regard each other cautiously across the table.

‘I should have tried to find you sooner,’ he says. ‘I did try once years ago, but your mother and Eduardo hid their tracks too well.’

‘I could have tried, too. But I assumed you weren’t interested.’

We are quiet, considering our next moves.

‘Were you ever really interested?’ I ask finally.

He looks at me intently. ‘See, I thought you’d be pissed at me.’

‘I never gave it much thought,’ I say.

‘Well, I’m glad I came,” he beams. “We can start fresh.’

I don’t reply.

‘So, you are pissed.’

‘Alright, I’m pissed.’

He chews on that for a while. Then: ‘Don’t you want to know about your grandmother? Do you even know her name?’

I shrug.

‘Louise. I wish you could have met her. She was a marvellous woman, and she never stopped asking about you. You had a grandfather, too, of course. He died when I was 16. You have an aunt and uncle, cousins.’

Upstairs a muted shout, the sounds of my family awakening.

‘The girls will want to know about their family someday,’ he persists.

I stare at him. Maybe there’s no getting away from him now. Or maybe he’ll vanish again, this time forever. Meanwhile, here he is, fat and sassy and in my face, and he’s ruined my Sunday crossword.

‘I was too messed up to be a father,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry it happened that way.’

‘Sorry?’ I repeat. ‘Really? Since when?’

‘Since now. I can’t undo what’s done. It was my bad luck, not yours. You turned out fine, as far as I can tell.’

No thanks to you, I almost say, but he seems so bewildered and downcast, I relent.

‘Do you play chess, Jack?’ I ask, instead.

‘Sure do.’ His face lights up.

I haul out my set. He picks up the ceramic pieces one by one, fingers them.

‘You made these?’

I nod. It’s from my cubist phase. The pieces have sudden sharp angles, clashing colors, weirdly juxtaposed body parts. The one-eyed bishop is a terror.
 
‘Nice work,’ he says. Jack anticipates my every move and vice-versa.

‘Damn,’ he says, looking surprised. ‘I’m sure I taught you how to play.’

‘What’s this, a recovered memory?’

‘I do remember playing chess with you, and by candlelight. A storm knocked out the power. I made all the pieces from wine corks and wire, I swear that’s true. Ask your mother. You were three or four, whip smart.’

‘Uh uh.’ I shake my head. ‘Daddy Ed taught me to play chess.’

‘Maybe he did,’ he says. ‘The second time.’

He stays with us three days. We play several games of chess, without talking much, unless chess is a kind of language. By the time he leaves I’m one game ahead, which seems to please him. Then the bags go back in the VW, despite Anita’s coaxing.

‘After all this time, you could stay a little longer,’ she says. She hugs him, and so do the girls, giggling because they can’t get their arms around his girth.

I offer my hand.

‘Let’s stay in touch,’ he says, pumping my hand, and then hugging me. ‘We’re family again, right?’

I want to believe him. But when I step back, a little dazed from the bear hug, his eyes are focused elsewhere, as if he’s already moving on down the road again and we are fading into memory. So I don’t believe him.

‘Bon voyage’ is all I say.

After he leaves, Anita begs me to stay in touch with him for the sake of the children.

‘Don’t keep them from their grandfather,’ she says, ‘just because your mom kept you from yours.’

I tell her Mom was wrong about a lot of things, but not about Jack. ‘He doesn’t really want a family. He wants another feel-good moment.’

‘How do you know that?’ she demands. ‘You’re not always right, either.’

‘Nor are you.’

She glares at me and stomps out of the room, muttering something about a stubborn asshole.

‘Alright!’ I shout after her. ‘If Jack stays in touch with me, I’ll stay in touch with him.’

I’ll bet that never happens. AQ

Gabriel Furmuzachi – Qualm

Gabriel Furmuzachi
Qualm

I bought you big, yellow sunflowers. I brought them home and cut their stalks and left them to soak in a little boiling water for a few minutes – as you taught me.

‘They will last longer like that!’, you said.

I waited for you. I waited until the food I cooked got cold, until the music stopped playing, until it turned dark outside and only the streetlights were glowing, yellow and orange.

I sat there alone, looking out the window, trying to guess where you might be, with whom you might be talking, what you might be thinking, whether you’d be laughing. I miss your laughing.

Each time I’d hear the lift doors I’d prick up my ears, like a hound catching the smell of a rabbit, ready to run and chase you back into my heart. But the metal cage would only spew out strangers who didn’t have the key to our place.

