Whatever Makes You Happy

Fiction
Anna Chieppa


090206 Snow Fall
Photo Credit: Steve James

It is snowing outside. He is sitting in his living room with a drink, remembering it all.

Someone was giving a party in a flat in East London and he’d been dragged along by a colleague of his, an Italian guy soon disappeared with some girl into a room at the back. Around midnight he was drinking on his own, drinking and watching, bored to the bone. It was a student’s place: an industrial loft with tall windows overlooking the wet street and guys with rimmed glasses and hooded jackets mooching around, packs of cheap beer stacked on the table and joints travelling across the room. He was planning to leave and then he saw her come in: a tall girl wrapped in a green coat, long hair and a mouth lacquered in red. He stayed some more. After all, he had nowhere else to go.

The girl greeted some people and went over to the table covered with a cloth that hung too low on one side. A glass had been knocked over, spilling a pool of wine that dripped onto the cloth and the floor. She took care not to stain the cotton-knit fabric of her dress and, after picking up a plastic cup, she stood by the wall, gazing around. He took a large swallow of beer. Getting drunk on lager was hard work for someone like him but in the kitchen he found the dregs of a bottle of gin and that gave him the right amount of Dutch courage to approach her. She was from Moldova, a sociology student and a waitress in a restaurant in Fulham.

I’m an engineer, he said, I work for the London Underground.

They drank beer and talked about London. She had dark eyes and long hands that wouldn’t stay still.

There’s a point between two people, he will say to her months later, when you reach a crossroads; if you take one turn something will happen—love, sex or whatever has to happen between two people—but if you take the other one it won’t.

And later on, in retrospect, it was clear to him that that point of the crossroads, that opening of possibilities or nothing, clicked when she leaned on him—the black of her eyes, the red of her mouth—and said: tell me the things that make you happy.

The things that make me happy? He asked, stumbling over his words.

Yes, she said, tell me what makes you happy, what makes your days special.

They were sitting on folding chairs opposite each other and he stared at the snacks and the drinks on the table and thought hard but couldn’t answer. He didn’t really believe in happiness. Relative well-being, usually achieved through hard work, did exist, but happiness was a fragile structure, unlike the constructions he liked to build.

I work long hours, he said, there’s not much time for fun.

There isn’t, she said.

I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything to tell you. Nothing major that is. But what about you.

What makes me happy, she said, is walking in the woods behind my house, in Moldova, picking blueberries. There’s a spot in the woods where the trees almost reach the ground, making a roof, we sit under the trees, in summer we eat blueberries until we get a stomach ache and rock ourselves to sleep.

She talked and grinned. Blueberries are so expensive here, she said, in my country they’re free, that’s happiness to me.

Her eyes shone like black pools. He was holding his breath, hypnotised, unable to bear that she had stopped talking.

What else, he asked, what else makes you happy.

Watching the sea, she said, watching the sea at sunrise makes me happy. Waiting for a lover makes me happy.

I see, he said, nodding, rinsing his mouth with the beer.

They went on drinking together until three in the morning, when there was no drink left in the flat and a few guys hung around looking for the last can of beer that wasn’t full of cigarette ash. It would have been acceptable to put the girl in a cab and wave goodbye, but he’d already reached the famous crossroads, because now he liked blueberries too.

I’ll come with you, he said, and then I’ll go home, but he was already kissing her in the cab, her lips pressing on his neck, her hands delving into his lap. They drove cutting through the empty lanes and the drops of light trembling on the wet asphalt. All around them was the city, a frantic heart pulsing in the night.

I love London, she said in a whisper, her breath steaming up the window, her eyes fixed somewhere he could not locate, somewhere beyond the string of narrow houses and trees lining the street.

He said Yes, I love it too, and he locked her mouth with another kiss.

 

The night rain had stopped and the moon was a slice of silver behind shreds of clouds. She lived in a council estate in Ravenscourt Park, a grey stucco building with a row of doors facing the balcony that continued along the whole façade. They held hands along the slippery staircase, where urine pooled on the concrete floor and pornography screamed from the walls. Once in her bedroom he fought to adjust his vision to the darkness, fumbling for the wall switch. The girl grabbed his arm.

Don’t, she said.

Her breath was on his throat, raising a corner of his scarf with each gasp. He kissed her on the mouth and she pulled him to a mattress on the floor and he kissed her hard and she led his hand to her breast. Her shirt didn’t have ordinary buttons, but tiny metal hooks that he couldn’t grasp hold of. It took so long to get the thing undone, he was afraid she would fall asleep.

