Posts from the ‘Excerpts & short stories’ Category
May 25, 2017
This novel is O’Sullivan’s second, after Killarney Blues, published by Betimes Books in 2013. It takes place in a world transformed by disaster: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, nationalist and corporate mergers, roaming wolves. The Starved Lover Sings is a fever dream of a world at the end of its rope.
Our protagonist, and in many chapters our narrator, is Tombo, a PE teacher and soccer referee.
In this excerpt, our antagonist is one of the two teenage girls, called Ferocity and Velocity, or Tink and Tank, or Weal and Woe, or Tooth and Nail, or Bado and Sado — whatever suits them at the moment — who develop an obsession with Tombo and decide he’s “the one”…
February 16, 2017
February 8, 2017
Patricia Ketola‘s novel Dirty Pictures is about artistic daredevilry. It is a cultural romp, peopled by musicians, painters and performance artists, and it conceptualizes a world in which the older artistic traditions manage to embrace the younger, more conceptual definitions of art. From stolen Rembrandts, to gypsy jazz, to free-climbing, Dirty Pictures celebrates all forms of self-expression and the will of the artist to, quite literally, take a leap into the unknown.
Below is an extract celebrating the exhilaration and the beauty of free-climbing.
“Willem was in a meeting when we got to the studio, and we decided to wait until he got out. We went in his office and Venessa sat down at his computer: ‘I found a video of the boys on YouTube, but I don’t know if we should show it to Willem. He’s not too steady on his feet since the head injury, the shock might give him a stroke,’ she brought up a video: ‘Take a look, Martel, what do you think?’
The video showed Dries and the Viper sneaking into a building site and climbing the skeleton of an unfinished skyscraper. The building was tall, and when they got to the top they had a superb view that stretched all the way to Siberia. The boys worked in bare feet and without ropes or tools. The climb had been jaw-droppingly difficult, but when they reached the summit they did not rest on their laurels, instead they began to crawl out on the exposed beams. Acting in unison they lowered themselves off the beams and into the air. At first they hung from the beams by both hands like trapeze artists, but then they took one hand off the beam and hung by one arm as their bodies dangled out into empty space. It was a frightening performance, and one that I did not think Willem would be able to tolerate.
‘Let’s just show him the picture,’ I said.
‘Pretty scary, isn’t it?’ Venessa smiled. She seemed intensely proud of her cousin and his friend.
‘Yes, but it’s also frighteningly beautiful,’ I said.
‘This is real performance art!’ Venessa was enthusiastic. ‘I wish I could write my dissertation on this mode of expression, but those old frumps at school wouldn’t stand for it.’
Just then Willem walked in followed by his secretary, Irene. He was giving dictation and she was trailing behind taking notes on an old-fashioned steno pad. Willem stopped dictating and noticed us: ‘Oh, hello you two, what brings you to my lair?’
‘We’ve got a big surprise for you. Wait till you see it!’ Venessa gushed.
‘I hope it’s not another Rembrandt.’ Willem smiled at Venessa and then turned to Irene: ‘Get that typed up and I’ll sign it this afternoon.’
After Irene left Venessa jumped up from the computer and ran to Willem with the print in her hand: ‘Look at this Uncle Willem. Dries and the Viper have surfaced. They’re living it up at a nightclub in Moscow.’
Willem took the print and studied it. ‘I wonder who made those T-shirts?’ he mused. ‘They show a great sense of design and the portrait of Stalin is authentic 1930s propaganda art. It’s a nice piece of work, but I’m surprised the boys are running around with a picture of that tyrant on their chests. ’
‘They’re just kids, Willem. It probably wasn’t a political choice,’ I said.
‘I don’t care a damn about their fucking T-shirts,’ Venessa wailed, ‘look at them, Uncle Willem, they’re with girls, and they’re smiling. Dries never used to smile. He always kept a tight lip, and now it looks like he’s happy.’
‘I can see that, Venessa, and I am deeply touched.’
I looked at Venessa: ‘Maybe we should leave, darling. I’m sure Willem is terribly busy.’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said. We started for the door.
‘No, stick around. I want to talk to you about Dries,’ Willem said. He sat down at the computer. The screen was black and he hit a key: ‘I’ll be with you in a minute; I just have to get some dates for Irene.’
Venessa’s face got very pale and she ran towards Willem’s desk, but it was too late. In her haste to show Willem the picture of Dries and the Viper she had forgotten to sign out of YouTube, and now Willem was sitting in front of a video that was labeled Dutch Daredevils Go Wild in Moscow.’
‘You weren’t supposed to see that,’ I said.
‘Then why is it on my screen?’ He clicked on the video.
‘It’s up there because you didn’t turn off your computer when you went to the meeting.’ I was trying to deflect the blame from Venessa, but I knew what I said was pretty lame.
‘I’m sorry, Uncle Willem, I just wanted to show the video to Martel,’ Venessa chimed in. She looked scared and sounded contrite.
Willem paid no attention to our excuses because he was caught up in the action on the screen. When the boys finally climbed back down to safety and were greeted by a gaggle of cops he relaxed: ‘Is Hendrik around? I want him to see this.’
‘I’ll call his office,’ I said. I got Hendrik on the first ring and told him to meet us in the studio. He said he’d be right down.
After I hung up my focus was back on Willem. ‘What did you think of the climb?’ I asked.
‘I think they’re thrill-seeking morons, but aside from that it was an exciting piece of work. I didn’t think those two little bastards had it in them.’ He paused for a moment and then said: ‘The cops took them away. Do you think they’re in jail?’
‘I doubt it,’ Venessa said, ‘the photo was posted after the climb. They seem to be celebrating their success.’
‘I hope you’re right because I don’t feel like engaging with a bunch of Moscow cops. The bribes would be outrageous.’
The door opened and Hendrik walked in. When he saw his family members gathered around the computer he gave us a wary look: ‘I hope you haven’t called me here to have a conference about my illness.’
Willem smiled, ‘No, Hendrik, it’s much more serious. Take a look at this video and tell me what you think.’
The video played through again. It was the third time I’d seen it, but it remained eminently fascinating and I couldn’t help but hold my breath when the boys started dangling in space.
‘It’s fucking brilliant,’ Hendrik exclaimed. ‘I don’t understand how those two puny little shits developed the skills to perform this kind of stunt.’‘They probably trained day and night,’ Venessa said. ‘Also, it helps to be in an environment where your hopes and dreams are encouraged by a peer group of like-minded people.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Willem asked. He was taking her comment as a slight on his parenting.
Venessa backtracked, ‘I just meant he was with people who could give him the skills and support to meet his goals.’
‘That’s enough,’ Hendrik commanded, ‘let’s not get off track here. Willem, what are you going to do about this? Frankly, I don’t like the idea of Dries and the Viper continuing in this suicidal activity. They are going to fall to their deaths if they continue.’
‘You don’t know that, Daddy.’ Venessa was really hot on free climbing. If she liked it so much, maybe she should take a trip to Moscow and get trained in the art.
‘You’re right, shatje, I don’t know, but you have to admit it does seem possible. Think about it, we don’t want to lose Dries or the Viper. We have to stop them.’
‘I’m going to Moscow and bring them back,’ Willem said. He looked at Hendrik: ‘Will you come with me brother?’
‘Of course, Willem, you know I’ve got your back. Although I do wonder if that’s the right approach. These kids are flushed with triumph after their great ascent, and I doubt if they’d welcome two middle-aged relatives busting in and trying to bust their balloon.’
‘You may be right,’ Willem said.
‘Maybe Bobby could help,’ I said. ‘I know he has a lot of influence on Dries. The kid adores him.’
Venessa had been sitting quietly at the corner of Willem’s desk. She seemed to have taken her father’s words to heart. I understood her enthusiasm for the art; you had to be a fool not to see the brilliance. These kids were the ultimate in nihilism, and you could write a whole paper on their existential activities. Venessa was a scholar and she was taking free climbing from a philosophical point of view, but now that Hendrik had forced her to see that two young lives might be dashed to pieces after a long, hard, fall, she was giving it a different take:
‘I’ll call Bobby,’ she said.”
December 22, 2016
“Dream as if you’ll live forever;
Live as if you’ll die tomorrow.”
“Christmas is a holiday that persecutes the lonely, the frayed and the rejected.”
Hector & Victoria
It was warm and crowded in the café. The liquor was flowing and everyone was laughing and wishing one another a Happy Christmas. Back slaps, cheek kisses and toasts all around.
Victoria sat in a corner of Le Select next to a sprawling, slightly overweight cat, watching Hector at the bar chatting with his fellow writer, Hemingway. The two authors had already spent most of Christmas Eve together. Victoria envisioned a good deal of the day and perhaps even the holiday evening would be spent with the Hemingways, as well.
Oh, Vicky liked the Hemingways just fine. They were fellow Americans, and Midwesterners, at that. Hadley and Hem recalled the people Victoria had grown up with back home. But they also had a young son, “Bumby” or Jack. The Hemingway child was a kind of knife twist for Victoria just now.
Quite soon, she would be going back there, back to the States, and going with Hector who had at last decided to return home after several years roaming Europe, an unintended odyssey that began with his ill-fated service in the last war.
Hector had met Victoria under bizarre circumstances earlier in the year, right around Valentine’s Day, she guessed. Hector had actually saved her life, rescuing her from a killer. She had heard another woman close to him—his lover before Victoria, a woman named Brinke Devlin—had fallen prey to the murderer.
Although Hector had eventually taken Vicky into his life, then into his bed—although he was paying her way back to the States—he’d always made it clear he wasn’t looking for a permanent entanglement with her. Hector had warned Victoria from the start that the New Year would find him returning to America, and then moving on from New York alone, headed for parts unknown.
Yet it should be different now, she thought. Hadn’t they been mostly happy together these past few months? Seemingly, Hector respected Victoria’s remaining secrets, and she respected his—including the sense that some other woman evidently waited for him back there in America. She never confronted Hector about that. She never put the question to him directly.
But sometimes the pale-skinned, raven-haired Victoria caught Hem or Hadley looking at her with this curious mix of affection and concern, almost as if she reminded them too vividly of someone else, someone Victoria could only believe must have been close to Hector. Maybe it was the dead woman? Perhaps it was this Brinke?
It should be different, she thought again, watching the handsome young author.