The bed felt vast and uninviting, the sheets – cold, texture like ice on a lake in winter, blown by the wind, piling up on the shore, broken into thin scales.

I miss you.

I fell asleep thinking of the morning sky and of the sun emerging from behind interminable, smug clouds, steeped in red and grey. How long until the flowers will shed their yellow and dry out? How long still? AQ

Amina Imzine – Zemestan 1836

Amina Imzine
Zemestan 1836
A Work in progress from the Shahrarah Garden Chronicles
 
Rumours of war have slowed down as the cold and bitter winter has wrapped Kabul in a thick coat of snow. Katsumi looks up to the pale orange light that flames from the Asmai Lighthouse and feels relieved that the makeshift dispensary there is provided with Aleppo soap, eucalyptus, balsam and Chinese green tea so the guards, mainly Kashmiri Lancers, can safely rest until the next shift. “Welcome in the Zemestan season” would joke Javaad Khan, his friend, born in some remote Srinagar valley and pleased enough with his position, assigned to the Bibi-Mahroo Garrison, where two lighthouses stand above Kabul city.
 
 
Sirius heads between the Asmai Height and the Pushta Lighthouse. Curfew will soon start. Katsumi steps down with his snowshoes and quietly treks through the icy Shahrarah Lane. How long lasts friendship when our world is devastated by cholera or plague epidemics, and grief? Lady Alexandrina, whom he’d met in Tehran, passed away as soon as she returned home to St. Petersburg, for her nineteenth birthday celebration. She was his first English teacher, taught him Latin and both shared a passion for Central Asian Herbarium books — dried plants and seeds they collected from Tashkent and Balkh when landslides or sand dunes have not yet fully submerged the fields, orchards and gardens — Katsumi recalls as he tries to cope with the fresh snow that caps his Bactrian camel wool shield.

The rum is warming up his mood. Katsumi couldn’t forget her pale sapphire eyes that brightened up her delicate face, her vivid passion for collecting and editing war veterans’ reports – “I will not teach you French!” she proudly said. At the Shahrarah literary lounge, she loved reading light verse poetry, the modern tales of Alexander Pushkin — and such strong beauty in her calligraphy strokes, first in Russian then in English: As long as there is one heart on Earth where I still live, my memory will not die he received as her farewell gift.
 
 
He shakes his head as to remove the fresh flakes that stick to his white silk face mask. Would poetry bring us some kind of relief? He learned a lot with Lady Alexandra too, when she lived in Kabul. She became his second, friendly English teacher, even if she had soon forgotten her cousin Alexandrina. Like the white, petrified Shahrarah trees lane, there is a silence that doesn’t need to be awoken, so Katsumi treks quietly.

The rum will lift up his mind, as Charles Masson promised. Was he too safely back in London? For the nine-month journey is full of unpleasant surprises, as Katsumi recalls Lady Alexandra that pointed out. Far from his British friends and the Thames he would never visit, Katsumi feels safe here in the upper valley of the Kabul River, safer than in any of the European cities. He looks to the bright sky, and silently thanks the tough quarantine that he and the Afghan doctors-in-chief teams have set up. Aldebaran is going to cross the Pushta Height. Katsumi then notices a snowy, soft blanket that wraps the foothills, the crowded worker dormitories and the tent shelters for shepherd communities. How many will be alive tomorrow?
 

***

 

Snow showers keep burying Kabul in a bitter silence, while the pervasive fragrance of balsam floods the Hanzalah sanatorium. Katsumi quietly moves in and out of rooms, patients are sleeping. “Kurimoto-jan, tea is served”, whispers the nurse-in-chief. Katsumi frowns his delicate eyebrows, smoothly shakes his long blue cotton dress and heads towards the study.

Carefully, he removes his grey latex face mask, the grey latex gloves, and then washes his large and pale hands with the Aleppo soap. The nurse brings the china cup of qehwa but Katsumi’s face doesn’t smile — by the way no one has ever seen him smile, except perhaps Lady Alexandrina. The nurse is one of the few who copes with his dead, calm, beardless face.

Katsumi’s skilled hands return empty the warm cup. It’s time for the monthly report, in English, as requested by the Colony Police station. Katsumi picks up his favourite slim brush and unrolls a blank, silky sheet of paper. As he writes, his brown eyebrows turn into thin moon bows:
December 1836.

