Descriptions ofFurther Novels
The Lover from Sarajevo, (306 pages), is a novel about Cidro Lemieux, a twenty three year old cellist in Sarajevo who finally escapes the Bosnian War (1992-1996). Cidro then travels through Europe to Paris as a street musician. He spends time in Vienna, Berlin and takes an unexpected detour to travel and play music with the Rom into Belgium. He lived in Paris as a child yet wishes to go there because he longs to find a French woman he believes he fell in love with in Sarajevo at the onset of the war. When he does get to Paris, she is nowhere to be found yet he stays in the city, ‘busking’ in the metro tunnels for a living. Cidro makes many new acquaintances and slowly forgets about the French woman, yet 10 years later, meets her again. In context, it is a kind of Bildungsroman, the journey of a young man struggling with poverty, artistic genius and isolation caused by the storm and stress of exile and the Bosnian War.
London San Francisco, subtitled- Tale of a Caustic Romance (299 pages), is a contemporary novel about two people in a long distance relationship. Elaina, the woman, lives in San Francisco and Paul, the man, lives in London. They first meet at Heathrow airport and in time, Paul visits Elaina in California and stays for one month. During this brief visit, they fall desperately in love and he returns to England, promising to return. Alas, this return does not happen. The novel follows their separate daily existence in the two cities via their emails and skype calls while they are holding on to each other from afar. Soon, strange and troubling difficulties in the character of Paul are revealed and Elaina nearly goes mad, unwilling to stop loving him. Ironically, the drama of their separateness appears to strengthen their attachment. Paul’s jealousy and depression escalate while Elaina’s hopelessly romantic visions of hope seem to victimize her. The style is very bold yet quite whimsical, and portrays an overall examination of heartbreak.
Mr. Mist, (280 pages) is a sequel to London San Francisco in which the story of Elaina continues. The first two thirds of the novel take place in a psychiatric hospital and focus upon an orderly named Antony who is a former actor and assumes various roles according to the delusional perceptions of his patients. For Elaina, he becomes Paul, her former lover, and their dialogues are painful and fabulous. When a new patient named Aspen arrives, the story takes a turn and although not a love triangle, but a sort of triangle of ambition constructs, changing the course for the three characters. The setting is obviously grim, yet the writing style manages to weave a great, rather stark sense of humor into the narrative and the exchanges between Antony and Elaina are extremely poetic. As their exchanges grow deeper, Elaina heals. The last third of the book is removed from the hospital and concludes with a dramatic closure to the devastating relationship in London San Francisco
Navel of the Sea, (351 pages) is a collection of different love stories that take place in different countries during select time periods of history, spanning the golden age of ancient Greece to our modern era. The separate stories are connected by an ongoing narrative about the two writers of the stories, husband and wife, Claude and Marianne, who live on the Maltese island of Gozo in Italy where they receive postcards from the past that dictate the century and setting for each story. The story at the end of the novel tells how they first met and fell in love.
Chateau Beauchere is a novel set in the south of France where “the colors are all gold, blue and swamp green”. Nick Lock, a surfer from Santa Cruz, inherits a castle in Provence from his deceased wife and turns it into a residency for artists who arrive from Europe and Africa. The story unfolds as the private lives of the various tenants unfold. Nick is also an opera aficionado who teaches courses on operas based on literature at the university in Aix-en-Provence and along with his passion for the waves, happens to be a fantastic chef. The residents at Beauchere gather every Thursday evening in the courtyard under an ancient oak tree for luxurious dinners where not only friendships but also romantic relationships develop. Alas the narrative twists and turns between a surfing ‘Lord’, an Italian cello player, an Italian violinist, a Moroccan painter, an Algerian falconer, an old, grumpy French sculptor, a young untalented painter from London and her actor boyfriend with abundant piercings and tattoos, a Romanian gypsy, an Irish-American novelist and yes, even a ghost, all working and living in a semi-crumbling medieval castle, set to a background of one of most beautiful regions in the world.
Drumcliff or Rori the Biker is a novel in progress about an Irish poet who returns to Sligo, Northern Ireland after riding a motorcycle around the United States of America from the years of 1969-1974. The narrative recalls his wild episodes and love affairs abroad while presenting the days now back home in Sligo where after five years away, “Nothing had changed. It could have been 15 or 50 years and nothing would have changed. The rain still made the hills green, the stones still spoke and Dustin McBride still sat on the last stool at the end of the bar, facing the door, waiting for eternity to swallow him.”
The Paper Boat
by Elizabeth McKague © 2015
O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...
He made them in crafty, rapid gestures, folding the pages of a manuscript he’d carried to the river. Thinking he would read it, he planned to sit on his favorite rock until the mud of the bank crept into his only pair of leather shoes and the October dusk erased what light was left in the sky.
The white sheets of paper were slick and delicate. His tiny boats easily drifted from the water’s edge in measured breaths and sailed down river in a balanced breeze. The Arno looked murky and heavy, a green shade in the last pale slants of daylight. He creased and folded his stanzas and cantos, turning the corners of each page into lips that held a silence. A silence before voyage, a silence released from the futility of whatever permanence he had originally intended by attempting to write the damn thing. He started to work faster in a synchronized fury, setting each paper boat upon the water as soon as it was made. He got a paper cut, then another, and his fingers grew cramped in the sharp, cold air hovering over the river with the approaching night.
At last he folded his hands together in a buckle around his knees and relaxed. His posture copied the shape of the rock. He stared hypnotically at the flotilla of paper boats he had made. Spreading out along the river’s dreary current, they passed beneath the Ponte Solferino until page one was a white speck in the distance. Then page two and page three, until the entire paper fleet, like defeated warrior ships, slowly disappeared into a blinding mist, moving westward toward the Mediterranean Sea. The sun sped away and the Arno became gray and opaque.
As a child, he had made paper boats with such concentration that nothing existed in his mind but the movement of his fingers against the sheets of paper. He tore them from a random notebook he had discovered about the house. They felt at once flimsy yet stiff, soft and cold. It was the autumn of 1802. He had left his sisters to their music lesson and wandered out of doors alone. He descended the wide steps in the front of the mansion, crossed the circular drive of gritty stones where the carriages came in, and continued through a maze of clipped green hedges in the courtyard. He was not even aware that he had left the house without a guardian. He remembered a sense of freedom and the sad scent of his mother’s neglected garden. Fading, pink chrysanthemums and frosted white colored roses danced, nonchalantly withering in symmetric rows. He walked beside the white washed fence that was then twice his height and passed the stables without being noticed. The horses were being let out from their stalls into the meadow. He strode over a damp, grassy hill and finally came to Field Place pond. The gray-green water quivered in a slight breeze. He found a flat spot of dry pebbles situated amongst tall yellow reeds at the edge of the pond. He sat down and felt hidden. He watched some fallen maple leaves drift in the water, aimlessly spinning this way then that. He sat there that day for hours, making boats and watching them float. At one point, the sun broke through the late afternoon clouds and illuminated the pond. His paper boats shone. He took a stick and made ripples. He was ten years old.
Perhaps he was punished for wandering about the Estate alone that day. He didn’t remember. He didn’t remember much from his childhood. Just the boats, the ghost stories he wrote with his eldest sister, the airless smell of the perfumed ladies who visited his mother’s tea room, the fear he felt each time he passed the door to his father’s stale library, a book of poems by Thomas Chatterton and that particular day when he sat at the pond alone. For something happened in the late hour of that afternoon. He sat watching the rings of ripples grow around his tiny spinning boats in the water, listening to the croak of a concealed, lone toad and the hoots of wild geese hunting for their winter home across the gray sky. Then it happened. It lasted for a moment but a moment that appeared to throw away all time.
He looked up to watch the flock of geese pass by. The black branches of an ominous oak clawed at the sky like some ancient, crippled beast scraping its tentacles against a pane of silver light. He looked down into the water for a sudden burst of light in the atmosphere nearly blinded him. He saw his reflection in the pond. He held his breath or could not breathe, maybe he had shrieked for the image terrified him. He was standing now and could see his entire figure in the water; a thin little boy with messy golden locks and blue eyes like gleaming sapphires and... wings! The whole world seemed upside down. He saw himself as an angel and it horrified him. He dared not look back up into the clouds for he was afraid he’d find a hole through which perhaps his subtle body had fallen. He never saw the angel again.
A discarded light from the street lamps along the quay beside the Arno made sharp arrows over the river that had by now gone black. Shelley rose and ascended the bank, snatching his long gray coat at the collar where buttons were lost and tried to bow his head under the harsh current of the wind.
He reached the Piazza Solferino where the very last rays of a tangerine sunset seemed to singe the edges of brown leaves drifting clumsily off chestnut trees. The square was fairly empty. A few parked carriages, a street musician wrapping his guitar in a tattered wool cloth, the shadowy lamplighter making his rounds and the rose colored glow in the two tall windows of a crowded restaurant. The bells of San Nicola struck at six o’clock. He stopped to listen, a habit he had developed since his exile into Italy, to simply stop and stand still for those few moments of ringing. He didn’t pray, he didn’t think, he didn’t speak, just breathed and listened. San Sepolcro, Santa Croce, Saint Marks, Saint Peters, San Giorgino Maggiore; the bells of each church unique to his attention. The bells of Westminster Abbey or any cathedral he’d lived by in England only reminded him of time, wrung his nerves, made him worry. A sort of bell toll anxiety he experienced even on his wedding day, or rather, both wedding days.
He turned onto the Lungarno Pacinotti, a wide avenue that traced the river. The chilly air forced him to quicken his stride. He watched a fisherman ahead, dragging his net out of the water and onto the shore. It was filled with silver perch flapping away. But that’s not what Shelley saw. He saw a woman’s body; silver, bloated, frozen, dead. The same body he saw in his mind when Mary returned from the post that afternoon and read him the letter, the only way she could, quickly, without expression, her voice laden, calm and dry.
“Harriet Westbrook, age 26, found drowned in the Serpentine. Cause of death, suicide.”
He had neither seen nor communicated with his ex-wife for ten years. The news did not shock him and his demeanor remained as blank as Mary’s. He went into his attic den alone for an hour. Then tucking the manuscript in his jacket left the apartment quietly, telling her he was off to Byron’s early. Instead, he went to the river, knowing ‘the haunting’ was about to return. He had seen ghosts all over Field Place as a child. He even discovered their hideouts and would often sneak into the pantry, the coal cellar or beneath the stair just to sit with them for the moments before he was found out. In college, in London, in Whales, in Ireland... wherever he’d traveled since, the ghosts would follow. By now such episodes had become a kind of state that was so familiar, that although it made him ache, like bouts of loneliness or sadness, he saw the spectral visitors as natural invitations into the enigma of the mind. He accepted his visions as markers or signs, invisible notices of eviction from one house of the spirit into another. The doctors called his visions ‘hallucinations,” but Shelley believed more in the ghosts than the doctors.
“Good evening!” The happy fisherman called up to Shelley who was scuffling along the road above the riverbank.
“Good evening.” Shelley echoed, “Looks like you have a good catch there.”
“A very good catch. Buona sera, Signore.”
He felt free of the haunting as he crossed the Ponte della Fortezza where the reflection of the street lamps blurred on the dark river. He walked on until he reached the steps of the Palazzo Lanfranchi, which he had named, “Lord Byron’s Circean Palace,” for the enormous rooms were forever littered, with not only a tropical menagerie of plants but also all kinds of exceptional animals.
“What a sorcerer you are, my Lord.” Shelley had commented when he first encountered Byron’s collection of pets in Ravenna, “I see you’ve brought Cicero back from the underworld in the form of a ferret and metamorphosed the old stoic Seneca into an owl!”
Byron had laughed, then added quite seriously, “You know, when I was at Cambridge I kept a grizzly bear in my rooms and I must confess that at one point I truly believed he was Marcus Aurelius Antonius himself.”
Although the bear was no longer a part of Byron’s zoo, the spectacle of his domesticated animals never ceased to amaze Shelley. As he crossed the Palace’s threshold, even though he’d done so one hundred times before, the scenery helped to lighten his thoughts and soon enough he became almost giddy.
In the foyer he was greeted by two German shepherds, composed as the Queen’s guards, while a majestic falcon perched on the head of a statue of Hermes in its center. Next, in the front hall, he paraded past an army of cats curled up upon the embroidered cushions of French rococo chairs that were set flush against the long frescoed wall. Byron’s three white monkeys were swinging in mocking gaiety from a monstrous glass chandelier. One of the monkeys bounced down into the corridor and the cats hunched up and hissed. He turned into a gallery where he was spied upon by the incandescent eyes of peacocks opening their feathers like a lady’s fan and when he reached the stairs to the second story, he was forced to experience a philosophical confrontation with a wandering Egyptian crane. At the entry to Byron’s private lodgings, a set of purebred Russian wolfhounds lounged on wooden benches at either end of an enormous hearth, perpetually oblivious to the sporadic swarms of yellow canaries flying in and out of the lush green ferns of potted plants. And finally, as he climbed the stairs, the echoes of fiery red and mint blue parrots aligned along the banister sang out in scratchy harmony, “The King is dead! The King is dead!”
Byron’s butler informed Shelley that the gentlemen were in the billiard room. He entered through the open door very quietly, clinging to the shadows elongated against a paneled wall by a blazing fire. They were playing a close game, Williams and Byron against Trelawny and Robert Southey. He sat down in a green velvet chair that was tucked into a discreet corner. Across the room sat Thomas Moore, crouched on the sofa, reading the fresh ink of Byron’s newest poem with a crinkled brow. They were all sipping sherry out of thin crystal glasses whilst Robert Southey captivated them with an animated review of his recent encounter in Switzerland.
“And just as we were leaving the hotel with the predicted blizzard upon us, Mr. Wordsworth wrapped his scarf around his long neck and ended our conversation about ‘Mad Shelley’ by saying, ‘A poet who has not produced a good poem before the age of twenty five, we may conclude, cannot and never will do so.’ In all earnest, I mentioned Shelley’s Queen Mab but Mr. Wordsworth just growled and said, ‘Won’t do. This hairy fellow is our flea trap!’ The words of William Wordsworth I tell you! Straight from the mouth of the man who is sure to be England’s next poet laureate.” He then grew silent to watch Byron nudge his last ball just to the edge of the middle bumper. Southey grinned, tapped his cue stick three times on the floor, then bent over the table, squinting through his awkward monocle and biting a mole that hung, gathering spittle upon the bulb of his lower lip as he muttered, “Sorry, old man,” and pounced forward on his stick to win the game. The rest of the group laughed at the amusement but Byron did not. He rolled his dark eyes about the smoky room and noticed his friend hiding in the green chair and limped toward it instantly.
“Shelley! We didn’t hear you come in.”
“I didn’t want to disturb your game.” He stood and took a deep breath. The room was stuffy and smelled of burnished wood.
“Southey here had a run-in with Wordsworth in Geneva.” Byron gripped Shelley's slim wrist.
“I heard.” He warmly shook his hand.
Robert rushed to meet the young poet, his face pink with embarrassment, “I don’t think he’s ever even read your work, really. And the weather was abominable that day, we were all out of our wits, truly.”
“Pleased to see you again too, Robert.” Shelley bowed his head slightly, “But my dear sir, there is no need to apologize. Now I know what England’s finest contemporary poet has to say about my work and I respect him all the more for it.” He leaned toward Southey’s quivering shoulders and whispered bitterly, “As a matter of fact I never did write a good poem before I was twenty-five. I suppose that means the last four years have been quite a waste of time.” Shelley straightened his posture and tugged at his waistcoat as he turned to Byron with a clandestine wink and announced, “You know, I do believe that as of this very moment I shall throw away my quill and commit my life’s work to perfecting the art of bird watching.”