It was Christmas, and they were lovers, and Hector had at last secured publication of his first novel. They should be returning to their homeland as a triumphant married couple, Victoria thought. Returning to celebrate Hector’s new novel and their departure from this old European city that had stripped so much from them.
But it wouldn’t be like that.
Tonight Hector would be in her arms of course.
This Christmas night he would be hers, but not in the ways that truly counted or mattered most to Victoria. And of course it wouldn’t endure.
This night in the City of Lights, engulfed in laughter and music, Victoria already viewed Hector Lassiter as the one who got away.
December 8, 2016
Feliz Navidad is a sombre Christmas tale from Sam Hawken that serves as a powerful and poignant reminder that Christmas is a time when we need to reach out to others. Encompassing the importance of the gift of charity, and of extending a compassionate welcome to all people, Feliz Navidad is a story that explores the true meaning of Christmas.
In mid-2014 a wave of undocumented migrants swamped the United States’ southern border. Most of them were under the age of eighteen and many were as young as six or seven years old, all traveling without adults to accompany them. They came from all across Central America, fleeing the scourge of violence American demand for illegal drugs has created. These children believed that if they turned themselves into the American authorities, they would have a chance at a new life free from danger.
The massive surge of youths has abated somewhat, but the journey north continues for many thousands desperate for safety and opportunity. This is the story of one such child.
FELIZ NAVIDAD by Sam Hawken
“On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula in Honduras, his older brother, Osvaldo, was killed in the street. They didn’t know if he was shot deliberately, or if he had simply been unlucky enough to be on the scene. Two others died in the same incident. Raúl packed his things in a blue Adidas gym bag, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had he had five hundred and eleven dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything his family had been able to put together. He was fourteen years old.
He took a bus to the city limits, riding until there were no more stops to be made. He was the last person on the bus besides an old man with a ratty paperback book with no cover. Raúl helped the old man get off at the end of the line, then turned south and walked.
It took him the better part of two hours to reach Chamelecón at the southeast corner of the El Merendón National Forest, and he was feeling good about the journey. He stopped only for a bottle of water at a vendor selling from a cart. He kept on, walking along the CA-4 highway. It started to rain.
He walked for the rest of the day, and when it grew dark he stepped back into the forest out of sight of the road and lay down under the spreading branches of a pine tree, his bed a thick layer of old needles. This kept the worst of the rain from him, and the ground was not soaked. It was cooler than it had been during the day, but it only dropped into the twenties. He was warm enough in his fleece running jacket and jeans, though he woke up with dew forming on his body.
Things went on like this for three days until he made the border with Guatemala. He was ragged by then and his clothes were dirty. The men at the border crossing looked at him suspiciously, but he tried to smile when he lied to them about where he was going and what he would do when he got there. He knew it was another three or four days’ walk to Guatemala City and already his feet hurt and his legs were very tired. It was only the beginning. They ignored the fact that he was only fourteen and let him through.
Raúl was careful with his money and he didn’t eat on opposite days, and then only a little. He knew it robbed him of energy, but he only had a small amount of cash to make the journey and he could not afford to spend much. On a bad day he was forced to drink from a puddle of rainwater formed in a depression in the road. He kept wearing the same clothes he left wearing until he was close to the Mexican border, and he only changed when he was within sight of the crossing, ducking between two buildings and shucking off his filthy garments to replace them with fresher ones.
“Where are you from?” the Mexican at the crossing asked him.
“I’m not stupid,” the Mexican said. “You have a Honduran passport. Where in Honduras?”
“San Pedro Sula.”
The Mexican exchanged glances with the uniformed man nearest him, then looked back to Raúl. “And you’ve come to Mexico to visit your Mexican relatives.”
“Mexican relatives,” the man said firmly, cutting Raúl off. “Did you say they were in Oaxaca?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Oaxaca,” the Mexican said, and he stamped Raul’s passport. “Your mother is coming up in line?”
“Good, because I cannot let a minor across the border without an adult escort.”
The Mexican gave Raúl his passport still open. The ink from the stamp was fresh and dark. “Thank you, sir,” Raúl said.
“Don’t thank me. Move along.”
Raúl moved along. He crossed with a collection of adults and children he didn’t know and took up alongside the highway as he had all the way from his home. The numbers had changed, but the road was just the same: two lanes heading in either direction, the middle lines nearly invisible from sun and rain.
He forgot what day it was. All there was for him was walking and restless sleep in doorways and alleys and out in the wilds between towns. He followed the signs north through Chiapas, aware only that he was moving forward step by step and that eventually the journey would come to an end. When he reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez he spotted a date on a calendar in a small shop where he bought a sweet bun and a carton of milk.
He had been on the road for two weeks. He was unclean down to the pores and his skin itched all the time. He found a public washroom and waited until there was a lull, then he stripped to the waist and washed himself in the sink, using a dirty shirt as a washcloth. There was only powdered soap in the dispenser and it was gritty against his body, but when he was done he did not smell so bad and even his hair had lost some of its greasiness.
Ten days to Oaxaca, the city where the Mexican pretended he had family. Nine days to Mexico City. More than two weeks to walk the distance to Monterrey and then four more days to reach Reynosa on the Rio Grande across from McAllen, Texas. He dragged into Reynosa with numb feet, feeling drained in every way. His clothes fit loosely on him because he had lost much weight on the journey. He had run out of clean clothes a long time before and hadn’t wanted to spare the cash to clean them at a lavandería. Now he saw the river beyond a metal fence with many holes in it and on the far side America.
He didn’t wait. He pushed his bag through a hole in the fence and then squeezed through after it, tearing his shirt. The embankment was steep, but he crashed down to the water and plunged in. It was colder than he expected.
The current was strong, though the surface seemed placid. He tried to swim while holding the Adidas bag, but he couldn’t. It was gone in an instant. He heard shouting in English from the far bank. He stroked with his arm and kicked with his legs. He wished he’d left his shoes behind.
In the middle of the crossing he managed to look up on the far side and he saw men in uniform and a white truck with a green stripe. The men had something round and orange and they climbed down their side of the river, which was reinforced with concrete. They threw the orange ring into the water and it landed a distance to Raul’s right. He struck out toward it, brushed it with his fingers, got a grip he would not release. He put his other hand on the ring and hung on as they hauled him in.
The men grabbed him under his arms when he reached the American bank, hauling him dripping from the water. One of them was speaking Spanish to him, but he didn’t understand because his head was whirling. They laid him down on the dirt. Raúl struggled to focus on the man who spoke.
“You could have died!” the man said in Spanish. “You could have died!”
Raúl reached for the man’s arm and caught it and squeezed. “I am not dead,” he said. “I am in America.”
An ambulance came. An overweight medic examined him with his shirt off, and Raúl knew the Border Patrol officers watching him were talking about how thin he was. When the examination was over, he wrapped up in a plastic thing like a blanket, only it looked like tinfoil. It kept him warm all the way to the hospital.
At the hospital he was stripped completely out of his wet clothes and given soft footies with rubber strips on the soles, and two gowns he could wear front and back to cover himself. He lay on a comfortable bed in a room with a television playing an English-language station, and an orderly brought him food, real food. It took all his willpower not shove the sandwich into his face with both hands, or to slurp the Jell-O out of its container. He consumed a whole banana in two bites. The milk he got in a paper carton was guzzled down in a second. After a while, the orderly came back to him and asked him a question in English. “No hablo Inglés,” Raúl told the man, and the orderly went away.
Eventually he saw a doctor, who took his vital signs and asked him in Spanish to do things like breathe deeply and say ah. “Have you been sick recently? A cold or anything?” the doctor asked him.
“Not sick. Very hungry.”
“I’ll see about getting you some more food,” the doctor said. He was dark-skinned and Latino, and the name on his hospital identification was Garcia. “And then they’ll want to take you.”
“Take me where?”
“Somewhere you can rest and sleep.”
“Can’t I stay here for a while?”
Dr. Garcia looked at Raúl with sad eyes. “I’m afraid not. This is a hospital, not a shelter. Don’t worry. It will be all right.”
The same orderly as before brought Raúl a fresh tray of food. He ate in a more measured fashion this time. By the time he was done he felt almost full.
It was an hour before men in uniform arrived. Raúl didn’t recognize their badges or their faces, but they were authority, and that was all that mattered. They brought him clothes: white socks and underpants and a t-shirt, white slip-on shoes and then loose pants and a top made of bright orange linen. “Put these on,” said one of them. “Don’t take too long.”
Raúl reluctantly shed the hospital gowns and got into the clothes. It was prisoners’ clothing, though it lacked any writing to indicate where the wearer belongs. When was finished dressing he said, “I’m ready,” and the uniformed men re-entered the room. One of them put handcuffs on him, though they cuffed his hands in front.
He was led out of the hospital past many faces, white, black and brown. They watched him with a mixture of emotions, though most seemed sad for him. Others looked strangely, inexplicably angry, including a white man who flushed red when Raúl marched by. The man whispered something to the woman with him and the both of them glared at Raúl until he was out of sight.
The uniformed men put Raúl in a white van and they drove for a while. He could not be certain how long. They were in McAllen properly now, not just in the part that skirted the river. Everywhere there were unreadable signs in English and cars and activity. Spanish appeared regularly as if to comfort him, offering drugstores and televisions and places to cash checks. Though it was not so terribly different from what he saw in Reynosa, it was also alien. These things he saw were American and he was not in his home or the home of anyone south of the river.
They approached a forbidding, angular building made of red and gray stone. The van cruised past a line of police units on the way to a gated entrance manned by another uniform. The van drove down an angled slope into an underground receiving area where finally the driver killed the engine and Raúl’s escorts got out.
He was released from the back of the van and brought through two sets of doors with electric locks into a room with a long counter divided into sections. People were at every section, speaking in Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English to the men and women in uniform behind the counter. All the people doing the talking were cuffed like Raúl.
“Wait behind the blue line,” said one of the men with Raúl. The other one left. Raúl stood behind the blue line.
It took most of an hour before someone at the counter could see him. Raúl listened as his escort talked to the woman in his section in English. They both laughed and then finally Raúl was alone with the woman. A man on his left spoke animatedly in Salvadoran-accented Spanish. On his right, a Mexican woman was barely audible through the tears she shed.
“My name is Agent Flores,” said the woman behind the counter. “What is your name?”
Agent Flores typed. Raúl could not see the screen. “Where are you from, Raúl?”
“San Pedro Sula. In Honduras.”