Two hundred casualties of pneumonia — 30 from Bibi-Mahroo foothills, 80 from the Shahrarah Women hospital, including 50 infants, 30 from the Pushta Workers Dormitory… Silently the nurse leaves the quiet coroner alone in the fragrance of balsam now mixed with cardamom.
 
 

***

Keith Perkins – The Graveyard Man

Keith Perkins
The Graveyard Man

It is a misty November morning and Danny Brennan has already consumed two shots of Irish whiskey. He approaches four graves in the centre of the Kilcrohane Burial Ground to begin his day’s work and is attired in sturdy, knee-length mud boots and a hooded raincoat. His sole adornment is a large plastic bucket with assorted tools. The cap on his whiskey flask peeks out from one of his pockets.

His first grave of the morning bears the name ‘addy O’Mara’. On tender, aching knees and with arthritic hands, he begins by scraping and brushing the moss and dirt to allow the ‘P’ to gain its rightful place. Wilted flowers still bathe Paddy’s tomb in a carpet of muted reds, yellows, and blues. The small plot has only just begun to sprout grass. It was a brief illness. The few dozen family and friends who attended his recent internment spoke of a warm, vibrant, and loyal family man. His widow Mary chose the epitaph now etched on his freshly-restored tomb:

Paddy O’Mara
A loving father, husband, grandfather and farmer
Tender nurturer of both the Irish soil and our hearts
1907-1984

Danny turns and winces mildly.

‘Blasted choices,’ he declares irritably.

He drags his bucket to a second mud-covered grave adjacent to Paddy’s. The words continue their mild echo:

‘Father, husband, grandfather and farmer’.

As Danny’s brush makes contact with the tomb, he whispers:

‘And best friend.’

For Paddy and he were unofficial village twins and classmates some fifty years earlier at the Kilcrohane National School, only a scant kilometre or so up a lonely Irish lane from where he now toils on moist, ruined knees.

They sat next to each other in this intimate schoolhouse, a nondescript, one-story building that opens to the village church. They chuckled in unison and sometimes earned an angry rebuke or stern glare from the imperious schoolmaster. On Saturday, they took to the pitch with a stable of locals followed by a game of road bowling in the village center. And in the waning light of a Saturday evening, exhausted from the day’s sport, they would sink to the damp grass bordering the rocky edge of Dunmanus Bay, still laughing and panting while recounting a missed shot or friendly tussle.

Before returning home, they often shared a pint of Guinness carefully lifted from a forgotten crate behind one of the two village pubs. Bounty in hand, they would run with a wild, reckless abandon that only youth can inspire until they arrived breathless in the cover of a small patch of nearby woods.

‘That was a close one,’ Paddy said, exuding a youthful giddiness that saturated those carefree Saturdays.

‘Too close,’ Danny shot back.

He wore a mischievous smile and stood slightly bent, his hands resting on his long, nimble legs.

Those same long, yet aching, spiritless limbs now carry him to his third grave of the morning. Danny meditates on that brotherhood, that easy laughter, that youthful innocence. His meditation includes a third generous gulp of whiskey from his weathered flask.

‘Blasted choices,’ he spits out angrily.

At 18, Paddy’s eyes bent towards America. With farm jobs scarce in Kilcrohane, he turned to New York’s Hudson Valley for work. The peninsula, already a remote, windswept, forgotten place with Paddy on it, became more oppressive, more dark, more lonely in his absence.

A fourth sip of whiskey does little to erode the ache of that vacancy.

‘See you Danny,’ Paddy said solemnly on his final day in Kilcrohane as the two fiercely embraced outside the general store.

‘It’s your last chance to join me,’ Paddy said, his fair, curly hair whirling rebelliously in the gusty winds off Dunmanus Bay.

Leaves pranced across the empty street in the village center. A light, early autumn rain fell.

‘The Kilcrohane lads in America?’ Paddy added, smiling meekly.

‘I can’t…I just can’t,’ Danny said. ‘Good-bye Paddy…Slainte.’

Danny’s eyes moistened. Taller and thinner, he bent slightly in order to better meet Paddy’s embrace. His three-day growth of whiskers pinched Paddy’s smooth, crimson cheeks. There were hasty pledges to write, a few final best wishes, and then, the ‘twins of Kilcrohane’ were separated.

Now tending to his final grave of the morning, Danny still feels the raw, steady wind off Dunmanus Bay as it blew across the village street on Paddy’s final day in Kilcrohane.