Southey’s meaty shoulders began to shake. Byron chummily slapped his back, “Come now ol’ chap, let’s don’t get unruffled. Shelley is teasing us. Let Wordsworth have his say! Our boy here probably doesn’t give a damn!”
Robert’s eyes widened then narrowed into slits like a snake before its prey. Byron quickly leapt between them and challenged Robert to another game. Trelawny offered Shelley a glass of sherry that he declined. Instead he accepted the loose pages Tom had finished reading, the seventh canto of Byron’s Don Juan, which he took to the green velvet chair with a sense of relief. But as he settled down to read it, Byron, who had crossed the room to obtain a better cue stick, stopped abruptly behind Shelley’s chair and whispered, “Shall we throw him to the dogs?”
Shelley grinned, “No. Let the monkeys have him.”
The Lover From Sarajevo
by Elizabeth McKague
It was made out of the maple wood recovered from a shipwreck that had long ago been washed onto the shores of the Black Sea. The craftsman signed his name in an odd curly script with puce colored ink on a slip of glue-backed parchment, Aurelius Bumbescu, Bucharest, Romania, 1873.
You had to put your eye right up to the F hole to see it.
Sometimes he’d look up in a safe moment to watch the girl on the fourth floor. He could see her through the shattered windows of her apartment as he played in the plaza down below. She had written a play and spent her days rehearsing it with various dread headed characters. He played the cello. She played a kind of female Mephistopheles, from what he could gather. She was always speaking about the moon. The gnarly haired young men in the rest of her cast were all very tall, emaciated and pale. They stood around her in a circle like skeleton puppets, and from his view in the square, it often looked as if they were levitating, for their heads appeared to touch the ceiling. He lived on the floor above her. They smiled at each other every so often when they coincidentally passed on the winding stair, but never exchanged words. The air was very bad in their building and the fumes from the grenades outside made the stifling stillness inside it so dense, one would actually have to make an effort to say anything at all.
That morning when he came downstairs he heard the sounds of lovemaking echoing into the halls from behind her closed door. It made him nervous, like a bad omen. The streets were slippery when he went outside. It had not rained. He began to worry that it may. He sat on a bench in a corner of the square and unlocked the sturdy case. There was no point in looking at the sky. The pollution from bombs, fires and so much blood had created a perpetual shroud for anything celestial for many seasons. He didn’t even know what day it was, or what month anymore. He tried to remember how the trees had looked when they were alive, but even the trees had been standing stripped of their dignity for so long now it was not inconceivable that all of nature had been subjugated to a never ending winter. He started to play. His fingers were cold. Not rain today, maybe snow. If it became too cold he would have to stop, he didn’t want to hurt the cello, it was so sensitive to extreme temperatures. His fingers were not behaving with the flexibility he’d trained them for and he tried to purge out the stiffness as he continued to play his new piece, the one he was almost but not quite yet absolutely sure of, with a spirit absent of care for the weather.
Aurelius Bumbescu left the cello to Cidro Lemieux’s great grandfather, who left it to his grandfather who left it to Cidro’s father who in turn left it, not to Cidro at all, but just left it when he left Sarajevo on January 5th of 1992, exactly three months before the Siege. He left it leaning against the wall in its ancient hard case and gave Cidro a certain amount of cash but no instructions regarding the cello. He only promised to send his new address, when he got one, as he was headed, “North,” was all he told his son. For a short period Cidro enjoyed living alone. It was the first time he’d ever done so. Then the Serbian army surrounded the village and he felt an erupting sense of trepidation and confusion. Yet what mattered more to him at that point was the beginning of a stranger emotion, a combination of a new, overwhelming sense of individuality mixed with longing to hear from his father. As time went by, he found himself fighting off the persistent feeling that his father had probably died. Cidro grew up believing that he would become a man at the age of 21. This is what his father always told him. And so, that year, within those circumstances, he did. He was now 23.
His fingers were cramping up from the cold. He stopped to blow on them. The piece was all wrong. The arrangement sounded impure and strained and the midsection was too complicated. Perhaps he should change the tempo; it sounded like a thousand bullets in a row. A Bosnian soldier was crossing the plaza at the far end. He walked slowly, then slower and Cidro noticed he was wavering. The soldier began zigzagging directly toward the corner of the square where the cellist played. His steps were disorganized and he appeared intoxicated or... then he dropped. There was blood all over the back of his fatigues. He made an effort to look up at Cidro, who in turn looked the other way and kept playing.
The soldier’s eyes lifted toward the sky and froze. His hat had fallen off when he fell and landed right next to a pothole in the street out of which a young boy crawled carrying a plastic, five-liter jug of water. The boy scrambled to his feet, saw the dead soldier, picked up the hat and ran. Cidro heard trucks in the distance. He packed up and ran too, in the same direction of the boy. He waited in an alley for a short while until the fiasco was over and the body was dragged away for he had to cross the plaza to get to the market. They didn’t wash away the blood. He played there every day and the square had become like his own private stage. The boy had forgotten his water. He poured some of it over the cobblestones that had been stained, but replaced the jug knowing the boy would surely come back for it. He was too late. The underground market had already closed. He turned to walk home with his cello strapped to his back and passed a man in a doorway who called out to him, “Hey you...!”
He didn’t stop. “Hey, you! Fuckin’ cellist!” Cidro glanced back into the dim gray alcove. A haggard old man held out his hands. Four fresh eggs. “500 dinars,” he said. Cidro paid him 200, half of what he made that morning before the episode with the soldier cut short his hours.
He’d been playing on the street for money since he was 16. His father’s income had always been inconsistent, sporadic spells of what the Lemieux family knew as wealth, that is, a new jacket, a few dinners out and a ticket to the symphony, were often countered by long periods of nothing but tram change, bread and milk. When his father left, Cidro sold his own cello to pay the rent. Aurelius’ cello was of course worth much more, but he could never let it go, would never let it go. It was the only thing left in this new adult life that could trick him into feeling as if life had any purpose at all. He wrapped the eggs in his scarf and headed toward his home. Mortar was flying through the air and he was forced to cross Bascarsija, the oldest part of Sarajevo, built by the Ottoman's in the 15th century. It was the first district to be demolished. Now it it was a landscape of rubble, all the old turkish buildings broken to the ground and an enormous crater scarring the main square. Only one structure remained, the Sebilj, the public fountain. He used to play there in the summertime and had found such harmony in the constant sound of the soft splashing water, the muffled voices of people meeting in the cafes and the sight of children chasing pigeons with ice cream cones in their hands, even the discordant cooing of the pigeons- well, that world was gone. He scurried around the corner of the ruins of the cathedral of Jesus Heart and held his body flush between two damaged pillars in the facade for a couple of minutes as several bullets hit the opposite side of the cathedral. Echoes of the fired shots got caught in the dome and rang out like mutated bells.
Cidro’s mother used to take him here on Sundays when she was alive. Now Jesus Heart had a huge hole in its center, blown straight through with a rocket-propelled grenade. He never liked going to mass but he liked the church itself, the candles and incense and music. They would travel by tramway in the early morning and he remembered liking that too because she never let go of his hand. The National Library went next, another monument towering in his memories of innocence. They burned it to the ground. All those books he had spent his afternoons with between school and his music lesson, adventure stories mostly; The Arabian Nights, The Iliad and Odyssey, Le Morte d’Arthur, Robinson Crusoe, gone.
He moved on, staying close to the crumbled stones. Dim candlelight ebbed through the slits of her barricaded windows on the fourth floor. When he past her door he heard muffled laughter. Laughter, funny how it sounded so foreign, being the one universal language next to tears. He stopped, wishing to knock, to say something or simply try to smile.
There was little coal but he lit the stove anyway, promising himself he would make it to the market on time tomorrow. Night fell fast and he moved about his apartment in the isolated, sapphire colored light from the stove for a while, preparing the place for the evening. When the shelling became routine he had torn off the bathroom door and switched its position with the pretty, tapestry drapes that hung over the one long window facing the street. They were ancient drapes, his Bosnian grandmother’s from the 50’s or something. He poured a shot glass full of kerosene into the base of his lamp and sprinkled it with a pinch of salt to make the fuel last longer. There was a knock at the door. He wished it might be the girl, he could offer her something, an egg. It was Grebo, from across the hall. He had an open bottle of red wine in his hand. Cidro set the table with two glasses and two plates and fried the eggs over the coals. Grebo kept talking. They ate and drank very slowly. After some time Cidro began to listen to him and realized he was pontificating on his grand plan for escape. He had heard it often enough before, but this time his neighbor’s ideas seemed to be making some sense. He gazed intensely into the man’s blue eyes as he spoke, watching them bounce like two umbrageous little balls beneath his wild, curly, reddish graying hair. There were many holes in ‘the plan,’ but overall, his ideas did not seem as far fetched as they had been in the past.
Salim Grebo was 30 years older than Cidro and was living across the hall thirteen years ago when the Lemieux family moved in. He had always felt closer to him than his own father. He learned sometime ago that Grebo had had an affair with his mother and he remembered how grief stricken their neighbor was at her funeral. Yes, that day especially, Salim seemed to understand what Cidro was going through, even more so than himself at the turbulent age of 15. It seemed so far away. His mother. Far away as France, the place he was born, as Paris, the city where he spent a very happy childhood.
Salim asked for a piece of bread to clear the thin film of yolk off his plate. Cidro shook his head. “I didn’t get to the market in time today.”
“A piece of bread! One crumb!” Grebo stood, taking the bottle of wine, now more than half empty, in his hand and went out, leaving the door open behind him. He returned in several minutes with the girl from the fourth floor. One of the skeletons was with her. She had black bread and Kashkaval cheese and her friend had hashish. The four of them sat, eating, drinking and smoking at once. They spoke of objects and places in the neighborhood that had been annihilated. A few first names were mentioned: the generous man who ran the local kiosk; if he liked your style of conversation you got a free newspaper or a pack of gum, the odd woman in the red coat who got off the bus at six a.m. sharp, even on Sundays, and the dare devil little boy who used to do tricks with his bike in the square. Cidro asked the girl about her play and she grew uneasy. Her friend began to answer the question, going into lengthy detail about the plot and even quoting, with pretentious affectations, certain passages in which, it was obvious, he had a leading role. Cidro watched the girl’s downcast eyes as her friend spoke. She was so pretty, he thought. But he didn’t like her really. He didn’t think he liked her soul. They finished the spliff and talked some more but did not sit up late. After everyone was gone he played as if he himself had also left and the few objects that caught his attention in the room; the dirty plates and glasses, the glowing red embers of coal in the stove, his three favorite books and the two thin blankets on his bed that he never made, all appeared foreign. He felt as if he were in a stranger’s home in a strange land. He bit his lip and stared at his soft shadow on the panels of the faded, raspberry painted walls. His posture looked monstrous over the cello like some kind of half man, half beast choking a giant insect. The rumpled sheets on his bed were in the shape of a swan. He imagined a swan gliding in a pool of clear blue water. There was a shot outside in the distance. The water became black.
London San Francisco
by Elizabeth McKague
The sky was silver, his geraniums dusted with dew, and the car alarm that had barked incessantly through the hollow of dawn was once again scowling above the shuffling roads at 8:30 that morning. He went into his tiny bathroom and looked in the mirror. He desperately needed a haircut and shrieked when he grabbed the back of his hair and could nearly make a ponytail with that secondary school mullet he had going on. He made coffee and eggs, then showered but decided not to shave. A trip to the salon would be enough for one day. If you had to place Paul Wise on a scale between the woodcutter and the metro-sexual, he’d fall just below the central point on the side of the woodcutter.
“Green.” He called it.
There were several stylists he’d gone to in the past and they always, always fucked up. A few days ago on a whim, he’d taken Harrow Road home from a pub in Chelsea instead of grazing through a maze of back streets to avoid it as he usually did. That night he subconsciously registered seeing a new salon that had just opened up. It had been closed at that hour but for some reason he had processed the notion that perhaps it was unpretentious, almost needy and possibly a bit serene. When he got there that afternoon, the impression proved misleading. Regardless, he waited in the fake cowhide chair for his name to be called out by a pregnant, anorexic receptionist with iridescent green eye shadow. She led him to a second room in the back of the establishment that he was not aware existed, where a pretty Palestinian girl was spritzing a man’s hair in one chair, while an older man with a silver pony tail himself, was blow drying what cotton pink fibers were left upon the head of an 80 year old woman. If he got the guy, he’d request the girl. That’s how it was, no ifs ands or buts. Spritzing finished, the Palestinian girl smiled at him and waved him to her chair. It was a rather magnetic experience as he sat down, stared into the mirror and saw her standing there behind him, mouthing “oohs,” and “ahs,” repetitive as a car alarm, with her sharp, slender fingers rousing through his hair.
Twice, he told her twice, exactly what he wanted. Yet like every single time before, three and a half raucous house-music tracks and twelve pound sterlings later, including the tip, he was back out on Harrow road with a head that belonged to the kind of man he thought the entire planet should ignore. He put his hands in his pockets and stepped out of the way of two small children with post-childhood faces who were aggressively trying to push each other into the slow moving traffic. An old lady, to avoid being knocked over, slowly orbited their world. She was dragging a tartan shopping trolley behind her with a discarded, blue, off license carrier bag trapped underneath one wheel, creating a sound like sandpaper against the gray pavement. Across the road at a bus stop slapped flush to the doors of a KFC, the dark, dejected faces of unemployed men ate burgers from a chip shop further along the way. Rejected lettuce leaves lay alongside their spit polished trainers. Paul tried to remember the old joke but couldn't quite. Just the punch line; ninety percent of London.
He walked on until he reached a second hand furniture shop, a place that sold mostly outdated office furniture and cheap single mattresses. Seeking a moment of solace he went inside. After rummaging through the one plastic tray of books they had to offer, he found a novel by Herta Muller. He decided to buy it. He was fond of the author, but the real reason he spent his last pound, fifty pence on the book was because the picture of her on the inside jacket made him think he could possibly look almost like her in thirty years. Maybe it was something to do with the hair. The hair he had up until half an hour ago. He stepped out of the shop reading the back cover and when he looked up he saw the most bazaar sight he’d ever seen in London. A young man with naturally bleached blond hair, wearing beach shorts and sandals was walking down the street carrying a surfboard.
“Where does he think he's going dressed like that?” He heard someone say.
Nostalgically amused, Paul turned onto Ladbroke Grove, deciding to traverse a newfound maze back to Salem Road. The surfboard spectacle reminded him of an afternoon he spent in Paris three years ago. It was an uncomfortably hot and humid day. He took the bus from his not so shoddy pension room in the Latin Quarter to Père Lâchais cemetery. He had no interest at all in visiting the famous graves of artists, composers or writers, and least of all, the haunt of Jim Morrison. Yet by chance he happened upon it and had to admire the group of teenyboppers in their tank tops and shorts, smoking joints and drinking cheap wine out of the bottle, mourning the death of their hero. He’d gone there to feel cool amongst the cold, sculpted stones, to stroll beneath the shade of hazelnut and ash trees, and to escape the heavy aesthetic demands of the most beautiful city he’d thus far visited in the world.
After some hours he passed through the gate and waited at the bus stop on the Avenue Gambetta. Many minutes passed. Few people were out because of the dead heat. Finally, he saw a large, gray mass moving far down the street but soon realized that it was going too slow to be a bus. He put on his eyeglasses and watched as the body came closer. It was an elephant. He thought he was hallucinating or that perhaps he’d come out of his walk amongst the dead and entered some kind of surreal dream. Paul lit a cigarette and stood up straight and tall, bewildered as hell, as the beast thundered past. It was wearing a headdress made of bells and a woman in a pink and red sari sat poised, dripping with sweat, atop its back. Two boys followed along its side, poking the animal with aluminum poles. A banner was stretched between the boys, advertising the name of a new Indian restaurant.