She looked directly at him. “How old are you, Raúl?”
“Where are your parents?”
“My father is in prison. My mother is at home.”
“You came alone?”
Raúl hesitated. “They say… they say if a boy comes here, he can stay. That they won’t send him away. Is that true?”
“Sometimes,” Agent Flores said, and Raúl thought she looked sad. His eyes strayed past her to the Christmas decorations on the wall. Santa Claus and snowmen and mistletoe and holly. And Christmas trees and snowflakes.
She asked him other questions, about how many brothers and sisters he had, and where he had gone on his long walk. She asked him how much they said he weighed at the hospital and how tall he was. She asked him if he had relatives in the United States. She asked him question after question for a long time until finally there were no more questions.
“What happens to me now?” Raúl asked.
Agent Flores smiled unhappily. “They’ll take you somewhere to stay.”
The building was full of many halls and doors. Someone new took Raúl up an elevator to a high floor and brought him out into a concrete hallway ringing with the sound of children’s voices. It sounded like a school before the first bell rang, high laughter and shouted jokes and cursing and the rush of a hundred simultaneous conversations. After a short stretch of hallway the interior of the building opened up and there were bars on both sides.
The teenagers were broken into two groups, boys on one side and girls on the other. There were a two hundred or more in each holding area and many of the tinfoil-looking blankets. Rubber sleeping mats lay haphazardly all over the floor, being trodden on by kids in sneakers and in white slip-ons like Raúl’s. The boys closest to the bars were yelling to the girls, trying to get their attention, and some of the girls were yelling back, not always friendly. Raúl tried to keep his eyes straight ahead.
He was turned toward a door and the door was opened with a heavy brass key. The man who escorted him said, “Look at me.”
Raúl looked at the man. He was tall and straight and heavy in the chest and shoulders like a man used to lifting weights. His hair was shot through with grey. “Yes, señor?” Raúl asked.
“No ‘señor.’ It’s mister. I am Mr. Martinez. I’m in charge of this floor. If you have questions, you ask to speak with me. If you have problems, you come to me. If you have a need, I’m the one you look for. Do you understand? Mister Martinez?”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
“Good. And don’t let any of these little bastards give you any shit. Later someone will bring you a mat for sleeping and a blanket. You’ll be all right until then.”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
Raúl went. He let Mr. Martinez lock the door behind him and he faced the pandemonium of the holding area. There were a few tables made of stainless steel and bolted to the floor, along with their seating, but they were overrun with boys. None of the boys he saw seemed younger than thirteen, but some were clearly close to eighteen or over it. There were angry looks and curious looks and looks of complete indifference.
All at once the looks turned into talking and Raúl was asked a dozen questions at once. Where he was from, what he was doing here, did they say anything about letting anyone out, would they bring extra food for dinner, how old was he, was he going to a family in the States, and on and on and on.
He tried to answer all the questions as well as he could, but there were too many to keep track of, and very soon the eager questions stopped, and he was back to being ignored. Raúl worked his way through the crowd along the bars, settling into a spot where the corner met the cage, and sat down. He put a hand on a bar and felt the cold metal under the mint-green paint. For the first time since he left home, he felt like crying. The voices pummeled him endlessly.
Every half an hour or so, a man in uniform came by to check on them. Raúl also noticed cameras in the ceiling, protected inside plastic bubbles, looking down on them all. He imagined Mr. Martinez keeping an eye on him in his corner, alone among a multitude, and telling the other men in uniform that this kid was all right. Decent and respectful. They taught them well in Honduras. Not like those Salvadoran kids.
His eyelids drooped despite himself and he drifted into a sort of half-sleep. The roar of the voices, echoing and re-echoing off the flat concrete, reduced to a background tumult and there were images of soft beds and his room and trays of food, each more delicious than the last.
Raúl wasn’t sure how long he drifted this way, but eventually he opened his eyes again and nothing had changed. He felt a pressure in his bowels and he stood up, looking for a place to go. He saw the word RESTROOM emblazoned above an open doorway, and under it the word BAÑO. Little by little, he worked his way through the crowd until he could get there.
With each step closer to the restroom he could smell the growing stench of urine and feces. By the time he was at the door, the odor was almost overwhelming. He stepped over the threshold, and his clean white shoe splashed in a shallow pool of water. He saw the whole interior of the restroom was flooded to the depth of a centimeter, and the water was not clean. Chunks of raw excrement lay on the floor, some swathed in toilet tissue that had soaked through.
He went to the stalls to find a toilet and discovered the first one was so full of waste that it had mounded up over the seat and begun to spill down the sides. The next one was the same and the next and the next. Some of the boys had even taken to moving their bowels into the urinals along one wall, so that half of them were clotted with stools.
The pressure was too much to ignore. The food from the hospital had worked through him rapidly. He stepped into one of the stalls and took down his pants and his underpants, only he could not let them fall to his ankles lest they soak in the filthy water. Nor could he sit on the seat because of the accumulated filth. Instead he half-bent and half-squatted over the clogged toilet and did what he had to do. When he was done, he used what little toilet tissue was left in the dispenser to clean himself.
He washed his hands in a sink and fled the restroom as soon as he was able. When he returned to his spot by the bars and sat down, he did cry, though he hid his face and made no sound.
Food time was a time of chaos, as the dozens pressed up against the one open door, trying to grab a meal before anyone else could. They were given small paper bags with a cold sandwich and a bag of chips inside and a small container of apple juice. Eventually, all the mob were sorted out, but for a long time Raúl thought he would not get any food at all.
He ate in his corner and ignored the sound of chewing and intermittent squabbling over who had rights to what bit of a meal exchange. The sandwich was tasteless, the bread soaked in something that was not mayonnaise. Raúl ate it anyway, because he knew without asking that to leave any food uneaten in this place was to lose it forever.
From time to time he looked out through the bars at the girls in the opposite holding area. They were much the same as the boys, sparking up into screaming matches that burned out as quickly as they started. He saw a girl sitting near the bars almost directly across from him, her back to the others, looking out at Raúl while she ate and he ate. She raised a hand to him in a half-wave and he waved back. They said nothing to each other.
After the meal there was a collection of the garbage, and once again the single door was mobbed. Once two teens broke out into the passageway and tried to run, but Mr. Martinez and the other uniformed men put them quickly back in place. Raúl did not try to escape. He did not know where he would go even if he were to slip out of the holding area, out of the building and onto the street. The entire plan had been to make the crossing and surrender to the first American in a uniform he could find. That was done, though this was not the result he had been led to expect.
Raúl held off using the restroom as long as he possibly could, but finally he was forced into the mire to urinate. He would rather have died than face the toilets again. He huddled up in his spot, gently rocking himself. The girl was still there, glancing up at him from time to time, but not staring.
He heard her voice for the first time a little while later on. “Oye,” he heard her say. “Hey. Hey, you!”
He looked. “What do you want?”
“What’s your name?”
“I am Beatriz.”
“How old are, Raúl?”
“How old are you?”
Raúl straightened a little. “I’m also fourteen.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Mexico. Do you know a place called Xalapa?”
Raúl thought about it, and shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a city. Do you come from the city or the country?”
“The city. San Pedro Sula.”
“Where is that?”
“I said it’s in Honduras.”
Beatriz made a sour face. “If you’re going to be rude, then I won’t talk to you.”
Footsteps sounded in the passageway, and Beatriz suddenly became very interested in her lap. Raúl strained to see farther down the hall, but he could not see who was coming until they were nearly upon him. He recognized Mr. Martinez, and saw that the man carried a rolled up foam mat and a folded blanket like all the tinfoil-looking blankets in the holding area.
Martinez spotted Raúl and pointed toward the door. “You,” he said, “meet me over there.”
Raúl hurried to get to the door, stepping over and around the densely packed crowd. Mr. Martinez opened the door, but there was no rush to escape this time. The other boys fell back instead, and Raúl stood alone at the threshold with the man.
“These are yours,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl, and he thrust the bedding into Raúl’s hands.
“I read through your documents and it says your brother was killed not long ago.”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
“You have another brother, though.”
“Yes. He is eleven.”
“It’s good that he isn’t here. It’s almost Christmas. He should be with his family. Like you should. This is no place for a boy. Not for any of you. Why would you come here and put yourself through this?”
Raúl shook his head slowly. “In my country there is so much killing. The gangs control everything. What they can’t take, they destroy. The people who won’t follow them, they murder. Someone has to get out and tell Americans what is happening. So my mother and my brother can come here and be safe.”
Mr. Martinez looked down at him. “Your mother and your brother are never coming here.”
He closed the door and walked away. The level of conversation picked up around Raúl, and the circle closed. Soon it was as if the man had not been there at all. Raúl retreated to his spot.
Beatriz was watching him. “Your brother died?” she asked.
“That’s terrible. My uncle was killed by the narcos. It’s everywhere.”
“No,” Beatriz agreed. “Not here.”
They had nothing else to say to each other after that, and soon it was time for lights out. One of Mr. Martinez’s men came through yelling in Spanish for everyone to lie down and go to sleep. Half the overhead illumination was shut down so it was not truly dark. Raúl found he could not unroll his mat entirely in his place, nor could he unwind his body to lie full length. He was forced into a curled position, almost hugging his knees, with the papery blanket over him for warmth.
Despite himself, he drifted. In his dream-state he heard Beatriz whispering to him. Then he realized it was not a dream at all, but her urgent whisper through the bars and across the space that separated them. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, Raúl!”
“It’s time to sleep,” Raúl hissed back.
“In a week it will be Christmas. Good things happen at Christmas.”
Raúl only nodded, and then he went back to sleep.
Each day it was the same. Food came three times a day, sandwiches for lunch and dinner and a sticky roll and milk for breakfast. Every other day they were taken out in shifts to use showers. They were locked into the stalls alone and given five minutes to clean themselves. The toilets were mucked out once, but soon were clogged with filth, and the process started all over again.
Talk began to spread among the teenagers on this level, both on the girls’ side and the boys’, that something special was set to happen on Christmas Day. Beatriz was the one who first told Raúl this, and one of the boys near him overheard them talking. The rumor spread rapidly. Soon everyone demanded of the uniformed men and women who looked after the floor what was going to happen. They were told to sit and be quiet and mind their own business.
Some of the boys and girls were taken away and did not come back. This fueled the speculation even more. But then new boys and girls were brought in to take their places. The holding areas were jammed head to toe, and there was barely enough space to form a thought. Raúl held onto his station and refused to be budged.