‘Ah, blasted choices,’ he says forlornly.

He reaches for his flask, twists off the cap and takes another quick sip. It is barely mid-morning.

A steady flow of letters from Paddy trickled to a rare Christmas greeting. What Danny did learn before news became scarce was that Paddy had found a farm job in New York. He also met an Irish girl named Mary and after a brief courtship and marriage, a brood of five O’Mara’s swiftly followed.

Danny remained alone. He was bestowed by locals with the title of graveyard man. A friendless, isolated bachelor, his only companion on those long, solitary nights in his tiny flat was his cheap Irish whiskey and a frayed, tired copy of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

After eight years without news, a brief letter arrived from Paddy. Danny retrieved it one early afternoon upon returning from the burial ground, his mud-splattered bucket in hand and flask of whiskey in his side pocket. Exiting the post office, he rushed up a nearby lane and sat down on a boulder under a small cover of woods. He ripped the seam impatiently, took a sip of whiskey, and read its contents with alacrity:

Dear Danny:

I hope this letter finds you well. I just recently returned to Ireland and have settled with my family outside the village of Clifden. The lads and Mary are all thriving. We’ve purchased a farm near Mary’s childhood home and are quite busy tending to all the daily tasks. We feel blessed.

Impatient for some news.

Warm regards,

Paddy

Danny rallied his stunned faculties. He never expected that Paddy would ever return to Ireland, yet now that he was securely on Irish soil again, he might just as well still be living in America. The distance to Clifden was nearly as unbridgeable. Danny didn’t have the resources or the time for that multi-day journey to the far west of Ireland. He earned only a Sunday reprieve from his daily work and his meager stipend gave him scarcely enough money to pay the rent on his dreary, one-room flat and to buy basic food supplies. What little remained he spent on cheap Irish whiskey.

Disconsolate, Danny tucked the letter back in his pocket, the sole unsullied corner of his muddy, damp clothing.

In the glow of a cozy fire later that evening, a heavy rain buffeting his window, he sat and lingered over the final line in Paddy’s letter:

‘Impatient for some news’.

He understood why. For Danny had never written to Paddy with any consistency. A few times he sent a missive with vague news touching on life in the village or a failed romance with a local girl. The few Kilcrohane girls that he did briefly court soon tired of his drinking and couldn’t foresee a future with the village graveyard man.

He still held the same job at the burial ground that he had secured shortly after Paddy left. It was a favor granted by the town postmaster, who, seeing the directionless youth, put in a good word with the village vicar. The few local lads who he did befriend soon married, started families and became heavily cloaked in all the variegated fibers of Irish domesticity.

His only surviving relative was an aunt who raised him from childhood after both of his parents were struck down by pneumonia within a year of each other. He rose each morning in the pre-dawn blackness and quaffed a shot of whiskey with breakfast. He then worked until early afternoon at the burial ground before stopping by the village church to tidy up the small yard and sweep the front steps. If he could spare a few coins, he would stop by the village pub to sulk over a whiskey by the fire. His evenings were passed in perfect solitude consuming a small dinner at a worn, uneven wooden table. He would linger over a whiskey, or perhaps drift through a few pages of The Last Man before falling into a fitful slumber in a corner cot.

Danny’s thinning, greying hair, advancing arthritis and a slight bending of his once tall, supple frame were the only evidence of time’s imperial march. The daily whiskey and the exposure to the winds of Dunmanus Bay had conspired to form deep lines across his red, hardened face. To dress in the morning became increasingly arduous. Decades of brushing and scraping on the damp burial ground grass had reduced his hands to a throbbing mass of misery. His fingernails wore a permanent inky black coating after a lifetime of labour in the mud and muck. His bucket also bore the stamp of time. A long, thin crack ran down one side and a thoroughly rusted handle flirted with annihilation.

Danny rises to his feet and turns for home. It’s a short walk up the gravel lane, across the village street and up another brief path to his flat. As he approaches the sparse lighting of the village, he sees the ‘Open’ sign affixed to the door of the general store. Paddy’s absence was always felt most acutely when passing that place. He very often turned to his whiskey here.

As he neared that same village road just a few months ago while returning home, he saw a bespectacled, grey-haired man. His hair was neatly cut and he was standing before the door of the general store. Unlike Danny’s filthy clothes, he wore clean slacks and a yellow sweater over a button-down shirt. Black shoes completed his casual, yet dignified outfit. Such a refined–almost regal–presence was a rare sight in these parts. His countenance gained clarity with each step Danny took until the ‘twins of Kilcrohane’, stripped of youth’s fair brush, were standing before each other.