Elaina was also in Paris that summer and in Père Lâchais as well, on that exact same day and during the same hours. Of course she’d gone there specifically to visit the graves: Proust, Wilde, Apollinaire, Eluard, Balzac and especially Abelard and Heloise. She’d learned one motto as a writer, “You don’t read the work; you inherit the work.”
So she felt akin to these guys and it had become a ritual to pay her respects. Yet as usual, even though she’d visited the grounds many times before, she got lost and ended up asking one of the stoned teenyboppers how to get out. It was Paul Wise’s first and only trip to the place that day and he found his way back onto the street quite with ease. The historical fact is that if Elaina had left Nerval’s tomb and headed for Musset instead of Molière, she would have reached the same bus stop at exactly the same time as Paul, and stood beside him, consumed with awe, as the elephant plodded down the avenue.
Navel of the Sea
by Elizabeth McKague
St. Petersburg, Russia, December in the year of 1800
Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff wrapped his red wool scarf around his neck up to his ears and turned his back on the Winter Palace that appeared to be floating upon a slate of green grime. In the distance, the spindly, black wooden mast poles of ships anchored in the harbor of the River Neva, appeared like the spokes of a giant iron fence piercing through the icy sky. He was hurrying. He was hungry and wanted to reach home before the unpredictable descending of ominous fog. It was nearly two o’clock. Night would begin at three and if the shadows came, he’d be lost.
He crossed a wide bridge over the Moika canal and entered the fervent activity of the Sennaya Ploschad, a large market nick named, the Hay Square, where, at that hour, all of St. Petersburg; peasants, merchants, gentry and aristocracy seemed to be gathered. Valentin discreetly eyed the women of nobility in their long fur coats, buying flowers or muffs, thinking what a life they must lead. He was secretly fascinated as well by the occasional military man whose dappled horse would slosh through the wet, snowy lot, his green Prussian styled uniform a reminder of the so-called mad Tsar, Paul I, and this new, supposed, ‘City of Order.’
Perhaps it was a confusing period in Russian history, but Valentin, as most of his class, cared little for politics. He was a starving musician and had two projects at the forefront of his mind: composition and survival. Sometimes the instinct for female company preoccupied his thoughts but he was intelligent enough to decipher the difference between need and desire, and so, unlike his closest friend Rastislav who was always broke by either gambling or the brothels, had the discipline to shake it off.
With freezing bare hands, he opened his empty violin case and neatly filled it with the carrots, onions and potatoes he’d just bought. The district where he resided, south east of the Hay Square, was a dubious, poverty stricken den of hardship and crime and Valentin had learned that the alley orphans would sooner steal a man’s sack of potatoes than a hand crafted violin worth a thousand rubles.
Just as he was finally crossing the Kameny Bridge over the Griboedov Canal, it came. That’s how it happened, in an instant the clear air would be flooded with fog so thick that if you put your hand before your face and moved it out an arms length, it would disappear. People got lost in it always for it cloaked all signals; monuments, street signs, storefronts, and even the bluish lights of the oil bulbs in the lampposts were smothered. People lost things in it, lost people in it- children would be separated from their parents and lovers from their beloved. And as with the blindness, so it was for sound. A voice calling out for a disappeared companion traveled only an arms length into the thick, gray robes of impenetrable mist before it was drowned.
Valentin was able to find his house on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa where he rented a small flat on the first floor. When he entered the building he saw Rastislav in the cold foyer, seated atop a short stack of dry fire logs, sipping from a bottle of vodka, just opened, and smoking a cigar.
“I won at roulette.” His friend grinned.
Valentin smiled and shook his head, contradicted by disapproval and envy. He unlocked the door to his tiny two rooms and lit the lamp as Rastislav dragged in the woodpile, tied together with rope. “I’d never thought I’d see the day when I’d be buying firewood. Back in the Ukraine it was unthinkable. You cut your own trees, shot your own bird for the table, skinned your own rabbits to make a coat. That’s how I grew up. Oh, you know this city is killing me, Val.”
The violinist had heard the story often enough before, yet played along, “Then why don’t you go back to the farm?”
Rastislav took a swig from the bottle, “The farm? Aren’t no cards or whores on the farm!”
They lit a fire in the hearth and Valentin put the vegetables in a pot to make a stew then poured a glass of vodka and picked up his violin as his friend tuned his own viola. Despite the man’s debauchery, the tall, robust Ukrainian never ceased to play like the devil. Valentin seriously wondered sometimes if what Rasti (as the loose ladies called him) often said might possibly be true; “Sold my soul, I did... sold my very soul.”
The violinist sighed when he woke in the morning to see the empty vodka bottle, the empty pot of stew and the blankets tossed over the armchair where Rasti had slept the night before. He’d obviously left earlier as the gambling houses opened at eight a.m. Val tidied his room, made tea, washed up and was about to shave when there was a knock on the door. It was just past nine a.m. and his first student for the day was not due until ten. He answered the door in his shirtsleeves with his jaw covered in lather and a towel around his neck, thinking Rastislav had probably forgotten something.
The woman on the other side, a beautiful, lavishly dressed woman in a green velvet dress with a minx shall falling off her shoulders, looked at him for a few seconds before she burst out laughing.
Val stood, self- conscious and somewhat stunned by her presence for her type was rarely seen this side of the Griboedov Canal. “May I help you, Madame?”
She stopped laughing though her fresh, rosy complexion was still lit with tenderness and joy. “Yes. I apologize... you are Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff?”
“Oh good. I’ve finally found you.”
‘A woman like this, looking for me, must be my lucky day!’ He thought and invited her in out of the cold foyer. The heat from the fire last night still warmed his rooms. He excused himself to wash off the lather and put on his waistcoat.
“Can I offer you some coffee?” He placed a cup and his one saucer on the little table beside the armchair where she’d seated herself.
“No, thank you. I’ve come for lessons, Monsieur.”
He cleared his throat. He’d never given lessons to a woman before. “Of course. So, are you a beginner or have you been playing long?”
She laughed genially, heartily. That laugh of hers- already it had become infectious to him.
“Goodness, gracious, no, no, they are not for me. I don’t have a musical bone in my body, but it appears I do in my blood. You see my twelve year-old my son, Mikhail Davidovich, is incredibly gifted. He’s been studying under Yegor Borodin Duskin since he was six, but alas, as you may have heard...”
“Yes, I read it in the papers. A sad loss indeed, Duskin was one of the greatest violinists in St. Petersburg! Ah, well, a full and prosperous life did he lead.”
Ayola made the sign of the cross with her delicate white hand over her lovely bosom and Val stood for a moment in silence to honor the old genius then had to ask, “But Madame... your son- that is quite impressive. Why me?”
She carefully took a letter out of her purse and handed it to him. It read:
My dear Ayola Proniakina zhena Davidovicha,
As you are aware, my days are numbered. Mikhail possesses an innate talent that must not go to waste and I implore you to continue his musical education in my absence. I suggest contacting one of the following violin teachers to take my place:
Alexi Alekseev Berezowsky, Boris Gubinich Popov, Dmitry Ivanovich Kuznetsov, Yury Sviatoslavov Sokoloff or Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff.
Very truly yours,
-Yegor Borodin Duskin
“I see.” Valentin returned the letter, adding, “My name is the last on the list.”
She shrugged, “I must admit, kind sir, that I have tried the others, yet without success. They either haven’t the time or,” she glanced around Val’s small two rooms and lowered her pretty face a bit, “the financial need.”
Valentin was not embarrassed; on the contrary, he was still recovering from the shock that Yegor Duskin even knew that he existed. Therefore, he accepted the position at once.
Aloya stood and handed him a card, “Here is my address. Are you able to come tomorrow to meet Mikhail?”
“At one o’clock?”
He nodded and thanked her as he opened the door then went to his one tiny window, clouded with steam, and watched her carriage drive away.
His ten o’clock student arrived directly. He had two more lessons that day, at twelve and at four, yet did not receive any pay. The boys were from the neighborhood and although their families were caring and decent, they were also very poor. Yet they gave their word, and considering that it was close to Christmas, Val knew from experience that they wouldn’t go back on it. He’d burned Rasti’s single remaining log in the hearth to keep his flat warm throughout the day, but by the end of his final student’s session, his rooms were freezing and he cut the lesson short for fear that the poor boy’s fingers might become frostbitten.
The bells of St. Isaac’s cathedral rang out through the fog at six o’clock and the chimes dimly melted against his windowpane like snowflakes. He peaked outside. It was in fact snowing and as usually happened at that hour, an overwhelming sensation streamed through his red and blue veins and purple arteries, weakened his mind and defenselessly crashed through the mirror of his soul and sent him falling, falling into an abyss of utter loneliness. It happened at six a.m. too, as he laid in his little bed beneath a moth eaten quilt, the agonizing sensation pulsated in his limbs, ached in his muscles and seemed to shatter his bones; loneliness. Each day, twice a day, Valentin not only experienced but succumbed to this terror of knowledge that he was alone in the world, that in the morning in his bed, he had no-one to hold onto and that no-one was there to hold onto him. And when the bells of St. Isaac’s chimed in the evening, it conquered him, the despair that there was no one in the coming of night who was waiting for him.
Val let himself suffer and shivered with cold. He wrapped his red scarf around his shoulders and rosined his bow but his own fingers grew numb and he was forced to place his violin back in its red velvet lined case. His stomach rumbled. His head ached and he wondered if perhaps this gloom of loneliness was nothing more than low blood sugar. He had to get out but had no money. He put on his shabby wool coat and paced his room for warmth in vain. He thought of Aloya’s laughter, her thick black hair, her sparking black eyes, ruby lips, green dress, minx stole and white fur cape and glanced at the address on her card. He knew the area; on the embankment of the Fontanka canal, north of the Mikhailovsky Castle, across from the Summer Gardens. Tomorrow, he decided, he would definitely ask for payment upfront from the Davidovich’s. He paced some more before the ash in the hearth. The armchair! Valentin quickly searched under the cushion, hoping to find a few kopecks that may have fallen out of Rasti’s pockets the night before. Ah ha! Five coins of 50 kopecks each and four rubles. In minutes he was out on the street, joyous at the ticklish wet snow falling lightly on his cheeks. It was a bit of a walk but he knew of a clean tavern with an inexpensive menu in near Sadovaja Square.
The tavern was animated, filled with wintry bodies in wool and furs, and the minute he entered he felt that there couldn’t possibly be a warmer place that night in all of Petersburg. He found a seat at a long wooden table and ordered a steaming bowl of shchi topped with smetana, and a bottle of Meddovukha.
“Cabbage soup garnished with a spoonful of sour cream, a crust of rye bread and a bottle of mead...” He heard a voice next to him say, “Can’t get more Russian than that!”
Val turned and said, “Why, it’s my dear friend ‘khokhol’...” using the somewhat derogatory term for identifying a Ukrainian.
Rastislav slapped the violinist’s back, “Eh... don’t start with that, now, I’m not in as good a mood as yesterday. Lost half on Red 29 and tucked the other half away under Vasilia Laikina’s skirt! But alas, it wasn’t for safe keeping!”
Val slid two rubles toward Rasti on the table, “Get yourself a vodka, friend... it’s your coin anyway, I found it in my armchair.”
And so the two stayed in the cheerful, cozy tavern until midnight when Vasilia Laikina appeared and sat on Rasti’s lap, at which point Valentin rose, went home, and went to sleep, fearing six a.m. when that great, vast, sweeping sensation of isolation and desolation would bury his expansive soul as if beneath a cold, snowy, Siberian plain.
The daily canon shot from the Peter and Paul Fortress boomed across the grey-green Neva River and resounded throughout the Nevsky Prospeck at noon. Anxious to be timely, Val had left his flat early and found himself crossing past a large pink house, numbered 104, on the Pestelya Ulista half an hour before the scheduled appointment. He kept up his brisk pace as his long, thin legs charged forward through the pale blue smoke of his own breath in the chilly air, and was soon backtracking his way along the back yard gate of the Mikhailovsky Castle, a newly constructed haven to house Paul I, the mad Tsar. By mere chance, he caught sight of the Tsar himself, leading his generals in a horseback riding party about the frosted yard. The brown and black horses were of course no different from any other horses, yet there was something about their balance and stride, so stiff and fierce, that seemed to set them apart from the rest of their species. Beyond the glistening white yard loomed the glistening yellowish-orange palace, an architectural wonder, so bizarre and occult, it appeared ominous, mystical almost.
Val crossed a wooden bridge over the Fontanka canal where chunks of ice bobbed in the fast moving current like ancient ruins floating in the death of the aristocracy. He entered the Summer Gardens.
For a moment a golden ray of sunlight shot through the overcast sky and the silent black and gray trunks of birch trees and elms turned crimson as if on fire. For a moment, only. He was the only person in Gardens. The benches were covered with hats made of snow and on the path, side by side footprints belonging perhaps to lovers who had danced out together in the early morning after a delicious night of lovemaking, were now damp and filled with slush.
He passed by the ever radiant statues of Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, Queen Christina of Sweden and an array of allegorical figures from classical myths then finally reached the Neva embankment where he leaned on the wrought iron railing adorned with gilded rosettes spanning between pink granite columns.
Valentin stared across the river at the distant marshes and the blurry outlines of the islands. It was where he grew up, where the peasants lived, where the level of poverty for most was far, far below the level he was at now. His mother died giving birth and his father, a simple, caring individual, raised him alone. Vasil Antonoff died when Val was fifteen years of age and upon his deathbed, said to his only son: “Look under the bed.”
Valentin did so and found, inside a dusty leather case with red velvet lining, a violin, hand crafted by his mother’s father in the age of Peter the Great. Now a penniless orphan, stuck on Vasily Island, Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff knew not what to do except learn to play the instrument. A considerate neighbor left potatoes and goats milk each morning on the front step of his father’s house and so the boy survived for another year, until he believed he had found his purpose of existence. Then upon review of that fact that no one would notice his absence (except perhaps the neighbor with the goat), he sprightly took a barge across the Neva into Petersburg as a musician one fine springtime day.
That was ten years ago. He was now 26, paid rent for two tolerable rooms of his own, had been recognized by the master Duskin and was on his way to a noble woman’s home to... the appointment! He turned, ran through the Gardens and was climbing the marble stairs of the large pink house on Pestelya Ulitsa and exactly one o’clock.
The door was opened by a butler who asked to take his somewhat threadbare wool coat, frayed red scarf and torn suede gloves, then asked for the young man’s card. Val didn’t have a card, so simply whispered his own name into the butler’s rather large left ear, and henceforth, was properly announced. The violinist crossed the threshold from the tidy foyer into the parlor where Madame Davidovicha sat prettily in a rather baroque styled chair upholstered in ivory colored satin. The room was so warm, so warm he thought that until this moment he had never known warmth before. A grand fire blazed in the hearth and umbrageous shadows flickered on the walls, covered in baby blue fabric. Sweeping, golden velvet drapes hung along the sides of two tall windows clouded by a thin white gloss created by the contrast on either side of the glass panes by heat and frost. Val felt the tiny icicles melt from the tips of his wavy, shoulder length, flaxen blond hair and drip quietly into the pink carpet- so plush it lay like a bed over the parquet. And at the far end of the room he noticed a yet to be decorated, freshly cut Christmas tree.
“Mr. Antonoff- so pleased.” Aloya waved for him to take a seat and continued, “I’m so sorry my husband can’t be here to meet you but he has work. Fedorov is an architect.” She said with pride, “He helped design the Tsar’s new Castle, you know.”
“I didn’t know. I passed by it on my way here, quite a unique mix of styles.”
“Yes, Fedorov worked under the famous architect Bazhenov, a friend of the Tsar’s who shares His Majesty’s odd interest in Martinism.”
“Oh, some sort of ritualistic, esoteric form of Christianity that preaches the fall of man, deprivation of a divine source, mystical processes of return and illumination.”