Mr. Martinez came once a day to look in on them, and he took time to speak with Raúl at his place by the bars. He knew many of the other boys by name, but Raúl felt especially singled out whenever Mr. Martinez spoke to him. He did not like talking to the other boys, and Beatriz could not talk to him all the time, so Mr. Martinez was the best of all possible worlds.
“It’s Christmas tomorrow,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl one day.
“I know. There is a lot of talking about—”
“I know what they’re talking about. They’ve been on about it all week. Don’t listen to them.”
“But something must happen on Christmas,” Raúl insisted.
“Maybe something will,” Mr. Martinez said. “We’ll see.”
And that was the end of their conversation. The day before Christmas went on the way every other day had, with talk and jokes and fights and shouting and singing and chaos. Raúl kept himself to himself and didn’t speak even to Beatriz.
There was night and then it was Christmas day. The lights came on and the holding areas awoke with stretching and yawns. Raúl struggled to bring some life into his stiff limbs. Every night he spent curled up was harder than the night before. His joints ached. He felt old. Lines formed for the restroom and the reek of urine was everywhere.
Breakfast did not come on time and there were rumblings. After an hour’s delay there was anger in the air.
Raúl heard the sleigh bells first, and then the jolly sound of someone booming, “Ho, ho, ho!” There were many footfalls in the passage. And then there he was: Mr. Martinez in a red suit with white trim, a floppy cap with a puffball on the point draped over his skull. He was followed by the morning crew with the breakfast carts.
A loud and rousing cheer rose from the boys’ side of the floor, and then a higher-pitched response from the girls. Soon the doors were open and food was dispensed. Mr. Martinez kept chortling away and the bags were all distributed. Inside, along with the usual milk and roll, was a piece of wrapped chocolate and an orange. Soon the smell of orange zest was in the air instead of the earthy stink of the restroom and the closely packed bodies.
Raúl ate and was happy and saw Beatriz smiling at him as she sectioned her orange. There was more laughter and less shouting now than there had been on days before. Raúl felt light.
It was close to lunchtime when Mr. Martinez returned without his Santa suit. He came with another uniformed man, and they opened the door to the boys’ holding area. “Raúl!” Mr. Martinez called. “Raul! Honduras! Come on! Bring everything!”
Raúl gathered up his things and hurried to the door. He hadn’t yet unwrapped and eaten his chocolate yet. “I am here,” he said.
Mr. Martinez smiled at him. “Come with us.”
They took him down from the high floor to another place with many rooms and offices. He was put in a new cell, much smaller, all alone. A little while later a woman brought him a large paper sack. In the sack were the clothes he’d worn the day he’d crossed the border. “Put those on,” the woman said. “They’ve been cleaned.”
He stripped off the orange suit, but he kept the socks and the underpants and the undershirt even though he was sure they wanted him to take those off, too. He changed into his old clothes and waited. After a long while someone else came to get him, and he was brought through to another holding area, still fairly small, where he was held with three boys who were very young.
Mr. Martinez came to them after a while. “This is the end of your time with us, Raúl,” he said.
“Is it time?” Raúl asked. “Have they decided to let me stay?”
“Your case was reviewed by a judge. His decision was to let you go. There’s a plane leaving the airport in three hours. You’ll be on it.”
Raúl’s vision blurred. He felt tears and wiped at them. “I can’t go back to Honduras! I can’t! I came so far!”
“I know,” Mr. Martinez said somberly. “I’m sorry.”
The other boys were crying, too. They had only a few things between them and soon they were all picked up by men in uniforms and put in a van and taken to the airport. They were given seats on the tightly packed planes, and a man with a badge, but no uniform, flew with them. The flight to Honduras took five hours. There was time to reach home for Christmas dinner.
On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula again, his cousin, Emilio, was killed in a clash over drug territory. Raúl packed his things in a pale green pillowcase with clouds printed on it, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother, and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had one hundred three dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything he had left from his sojourn north. He was fourteen years old.”
December 3, 2016
Blue and Unassuming Under the Christmas Star is a seasonal spin-off from Jackie Mallon’s book, Silk for the Feed Dogs. The story returns to the problems of the loveable but habitually disaster-prone Kat as she tries to find some Christmas spirit in the hearts of the famously grumpy New Yorkers.
Jackie Mallon manages to capture what it is that is so terrifying and exhilarating about the city. So for anyone longing for a proper winter and a proper Christmas, this is the perfect story to help you pretend that you’re in the city that can never be beaten for festive excess.
Blue and Unassuming under the Christmas Star
Kat, a farmer’s daughter from rural Ireland, and Edward, a preppy Economist-reading builder’s son from Birmingham, met five years ago in London at an illustrious school for fashion design. Forced to collaborate on a project, they became unlikely friends and upon graduation, embarked upon an exploration of the “Bella Vita” in Milan, Italy.
My debut novel, Silk for the Feed Dogs, follows the agreeable pair through the ruthless and hierarchical fashion system, as they design the course of their careers, talk Italian, and practice in the fine art of seduction, Italian-style.
In Blue and Unassuming under a Christmas Star, we find Kat a year later, landing in New York from Paris, where she and Edward have been living since leaving Milan. She is to meet Edward, who is arriving in town on the tail end of a work trip, at their hotel. Kat anticipates the kickoff of a glamorous holiday sojourn enjoying their friendship, the world-famous sights and revelling in the Big Apple’s gung-ho conjuring of the Christmas spirit. But one mishap threatens to throw a damper on it…
“She realizes she has left her phone on the AirTrain. A sign on the back of the cab driver’s seat informs her the airport is fifteen miles from Midtown Manhattan. Therefore she is about seven and a half miles away from her phone, and light years away from Edward. He’s stuck in Shanghai with no idea when he will board a flight. This she found out after landing at JFK. In a hurried voicemail message, he recounted a story about a lorry load of knit samples being stolen en route from the factory, leaving them with only thirty-five percent of the Spring collection. He would have to scramble to put everything into work again, and it was the night before he was supposed to leave, the night before he was supposed to join her for their glamorous Manhattan Christmas.
We couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery, thinks Kat, looking out at the light snow flurrying between one lane of traffic and the next.
From the hotel she will call him. What if it’s night-time there? She’ll write him an email briefly explaining the loss of her phone and describe a hastily composed itinerary for the day. Then she’ll make her way back to the hotel and call him again around lunchtime. Otherwise she’ll just see him whenever he checks in. Whatever day he arrives. She looks down at her lap. She has been picking the skin on her thumb which she does when she is anxious. The distant Manhattan skyline stretches out alongside the cab like a misty hedgerow.
“Do you know the cross street, Miss?”
“Um, no, just the address, 204 West 29th?” The driver doesn’t look too impressed with her organizational skills either.
Why isn’t the street address enough here? And why isn’t the price advertised the price you end up paying? She is already fretting about what tip to give him.
The hotel lobby is medieval dark, dotted with untreated wood and hunks of dulled metal slabs edged with rivets posing as furniture. The soft lighting is mostly provided by the rows of laptops on low tables. She waits for a well-shaven man in a narrow cut suit to finish with another guest. He approaches beaming a wide, white-toothed welcome.
“Hello. My name’s Kat Connelly. I’m checking in.”
He studies the computer screen. “I don’t seem to have anything by that name.”
“Oh, of course not! It’ll be under Edward Brandreth. He made the reservation. Two single rooms.”
Wide, white-toothed understanding. He hits several keys. “No, I’m sorry, we have nothing under that name either. Are you sure you’re in the right hotel?”
The piece of paper in her right hand shows the name and address of this hotel, her handwriting. “It is––I mean, it should be. It was booked weeks ago. Are you sure? Can you just check again?”
No white teeth this time. “Do you have a confirmation or booking number?”
She hadn’t thought to print it out. “My friend Edward booked.”
He taps repeatedly the same key. “Wait up. I have a Brandreth for tomorrow night. Two single rooms. Ten days.”
“Oh, thank God! You had me there! I knew he couldn’t be that dizzy—I mean, dizzy enough, obviously, as the booking should include tonight, but at least all’s not lost. Phew!” With no effort she matches the width of his smile. “That’s a relief. Can I have a room for tonight, please?”
His smile goes again and the lobby darkens. She watches him shake his head. “I’m sorry, miss, it’s the week before Christmas, we’re full up.”
“I’ll take a double, whatever you’ve got. I don’t mind paying more.”
His demeanour softens and he leans in, his elbows on the counter. “Girl, you’re going to have trouble getting in anywhere no matter how much money you got.” His accent had eased down-home. “I mean, maybe a Holiday Inn in the boroughs but, seriously, come on, a room tonight? New York is busier than a one-legged dog with fleas.”
There it is: the calamity she feels has been looming since leaving the airport. Alone in New York City with nowhere to sleep. She and Edward should have figured out alternative arrangements in case something went wrong, because with their track record something always goes wrong. It seems inconceivable she didn’t get a copy of the confirmation email. Instead of discussing the details of the booking, they had spent most of their last phone conversation giddily quoting Christmas movies:
“If it’s Serendipity, I’ll get in two hours after you. I’ll meet you just left of Miracle on 34th Street.”
“Can you believe it, Jack Skellington? Next stop, shopping in Christmastown!”
“‘What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.’”
“‘I’ll take it. Then what?’”
“‘Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair!’”
Weighing the pointlessness of sitting in a hotel where she is not a guest versus the aimlessness of wandering the city alone, Kat chooses the latter. She’ll be able to think as she walks; neurons will wake up, band together, and storm her cranium to arrive a solution. She curses the people of Shanghai as a bunch of Scrooges trying to spoil their holiday merriment, all over a few sweaters.
If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!
The desk clerk agrees to hold her luggage until the evening. “It’s against hotel policy if you’re not a guest but, geez, far be it from me to contribute to your troubles, child. Quick, leave it there, I’ll pretend I don’t see.” Theatrically he turns away. “I see nothing!”