‘So nice to see you,’ Danny said, as the two embraced warmly in the shadow of where they bid farewell 58 years earlier.

‘Likewise, my friend,’ Paddy responded, flinching slightly over Danny’s shoulder as the penetrating odour of liquor filled the space around their merged bodies.

Later, under the soft glow of Danny’s fire, each bearing a glass of Irish whiskey, they reminisced about Kilcrohane and their childhood. They also shared details of their lives since that bleak, windy autumn day in 1925.

‘You should have joined me,’ Paddy said softly, dredging up the open invitation he extended to Danny in 1925 as the two mulled their respective futures.

‘You know Paddy, I, uh, couldn’t leave my aunt on the peninsula,’ he responded solemnly. ‘She begged me to stay. It’s a choice I, uh,’ he said somberly while shaking his head slowly.

‘It’s a choice I,’ he repeated falteringly, his voice dwindling into a pained silence.

‘It would have been nice to have you nearby,’ Paddy said, his yellow sweater emitting an ethereal glow before the crackling flame. ‘The lads never got to properly know their Uncle Danny.’

That same flame cast a soft orange glow over Danny’s copy of The Last Man, which tilted precariously against a vase on the table.

‘It hasn’t been easy,’ Danny muttered. ‘The peninsula can drive even the strongest man to, well…’

Paddy offered an acquiescing nod.

Danny glanced forlornly down at his half-empty glass of Irish whiskey.

His crimson cheeks gained an added fervour before the dancing flames as he told Paddy of the unstirred monotony of the last half-century. It was a quotidian routine made more oppressive in the wake of his aunt’s death in 1935. His drinking intensified, leading to his permanent expulsion from one of the two pubs in the village after the owner found him lifting a pint of Guinness from a crate in the rear. It was an act he had pulled off many times with Paddy under more nimble legs, but his arthritic limbs betrayed him. He tripped, noisily tumbling into a collection of discarded beer bottles. Locals began to avoid the graveyard man–a development that only tightened his noose of isolation.

An extended silence hung over the flat. The greying, wrinkled, fragile pair sat opposite each other, whiskies in hand, as the final cracks and whistles of the fire expired. A few months later, Danny received a letter from Paddy’s wife Mary:

Dear Danny:

It is with great sadness that I must inform you of the death of our dear Paddy. He passed away last night surrounded by his loving children, grandchildren and me.
He spoke often of you in the most affectionate terms–both in America and here in Clifden. His interment at the Kilcrohane Burial Ground will take place next Thursday morning.

With love,

Mary

Danny crosses the village street, bucket in hand, and heads home. Later that evening after supper, his whiskey on a side table and the fire bathing the room in a gentle orange, Danny marks the two-month anniversary of Paddy’s death in the same fashion he’s spent nearly every night since 1925–alone with his whiskey.

A heavy squall erupts. Fierce winds rattle the windows. Danny settles in his chair, mulling the vestiges of Mary’s final letter announcing Paddy’s death:

‘He passed away last night surrounded by all his loving children, grandchildren and me’.

As he scans his vacant flat, the only object Danny’s heart can warmly bend towards is his volume of Shelley’s The Last Man. It was the sole item of any value bequeathed to him by his aunt after her death.

‘Blasted choices,’ he mutters testily.

Suddenly, a powerful urge wills him–almost lifts him–out of his chair. He heads to the old wooden table near the door. Never has he moved with such a singular purpose after a day’s work at the burial ground. He picks up the half-empty bottle of Irish whiskey and walks resolutely to the kitchen sink. Slowly, he unscrews the cap and empties the contents of the bottle down the drain. He watches with avidity as the last drops of that demonic liquid swirl into nothingness. He walks to the front door of the flat and opens it briskly. He braces himself against nature’s wild riot and places the empty bottle outside.

‘Free,’ he sighs wearily.

Face now aglow before his modest fire, the words return:

‘He spoke of you in the most affectionate terms…’

He crosses his legs and eases his head back against a small pillow.

The storm rages into the night. His breathing softens.

‘He spoke of you in the most affectionate terms…’

Then, with fading images of Paddy clinging to the narrowing corridors of his mind, the peninsula relaxes its grip on Danny, the fire withers, and darkness settles over the village of Kilcrohane.

***