“And are you and Monsieur Davidovich practitioners of this organization?”
“Oh, heavens no! Fedorov doesn’t care much for religion and me... well, I go to mass on Sunday like everyone else and forget about it for the rest of the week!” She laughed, “Will you have some tea?” She called for her maid to bring in the tea then went on in a lively manner, “Mikhail is upstairs- I’ll take you up soon, but I thought perhaps we should have a bit of a chat first. Yesterday, I realize, we didn’t discuss the particulars.”
“Yes, you know... the money.”
Val nodded, so overcome by the coziness of the room, by her beauty, the butler and the crisp, festive scent of the fir tree that he subconsciously wiped his plan to ask for an advance clean off his slate.
The maid came in with a tray and Val watched Aloya professionally pour the tea out of a pot into two cups made of fine, thin porcelain with a silver lining along the rim and painted with miniature pink roses. As she handed him his cup he thought that he’d never seen anything so lovely and fragile in his life, as that teacup.
Madame Davidovich went on, “Mikhail will need two hours instruction per session and the going rate, I’ve heard, is ten rubles an hour.”
“Very well. Twenty rubles a week.”
“Oh, no! I meant two hours per day, Mister Antonoff.” She crinkled her brow to do the math, “Six days per week, Sunday, of course is excluded, so that will be... one hundred and twenty rubles per week.”
Val, who had just sipped his tea, reached over to set the darling teacup in its saucer on a side table and, stunned by her proposal, accidentally set it too close to the edge. It fell onto the hard wood parquet floor at the border of the pink carpet and broke. He shuddered and stared at the shattered pink roses and silver lining as if the thin porcelain cup had just died. He stood and began to gather up the pieces, “I’m so sorry, Madame. Oh, I am terribly sorry!”
“Please, Monsieur Antonoff, do sit down, Boris will do that.”
In came Boris, the butler, with a broom and dustpan.
“Please, forgive me,” Val felt he would cry, “You may take it out of my salary. I’m so sorry.”
“Take what out of your salary? What are you talking about?”
“The cost of the teacup.”
Aloya Proniakina zhena Davidovicha laughed and laughed and laughed that infectious laugh of hers. “Why, dear Sir, it’s only a cup. I have twenty more like them and three more sets at that.” She stood, “So it’s agreed. One hundred and twenty rubles a week and here- she handed him an envelope that she took out of a red lacquered box that was set atop an end table, “My husband insisted that I pay you half upfront.”
He quietly put the envelope in his pocket and followed her past the newly cut pine tree, through a lavish dining room where the table itself was nearly half the size of his little flat, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway strewn with oriental rugs and into a three room suite where the twelve year old Mikhail Davidovich welcomed his new teacher with a bout of scrutiny that eased in a manner of seconds into genuine benevolence and affection.
After the lesson, as Valentin walked along the Gribeodova Canal, the chilled, dusty, dense late afternoon fog that depressed all of Petersburg seemed to move out of his way as if he were walking through a white light tunnel, made especially for him because he had sixty rubles in his pocket. The thought of returning to his cold little flat made him shudder so he stopped in at the tavern in Sardovaja Square where, not so surprisingly, he found Rastislav sitting in the exact spot as the night before, with Vasilia Laikina still cooing in his ear, her red skirt bobbing over his knees.
Val bought them a round of beer and offered to take the funny couple onto Nevsky Ulista for a proper meal at a decent restaurant.
The bells of St. Isaac’s chimed six times as they entered the restaurant but Val felt only a wave of energy and hope propelling out of his heart into his red and blue veins and purple arteries, not because he had money, but because he was in love with Aloya Proniakina zhena Davidovicha.
The party ordered Baklazhanovaya Ikra, Pelmeni, Draniki, Golubtsy, Borscht, and a bottle of vodka, and toasted to their health.
The next day he arrived at the pink house a bit early, hoping to find the Madame in her parlor but Boris told him she had gone out and somberly led Val upstairs to Mikhail’s quarters.
When the lesson was finished, Mikhail followed his teacher downstairs where they found his mother before the naked tree, opening a wooden crate of ornaments.
“Oh, can Monsieur Antonoff help us? Please, please mother?”
Aloya hugged her son warmly, “I’m sure he has better things to do this afternoon, dear.”
Mikhail raised up his big, blue eyes and Val smiled, “What could possibly be better than decorating a Christmas tree?”
Alas, how his blood pulsed as she passed to him the gold, silver and red little trinkets, their fingers touching again and again!
When Mikhail busied himself at the opposite side of the enormous tree, Val whispered, “I came early today, supposing we might chat over tea.”
She blushed and this time, took his hand and opening it gently, placed an ornate glass angel in his palm, “This one is my favorite. Be careful.”
He hung it on a high branch attentively then stepped back to gaze at it beside her, “So, you don’t have three more sets just like it then?” He teased.
She nudged his shoulder. He closed his eyes and felt as if he could fall. She laughed that laugh that ached in his soul and said, “Come early tomorrow, Monsieur Antonoff... for tea.”
That evening as he lingered on the embankment of the Canal, glaring at a rose petal sunset extending in a pearly atmosphere across the expanse of the city from the Cathedral of St. Nicolas to the Smolny Convent he asked himself, ‘Can it be? Does she reciprocate my feelings?’
Although he still had 40 rubles, he decided to forgo the tavern and stopped at the Hay Square where he ordered firewood to be delivered and bought his usual vegetables to make a stew. Val laughed at the irony that in fact tonight he wished to be alone, more than anything else, to welcome the six o’clock daemon in order to mock it malevolently.
There was a Swiss clock on the mantelpiece in the Davidovich’s salon. As Val sat nervously across from Aloya, who was wearing red... of all colors... red, all the things he’d planned to say to her became absorbed in the methodical tick tock-ing that seemed to synchronize with the beads of moisture forming on the windowpanes.
“How is Mikhail progressing?” Aloya handed him a cup full of tea which he dared to take regardless of his trembling hands.
“He is gifted beyond doubt, Madame.”
“There are no problems with his behavior, then? Duskin would sometimes complain of obstinacy and irritability.”
“I have not encountered such as yet, but you can be assured that my threshold for reactions of that sort is very high. I myself am frustrated beyond...” he stopped for an instant then continued, “The artistic temperament is an un-tamable beast. Alas, in time, one learns to lay down with it peacefully, like the lion and the lamb.”
He searched in her Mediterranean blue eyes for some kind of recognition, creative kinship, for a slice of sympathy but his compassionate gaze was returned only with a vague, vacuous glare. ‘I am the Black Sea,’ he thought, ‘and she is the White Sea. Alas, we live on the opposite sides of this great mass of land and yet sit here together, all warm and rosy.’
“Tell me Monsieur Antonoff-”
“Please call me Valentin.”
“Tell me Valentin, what is it that makes you frustrated?”
“Oh, oh.” He loosened up. Her lovely hands that knew not of artistic passion suddenly appeared as foreign, yet so white they were like porcelain, and he feared that if he ever touched them again as he had yesterday, he would break them. He wanted to say, ‘Ah, Madame Davidovich- your house is filled with heat but the fire in me is made of labor. I am a peasant by stock and I cut down my own trees.’
Instead, he answered, “Pietro Locatelli’s violin concerto opus three. The capricci with their high registers, double-stops and arpeggios that overextend the left hand through passages that demand such wide fingering it drives me mad! Each time I reach the second movement I either freeze or fumble.”
She sipped her tea and her lips curled up.
‘Don’t laugh, oh, please don’t laugh.’ He begged, wordlessly.
She only smiled, “And what happens in the third movement?”
Now he laughed, “Ah! If I can in fact make it to the third movement, I’m complete perfection and I play like a god!”
“Well, that is good to know, Valentin.”
He crinkled his brow.
“For future reference.” She added.
Their eyes met with intensity. In his imagination the clock stopped ticking and he laid her down upon the plush pink carpet and... and...
“I believe it’s time for Mikhail’s lesson.” She rose, “You can show yourself upstairs?”
He nodded, picked up his violin case and as he passed her she whispered, “Until tomorrow, for tea.”
He arrived the following day at 12:30. Boris took his shabby coat, scarf and gloves. Although he still had 35 rubles, his tormented mind or heart (he had yet to understand which), occupied all his time outside of the pink house and hadn’t the reserve to shop. His name was announced with a rather dreary, curt manner by the sterile butler but Valentin was not piqued for he assumed all butlers were by nature, reserved and void of character.
Aloya was seated in the ivory upholstered chair, her white hands resting daintily on its birch wood arms, carved at the ends with rosebuds rubbed with a gold gilt sheen. He had the impulse to rush up and bend before her upon one knee but there were two other females present in the drawing room. He merely glanced at them and sighed with his moist gaze into Aloya’s blue eyes.
“Monsieur Antonoff, I present to you Inessa Nikitichna Babinskina.”
Val bowed before a girl of perhaps twenty years of age whose complexion was the color of fresh milk and whose thick golden hair had the look and texture of a lion’s mane. She was no doubt seductively attractive, yet he sincerely showed absolutely no interest in her ravishing youth and the corners of his lips tightened almost with disdain.
Inessa did not notice this and stretched out the back of her hand flirtatiously for him to kiss.
Aloya proceeded to introduce, “Tatyana Alekseeva zhena Kanadtseva,” a lady obviously closer to his own age but also ten years younger than her hostess. She was also rather stunning, especially because she had green eyes and a very slim waist, yet Val kissed her hand with a posture of neutrality and artificial deference, much like the perpetual mask worn by Boris.
Aloya had obviously invited the two women to test him. He sat with them, drank tea from the delicate teacup, ate a few tiny cucumber sandwiches off the silver platter, answered their questions about his music, laughed at the naive girl with the lion’s mane’s infantile jokes and pretended to be enlightened by Tatyana Alekseeva zhena Kanadtseva’s banal philosophical insights, all the while sharing his entire heart, his entire being- with Aloya alone through the soft expression in his eyes and lips and fiery cheeks.
At last, after a relative amount of coaxing, Valentin consented to play for the ladies before heading upstairs to the lesson. He chose The Devil’s Trill, by Guseppe Tartini; a composition so radically impassioned by fury that when he left the parlor, Aloya’s guests were blushing.
The next day was Sunday. On Monday he was unsure whether or not he should arrive early as on Saturday they had been prevented a private conversation by her company. He decided against it and was passing the tall iron gates surrounding the back yard of Mikhailovsky Castle at five minutes to one when he saw Aloya rushing toward him, her white fur cape striking the wind. He had noticed the sky on his walk there, it was strangely translucent with crinkled strings of powdery blue, orange, yellow, and green tangled inside it like the dome of an opal. She ran to him and nearly fell at his feet, pushed by the heavy, abrasive wind. He caught her in his arms.
“Why didn’t you come? I was waiting.”
The desperation in her voice frightened him.
“I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know...”
“How can you not know? Oh, Valentin!” Aloya cried, pressing her face in his hands.
He pressed her against the wrought iron spokes of the Castle gate and kissed her lips vehemently with ardent lust.
But no, that’s not how it happened. As Valentin was passing the tall iron gates surrounding the back yard of Mikhailovsky Castle at five minutes to one, he saw Aloya Davidovicha walking casually toward him, her white fur cape flying in the wind. He had noticed the sky on his walk there, it was strangely translucent with veins of powdery blue, orange, yellow, and green tangled inside it like the dome of an opal. As their paths crossed, she stopped tactfully on the icy sidewalk and uttered in a demure overtone, “You didn’t come. I waited.”
“I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know if... Shall I come tomorrow?”
She adjusted her minx wrap about her shoulders, “If you like.”
Their eyes met.
She walked on, “Excuse me. I have an appointment at the drapers.”
For the next three days they met for tea. On Wednesday she had more friends over but the other times they were alone. He never saw Monsieur Davidovich at all. Once she merely mentioned, “He’s a very busy man,” and Val asked no more questions. Of course each day was at once a torment and a joy for him and each time she laughed, which she often did, his soul burst out of his body and circled the wintry ether.
On Thursday, before he went up to Master Mikhail’s quarters, as he knelt to kiss her hand, which had become their little custom, he whispered, “Until tomorrow.”
“Oh, Valentin, but tomorrow is New Years Eve, then Christmas a week away and you see, I discussed Mikhail’s schedule with my husband and we are giving him a two week holiday from all his lessons. So, I... I won’t be seeing you until the ninth of January.”
He lowered his eyes. She could see how painful the news was for him and added, “Nevertheless, you’ll receive half your normal wages, as a Christmas present.”
He stood, “It’s not about the money, Madame.” And he climbed the stairs quietly.
On New Years Eve Val went with Rastislov to several decadent, decorative parties made up mostly of gamblers and whores. His spirits were low indeed yet after a few glasses of vodka, the absurd merriment surrounding him raised his self confidence and he ended up dancing and drinking and flirting with random prostitutes simply because he sought pleasure.
In the morning, Val woke with a headache and looked out his little window. Snow, fat, fluffy snowflakes falling in layer upon layer. It was beautiful. He lit a fire and decided to spend the holiday alone in his room, composing a concerto for her. He got lost in the music that came from the imagery in his mind of making love to her. At about four o’clock there was a knock on the door, so lost in his music was he that he opened the door truly expecting to see her there, her white arms reaching out of her white fur cape for an embrace.
Alas, it was one of his students from the neighborhood whose parents owed him a significant amount of rubles. The boy held out a tray of Bobal’ki, “For you, Sir. Happy New Year.”
Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff stared at the small plate of biscuits glazed with honey and poppy seeds and felt that he would weep. “Thank you, Pasha. Merry Christmas.”
He closed the door, set the sweet breads on the table and did weep, with his bow stroking the strings of his violin on the first day of the year 1801.
The Hay Square was swarming with activity on January 2nd. Val crossed the canals with his empty violin case, smiling at smoking chimneystacks capped with freshly fallen snow, bubbling out from the rooftops of houses. Everyone seemed to be out for a drive in their likhachs, the wheels and horse hoof prints crushing to black, the powdery white roads. He stocked up on vegetables and grains as he intended to lock himself in his little flat for the week and finish the concerto he had begun, entitled, “Aloya.”
He worked for two days in peace (save the six o’clock tremors), burning logs in the hearth and making oatmeal and stews. The solitude and the work loved each other perfectly, and the romance of his own music, enticed by his longing and fervor, became more real to him than the aching silence he was forced to endure without her.
He hoped Vasilia Laikina skirts would keep Rastislov entertained for he didn’t desire interruptions. Nevertheless, on Tuesday night at ten minutes to six, the khokhol was at his doorstep, a leg of mutton and a bottle of vodka in hand.
“Roulette?” Val let him in.
“Sem’ odinnadtstat. Dice, can you believe it? I never win at dice!” Rasti threw the lamb on the fire, “Do have any rosemary or thyme? It’s good with rosemary.”
Val poured two glasses, “I have salt and pepper my friend.”
The smell of the roast filled his two rooms the following morning. Rasti made coffee then took his leave to only the devil knows where. Val tidied up, washed, shaved and returned to his composition. The chromatics in the second movement were too bold for the grave tempo and the harmonics in the allegro maestro passages at the end with its double stop thirds... no, no, no, the harmonics were all wrong and he must find space to add some pizzicato. He sat plucking the strings with his fingers.
There was knock at his door. Val sighed, probably Rasti or perhaps another plate of Bobal’ki from a neighbor.
It was she.
He was stunned.
“May I come in?”
“Yes, of course.”
She entered and stood blankly for a moment then took off her white fur, “My, it’s rather toasty in here.”
He took her cape and with great care, draped it over the armchair. “Would you like some pastry?” He quickly grabbed the plate of biscuits and held it out to her, “Or I can make coffee,” he took the kettle from the hook by the hearth.