Taking a deep breath, she steps out into the circular currents of snow and asks someone directions for Fifth Avenue. Considering herself well-travelled, she is surprised how much New York intimidates her with its size and noise and brashness. What becomes immediately clear is she’s not wearing the right shoes. Her toes are clenching in retreat from the damp that’s seeping through the seams of her vintage leather. She studies the feet that pass; even the lower legs of the women wearing dainty pencil skirts culminate in one of two ways: a quilted nylon blob, somewhere in the vicinity of a ski boot gathered by drawstring at the calf, or a garishly patterned rubber boot resembling children’s footwear that waggles about the leg. Both serve to annihilate the line of calf to ankle. Parisians would opt for being born with a cloven hoof rather than have that happen, regardless of the weather, she thinks, then reminds herself that this is the land where chic lags behind comfort. In every company she has ever worked, jersey knit, the ultimate leisure fabric, sold best in the US market. In her line of business, she can’t help but compare how people dress from place to place and what they tote, forming opinions, reaching conclusions.
She catches a glimpse of herself in a window. Hands clasped before her, she looks like she’s praying. She resolves to be less of a blip moving erratically across a grid and more attuned to her surroundings.
She wonders how she ever found her way about or did anything before smartphones, and then gives a grunt. Smartphones render their owners idiots.
Even as her thinking desperately turns to public pay phones, she notices how many people are bearing down on her at speed, heads bent over their own personal screens and keypads. Pate first, they charge; a herd of headlong bovines branded with Apple or Samsung. A telephone booth, there has to be one or two left. The words telephone booth sound so cozy as she trudges on, the prospect of curling up in intimate seclusion for a chat with a friend so appealing. It suddenly sounds as archaic a term as hat box, penny farthing, and powder puff. Still, there just has to be one or two left.
A massive stone building, beautiful, opens up on her left with sculptures of robed men lining the ledges against the sky, four sets of twin columns flanking tall arched entrances, and two stone lions on podiums. The brave pair wear wreathes around their necks and matching jaunty red satin bows tied at the throat. Carved into the stone in large capitals are the words New York Public Library. A library is for the people, she reasons, a bricks and mortar font of information left over from the pre-Information Age, immobile, uninvolved with satellite signals, and from what she can see, open. Hurrah for the old world! She climbs the steps, past the lions surely guarding the last of the city’s public telephones, heartened by the sight of the gold and red Christmas tree twinkling warmly just inside the central archway. A security guard steps forward, asks to search her bag. He peeks inside and taps the leather reassuringly to move her on.
“Can you tell me where the public telephones are, please?”
“Payphones, you mean?” He smiles. “Huh, now, there’s a question. Do we still have them even?” He looks around, purses his lips. Without warning he calls out, his voice echoing through archways, up stairways and crashing off ceilings “Hey… Hey Curtis! Yo, we got any payphones up in here?”
When those echoes subside, new ones ripple in from a hidden Curtis. “Yeah, bro. Saw them the other day. By the children’s section.”
The security guard points over his shoulder to the right. “Just through there, the second room.”
Her eyes glisten with unspoken thanks as Curtis’s voice soars in again. “They all broken though. Somebody needs to make it their business to call a repair guy.”
The sight of her downcast face touches the security guard, compels him to offer what he thinks is a serviceable solution. “Miss, we have Wi-Fi though. On every floor, in every reading room and even in the grounds outside.” With a nod and smile, his duty done, he beckons the next visitor forward. Kat heads back down the steps to be reclaimed by the Fifth Avenue throng.
The ground is laced with white now. As she walks she imagines herself at the centre of a Christmas movie scene, the city’s noises, already dulled by snowfall, overtaken by some soaring Henry Mancini soundtrack with added jingle bells, the cameras panning out to focus on her lone black figure growing smaller on the city’s grand grid, progressing uptown, yes, uptown because now she is at 49th Street. She finds the architecture miniaturizing, yet when she manages to forget for a second her predicament, it’s uplifting too. She could be protagonist or extra in any story here, feel like a star or be extra anonymous. On impulse she reaches out and touches the expensive plaid sleeve of a passing woman’s coat.
“I’m terribly sorry, would I be able to use your cell phone briefly to make a call? I’m alone in the city and––” The woman flicks Kat’s fingers from the plaid without stopping. Kat tries this with three more strangers. An older woman steps back alarmed which makes Kat fade embarrassed into the crowd, her heart pounding. A teenager tells her to get lost. Finally a man pauses and listens to her tale with his head cocked to one side. At first it might be a business pitch he’s hearing but presently Kat detects in his eyes a glimmer of compassion. Then at the mention of Shanghai, he splutters “Yeah, right!” and bolts with a flap of his topcoat. Bolstered, however, Kat fishes ten dollars from her purse and holds it in both hands as she approaches another man in a suit, tie and topcoat. These corporate types seem to be the most amenable to her intrusion, and she ignores her uneasiness when she thinks how it must look: young female approaching older businessman leading to a sidewalk exchange of money.
“Listen, I’ll help you out, but if my wife calls, I need to answer it, you got that? She’s been chasing me all day and I’ve sent her to voicemail four times.” He looks down the street, both ways, turns his lapel up. “She is not happy.” He waves away her money and hands her earbuds. “Use these. I’ll keep hold of the phone.” Glancing up gratefully and with clumsy fingers, she inserts them in her ears, pulls the same piece of paper that contains the hotel address from her pocket and punches in Edward’s cell phone number. Her forefinger picks a shard of skin from around her thumbnail and she barely registers the sting of it as she listens to the dial tone. Curse him to Almighty for not answering. She can picture him squinting at the screen, lifting it up to study the number, pursing his contrary little lips, then replacing it on a desk with a sniff and turning back to what he was doing. It goes to voicemail and she feels like hurling the stranger’s phone into the traffic.
“Hey, it’s Edward. Why are you disturbing me with a phone call? Nowadays it’s much less invasive to text. Oh, while you’re here, go on then, leave a message. If you must.”
BEEP. Barely managing to keep from shrieking, she launches breathlessly into her message, “Bloody hell, Edward! You booked the hotel for tomorrow night, not tonight. I’m stranded in New York with no place to sleep! I’ve lost my phone and––” There is a noise, not a promising one. The phone gulps and she realizes the man has shot off in the other direction with the phone to his ear, the chord of his earbuds dangling between her fingers. “Hey! Wait, please! I was in the middle of talking! WAIT please, I’m begging you!” She runs after him and pulls at his coat, his sleeve, his flapping scarf; he jerks away. “No it’s no one, honey. I promise. Don’t be silly, it’s just some crazy person on Fifth Avenue. Tis the season, after all. Look, I’ll be home early; we’ll go to our place.” He turns, mouths sorry and hurries off.
She drops onto the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Mentally exhausted and with nowhere to sleep, she now recognizes the lumbering juggernaut of jetlag encroaching from the peripheries. The dusting of snow on the step turns to water under her rear, no doubt marking her best coat in an unfortunate, truly homeless-looking way. Over her shoulder a long queue snakes from the door of the neo-Gothic cathedral around the block, a mixture of prayer book and guidebook believers anticipating the exalted stained glass, the Tiffany-designed altar, the lofty marble columns fanning out like palm leaves to the ceiling, and the pietà that’s three times the size of Michelangelo’s Pietà. She thinks about joining them and curling up just inside under the holy water fountain till morning. She could light a candle and leave it to the heavens to seal her fate. If Edward were here he would say, “You don’t come to New York to go to church, Kat, you can do that anytime. I personally don’t do religion unless I have drink in me. See? I’m more Irish than you think.”
She picks herself up and crosses the street alongside a trio of singing Santas bearing a Salvation Army donation bucket. Their accelerated harmonies of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” make shoppers dance and sway.
She fights to extract herself from behind a group of Italians who have halted smack dab in the middle of the pavement. They are all dressed in the same quilted jacket but in different colours and resemble a little barricade of activated airbags. She attempts unsuccessfully to go around them and the old irritation arises in her even though it has been over a year since she left. Loitering with lack of intent she called it. You can take the Italian out of the piazza but you can’t take the piazza out of the Italian.
“Permesso?” She sighs dramatically. “Mi fate passare?”
Looks of surprise. The airbags are deactivated. “Prego, Signorina!” Just like that, she has removed the look of the tourist from each of their faces by generously placing them on familiar territory. Sure enough, she feels their eyes work their way down the length of her and make the return journey.
“Mille grazie,” she says haughtily, passing through their centre. A few steps later, she, like them, stops short, infuriating those behind her.
Of course, there is its stature, but she is already used to the bigness of big here. That isn’t what makes it special. It is the inch-by-inch attention to detail on such a scale. The Rockefeller Christmas tree. There isn’t a pine needle that doesn’t sparkle against the fuchsia-lit facade of the skyscraper behind it. It is the Taylor-Burton diamond of Christmas trees. It symbolizes ambition, hope, confidence.
Kat has to believe this energizing trio must surge through the city all year round but at Christmas they really come into their own, accompanied by French horns, gussied up with flashing lights and tied with bows. Quiet confidence is an oxymoron here, quiet hope akin to hopelessness, quiet ambition no ambition at all. That must be the New York way from what she has observed. Just four hours since landing and she marvels at the unapologetic volume of people’s voices. Everyone’s an announcer. Italians yell at each other in the street, a barrage of obscenities or the same predictable Ciao Bellissima, but New Yorkers make you privy to the full-throated details of divorce settlements, bank accounts, therapy sessions, troubled childhoods, this verbal release ushering them on to greater things. All the neuroses of a Woody Allen film seem to sputter from the city’s orifices like natural waste, better out than in. Beside her, with the Rockefeller spectacle as his backdrop, a man on his cell phone describes being audited by the tax authorities, having his screenplay rejected by a famous director and getting hit by a yellow cab––and no health insurance!––all in the same week. Then he turns and offers her a toothpaste commercial grin. Built on the smoldering remains of trauma and dysfunction rises the city of eternal hope; white teeth in the face of adversity.
She decides she would do well to learn a thing or two from them and quit being such a defeatist. All she needs is a room for the night. There are infinite possibilities that could yet unfold. A brass band bursts buoyantly into “Good King Wenceslas” and she feels grateful she didn’t leave her wallet behind instead of the phone. She drinks in one last view of the tree and adjusts her thinking. I am in control of my own destiny. Look around! Here I am in the heart of Manhattan despite less than ideal circumstances but how can I complain if I am at the centre of the world? This isn’t called the Empire State for nothing.
The corner of Fifty-Fourth and Fifth offers prime people-watching opportunities. New Yorkers have a possessiveness to their stride; every purpose-filled step is a flag planted in the patch of cement they have landed on. Even though their foot abandons it immediately in search of pastures new, for that fleeting moment, that square meter of the city is all theirs, a successful mini takeover bid. Kat tries to mimic this and with renewed resolve, enters two nearby hotels and requests a room. Both times the hotel staff wear the same looks of worried confusion that the previous hotel clerk wore.