“Nothing. Thank you.”
“I’m glad to see you Madame.”
“And I you.”
They stood silently embarrassed for some time. The shattered bits of burning wood in the fireplace crackled, gleaming red. They both began to speak at once but stopped and finally, the awkward tension in that hot, small room with its triple shaded, soft green wallpapered walls of green birds on darker green branches, ceased when their eyes met, moistened by desire.
“I couldn’t live...” She began.
She went to stand before the slow fire and spoke with her back turned to him. “Through all the holiday parties and dinners, family and friends, all I could think of, all I wanted...”
Valentin went to her and the instant she turned her face to him he kissed the tears streaming down her flushed cheeks then her lips, as if in a dream, his lips to hers ardently.
She undressed, let down her long, wavy black hair and lay on his bed. For the time of a single, ringing endnote he just looked at her. For the time of the silence before the applause he stood astonished at the genius and beauty he saw.
“You are a work of art, Aloya.” He whispered.
Her blue eyes smiled, blinking, and he went to her as he’d never went anywhere ever before.
The bells of St. Issac’s chimed as he lay on his back, naked beside her, breathing deep, blissful breaths and he told her, “You are the angel who has chased away my daemons.”
She kissed his shoulder, her long hair tickling his bare chest, “An artist without daemons- whoever heard of such a thing?”
“Well,” he sighed, “For the time being. For this hour, anyway, I am merely, wholly, just a man.”
Her lips met his and he fucked her again. Adagietto, Allegretto, Vivacissimo!
She cried and then laughed, “Well, you certainly were right!”
Her laughter piercing his soul, he rose and poured two glasses of vodka, “About what?”
“By the time you make it to the third movement, Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff plays like a god!”
He laughed also and they drank.
She dressed. “I must go.”
“I understand.” He handed her the white fur, “I wish I could say... tomorrow.”
“It’s impossible.” She kissed him again. “I’ll write to you.” Her blue eyes twinkled and she left. He went to the window and watched her carriage drive away.
The next morning as Val lay awake in his bed, unable to abandon the lingering flowery scent of her eau’ de cologne, the image of her long hair on his pillow, her hands stroking his flaxen blond hair, her perfect breasts and dark nipples and unable not to repetitively re-envision the moment she spread her legs and let him in. There was a knock at his door. He leapt from beneath the moth eaten blankets and put on a robe. The wooden floorboards were so cold he thought his bare feet would stick to them. ‘It is she! It must be she!’
He opened the door. It was a messenger who politely handed him a letter.
But it wasn’t a letter. It was an invitation.
Dear Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff,
You are cordially invited to our holiday feast at 104 Pestelya Ulista, at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Monsieur and Madame Fedorov Malinin Davidovich
At first he was disappointed but on second thought, he felt inspired. It was ideal; he’d finish the concerto and play it before everyone, even her husband, as a gift. No one need know it had been written especially for Aloya and no one would know except her. Only she would understand the arrangement: Adagietoo, Allegretto, Vivacissimo!
The rest of the week flew by and he arrived at the pink house promptly. As Boris took his new, second hand suede coat lined with fluffy white wool, his brand new leather gloves and tattered red scarf that Val had become too fond of to replace, the butler smiled somewhat sinisterly.
“Thank you Boris.” He said.
“You’re very welcome, Sir.”
He entered the parlor. Tiny candles illuminated the enormous fir tree. Parties of about a dozen or so personages were mingling in small groups with tall fluted glasses filled with a pale gold colored liquid in their hands.
“Monsieur Antonoff!” Mikhail rather magically appeared directly before him, “Monsieur Antonoff, come and see what Grandfather Frost has given me as a present!” The boy excitedly grabbed his teacher’s hand and pulled him to the far side of the room, weaving through the gathering like a jackrabbit being chased through a bush by a fox. From beneath the Christmas tree, Mikhail retrieved a modern violin, handcrafted in Italy. Val examined it, “Why, it is superb, Mikhail. You are very lucky and with your talent, you certainly deserve such a treasure.”
The boy’s shoulders buckled with pride and glee, “Shall we play? After the dinner, shall we play a duet?”
“Yes, yes of course, if you wish.” Val turned towards the guests. He noticed Inessa and Tatyana who obviously had been watching him intently, and excused himself from the excited, joyous lad to greet them.
They blushed consecutively at his approach and lifted their tall glasses to their glossy lips.
“I say, what is that you are drinking?” He asked.
“Champagne!” Blurted Inessa.
“Davidovich had it shipped in from France.” Tatyana, with an elitist-intellectual air, explained.
“Oh, it’s so lively, so bubbly!” Inessa giggled.
A lackey came by with a serving tray and Val took a glass. “Mmm, it’s very nice indeed.”
“Have you ever tasted anything so lovely?” A rosy glow concentrically spread on each side of Inessa’s fresh complexion, from her nose to her lion’s mane.
He took another sip and couldn’t help but remark, with a wide, sensuous grin, “But once, dear ladies, I did taste something lovelier.”
He drank and conversed with the two prettiest girls at the party and although he did not see Aloya, he knew that eventually she would come to him.
And sooner than later, spurned on by jealousy, she appeared in a black velvet gown trimmed with gold lace and sparkling, silver buttons. Her blue eyes shone like the sapphire stars of another world that had suddenly been revealed above winter’s dark palette of Russian sky.
“Monsieur Antonoff.” With one look she sucked him up into her own, lofty, sapphire ether. “So glad you could come.”
He bowed and kissed the back of her hand, while playfully and discreetly, tugging at her wedding ring as if to pull it off.
An older couple, Mr. and Mrs. something ‘anoff’, or ‘ovich’, or ‘enlin’, joined their little group. Minutes passed and he knew not of what he spoke or listened to, for all could say in his mind were words related to their lovemaking and all he could hear was the repetition of an accelerating, climaxing tempo. The champagne plunged into his heart. The parlor with its pink carpet and gold drapes that he’d known with such intimacy became as absurd as a circus tent and finally, after Mikhail announced that the first star had appeared in the black night sky, Boris loudly proclaimed those propitious words, “Dinner is served, Madame.”
They entered the elegant dining room where small bundles of hay had been swept symbolically into the corners. Val was seated on the right side of Mikhail at whose left side sat Fedorov, at the head of the long table covered with the traditional white cloth. He was embarrassed. As was customary, Aloya must have arranged the seating and he wondered, why such a scheme? He recalled a frequent saying of Rasti’s, “Woman speak two languages, one of which is verbal.”
Regardless, for the first time Val got to get a good look at her husband. He was 40 or a bit older and a few inches taller than the violinist who stood just below six feet. He had broad shoulders and a fine build for a man who indubitably never missed a meal. His slightly balding head of finely combed hair was the same color as Val’s, except for the silver speckles in his long sideburns and the white streaks in his meticulously trimmed moustache and beard. His face was unquestionably handsome yet his eyes lacked imagination and his brow and nose lacked character. His lips were tight as two taught ropes, browned by years and years of seriousness or possibly, languid prayer.
Because he had already chosen to do so, Valentin disliked the man before he was even introduced, but as they all sat down to dinner, the way Fedorov Malinin Davidovich looked into his dear son’s eyes, with such paternal love and sincere care that showed a kind of closeness Val had never known with his own father, the violinist dared to be tender with his heart and put away the inevitable predisposition of a secret lover’s envy.
Then, as Fedorov stood to say the Lord’s Prayer, Val became so touched by the meaning of the season that he almost felt genuine affection for host/rival. Perhaps, he thought, not unlike Mikhail’s conversion from defensive scrutiny into pure acceptance when he first met his new music teacher. Aloya was seated at the other end of the candlelit table and it was impossible to even slightly turn his head to look at her beyond the other six guests lined up at his elbow. But after the prayer, he had the chance to as she stood and went round, drawing the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead with a finger dipped in honey. When she drew Val’s cross, she cleverly and oh so swiftly let her fingertip slip down to his lips which he dared to pucker up as if for a kiss.
The kutya was served and eleven dishes followed to represent the twelve apostles: mushroom soup, pickled cucumbers, black caviar, kidney beans, fried salmon, pirozhki stuffed with cabbage and egg, potato pancakes, lentin bread dipped in honey and chopped garlic, beet salad, dried fruits and for desert, bobal’ki, which Val passed on as he’d been so wrapped up in his composition, he’d forgotten to make his stews for the past few days and had nibbled away at the kind neighbor’s gift. Yet he did accept a glass of cognac that he raised with the others when Fedorov stood and pronounced, “S Rozhdestrom!” And as he did so, at last turned to the other end of the table to meet the direct, merry gaze of his lover’s twilight blue eyes.
Fedorov patted his son’s shoulder, “And now for the entertainment.”
“Can Monsieur Antonoff join me in a duet, father?” The boy whispered as the party began to move back into the parlor.
“That is an excellent idea. I do think I should hear this young man play, after all, he is your teacher.”
Mikhail and Valentin quickly discussed what piece to play and decided on Antonin Vranicky’s Variations, Opus 7.
Valentin was lifting his own violin out of the red velvet lining when Mikhail appeared before him holding his old violin.
“What about your new Italian beauty?” Val asked.
The boy shrugged timidly, “I’m not used to it yet.”
“Ah, I see. Do you mind if I play it?”
“Oh, please do. I’d be honored.” Mikhail gave it to him.
He tuned it in D minor and they practiced for a few minutes in the hall that led to the stair, then returned to the parlor and stood proudly erect before the audience.
The performance was flawless and above the thunderous clapping, Val heard Fedorov yell, “Bravo! Bravo!”
It gave him courage to make his request, “Monsieur Davidovich, if you’ll allow it, I have composed a new piece of my own that I’d like to play for your family and friends on this gracious day as my gift.”
“By all means, Maestro. How very kind.”
Val half bowed, lifted his bow and played Aloya, already nearly as much in love with the Italian instrument as he was with the namesake of his composition. He did not look at her once, nor at anyone in the room, for when his eyes were not focused on the strings, they lifted up towards the heavens. Yet he knew she was watching him and that the single tear that fell from her lovesick blue eyes during the first movement turned into four during the second, and by the time he was playing ‘like a god’, her cheeks were as salty and red as the leftover beet salad.
As the last note echoed through the silence, in that moment of suspension before the applause, he thought, “A man has two languages- one of which is eternal.”
The night sky was clear as he walked home, warm in his new coat, his stomach warmed by good food, his brain heated by cognac and his artistic temperament fired up with pride.
Pride. Pride. He woke the next morning in a sweat. Pride that would soon become hubris! What was he doing? How could he? Fedorov was a good father and Mikhail an angel with such talent! No, no, it must end. How could he, a poor peasant from the islands, disrupt the unity of such a decent family? He would end it, he would tell her tomorrow at tea before the lesson.
Alas, that very night at ten to six, there was a knock on his door.
She was wearing the same green dress she had on the day he first met her. Aloya wafted through the door like a breeze and threw her white fur and minx stole on the armchair. “I told Fedorov I was going to visit my Aunt in the Ligovskij Prospeck, so I have hours as it’s at the other end of the city.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, “I loved your piece. Oh, how I loved it! To me... it was to me, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was. But I’ve been thinking and...”
She kissed him and put those lovely white fingers of hers through his messy locks, “Oh, you mustn’t do that. No thinking. No, no, no, just loving and lovemaking.”
Her face, her body, her open affection and her green dress falling off over her hips erased whatever thoughts he did in fact have and he couldn’t refuse. The crisis of her presence and bounty overwhelmed his sense of morality and he ravished her right there, before the last log burning in the hearth, atop her white fur cloak that with one quick movement he tossed down upon the cold, hard wood floor.
“Tea at half past noon!” Her transmittable laughter whirled spasmodically round and round as she put on her green dress, as if one of the little green birds on his wallpaper had sprung to life only to find itself trapped inside his two rooms.
He did not go to the frosted window to watch her likhach drive off. Instead, he sat naked on his bed before the red embers in the hearth and poured himself a glass of the cognac that had been delivered that afternoon as a present from Fedorov Malinin Davidovich.
And so the affair continued on: circumspect innuendos housed by the plushy carpeted parlor and tenuous teacups in the afternoons, and two or three times a week, a knock on his door in the evening hours.
“Oh, my poor Aunt in the Ligovskij Prospeck!” She’d dramatize as she whipped off her muff and minx onto the armchair, “My husband sends his wishes.”
Then the laugh and the intoxication of flesh against flesh throughout the inner space of frozen January and the dank, mutably gray tones of February. And so, the nights when Val wasn’t burying his scruples in melancholy compositions or cognac, he buried his pride between her thighs.
Inevitably the day occurred when Rastislov’s forceful knuckles rattled on Val’s door just as Aloya was climbing her ecstatic heights. The knocking stopped abruptly but returned a half hour later. The khokhol was greeted by the blushing violinist and entered the steamy room to see the noble woman facing a small round mirror above the mantle to pin up the long, black ringlets of her hair. Rasti’s smile spread from ear to ear as he set down the food and drink he’d brought.
Val introduced Madame Davidovicha and added, “Who was just leaving.”
Rasti poured vodka into three glasses and unwrapped a roasted chicken as he said, “The more the merrier is always my motto,” before he turned to Val and whispered, “Whist. Can you believe it? I never win at whist.”
Aloya eyed the tall, dark Ukrainian up and down and back again. “Who said I was leaving? Yes, thank you, Rastislov Alekseev Slivka, I’ll have a glass of that.”
Perhaps she was bored. The pink house, the angelic son, respected husband, silly girlfriends, stanch butler and dutiful maid; perhaps she wanted something that moved beyond all that? Yet Valentin still could not see a kindred spirit in her jewel-like eyes. He often wondered if she were mocking him but of course there was no reason to, and she may be bored but she certainly was not cruel. Maybe Fedorov had a problem, a male problem... but that didn’t seem likely. Or maybe she preferred his youth and vigor, and he had to admit- his inexperience, yes, her laughter pained him worst of all when she’d find it necessary to show or explain something to him during sex.
All these thoughts were clouding up his brain one day as he was putting vegetables in a pot to make a stew when the most absurd of all answers popped up before him... perhaps she loved him?
On March 12th, Valentin arrived at the pink house and was let in by Aloya herself. Mikhail was unfortunately ill with a minor cold and Boris had gone out to get medicine. The maid was busy making soup in the kitchen and they found themselves completely alone together in the parlor.
“Will you have seat, Monsieur Antonoff? Shall I ring for tea?” She spoke tensely, licentiously.
The privacy and the plush pink carpet aroused him. Her white hands trembled. He took her in his arms, pushed back a lock of black hair that had fallen over her face and kissed her. The front door opened and Monsieur Davidovich stood in the entranceway from the foyer to the parlor, pale as a ghost.
The lovers separated and looked at him, speechlessly.
“The Tsar is dead.” He said quietly, “The Tsar has been assassinated, murdered in his own bed.”
Valentin grabbed his violin and dared not look Aloya in the eye as he swept past her husband and out the door. Fedorov had certainly seen them. It was over.
The violinist did not return to 104 Pestelya Ulista and when he dreamt, which he often did, of the days lost when he’d hurry to get there at 12:30, he saw himself passing the back yard of the Mikhailovsky Castle where the new black iron gates were covered in rust. And when he dreamt of her green dress draped over his armchair, it turned into a pool of water and then into a pool of blood.
He took on the neighborhood students again, composed, drank with Rasti, cooked vegetables and like everyone else in Petersburg, awaited the coming of spring. When it did come, Valentin taught the neighborhood students, composed, drank with Rasti, cooked vegetables and stayed clear of the Pestelya Ulista, the Mikhailovsky Castle and the Summer Gardens. Paul the First’s son Alexander took the throne and a sweeter zeitgeist filled the air. Val soon found that he missed the devoted musician’s soul of the sensitive, 12 year old Mikhail more than the bewitching, supernatural laughter of the child’s stone-blue eyed mother. She hadn’t loved him. She had used him. And now, he was free.
At the end of May, on the first aurora of the first day of Beliye Nochi, Valentin Vasil’ev Antonoff woke at six a.m. on a park bench in the Summer Gardens. Along with the entire population of St. Petersburg, Val had gone out with Rasti the night before to celebrate the onset of the White Nights of summer, a period that would last until mid July of ceaseless light in which dusk meets dawn at midnight. They caroused the streets, a bottle each in hand, cheering at the acrobats and jugglers parading in their costumes, and laughing at the sudden in flux of a thousand stray cats that had been hiding in the jackets of the alley orphans all winter, and finally been set free to prowl the streets.
They drank with strangers under the rising pearl moon that hung in the hot air against a backdrop of butterscotch, peach and violet colored clouds that held the refection of the disappearing sun like a perpetual mirror of light. Drunk, they rested against monuments and statues, and became, like the spires, bridges, figures and sails, silhouettes all against the stars blinking through the lustrous blue-silver glow of the shades of non-existent night. And finally, having traversed Nevsky Prospeck, they walked, or rather stumbled, North along the Fontanka Canal, sighing at the romance of splendidly dressed men in white linen suits and beautiful women in flowing, gossamer yellow or black silk gowns who had spent the entire white night, arm in arm, strolling the embankments of the latticework of tributaries streaming through the city in glistening, blue luminosity toward the Baltic sea.
Val sat up and inhaled the scent of lilac. The sky was dusted with pink. He watched a squirrel scamper behind a tree. The gates to the park had not yet opened. He must have jumped them in the early hours of morning with Rastislav. He looked around but his friend was nowhere to be found. The vodka still burned in his red and blue veins and his purple arteries felt swollen in a haze. He smoothed his wrinkled jacket, knocked the dirt off his shoes with a stick and walked in post drunken mechanical strides toward the southern gate where a guard who appeared non-regretfully foggy headed as well, let him through.
And there he was, on the Pestelya Ulista, for the first time since the day the mad Tsar had died. He moved slowly. The sky was growing brighter. He felt symmetry with the world. So he stopped before the pink house, numbered 104, and looked up to see her sitting in the frame of a second storey window. Her long black hair was web-like and tousled. Her white hands, white as a ghost’s, rattled on the pane and her blue eyes... he searched her eyes for some sign of recognition, some mnemonic recollection of the bed they had shared, for a slice of sympathy even but his compassionate gaze was returned only with a foreign, vacuous glare as if he had asked the time of day from an animal. She stared straight at him yet her face, much thinner and darker, was void of emotion and her dimmed blue eyes, once as luminous as a white night sky, sank in deep, depressing sockets of fear.
Val stood, watching, waiting, in quiet tears. At last a nurse appeared in the window and benignly took the trembling resemblance of Aloya Proniakina zhena Davidovicha away.
The sky, now languidly smudged with tangerine ink, hovered above him and seemed to drag behind him as he turned the corner and began his way back to Gorokhovaya Ulitsa. He stopped in at the tavern near Sadovaja Square and said farewell to Rastislov then returned to his small flat, packed up the few items of clothing and worth that he owned and with his violin in hand, went to Moscow as he never went anywhere before. Yes, on that day, Valentin Vasil’ev Anotonff went to Moscow- a place where wind and light reverse- a re-invented man.
by Elizabeth McKague © 2018
In the South of France, where the colors are all gold, blue and swamp green, there is a place called Château Beauchere. Built in 1164 A.D. by one Lord Arthur de Giffrinnet, the castle’s name, meaning ‘beautiful oak,’ is markedly derived from the offspring of an ancient oak that, like Odysseus’ bed, breaks through the floor of a courtyard, where, sitting in the shade beneath its hissing branches, you have a rather dreamy view to the east of the dazzling white peaks of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The structure of Chateau Beauchere is crudely medieval, its roseate stony face exudes a rather sinister charm and its tall, leaning, rectangular frame, built into a hillside, is a far cry from the princely renaissance castles of the Loire. It is also apparent that Lord Arthur built the place for the sole purpose of residency, as there is not a wall or moat or ruin that can be traced back to any structure for defense, and its location, upon a plateau of stones with wildflowers screaming through their cracks, half way up a forested hillside where the lone oak in the courtyard is isolated from a population of chestnut, olive, sycamore and weeping willow tress, would have been almost inaccessible back in the 12th century. Lord Arthur’s horse alone knew the way home. A winding dirt driveway, created upon the invention of the carriage is still in existence today and perhaps decades later, a landing was made where currently the Peugeots, Fiats, BMW’s, bicycles and scooters of present tenants are parked in half-hazard vogue.
These tenets of the 21st century rent their quarters from one Nathaniel Lock. He is not French. He is American. How he came to own the chateau is where our story begins. What he made of the chateau is the plot of our story’s middle, and what happens to the chateau in the end… well, the author does not yet know, or perhaps thinks it wise not at this interlude to tell you.
When Nathaniel first met his wife she had asked, “But your name, American, of English origin, must surly have at one time been Locksmith, like Blacksmith or Tinsmith or Coppersmith… no?”
“Maybe,” he answered, “Yet by my father’s generation is was just plain ‘Lock’. Perhaps I have a great-great uncle somewhere whose surname is simply ‘Smith.’”
This made Ephébie, his wife laugh. He had loved the way she laughed. Sometimes in the still heat of a late afternoon when silence is so abundant that even making the effort to say the word ‘silence’ creates noise, and time is so transparent that the strokes of Addison’s brush upon canvas in the next room could be heard, Ephébie’s laughter would softly shake on a breeze through the open windows and then fade and fade until a more familiar sound, the whimpers of pain before death, entered his heart through her memory. Then the spell was broken and Nathaniel would hear another brush stroke, the buzzing of bees, the oak tree’s papery leaves, the sorrowful gut of Fino’s cello floating through the floorboards from the studio below and outside in the yard, Jérôme’s chisel, methodically biting bit by bit into a block of marble. Nathaniel would sigh and go back to his writing.
He had never aspired to be a writer. He was a surfer from Santa Cruz, California. The idea occurred to him three yeas ago, two years after the end of Ephébie’s battle with ovarian cancer, to devote his free time to the pen. They were married ten years, ten calm, decent, adorable years. He met her at the Festival d’Aix-en Provence in the summer of 2003. He was at that time finalizing a divorce from his first wife, named Giselle, and had simply got into his car one day after yet another quarrel, drove out of the parking garage of the building on the Boulevard Poissonnière where they had lived for the past eight years and left Paris without stopping off at his new dwelling to gather but a few things, and drove south all day without caring where he was going or where he would stay. At one point, after driving for four hours, he stopped into a café in a small village to relieve him self and take coffee and a sandwich. He noticed a sloppily pasted poster in the window advertising the opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy at eight o’clock that same night at the Theatre de Jeu de Paume in Aix. As we shall soon find out, Nathaniel Lock was a true opera aficionado and the piece mentioned was rarely performed, even in Paris. It was late July and he knew of the festival and realized that it was in fact that time of year, as he’d gone to it once or twice before with Giselle. So, his direction on instinct had been correct, he was excited, Aix was but another three hours away and he remembered the name of the hotel where they had previously stayed. He used the café phone to call and reserve a room and by luck, the Hotel De Gantes just had a cancellation, for during the festival most places are booked far in advance.
He made it to the hotel with a few minutes to freshen up and walked directly to the Theatre de Jeu Paume. Ephébie was in line ahead of him, reading a summary of the opera’s plot from a pamphlet to her girlfriend.
“Prince Golaud finds mysterious Mélisande lost in a forest, falls in love and marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather where Mélisande falls in love with Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas. Golaud gets more and more jealous and spies on the young lovers until Pelléas is forced to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time. Alas, jealous Golaud rushes out and kills Pelléas. Then Mélisande gives birth to a daughter and dies.”
“I wonder why she’s mysterious?” The girlfriend asked.
Ephébie shrugged, “Maybe because she’s lost.”
“Whose baby is it? Her husband’s or her lover’s?”
“Surly it’s the brother’s.”
“How do you know?”
Ephébie laughed, “C’mon, who is Mélisande sleeping with through the whole opera anyway? Not her husband.”
“Right.” Nathaniel grunted behind them. Giselle had cheated on him.
The girlfriend turned around, “Have you seen it before?”
He cleared his throat and put on a casual air. “I’ve read it, the libretto and the music, but no, I’m excited to see it now.”
“I’m Anouk,” the girl said, “and this is my friend Ephébie.”
He introduced him self. “Do you girls live in town?”
Anouk giggled, “I do, but Phebes here lives outside of it- or is going to very soon, you see…”
‘Phebes’ nudged her friend then interrupted, “I plan to move to a place about 30 kilometers south, in the country.”
Nathaniel nodded. “The air is good down here.”
“You’re visiting from America?” Anouk asked. His accent was slight but obvious.
“I’ve been living in Paris for eight… almost nine years.”
The line started to move along and he followed them into the theatre where, before they parted to find their seats, Nathaniel waved to them with a friendly, “Enjoy the show!”
The production was fine, not fantastic, but moving and professional. Like the girls, although he didn’t yet know it, his first instinct after the theatre let out was to have a drink at any one of the outdoor tables near by on the Cours Mirabeau. Every place was crowded and people lingered in the square. He walked on and soon noticed Anouk sitting alone at a table in front of the Brasserie Les Deux Garçons. She waved to him to come over and he did so.
“Where’s your friend?” He asked.
“WC. Sit down, please join us.”
“Thank you.” He found an empty wicker chair a few tables away and dragged it over. “So, what did you think?”
“I cried. We both cried.”
“Yes, that is usually the way it is with opera.”
‘Phebes’ returned and it seemed to Nathaniel that she gave him a rather chilly glare but then smiled as she took her seat and bubbled, “I’m so thirsty! It’s so hot!”
The July air was warm; the night was fresh but very warm.
They ordered a bottle of Chenin Blanc and of course, he insisted on paying.
He was beyond tired after such a long day but found their company delightful. They were both pretty and younger than he, Anouk by perhaps ten years and her friend by maybe only five or four. They spoke no more of the opera and entertained themselves with yay or nays to the upcoming events in the festival and musings about the customers around them, mostly tourists who had come to the town only for that reason. Ephébie seemed to know quite a bit about music and Anouk appeared to have perfected the art of people watching. Nathaniel was happy to order one more bottle yet when that was finished, the imminent heavy wave of exhaustion sped over him and he could barely keep his eyes open long enough to walk around the corner to his hotel. He slept until noon and took coffee and lunch in the De Gantes courtyard, then walked to the Parc Jourdan where he hoped to sit quietly beneath an elm, yet a stage had been set up in the middle of the park and a concert, that would be followed by another and another all day long, was going on. Nevertheless, he loved Chopin, so found his tree, lay back his head, and listened.
In half an hour he heard a voice say, “I love Chopin.”
He leaned his head of curly blond locks to the left and opened his eyes. There, in an Olympian ray of sunlight, sat Ephébie, her long legs stretched out of a pale green summer dress, sloping down the hillside and ankles crossed, worn, beige leather sandals tossed on the grass next to an equally worn festival program, with her bare shoulders pointed upwards and long brown hair flowing down her back.
“Me too, although I must admit that I’m partial to Liszt.” He smiled and straightened his posture and looked her in the eyes, she had deep, brown eyes. “How long have you been sitting there?”
“Where’s your friend?”
“Anouk?” She shrugged, “Who knows? Anouk will be Anouk…”
“So, you’re on your own today?”
The Nocturne, Opus 9, #1 ended, and her answer was drowned out by a park full of applause.
It was intermission and people began to get up from their picnics and head for the toilets or stretch and walk and mill about in the sunshine.
“So what’s next?” Nathaniel asked.
She picked up her program then laughed, reading, “Liszt!”
“Ah, very good.” He became shy, so did she. They looked at the disseminating audience. Then, as the musicians for the next set began to move out onto the stage he had an idea and without thinking twice blurted, “Perhaps after this set we could… I don’t know, walk in the village and maybe have dinner somewhere?”
She answered in such a casual tone that he felt a bit embarrassed for it was as if she had said, ‘Sure, why not, guys ask me out to dinner almost ever day’.
The opera that night was Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, which neither of them had any interest in, so they relished a leisurely dinner, flowing fine wine and an expanding conversation that became more and more intimate as the warm Mediterranean night eddied along. He walked her to her car, as she was staying ‘in the country’, and although he had learned much about her life, that she’d been traveling Europe, spent a year in Italy, several months in Prague, and had just arrived back in France from Tangiers, whether she was going home that night to a husband or family or alone, not a clue was dropped. He took a chance and kissed her before the fountain, and they decided to meet at that very spot the following day at one o’clock. She never showed up. He waited an hour, then stepped into a bar across the street for a drink, then went back and waited another hour, but she never showed up. His hotel suite was expensive but the opera that night was Tristan und Isolde. How could he miss his beloved Wagner? Well, that’s what he told himself yet knew his heart leapt and at the thought of possibly seeing her- or Anouk for that matter- to get more information, alas, the objective ended all in vain.
He returned to Paris, settled the divorce with Giselle and completely rent her from his existence, which, with determination, he continued on, and as we may have guessed, the mysterious Ephébie, whose surname he did not know, had taken root in his narcissistic soul.
Yes, there is no denying that Nathaniel Lock was a handsome man. At the age of 36, he still had a full head of longish, sandy blond curls, reflective though searching light brown eyes that instantly warranted trust, a thoughtful brow, a proud nose like an Etruscan soldier, a masculine Hollywood hero type jaw that always appeared to have a three day stubble and a soft mouth that produced a dimple in his left cheek each time he smiled. His physique was of Hollywood stock as well; at six foot two, he had broad shoulders, a thin waist, legs with rock hard thighs and it must be said that half his subterranean narcissism stemmed from the fact that, coming from German and Swedish ancestry, his nether region was very well endowed indeed.
He had never been a playboy. Before Giselle he had had two relationships in which he invested his entire being only to be utterly trounced by the break up, each after less than a year. The first was in high school and the second in college, the anguish suffered by the former was worse for it charged through his blood and body but the mental torture he put him self through as a result of the latter had him walking around campus for months feeling as if he were upside down like the Tarot card of the Hanged Man. How he got into Stanford University is an odd story and a bit Dickensian.
As a child he was always called Nate. He grew up in a tidy but dilapidating beach house-shack, painted pink with white trim making it look like a cupcake. The ocean was a block away. Since the age of three, Nate lived alone with his elderly mother, a hard working woman of Swedish descent. His father, a second generation German, of whom his memories were dim, was a lazy, stupid fellow who smoked a lot of weed and eventually decided that he could find a better way of life outside of the cupcake (although to all that knew him this was more than doubtful), and disappeared. Neither Nate nor his mom ever heard of the creep again. He had two older half brothers that were already in their early twenties when Nate was born and both of them had been discovering greater shores beyond Santa Cruz for some years. Adam and Leo, only an awkward or special occasion could drag them for a visit back home and although he rarely saw them, they were kind to him and he liked them, especially Leo who called him ‘little brother’. Their father, a decent man Nate never met, died the day Astrid, his mother, gave birth to her third son, quite miraculously as she was by then 45 years old.
Astrid loved music and there was an old, dusty white baby grand Steinway in the cupcake that perhaps, Nate guessed, she used to play. He started taking lessons at the age of five and didn’t mind it, actually liked it and was soon excited about it for his piano teacher, a 30 year old good looking young man with a funny beard, was extremely nice to the child and as naturally as a father might be, showed Nate a human trait that otherwise he probably would have never understood- basic human compassion that came, this of course was something the boy was still too young to understand, out of sheer pity for the kid’s living situation. Nate loved Astrid and she wanted the best for him but she was tired, the birth had made her tired.