Then Kat sees it, blue and unassuming under a Christmas star of neon fixed to a lamp post: a public telephone. It’s clear it’s working because a man is talking into it, and quite animatedly at that. The brass band plays on and Kat blesses their merry souls. She almost tingles with the certainty that this time she will get through, that Edward will have listened to her truncated message and will be on alert for her to call again. Dare she hope it?
As she draws near, there is a new noise discernible above all the rest, a sound like the animalistic grunt boxers make when they suffer repeated blows to the head. The telephone user’s voice. “Look behind me, he says. Behind me, motherfucker? I ain’t no fool. Put your head back in your Facebook. Tell me, does this train run express? Huh, does it? Holy shit, this carriage stinks.” His head, wrapped in a purple bandanna that’s tucked under an orange baseball cap embellished with badges, jerks back with the delivery of every short sentence as if with the force of a punch. He pokes the air for emphasis. “It’s the Uptown train I need, motherfucker. Get out my way!”
He removes the phone from his ear and stares the mouthpiece down. With his lips pulled into two taut slivers, he mutters between clenched teeth and strikes the corner of the payphone with the receiver, a gut-wrenching noise, simultaneously slamming his fist against the numbers, once, twice, three times. Kat is beside him. “No-no, please, no don’t do that, no…” She seizes the receiver, prizing his fingers off it one by one. His hand falls limp. Puzzlement knits his features. He frees the telephone receiver and runs off, turning to look back at her as he cuts through the crowd.
Close to tears, Kat hangs up the receiver. She can feel the pulse at her wrist stampeding. She lifts the phone again, her body slack with pessimism, and holds it to her ear. Not a sound. Probably wasn’t even working in the first place.
The bobbing and curtsying sound of the brass band can be heard from several blocks away, mocking her.
And the Grinch said, “Blast this Christmas music… it’s joyful AND triumphant.”
Up ahead, a sign propped against a homeless man’s knees catches her eye, and its gallows humour manages to draw from her the vaguest smile: “I always wanted to be someone but I see now I should have been more specific.”
“I love your sign,” she tells him, yearning for conversation. “Profound.”
“Could you spare some change please, Miss?”
She can’t resist asking his name. Sean. Sean Donnelly. He is a down-on-his-luck corn-fed All-American boy with an all-round good Irish name. His sign informs her he needs bus fare back to Kansas. She empties her purse.
Sean counts the different sized coins she has poured into his hand and looks up at her. “Sixty-four cents? You’re giving me sixty-four cents?”
“Is that all that’s there?” Back in her purse, nothing; she fishes in her pockets, nothing. “I’m sorry, that’s all I have. I haven’t been to an ATM machine yet.”
“Man, I cannot believe it. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?”
In Sean Kat recognizes not a point of conversation anymore but the repository for all her frustrations. “Give that money back, you little shit. Go on, hand it over.” She holds out her hand and several shoppers gasp. “Come on, it’s Christmas, let it go,” says one, “you won’t miss it.” “You mind your own business,” she hisses, bracing herself menacingly at the passers-by who walk on, shaking their heads and muttering, “Some people have no sense of charity, and at this time of year…” When Kat turns back to Sean, he wears a look somewhere between amusement and challenge.
“You’re disrespecting me. You don’t deserve my money. I didn’t have to give you anything, I could have walked on by like everyone else. This is not a place for pennies, I can see that. Well, fair enough, give it back, come on. Hold out for some of those great big dollar bills you’re waiting for. And good luck to you!” She looks at the yoghurt pot he uses to collect money, gives it a light kick. It contains silver and copper but only two notes. “It looks like they’re harder to come by than you think.”
“You’re a feisty wee one, aren’t ye?” His accent evokes less of the Kansas cornfields and more of the Wicklow Mountains. “If you want your money back you’ll have to come in here and take it.” He puts the hand holding the coins down deep into his sleeping bag.
“You’re not even American. You and your transatlantic false accent.”
“Who broke your train set? Don’t you have no Christmas spirit? You’re in the wrongest place on earth then, aren’t you?”
She hunkers down and leaning against the wall of a men’s luxury tie store, she breathes in deep, falls silent. She secretly enjoyed that outburst, probably because Sean is the first company she’s had since she left Charles de Gaulle. She eases up and finds him to be a decent listener as she confides in him her run of poor luck.
“There’s a YMCA on Forty-Seventh that might have vacancies if you don’t mind the bedbugs, cockroaches and constant smell of marijuana, as well as the long walk down The Shining corridor to get to the shared bathroom. It’s where I go when I’m feeling flush after a win on the horses, it being a smidgen closer than the Waldorf Astoria.” He smiles wryly and produces from his sleeping bag the latest iPhone which with a swipe of his finger casts a festive glow onto his features. He hands it over. “Call them.”
“You got the newest one. How? There’s even a waiting list.”
“I took my sleeping bag and camped outside the Apple store overnight. I got the second last one.”
The Hispanic lady who answers the phone tells Kat there are no vacancies but sometimes there are no-shows and she should stop by that evening around seven when they give out unused beds on a first come, first serve basis. It’s the most encouraging news she’s had since she landed. She visits an ATM machine and drops twenty dollars into Sean’s yoghurt pot. Then adds another ten in exchange for making a second call to Edward.
This time she expects no response and isn’t disappointed. She leaves a message stating that she will be at the YMCA Vanderbilt at seven and will hopefully stay there that night. “Otherwise I’ll be temporarily residing in a cardboard box on Fifth Avenue––cross street?––Fifty-Sixth beside a nice Irishman called Sean whose phone I’m using to make this call that you can’t be bothered to answer. But the cardboard box will be Bergdorf Goodman’s largest because this was supposed to be a glamorous holiday after all, and it will have oodles of tinsel draped over it because, God forbid, I lose the Christmas spirit. Hope you’re warm and cosy toasty with a dirty martini at arm’s length. Ciao.”
“Ah, sarcasm. I do miss me ma.”
While Sean slides his iPhone into the depths of his sleeping bag, Kat rises and hops about to warm up. “I can only imagine what else you’ve got down there.”
He flashes a crooked smile. “It’s not the most subtle of advances I’ve heard but what the hell, cease imagining immediately, woman, and hop on in.” He lowers the zipper and holds open the mouth of the sleeping bag. “I’ll show you mine if––”
“Oh, God, I didn’t mean that! I mean, I wasn’t, God, total embarrassment.”
“Ach, I’m only messin’ with ye.”
She smiles. “Right. Well, I’m going to have to keep moving or I’ll catch pneumonia. Although of sturdy stock, today I’m being sorely tested. Care for a walk?”
“Can’t, doll. Guy’s gotta make a living.” Sean’s American accent is back. He spirits the bills from the yoghurt pot, shakes the coins up and looks expectantly into the faces that pass. She wishes him merry Christmas and melds with the crowd.
Soon she is in the thick of Manhattan’s fanciest shops, passing Prada, Henri Bendel, Gucci, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana. Street carts sell roasted chestnuts and hotdogs but she can’t account for the smell of cinnamon everywhere. It hangs under her running nose. Eartha Kitt purrs from every doorway, “Santa cutie, fill my stocking with a duplex and checks. Sign your X on the line…” She should feel right at home; it’s the New York equivalent of strolling along Via Montenapoleone or rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré as she and Edward had done so often in the past. She wishes he was beside her, the sight of luxury goods making her feel surprisingly melancholy. The window displays are like spreads from her favourite fashion magazines, opulent optical feasts curated with an eye for theatre, and yet, she can reduce them to towers of expensive white-frosted clutter in a second.
She joins the little assembly of fashion devotees paying homage outside the first window of Bergdorf Goodman. The window is as large as a room, with all the pomp and ceremony of a Broadway stage. Kat’s eyes gorge on human-sized marionettes brandishing trumpets, frilled candy-striped lampshades resembling the petticoat skirts of Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, crystal-flecked Venetian masks and studded pink suede shoes, little caped drummer girls, bunches of swollen grapes tumbling from goblets and confetti-flecked doughnuts as big as wreathes suspended above vintage cars; velvet purses under icicles and whipped cream pies arranged in a still-life with jellyfish, tapestries and reptiles; Audrey Hepburn’s pearls are strewn across the leather and chrome of a Harley Davison parked in a glacially lit grotto next to a stuffed peacock; giant slices of cake with chocolate dipped strawberries may have been made of papier-mâché, but Kat would eat them all anyway. This glorious lack of cohesion makes her want to lick every window. She craves all of it, her nose to the glass in the hope of at least smelling it. She hadn’t known this ravenous consumer was rushing about inside her, clamouring to get out.
A liveried horseman in a frosted, duck-egg blue carriage pulled by a horse sprouting feathers from his forehead and a lei around his neck passes close to the sidewalk. Kat turns around just as the lascivious clap of manure hitting Manhattan’s tarmac rings out. A voice at her shoulder says, “Kat, how is it possible that livestock still know just where to find you, all these years after leaving the farm?”
“Edward!” The heads of the Bergdorf Goodman pilgrims swivel in unison. She squeezes him so tightly he yelps.
“You’re throttling me, you daft apeth! It hasn’t been that long. I just saw you a couple of weeks ago!”
“Are you joking? Did you get my messages? I’ve been worrying all day. How did you know where to find me?”
He winks. “As Cary Grant says to Deborah Kerr, “‘If you can paint, I can walk––’” She joins in, “‘––anything can happen!’ An Affair to Remember!” She squeezes his arm. “Yep, you’re real.”
“As real as Christmas, and twice as camp.”
“But still, how did you know in all of New York I’d be here?”
“It required no great calculation. I know you too well. I knew you’d stare moony-eyed for hours at these windows. Of course I did. What else would you do on your first day, the zoo? I’m not saying you’re predictable or anything. So I sat in the Plaza Hotel by the window and waited with a piping hot toddy for my trouble. I was getting worried. Would I be able to see you when it got dark? Lo and behold, I stepped outside to smoke a ciggie and saw you turn the corner right at the window that has the perfume bottles sliding down the mini ski slope. What a relief. I’ve picked up the cargo, crisis averted, now, let’s go. I’ve wangled a night at the Plaza for us from a rather charming gentleman I met. You’ll meet him too. Incidentally, do you know how much those suites cost? Cripes, try our whole holiday budget and then some! See, turns out I made a little mistakeroo with our hotel booking but don’t worry about it. They serve the best sidecars in the upstairs bar here and we can dine on truffle-flavoured popcorn––what are you looking at me like that for?”