As a toddler she took him to the beach. He loved the beach. In elementary school, if he practiced piano everyday after school, he was aloud to go to the beach on weekends and in middle school, if he practiced piano two hours a day after school he could go to the beach directly, and on Saturdays, after four hours of practice, and on Sundays- he would go for the whole day! It was during this period, at around twelve years old that he began to watch the surfers, really watch, and watch and watch, unaware that he was witnessing surfing history and that his binoculars were following the ups and downs of sportsman soon to be great such as Joey Thomas, Robert Waldemar and Kevin Reed. In a few more years, when he could play Chopin, Beethoven, Shubert and Gluck immaculately and with passion, at the age of fourteen, Robert ‘Wally’ Waldemar took the lonely boy under his wing and gave him a surfboard that he kept in a neighbor’s garage so as not to worry his tired, hard working, aging mother.
He practiced surfing as industriously as he did piano and the waves were to him like music, sometimes gentle, sometimes violent, but continuously beautiful. He became strong and fit and muscular. Astrid, still unaware of his adventures, attributed this surfacing Adonis physique to the heredity of a natural growth spurt. He was talented in the water and made friends, true friends for the first time in his life. Girls became infatuated with him and he became proud. Then, he became dangerous and would go out in tumultuous conditions and try tricks far beyond the scope of his skill. One day, a few months after the dissolution of his relationship with Jill, his body and blood trying to cool the inward rage, he wanted to show off and paddled out far from the shore to a spot where the waves, because of a mysterious undercurrent, rose to nearly 40 feet high. It was a Sunday and his friends on the beach crowded together in fear as they watched him out there alone, wondering whether it was a joke or what was he trying to prove? He got out back easy enough and popped up onto the crest of a huge wave and took the drop down, carving the face and began charging but had to bail and got caught inside a washing machine. His board popped up. Two veteran surfers who had foreseen the ill omen were on their way out to him, and the one who got there first dove for him, found him, flopped the body on his board and rode back in. He was given mouth to mouth, he threw up, he couldn’t walk or talk, he was in dire pain. An ambulance came.
Astrid went to the hospital. He was in intensive care. He had hit some rocks (revealing the mystery of the undercurrent), and fractured two ribs on his right side, ruptured his hip, tore tendons throughout his right knee, broke his right arm and had a concussion, but the gods love Adonis, there was not a scratch on his handsome face and the doctors were positive he would live.
When he was sent home, he was at first bed ridden but gradually recovered, yet slowly and painfully. He couldn’t play the piano and he could barely make it to the bathroom on crutches. He was heavily medicated and had nothing to do but listen to the radio. Sure, the folk songs of the sixties and seventies were cool, but he did not feel connected to them, and the rock bands that he admired sadly reminded him of former glory days with his friends on the beach. He would turn the dial in frustration switching stations and in the evenings, settle on a classical station that played opera each night from 7 to 9 p.m. It was a world, a world he could enter, a place to forget and surrender.
During the first few months of recovery he had many visitors, in the beginning almost every day and Jill came by once but it was a malicious interview. Other girls came, and girls who he never even met before, because in Santa Cruz, California, in 1981, Nick Lock was a hero.
He was always a good student as he applied the discipline he’d acquired as a musician to his studies and when he was back to normal, he passed all of his exams with flying colors and graduated high school. He would study music with a secret passion for opera. He dared not go far from Astrid, fearing it might literally kill her, so he applied to Stanford, was accepted, bought a car and continued to live in the cupcake for the first two years of college. Then, when he fell in love with Tracy, he moved closer to the campus but not a weekend went by when he didn’t drive the easy 43 miles to visit his mother at home.
He saw her weakening. Perhaps she had waited for his college graduation for soon afterward Astrid had a brain hemorrhage and died. Adam and Leo came and spent a few days with Nate sorting out her things. She left the house to her youngest son, which his two brothers had predicted and they were not at all troubled by an act of such palpable grace.
“What are you going to do now, little brother?” Leo asked sincerely.
“I don’t know,” Nate told him, “But I really need to get out of this hippie town.”
Leo laughed and suggested Nate sell the house and follow him back to New York City. Nate accepted the idea. The cupcake sold for a great deal more than he estimated and with a thirst for culture, especially after his quality education, he bought a ticket for Paris instead, where he met Giselle immediately, married her and at the age of 26, secured a job teaching music at The American Conservatory of Paris.
The months succeeding his foray in Aix-en-Provence were spent in a rather mediocre torpor. He taught his classes, saw a few friends and made a half indolent effort to spruce up his new little studio on the Rue Monsieur le Prince. The money he received from the cupcake was eaten up in his first year of marriage, traveling Europe with Giselle, whose income as a realtor sustained the couple’s comfortable bourgeoisie lifestyle throughout their following years together. His own salary from the Conservatory was modest in comparison and his recent extravagance in Aix nearly depleted his savings. Life in Paris is not easy, especially for an American no matter how long you live there. He had no family and friends, well, except for a fellow named Marcel; as the people he met often seemed to have a way of disappearing when the friendship would become ‘inconvenient’. He felt more alone than ever yet it was a familiar, almost soothing sort of loneliness, reminiscent of his childhood before he started surfing, an activity, alas, he had not considered resuming since the accident. But now, on warm nights as he sat at a table before the tall, open windows of his narrow balcony where a cracked pot of white geraniums gave him guilt for the brown edges of their petals, he found himself imagining the waves, imagining them riding over him. He still played the piano and sometimes endeavored to compose but he did not consider himself an artist and preferred to unleash his creative urges into the intricacies of everyday life.
Marcel was the only one who called him Nate; it appeared to amuse him.
“Mais bien sur, Nate,” Marcel cut into his steak, “the sea is filled with fish.”
Nathaniel finished his glass of Bordeaux. “Should we get another bottle?” He raised his arm for the waiter, “The same?”
Marcel nodded, chewing. He was a big guy, not heavy but tall and stocky and usually jolly with an occasional descent into deep and dark depression. He had a Hemingway-esque appetite and seemed to drink (if one were counting) to excess although in the nine years they’d been friends, Nathaniel had not once seen him ‘wasted’.
“I’m not ready.” Nate ate a forkful of his l’oeuf mayo. They were having lunch at Les Caves du Polidor. It was a sunny, crisp September Sunday. The streets were busy. Pretty women were everywhere. So were charming men, and every one seemed to be in a couple. “I was thinking of getting a cat.” He added.
“Poor cat!” Marcel laughed, “I want to walk in the Luxembourg after and maybe go that bookshop on the Rue Bonaparte and see what they’ll give me for my first edition of Marguerite de Valois.”
The waiter brought the second bottle and Nathaniel lifted his glass, “Ah! You’re broke too?”
“Me? Never, I just don’t like to have so much Dumas on the shelves, it makes me feel dull.” He laughed, finished his steak then sat back at squinted at his friend, “Do you need money?”
“No, no. I’m fine… it just… it was a joke.”
“I have money, you know.”
“So does Giselle. Really, I’m good.”
“Do you see her?”
“Sometimes. We can talk now, like human beings.”
“How did you speak before?”
Nate made a scary face, “Like monsters!”
Marcel said no more. He was also divorced and in opposition to his friend, had become quite the playboy, especially when he was in ‘Hemingway’ mode.
They took a leisurely walk in the park and Marcel sold his book for a pretty penny, (or centime), and merrily took Nate out for a drink, then another, then a late dinner and they finally parted ways at Saint Sulpice past midnight.
Mr. Lock was offered an extra class at the Conservatory, which he accepted with much gratitude. He had a plan and began to save money. As winter approached he found it increasingly difficult to disavow the loneliness and got a cat, a gray tabby that he named Wally. It helped to a degree but what really got him through the freezing, isolating hours of winter was his grand plan. Thoughts of Ephébie had not ceased and his dreams were constantly flavored by the rose tinted moving picture of that day and night they spent together, as well as fabrications of reasons as to why she did not meet him at the fountain. By May he had saved enough money for his trip, called the Hotel Des Gantes and reserved a single room on the second floor, far more affordable than the suite they put him in last time, and had the festival program sent to him. This he studied acutely, trying to place the events in order according to those that Ephébie was most likely to attend. After weeks of deliberation he finally decided upon an agenda for the first three nights: Madame Butterfly instead of Carmen, Orfeo and Eurdice (most definitely!) over Eugene Onegin, Der Ring des Nibelungen rather than the Marriage of Figaro, a break on the next two nights and the sixth night, well, nothing could compare to La Bohème. He bought a map of Aix-en-Provence and learned the streets by heart, he bought a tour guide to the best restaurants and chose a different one for each night that in his mind seemed to compliment the theme of each opera. He devised picnic menus for days lounging in the park, listening to Liszt and he bought new clothes, new shoes and very cool pair of sunglasses. He was fully aware that he was being rather ridiculous and more often than not he’d step back and laugh at his self, but he wanted her, and of course he knew as well that he didn’t really know her, that the object of his desire was a phantom he created in her image out of his own longing, but wanted her the way, that fateful day, he wanted the 40 foot wave.
It was not that he had been celibate since his divorce, far from it. He had maintained a casual, intermittent affair with Amelia, the clarinet teacher at school and had no problem feeding his manly pride by procuring a one night shag here and there, especially on those bi-monthly nights when he and Marcel went carousing about town, yet outside of sexual satisfaction, such flings left him starving.
Happy chance, the Conservatory was on holiday for the month of July. He packed his bags, including his assiduous planner that was as detailed and clouded by romance as a teenage girls diary, and in the morning of his departure, took his gray tabby over to Marcel’s flat on the Rue de Babylone.
“Who on earth would name a cat Wally?”
“From you I’d expect something much more dignified like… I don’t know- Tchaikovsky or Sebastian…”
“Listen, it’s personal. You’ll take good care of him, won’t you?”
“Yes, yes, look- I like him already, he has fine taste in literature!”
Wally had curled up upon the open pages of an edition of Proust. Marcel scratched the cat’s chin, “That’s a good chap!”
“So, here’s his food and his litter box.”
“I forgot about that part, suppose I’ll put it in the bathroom. Where do you keep it?”
“On that little area of landing in the back.”
“Why I never noticed it before… oh well, okay. Yes, Wally and I can manage for a week.”
Nate thanked his friend who called after him as he excitedly danced down the stair, “Bon chance!”
He sliced up the six-hour drive to Aix from Paris by stopping in a few little towns along the way to stretch his legs and explore. He arrived in Aix at 9 p.m. The room he’d reserved at Des Gantes was small but tidy and pleasant, with a view of the street instead of the courtyard like last time, all the better, he thought, he could keep a watch out the window in hopes of seeing her. And this he did most of the night, ordering dinner to be sent to his room, as the first opera was not until the following evening. Alas, he saw only people who all looked the same.
He walked the streets of the small town the next day and sat for sometime at a café across from the fountain, watching, looking, his heart leaping from time to time with giant surges of hope only to plummet back down into despair and yet he laughed at his self, ordered a healthy lunch and continued on with his plan. He took time dressing back at the hotel and had to admit that he looked fine indeed.
He had reserved a seat in a box. He had opera glasses. The performance was admirable but all the while he whispered in his brain, “How could she have chosen Bizet?”
The next two days shadowed the same pattern with the same disenchanting outcome. On the fourth night, needing a break from opera himself, he tossed his meticulous, borderline anal schedule aside and spontaneously attended a symphonic concert at the Theatre de l’Archevêché playing selections from Johan Christoph Bach, Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Alban Marie Johannes Berg. The music was delicious and for two hours he forgot his mission and was drowning the way he used to during those months confined to the cupcake, listening to the radio.
The night was warm and a certain fragrance swam on a breeze throughout the town, jasmine or honeysuckle or hyacinth. The last piece, Berg’s piano sonata opus 1, still rang in his head as he walked into the Centre Ville and found his legs taking him for a desperately needed drink to Les Deux Garçons. She was there, not Ephébie, but Anouk.
“Hello!” He walked up to the table where she sat alone, sure that, as last time, ‘Phebes’ would return any moment from the ladies room.
“Hey there! I remember you.” Anouk curved her neck and he kissed both her cheeks. “Have a seat, join us.”
“Don’t mind if I…” he stopped as a young man came out of the bar with two glasses of beer and set one before Anouk and the other before himself as he took his seat beside her.
“Um… I forgot your name.” Anouk blushed.
“Yes! That’s it- Nathaniel, meet Jésus, my fiancé.”
“Oh, my, congratulations.” Nathaniel kissed the boy’s cheeks, the notion suddenly dawning on him that his dream girl might be in the same situation or already married! After all, it was the South; folks don’t fuck around like they do in Paris down here. He ordered a Kronenbourg and they chatted about the festival, Anouk’s new hair cut, Jesus’ profession as a carpenter, the weather, the stylish couple at the next table and finally he mentioned her name.
“Phebes? Oh, she’s good, I just saw her a few nights ago. We went to see Carmen.”
Nate sighed. Anouk continued, “She had her heart set on Puccini but we didn’t get tickets in time and it sold out, so… well, I liked it… sure it was tragic and all but-”
“And you went alone? I mean, alone together?”
Jesus laughed, “Yeah, I’m not much of a fan. Don’t do drama. Hey, babe, want another one?”
They kissed and he left for the bar. At last, Nathaniel could ask her questions about his beloved. He learned that Ephébie lived in a castle that she inherited from her grandfather, 30 kilometers south of Aix, the place, he gathered, she seemed so secretive about when they first met last year.
“And she lives there alone?”
Anouk squinted at him, “I get it! You like her!”
“I do.” He sighed, “I actually came back this summer hoping to see her again.”
“Ooooh, well, that’s not a problem. Meet us tomorrow, we’re going to have dinner with Jésus and some friends at…”
Her fiancé returned and she asked him, “What’s the name of the restaurant where we’re going tomorrow?”
“Eight o’clock.” Anouk grinned at Nate, “Should I tell her or do you want to surprise her?”
“Will she be surprised?’
Anouk leaned across the table and lowered her voice. “She talked of you for weeks after you left last summer, she felt terrible for not meeting you at the fountain.”
“When you met us last summer her grandfather was very ill- he owned the Chateau that Phebes inherited. He died the day she was supposed to meet you.”
He could barely speak. That scenario had never crossed his mind. She would have come to the fountain! The reverie he’d been living in for a year just turned into reality. He rose and tossed 20 francs on the table, “I got this one kids. Bonsoir, a demain!”
In six months Nathaniel married Ephébie and moved in to the Château Beauchere. They were not passionately in love yet it was an affectionate, thoughtful kind of love. Outside of the castle they did everything together and were always seen as one in town, shopping at the farmer’s market, the hardware shop, the pharmacie, the gardening store. On weekends they were seen together riding bikes in the countryside or laying on a blanket in the Parc Jourdan, peacefully reading on a sunny afternoon, or visiting art galleries and in the evenings attending plays and concerts and dining in fine restaurants. They were always the most handsome couple at parties and gave a great number of parties at the Chateau, which upon announcement naturally became a pinnacle event for the region. People were in awe at such a close, loving, giving husband and wife and all of Provence held the Locks in high esteem. Yet what was not recognized was the fact that Aix was considerably a rather small town and the Chateau Beauchere, an undeniably large house. Yes, when they were out and about they were side by side but at home where they spent more than half the time they rarely saw each other. Nathaniel had his own quarters and Ephébie had hers but they did share the master bedroom and slept together every night for ten years, even when she became sick he moved a cot into their bedroom and would not leave her.
There was one part of each day that Nathaniel was seen alone- at work. She had her inheritance to live on, a healthy one at that and she gave generously to charities. As a man of pride, Nate could not allow her to completely support him and so secured a part time position teaching at the University of Aix. The job not only relieved him of depending upon his wife financially, but also fulfilled his need for being involved with music. He taught piano, music history, theory (which he was not so fond of) and an interesting course which he designed that studied opera in terms of literary themes: Don Giovanni, Don Quichotte, Parsifal, Wozzeck, Mignon, Otello, Elektra, Salome, Romeo et Juliette, etc. etc. The list was endless, the Greek myths and Arthurian legends alone could have provided fresh material for the fifteen years he’d been teaching the course and still today, he was always enthusiastic to be adding a piece not yet explored or return to a work he had focused on long ago.
He was revising his syllabus to include Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele and Gorge Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers at the moment when Addison knocked on the door to his quarters, even though it was wide open to let in the tepid September air.
“Yes, yes, come in.” He removed his eyeglasses and sat back in his chair, wishing she wouldn’t try to speak French for her pronunciation was abominable. Addison was new. She moved into the small apartment next to his on the third floor only two weeks ago. She was from London. He’d had many tenets like her before, young woman of average talent who came to Provence for six months or a year with naïve romantic impressions of becoming the next Cézanne. So far she appeared to be a sweet girl with a gentle soul and although, from what he’d seen of her paintings, at variance with genius, he liked her and since the first day he saw her, became aware of mounting subconscious lust. At fifty-one, Nathaniel Lock was bearing through that phase when a man must accept the fact that he is getting on in age. His blond curls, still longish, were now thinner and marbled with gray, his Adonis face harder, courser, and he’d let the perpetual three-day stubble grow into a well trimmed, gray and white beard. His moist eyes remained bright and lively yet were now set like islands in a map of wrinkles and although the years had surely worn upon his body, all the physical work he did around the Chateau kept him strong, his fashionable Parisian charisma turned long ago into the rugged, sexy frame of a country man.
Addison entered his studio. It was cool and shady with black wooden beams supporting the original stone arch of the ceiling. He was at his desk, peachy rays of late afternoon sunlight broadened into the room through a stained glass window open wide behind him.
“How’s the painting going?”
“It’s going.” She smiled. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m going into town tonight to an art opening so I won’t be able to have dinner with every one but…” she shifted her hips from side to side, he thought it was for his benefit. “But I can still make a salad. I was supposed to make the salad.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Anyone can make a salad. I’ll make the salad. How’s that?”
“Are you sure? I…”
“Go, enjoy yourself. What’s the show?”
“Laetitia Lesaffre, she does these photos that look like paintings, they’re rather haunting.”
“Hmm. I think I saw something about that- at the Galerie Ramand is it?”
“Yes, that’s it. Well… thanks.” She turned to go.
“Let me know what you think!” He called after her as he replaced his spectacles.
“Pardon?” She scurried back to his desk.
He looked at her over the rim of his glasses, “About the show, let me know what you think of it.”
“Right, of course. I will.”
“Little minx.” The words came into his mind and he didn’t stop them.
In the four years since Nathaniel had renovated the Chateau and started leasing out apartments and rooms, a tradition of all the residents eating dinner together in the courtyard once a week had evolved. At present the schedule was set for Thursdays, yet on most of the other nights tenants would often gather on their own to share stories, wine and a meal.
As of late Fino had increasingly been visiting Yamine’s ground level rooms where by midnight, lovers’ sighs and pleasure cries mingled with the hoots of the white owls through the tranquil night air.
Yamine was a beautiful Moroccan woman of fifty who had been living in the castle since Nate began his ‘residencies for artists’ at Château Beauchere. She was also a painter, far more sophisticated than the new English girl. It had only been a year since Ephébie’s death and he was just beginning to abandon the stage of mourning yet after several encounters with Yamine, his libido grew so intense that it became impossible not to let go. She helped him dramatically, and fiery as their passion was, it was not something that either of them intuitively felt should continue, and so the ashes were tossed on the hearth and out of that dust they emerged best of friends.
It made sense that she’d be lured towards twenty-five year old Fino- a pretty, extremely gifted Italian cellist, soft spoken and mild in manner, yet one could tell by his penetrating, pensive black eyes that inside he was all virility, hunger and gusto.
The flat adjacent to Fino’s on the second floor was presently empty. For the past six months a French violinist named Boris had occupied it and the two musicians became like brothers on day one. When Boris left to join the symphony in Strasbourg, Fino’s sensitive heart was nearly broken. Alas, it seemed natural that he should take refuge in the ebony knowledge of Yamine’s nurturing ways. She had two grown daughters in Morocco who she’d visit often and during the winter the eldest would come and stay with her mother at the Chateau. The autumn was just starting… who knew where Yamine and Fino would be by Christmas? Perhaps they would hide their affair or perhaps the daughter would understand?
And in the old servants’ house, across a small yard of wild forget-me-nots and clover, lived Jérôme the sculptor. He was a few years older than the master of the castle and a widower as well. Like Nate, he also had a tall, resilient woodsman type of physique. His snow-white hair was short, puffy and wild, and his skin was bronzed by unending hours working outside in the southern sun. His countenance was aggressive, his mouth usually twisted into either a pout or a growl and his blue eyes were those of an adventurous seaman, a discoverer. He liked to keep to his self but thoroughly enjoyed the courtyard dinners where he’d eat and drink like a sailor, tell obscene jokes and generally provide great entertainment with his impetuosity and down to earth girth.
As Nathaniel was picking cherry tomatoes from the communal garden, Addison was in the ladies room at the Galerie Ramand taking off her nickers. She’d brought a clean pair in her purse. As arranged, she discreetly slipped the castoff pair into the sweaty hands of an ugly, middle-aged pervert before the first portrait to the left of the restroom in return for 80 euros. It was not something she enjoyed but had become accustomed to in the past year out of college. It was how she made the money to escape to Aix and at that moment, scuttling away from the quite magnificent portrait, shivered to think of all the disgusting dresser drawers belonging to those depraved males in London where, amongst an assortment of smelly others, her own panties were suffocating. It was the first time she’d done it here in France and believed it would be the last. She needed to buy new acrylics and a few more canvases but after that, she hoped, she would be financially stable. In her heart and soul, Addison was genuinely pure. She truly wished for people to be happy and good but would never extend herself beyond a guarantee of mutual trust. She was a catholic survivor and her paintings, however abstract, buried religious folds. She moved to the far end of the gallery, forgot about the last five minutes and concentrated on examining the show.
Back in his kitchen, Nathaniel began to prepare a salad for four but remembered he would need to make it for eight, or rather, seven and a half. Anouk, Jésus, and their two children had been invited for the evening. For fifteen years now he’d stayed in close contact with the couple and although he had been somewhat circumspect at first of their simplicity and at times vulgarity, he had grown to like them both very much and come to honestly appreciate their provincial ways. He adored their children. Ephébie was unable to conceive yet the misfortune didn’t disturb the husband and wife one bit. They were so happy alone together, or rather being together when they went out and enjoying solitude at home in the castle, spending entire days speaking to no-one save a few words to the servants and for Nathaniel, to Wally. He’d brought the cat to Aix when he moved. His wife had died and yet right there by his side, the aged gray feline meow-ed. Anouk’s children adored Wally and the cat used to love their attention when they were little. Unfortunately they could no longer play with him as they used to, the poor creature was old, arthritic, almost blind and just so old.
Nate finished making an enormous, lovely looking salad, fed Wally and went out just in time to greet his guests as their car pulled up the drive.
“Uncle Lock!” The girl, Zoe, ran up and gave him a big hug. She was zealous and extroverted and very pretty at age nine, of which she seemed well aware. Folks about the countryside were already warning Jésus, “You’re going to have to watch out for that one! Boy, she’s sure to be a handful!”
Acelin, the boy, was the opposite at age 11, introverted, polite and although one could tell that he was not sad at all, he often wore a sulky demeanor but he carried his self with grace and so appeared to be more poetic than morose. He was also a good-looking kid although he was extremely thin. Nathaniel paid him 10 euros on Saturdays to help him with yard work and of course didn’t mind that the boy was more often than not of no use at all, not because he was lazy or unwilling, but because for Acelin, the weeds that needed pulling were far less important than his personal musings.
Over the years Nate had developed a deep fondness for Jésus whose hardworking nature remained solid although at age 39 he was already becoming tired. He saw something in the man that reminded him of his mother. Anouk on the other hand was as effervescent as ever. She’d grown rather plump and was the biggest gossip in Provence. Only Jérôme would actually listen to her non-stop babble about ‘so and so’ and ‘so and so’, not because he had any interest in so and so, but because he secretly harbored a big crush on her.
The family followed him into the castle and began to help him bring glasses, plates, the salad, and an onion, olive and artichoke tart he’d prepared earlier, out into the courtyard to set the one long wooden table. Fino came up to the landing with Yamine carrying a heavy skillet of her famous Moroccan lemon chicken; Anouk took four baguettes and six cakes of cheese, two Camembert, one Swiss (for the kids) and three Brie, out of a bag and Jérôme arrived with a basket full of bottles of Bandol and Bourdeaux.
The scent of wild lavender rose to the courtyard from Yamine’s terrace below and the yellowing leaves of the ancient oak shaded the abundant table from the setting sun in an ochre colored sky. The cicadas were chirruping, the white laced limestone peaks of Mount Saint-Victoire doze in the cool heights of a distance, the branches of a weeping willow tree at the edge of the yard dipped gently into a harmonious, mild breeze and as the wine was poured, everyone present, in their own way, savored the composure of the scene.
Then Anouk started talking.
Drumcliff or Rori the Biker
Elizabeth McKague © 2019
Maeve woke her son at 9:30 a.m. “You’re coming to church with us, aren’t you?”
“Of course, ma.”
The same routine ensued as it had every Sunday since he was a baby. At 10:00 Martin Doyle stopped before the house with his donkey and cart. Mrs. Doyle and her mother, by now at least 100 years old, sat primly on the box seat facing backwards with a group of children sitting on the floor of the trap. Maeve got in and sat next to the ladies and Rori and Aonghus sat cross-legged on the floor with the kids. Rori was ready—even though he was 40 he remembered how fun it was to ride in the trap when he was a little boy. The road into town was marked with holes and stones and every time the trap encountered them, the kids would actually fly from one side to the other, and when it went (sooner rather than later) over the next bump they’d fly right back again. The bells of The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception rang out at 10:30 right as Martin halted his donkey at the end of a line of other donkeys and traps parked before the church inside of the street curb lined with a few cars. Maeve liked to sit in the back and although she went through the appropriate motions, she always faked dipping her finger in the holy water, believing that in itself was the way that germs got spread around. Rori could not disagree with her for he’d never seen his mother ill at all, not even with a minor cold. Yes, although she cheated at the holy water stoup, Rori sometimes seriously believed that the woman was a saint.
As usual, he didn’t pay much attention to the sermon for his mind was focused on two undertakings at hand, last was repairing the staircase in the mansion and first was greeting Pecker Keenan and his clan after mass. He’d noticed Pecker’s admirable white horse and distinct, colorfully painted caravan parked down the road. The Keenans were a band of Travellers who usually returned to Sligo County in the autumn and camped in Clogherevagh on the Lough Gill or sometimes at the edge of the Crockauns/Keelogyboy bogs. One day a twelve-year-old boy in tattered, hand me down clothes knocked on Maeve’s door asking for farm work. It was Pecker. Aonghus gave him a pitchfork and sent him to the stables. After four hours of labor, he was fed soda bread and beef stew. Pecker went home and returned the next morning. That very afternoon, a woman wearing three floral printed skirts, one on top of the other, an orange sweater spotted by holes with a clashing purple scarf, fake gold hoop earrings and long braided hair knocked on Maeve’s door asking if she wanted a tarot card reading. It was Mrs. Keenan. Maeve could give two hoots about ‘all that hocus pocus’ but took pity on the woman and had her fortune told for 75 pence and a plate of scrambled eggs. And that evening, just as Pecker was on his way home, a tall, thin man whose face had obviously seen all kinds of weather walked into the yard and asked Aonghus if he needed any soldering done, knives sharpened or perhaps he could ‘put a bottom in those leaky buckets’? It was Mr. Keenan. Pecker continued to sporadically work on the farm until the season changed. He’d disappear with his clan and return the next year. The O’Ceallaigh boys were very close to him throughout their teenage years yet their friendship began to dwindle once Rori and Geraird joined the IRA. There was no animosity or partiality over politics; they just went their separate ways. Rori’s age, Pecker was married now and even had grandkids. His daughter, as is the traditional way for Tinkers, was wed to an older man at the age of fourteen. He’d visited their campsite a few weeks before he left for the States. The whole Keenan clan, a group of about forty people, threw him a fantastic party that lasted unceasingly for three days and nights with music, dancing, drinking and a spit roasted deer.
The church service finished, Rori told Maeve he wanted to speak with Pecker then maybe go for one or two at Brendan’s since he was right there in town, and that he’d meet her at Aunt Kathy’s for Sunday dinner later. Pecker was happy to see him and took him aside for a moment, away from his wife, to let him in on a sure bet. “My cousin Torben Keenan, aka Tough Boy is boxing with Patrick Dunne aka Smasher at 2:00; north of Rathbraughan on Old Bundoran Road.”
Rori walked the few blocks to the Horseshoe in a lenient drizzle. The sky was a moldy green color. The cherry, lemon and cream colored houses and closed shops appeared intermittently dreary as if they were playing a game of hide and seek with the limey green haze. The black streets were glossed with a patina stain and the Garavogue River that, as a rule, peacefully ambled along its way from the Lough Gill to the bay seemed troubled and wavy and grey. He had felt somewhat disoriented when he arrived earlier that week and the sunshine kissed his cheek, but this—this sleepy wet feel--Ah, this was the Ireland he loved and knew.
As he was smoking a cigarette in the doorway of the Horseshoe, waiting for Brendan to open up at noon, Martin Doyle stopped his donkey and cart on the road and offered Rori a ride out to Rathbraughan as he had bet on the ‘Bout’ also. So in an hour and a half, after two pints of Guinness, Rori climbed into the trap and sat no longer now with flying children, but a group of serious men with cash in their pockets and a virile thirst for sport in their eyes. Both Travellers, the Dunne and the Keenan tribes were genial and often camped together, yet when it came to boxing, there would be no mercy on either side (even on a Sunday). The men jumped out of the trap just as the boxers were warming up behind the two tribal caravans. A few other donkeys with carts, several cars and a few bicycles lined the road and about sixty men were handing over pound notes to either Pecker or Gorman Dunne, the clan bookies, well, at least for today. There was not a female in sight, the road was blocked and if any one had planned on driving farther north of Rathbraughan, they’d just have to wait. It started to rain. Fat, dense drops of rain that fell in a slow methodical pattern, the kind of rain that is always prelude to a tempest.
Torben, a rock of a man although he was not tall or heavy, appeared in front of the Keenan caravan and Patrick, a giant with a baldhead and an imposing gait stepped into the road. Gorman rang a bell and the match began. The spectators made a circle around the two fighters, forming a man made ring. Tough Boy threw the first punch, a check hook, retaliated by Smasher with a low blow that set Tough Boy bobbing and weaving through a succession of shoeshine hits that made Smasher look impressive but caused little damage to the Keenan. They continued rough housing until Tough Boy hit his opponent below the belt, which was countered by a nasty kidney punch and they began to play possum, shifting and jabbing with such force the boxers soon broke through the ‘ring’ taking their fight up the road. Tough Boy dived under Smasher’s rabbit punch then turned around and the fighters continued back down the road, then up the road and then back down. The men ran along on either side of them, naturally having split into groups of those who’d bet on who, and the whole while the Tinkers were boxing with their bare hands, a torrential thunderstorm washed away the blood and added zeal to the violent, greedy mood. Tough Boy won, Pecker was euphoric and Rori made a hundred and fifty pounds.