“But I was planning on staying with the cockroaches at the YMCA, dining on the lingering smell of marijuana?”
“Suit yourself but it’s really rather nice over here. Aren’t you cold? You look a wreck. Why is the arse of your coat all black? You look like you’ve slept on a park bench. This is the Plaza we’re talking about!”
“Did you see the Valentino shoes in that third window?”
The bar upstairs at the Plaza is doused in crimson light. Everything dances and flickers, down below the magnificent chandeliers sparkle in the art deco foyer, its domed ceiling of sepia stained glass florals trellised with black shedding a benign serenity over the heads below. The Christmas tree is trimmed with ropes of crystals and shimmering glass balls and at the heart of all these lights, beams, sparkles and glimmers, Kat and Edward’s eyes dance as their conversation meanders.
Outside, the white-gloved doormen welcome guests from town cars. The horse drawn carriages have bottlenecked at the entrance to Central Park. Yellow cabs circle the Pulitzer fountain arriving and departing the hotel’s red carpeted front steps in steady numbers. At the centre of it, Pomona, the goddess of abundance, with her basket of fruit raised, looks off contentedly, to the right of Kat and Edward, beyond the trees into Central Park, past the ice rink and the Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir and to the dark empty grassless greens of Strawberry Fields and Sheep Meadow, now completely white.”
November 22, 2016
“If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a minotaur.” —Pablo Picasso
Craig McDonald’s novel Toros & Torsos is based on a theory that the famous Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” murders were inspired by the Surrealist masterpieces of the 1930s. McDonald took this idea even further and created a murder masterpiece that suggested a conspiracy of serial Surrealist killers. A particular inspiration was Man Ray’s “Minotaur” in which the pose of the subject was eerily similar to the body of the Black Dahlia.
The surrealists were always captivated by the myth of the Minotaur. The beast trapped in the maze became the symbol of the surrealist subject lost in the labyrinth of his own subconscious desires. The artists embraced the beast for its representation of the self-reflexive nature of monstrosity that comes from the Minotaur being created from both human and animal.
Although never a subscriber to the movement, Picasso was nevertheless interested in the Minotaur, and the animal is increasingly present in his work in the 1930s.
For Picasso, the Minotaur acts as the keeper of taboo sexual secrets and also the subconscious fulfilment of them.
Scroll down to read an excerpt from Toros & Torsos in which the myth of the Minotaur is described.
A limited edition hard cover copy, signed and fingerprinted by the author, would make the perfect Christmas gift for any crime & mystery lover.
Available to order HERE for €40.
“Hector lit a cigarette and said, “Bishop, I’ve been looking over Le Minotaure some more. What exactly is it with the bulls…the Minotaur thing? What’s the significance to you surrealists?”
Bishop pulled out one of his own cigarettes and then fastened it to the end of a long, black cigarette holder. Hector lit the little man’s cigarette with his Zippo and then lit another for Rachel. Hem, a nonsmoker, scooted his chair around a little closer to Harriet, who also wasn’t smoking.
“Partly, I think it’s just a preoccupation of our times, driven in no small part by this man, here.” Bishop gestured at Hem. “First with The Sun Also Rises, and now with Death in the Afternoon. Hem has made us all fascinated with the myth and ritual of the bullfight. And many of us in the surrealist movement are Spainophiles and aficionados in our own rights. But it is also the myth of the Minotaur that fascinates us and made us choose the Minotaur to serve as our kind of surrealist emblem.”
Hector said, “I’m just an old boy from Southern Texas. My Greek mythology is, well, it ain’t great. I mean, I know it involves something about a maze, or something, and some fella going into to kill the half-human, half-bull who lived at the center, but…” He shrugged. “But that’s as far as I go.”
Bishop said, “Harriet here is quite an avid folklorist. You tell Hector, dear.”
She smiled and blushed, her gaze darting around the table. It was apparent the little woman was intimidated by her story-teller company, but she pressed ahead:
“The story goes that Poseidon, the sea god, gifted the king of Crete — Minos — with a white bull. Minos was supposed to sacrifice the white bull, and when he didn’t, Poseidon retaliated by making the king’s wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with and actually couple with the bull. Their offspring was a hideous creature, the Minotaur, a giant human hybrid with a bull’s head. Minos then hired Daedalus to construct the labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. Once a decade, Minos sent seven men into the labyrinth to their deaths — and to be food for the beast inside. Finally, a hero, Theseus, volunteered to be one of the seven sent to their deaths. Theseus was in love with Minos’ daughter, Ariadne. He planned to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne provided Theseus with a long spool of thread, so that after he had killed the monster, Theseus could follow the thread back out of the labyrinth.”
Hector blew a smoke ring and said, “Things went to plan, and then this Greek boy and the king’s daughter, Ariadne, they lived happily ever after?”
“Oh no,” Harriet Blair said, shaking her head. “Theseus abandoned Ariadne soon after. He was off on his next adventure.”
From Toros & Torsos, Craig McDonald, © 2008
November 10, 2016
“Set in 1962, McDonald’s fine ninth Hector Lassiter novel (after Print the Legend) takes the 62-year-old writer and an old friend of his, 54-year-old Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), to Japan. Ostensibly, Fleming is to do research for an Asian-set 007 novel, and Lassiter is covering Fleming’s trip for Playboy magazine. In fact, the pair are on a mission to secure the secret plans made by the Japanese in WWII for a devastating biological weapon. Both men formerly performed intelligence duties, including an attempt, during Operation Flea, to recover the plans immediately after the war. McDonald pays frequent homage to Fleming and his novels, while Lassiter, like an aging James Bond, foils assassins and follows a trail that leads from Japan to Turkey.” —Publishers Weekly
DEATH IN THE FACE is available to buy here
November 5, 2016
“To my mind, Goya is one of the most enigmatic and influential painters in the history of art. In the novel I wanted to explore behind the scenes, to discover something more of the man and of his work. What better perspective to obtain than that of the women who were closest to him in his life? As they lived with Goya at different stages of his long and turbulent career, they have lot to say about the private character of the great artist as well as being able to tell us the background to some of his most famous art works.
Thus, to get a closer view of Francisco de Goya, I chose to create, to listen to, the voices of six women who knew him very well. One of them is the famous Duchess of Alba, feisty, flighty and fabulously wealthy. She appears more than any other woman in Goya’s art. There was much juicy gossip and speculation as to the nature of their relationship. This gossip finds a possible source in Goya’s portraits of the Duchess, especially the portrait in which the Duchess is painted in the black costume of a maja. She is standing on a sandy shore, her right hand points to an inscription in the sand, Solo Goya. On her fingers are two rings, a diamond ring bearing the name Alba and the other a gold ring inscribed Goya.
Maybe there is some truth in the rumours, or maybe not...”
October 27, 2016
When New York art dealer Elizabeth Martel’s mother falls ill, she returns to her hometown in the Midwest. After her mother’s death she is seriously short of funds, and a friend suggests she take a job as art adviser to billionaire grain merchant, Preston Greylander.
When Greylander is killed in a mysterious murder-suicide, Martel is left in possession of a Rembrandt that needs restoration. She takes the painting to Amsterdam where she deposits it with the prestigious firm of Van der Saar Fine Arts.
The Van der Saar family has been in the art business since the seventeenth century and the current generation is represented by two brothers: Hendrik, suave and charismatic, is the perfect front man, while the deceptively low key Willem is a master of restoration. Hendrik and Martel enthusiastically resume an old love affair, and she discovers that the brothers’ personal lives are in chaos, and the family is haunted by guilt and swathed in deception.
As doubts arise about the authenticity of the Rembrandt, other actors arrive in Amsterdam determined to recover the picture.
August 18, 2016
“On the day of the big event I walked through the hours until seven like I was living in zombie land. I started dressing around five, making sure I wore a disposable polyester dress that wouldn’t leave any fibers scattered around the murder site. It was a plain black number purchased at Walmart for fifteen dollars and it didn’t look half bad when I got it on. I brushed out my hair and then sprayed it stiff and put it up in a tight French twist. The effect was très Catherine Deneuve, and I prayed no incriminating hair would get loose from the tightly coiled hair style. On my feet I wore flat shoes similar to the ones seen on Madame Sarkozy, but mine were not for the purpose of making a tiny politician seem slightly less miniscule; mine were for running away from a crime scene.
I prepared myself well, no perfume, no lipstick, no jewelry. When I looked in the mirror I was pleased with my image, and decided I would conduct myself as though I was in a French movie, a noir thriller starring Catherine Deneuve where she played a snaky bitch out to kill her double-crossing ex.
By the time I got to Terry’s I was well into my Deneuve persona, it was just as well; I probably couldn’t go on with the murder unless I was pretending to be someone else. The front door was unlocked and I walked down the hall to the sitting room. Terry was at the bar, drinking a shot of vodka. He looked fine and healthy, and when I kissed his cheek he smelled fresh.
‘I guess this is it, isn’t it, Martel?’
‘I guess,’ I said, pouring myself a shot.
‘What is it the Irish say?’
‘I think they say see you on the other side.’
‘Yes,’ he raised his glass and we clinked, ‘see you on the other side, Elizabeth.’ He used my first name, it sounded strange, but it also sounded correct in this solemn moment.
Just then the doorbell rang and we both knew it was Preston. I gave Terry another kiss, a final kiss, and ran out of the room to answer the door.”
“Patricia Ketola’s clever and sexy debut novel is an audacious genre mash-up, elevated and enlivened by the salty, up-from-the-heels voice of narrator Elizabeth Martel, a sort of lusty spin on Patricia Highsmith’s magnetic sociopath Tom Ripley. Dirty Pictures heralds the arrival of a clever, gutsy new voice that fearlessly swings for the fences.”
Craig McDonald, Edgar-Anthony Award Finalist
Dirty Pictures is available here
November 24, 2015
- Something Wicked This Way Comes
Sean Connery, dressed in his immaculate gray Anthony Sinclair-tailored James Bond suit with pale blue shirt and black knit tie, nodded for another bira—a beer—and said to Hector in his juicy, Glaswegian Scots accent, “I’ve read your stuff, Mr. Lassiter. Much of what I’ve read I’ve quite loved. Let’s say I can pry little money out these fat producers’ pockets. If so, would you maybe option something to me? I have a novel or two of yours in mind. God knows I don’t want to end up type-cast as this silly character for life. Your characters are much closer to the ground than Mr. Fleming’s.”
Hector tapped bottles of Bomonti with the cinematic version of Ian’s James Bond and said, “By all means. Whenever and whatever you want, Sean. You should know up front, I have a ruthless maxim regarding any and all film options: my book, your movie. If your option money spends, I smile, shake hands, and get the hell out of your way. If the damned thing somehow miraculously comes out okay in the end, I’ll deliriously say so to the press and raise a glass in tribute. If it’s a dog, I maintain a respectful silence.”
Sean smiled and said, “Very good! I do so appreciate a fellow professional. We’re a dying breed.”
Hector had been a week in Istanbul—this now shabby, threadbare ghost of Constantinople, as he thought of it.
It seemed all dust, blast furnace winds, hucksters and dodgy religion to Hector.
He’d hobnobbed with the Bond film producers, done a little uncompensated and un-credited script doctoring just for the hell of it and for free drinks.
He’d also nearly lost Vannina Bello in the very early going after a man with a knife came at them as they were exiting a seafood place along the Bosporus during a sight-seeing blitz.
It hadn’t seemed at the time like anything remarkable—nothing tied to old unfinished business of one sort of another, nor to old enemies.
The attack hadn’t even struck Hector as being credibly tied to the Flea Bomb in any way.
No, it had been—or so Hector had decided in the moment—a simple case of random street crime. It was just dumb bad luck that it was they who had nearly become victims. Happenstance, Hector told himself, that was all.
But Vannina’s candid words in the wake of that attack cut close to bone: “I see now the journalists are maybe right about you and the collision between your life and the page, so to speak,” she said bitterly, her chin trembling in fear. “If this is how things always are for you, then I can see now why you’re still a bachelor…and a widower. This was all terrifying, yet you seem to take it almost in stride, even now. That leads me to believe it’s not an uncommon thing for you. Now I fear that maybe you even savor this sort of thing.”
It was an entirely sensible point of view, he had to confess that was so.
But, in the end, he soothed her into staying on with him, sharing his room and bed while waiting for an opportune moment to effect an introduction between Vannina and the Bond producers. He needed to do that much for her in recompense, he told himself.
But if things were somewhat rocky for Hector, they were far more tumultuous for the cast and crew of From Russia with Love.
November 13, 2015
Chapter 3. Leocadia, Bordeaux, 24 April 1828
“So you see, Isabel, it is not true that Francisco enticed me away from Isidoro, or that we were already lovers while Doña Josefa was dying, or that the affair hastened her death. My marriage was over by the time I came to work for Francisco, and his wife had been dead for months. I started out as his housekeeper and did not become his lover for quite some time. He did not try to seduce me or to trick me in any way.
This is how our affair began. I was cooking puchero en olla one day when he came striding into the kitchen.
‘Señora,’ he said, ‘I need a model for a painting I am about to start. I wish you to pose for me. Of course, you will be relieved of your housekeeping duties during the time you spend modelling. I shall employ another woman in your place.’
I agreed to pose for him without a second’s consideration. Without even inquiring what kind of posing he had in mind. Now you may be wondering, Isabel, why a woman of my background was willing to do such a thing. Was I not compromising myself? To tell you the truth, I surprised myself by how quickly and how willingly I agreed. I think it might have been because I had just left my husband a few months before, and so I felt very daring. I was ready to embark on any adventure which offered itself. And what an adventure my life became! For by the time the painting was finished, the painter was in love with me.
Rosario was born eighteen months later. Until my pregnancy was obvious, I managed to hide our affair, but when it became known, I had a terrible time of it. I was unable to go out, for fear of meeting one of Isidoro’s spies, and because I could not bear the whispers and sniggers that followed me in the street. That is why, during those months, I could not see you, my dear Isabel, or any of my old friends. I was like a prisoner in that house and I became extremely depressed.
One sweltering evening, Teresa – she was our servant at that time, a foul-mouthed and insolent girl from Saragossa whom Francisco favoured – I got rid of her later on – announced that the Monsignor from Saint Benedict’s desired to see me in the salon. I wrapped my shawl around me, trying to disguise my condition. I knew full well why the cleric had taken it upon himself to come to the house.
‘Señora Weiss,’ he said, wrinkling his nose when I entered the room, as if he was speaking to a woman of loose morals. He remained seated on our new, red, satin-covered sofa, with his hat on the French mahogany table I had recently persuaded Francisco to purchase. I did not sit down, but stood just inside the door.
‘I have come to tell you that you must return at once to your husband. I have spoken to him and, out of charity, he is willing to accept as his own the child you are carrying. It is your Christian duty to return to him at once.’
I looked down at his portly form, sour face and curling lips, and, Isabel, I was furious. How dare this priest order me to go back to the man I despised.
‘I shall stay where I am, Monsignor,’ I said. ‘I have made my decision. Please do not come here again. Furthermore, when you see Señor Weiss, you may tell him that neither his spies nor his threats have the least effect on me.’
September 30, 2015
The Duchess of Alba
San Lúcar, March 1797
There he is, the arrogant fellow standing in front of me holding his palette like a shield, wielding his brush like a dagger. Totally ignoring my displeasure. Who on earth does he think he is?
‘Excellencia, Maria del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo, 13th Duchess of Alba,’ he is saying sarcastically, as if nothing has happened, ‘why so churlish this morning? Please assume your pose. Let us proceed with the portrait. You can stop stamping your dainty silver shoe and take your hands off your wasp waist if you please. It looks so aggressive. Surely you do not want to have the whole world see this side of you?’
Oh, how he infuriates me! I want to wipe that mocking smile off his face.
‘I am incensed Señor Goya because you are a treacherous snake. And an obtuse one. How can you think for one moment that I can pose for you who have spent the night disporting himself with one of my servants?’
Insolently he raises his penetrating black eyes and looks at me as at a child in a tantrum. Such a cool, detached, ironic, fearless look.
‘My dear Duchess, I am surprised. You are jealous! And you call me treacherous. You, who have more dalliances than all the ladies of the Court together. You, who have taken so many lovers; actors, toreros, young students even. You, who have invited me here to this secluded place, although you are so newly widowed.’
I could strike his podgy face. I want to wrench away his palette and brushes. I have a mind to throw a jug of water over that portrait. But I do nothing. I sit there with my mouth open and my eyes blazing. Why do I not order him to leave San Lúcar at once? Can it be that I am afraid to cross this impudent commoner who has vastly overstepped the bounds of his social position? Nobody speaks to the Duchess of Alba as he has just done. Especially not such an old and ugly man, who is as deaf as a bedpost.
‘Excellencia,’ he says dryly, ‘your face is twisted and sour. I shall paint you as a termagant if you so wish. Now, please readjust your mantilla. You should also tighten the sash. Good. Now place one hand on your waist and point the other to the ground.’
I obey but refuse to smile. He continues painting, a smug look on his face. I stand there like a sullen rebuked child and I ask myself once again how is it that I have allowed this man to become so familiar. To order me about like a servant. While I am standing in the pose he had commanded, I remember the first time I went to his studio in Madrid. I had heard of his liking for the bizarre, for the erotic. And I also knew that his work is admired by that old trout Maria Louisa, who fancies herself as an artist. So I had several motives for wishing to meet Don Francisco Goya. The portly creature, Maria Louisa, calls me a bag of bones. It was wonderful to hear how furious she was when I ordered a dozen copies of her latest French dresses and gave them to my servants to wear. Revenge is so sweet.
When I entered his studio he was standing at an easel with his brush.
He did not turn around. I remembered then that I had also heard that he had become deaf so I had to walk right up and stand in front of him and repeat myself. I told him to make up my face with the cosmetics I had brought with me. I did not fully understand why I wanted him to do that, to touch my face. It was not only because I had heard also that he was arrogant and I wanted to put him down, to show him my power. Commanding a great painter, so sought after, to be a lady’s maid. If he was surprised by such a request, he did not show it. I have learned since then that it not at all easy to read Don Francisco de Goya. He motioned me to repeat what I had said more slowly, then smiled in an annoyingly knowing way, as if he could also read the real reason. Without a word, he took the bag of cosmetics from me. He darkened my eyebrows like two black bridges, drew lines of kohl around my eyes, rubbed rouge into my cheeks, and dusted powder over my whole face until I sneezed. It was like he was playing with a doll. And all the time he held my face in his hands and a small smile turned up his full lips. He was humouring me, I realised, as a parent humours a silly child, or a lover cajoles a petulant woman. I, who had come to command him, had been reduced to childishness. It was then that I determined that I would have my revenge on him too, that I would enslave the insolent fellow. I would exercise the full strength of my charm and beauty on him. I realised that if I was to have power over this man, it could not be wielded simply because I am an aristocrat. However, I reassured myself that the task should not be too difficult. At that time I was still a beautiful woman of thirty-three, while he was low-born, at least fifty, rough-looking, and deaf. Not that it matters to me if a man is high or low born, as long as he is handsome and fascinates me.
After that first visit to his studio, I invited Señor Goya to Buenavista and commissioned him to paint a portrait of José and another of myself. For that portrait, I chose a deceptively simple white dress adorned with my favourite red – a deep wide sash to show off my waist, a red bow on my breast, and another pinned on my hair. I even tied a red ribbon on the leg of my little dog at my feet. I know about colour too. The meaning of red.
But my plan of entrapment did not work as smoothly, or as quickly, as I had thought. Most men on whom I cast my eye succumbed very quickly and I do not believe it was only because of who I am. I know that when I pass by in the streets of Madrid people run to their windows to catch a glimpse of me. I am not blind. But this Goya fellow seems blind to my charms. He continues to treat me like a spoilt child. I am not a silly woman without a brain in my head. The most influential and enlightened men in Spain, including the poet Don Manuel Quintana, and the poet and philosopher Don Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos are among my friends. The more indifferent he seems, the more determined I am to have him. In truth I am fascinated by this uncouth artist. I ask myself why this is so and have to admit that it is simply because he appears so impenetrable, contradictory and, most exasperating of all, unattainable. He has become my challenge.