He navigated inside her, embracing her, kissing her, but between her legs she was as dry as salt. He put great effort into it, he kissed her neck, he licked her breast, rocking back and forth, rocking sideways. He went on automatically for a long time, in and out of a drunken doziness, her body still cold beneath him, her eyes shut like seashells upside down. The darkness had grown softer and the interior of the room was now visible: a few photographs on the walls, a slim wardrobe next to a desk with a pile of books. He could not say how long had gone by since their bodies had started pounding on the mattress, but it felt like a hell of a long time, and he grew desperate and then drowsy.

The girl opened her eyes and patted his chest.

Want a cigarette? She asked.

Are you calling for a break?

She laughed as he crawled onto the mattress, sliding the condom off and folding it neatly before dropping it onto the floor. He was panting.

All right then, he said. Too much to drink tonight, sorry.

She lit a candle and stood it on the floor, so that he could see more of the place now, as the candle threw a flickering glow around the room. He sucked the smoke in. The room was tiny, just a few feet between the mattress and the door, and there were speckles of paint everywhere: on the door, on the white desk, on the floral walls.

I paint, she said in response to his gaze. I’d like to be a painter one day, make a living out of it.

The smoke was making his eyes water and he stubbed his cigarette out in the saucer that she handed him. All right, he said, I’ve gotta go to the bathroom.

The corridor was as cold as stone and mould had spread over the green tiles in the bathroom; rust stains were encrusted at the edge of the toilet bowl. He quickly scrubbed his hands with a bar of soap and when he was back in the room the girl was smoking another cigarette and drinking from a can of beer.

Want some? She asked.

He took a sip and sat next to her on the mattress. His feet were black from the dirt on the floor and it was clear to him right there that he would never love this girl; he could never love someone who lived in such a dump. He was that way. There was no future for him with a girl like this and it was as certain as the hangover he would have in the morning.

He drank some beer and said: I’m moving to Helsinki in two months, for work. I’ve got a great opportunity over there.

He sounded like a job ad but he was telling her just in case; he wanted to warn her that anything more than a one-night stand was impossible between them, that they were destined to failure, to nothingness, like other human beings out there, like all the women he’d met before her, but she looked puzzled and he blushed.

The girl was sitting against the stained wall, smoking. Her face looked angular now, sinking into the shadows that had formed shapes across her chest, down to her dark nipples, and he wanted her again. He wanted to pin her down, pull her hair, fuck her.

Sorry I gotta go home, he said, drinking some more beer, and they exchanged phone numbers at the door.

It was good to meet you, she said.

He tried to say something, but what. His fingers itched. The candle was still burning and hot wax was melting onto the floor and his eyelids were drooping with tiredness. He leaned on her to kiss her face, but the girl clutched him and he didn’t dare move. They held each other tight. He could hear his heart, so close to hers, drumming fast and loud, a human noise that filled the space and made him ashamed, while somewhere far away the Piccadilly Line got rattling.

All right, he said when she set him free to step outside.

The street was deserted and grey, with the lamps posts and the silhouettes of buildings almost invisible in the mist. It was early morning and the chill bit into his face. The washed-out picture of a missing girl was hanging at the entrance to the tube. It was raining again.

 

On the following day he sent her a text message, and the day after he rang her. He didn’t know why he was ringing her, as though he’d hoped for something when he knew there was nothing to hope for, but with this girl it was like reaching for another drink when you know you are going to pass out. With this girl, it was like falling.

They met again. They drank wine in bars full of smoke, leaning over the flame of tea-lights arranged in the centre of little wrought-iron coffee tables, and she told him all about her life in Moldova, about the father that she hated, the ex that stalked her, and he listened with care, full of sorrow, cupping his hands around her face each time she lit a cigarette and calling the waiter from time to time to ask for another bottle.

Before he knew it, he was ringing every night and buying her flowers; he was buying her little books and wooden bracelets and a full set of kolinsky red sable oil paint brushes, the most expensive he could find in the art store downtown, because he’d gone goddamn crazy with this girl.

He moved to Helsinki in June and she joined him three months later, as soon as she got her papers in order. They were married by October. His mother rang to say that he was a fool, that she was marrying him to get a European passport. He hung up on her.

They stayed in Helsinki for two years, renting a flat with a view of the sea. They had a simple life, yet for a long time he believed that nothing was missing.

Because she couldn’t bear life in Finland, he applied for other jobs and landed one in Barcelona. That was the city where she left him, on a day full of snow like this, the first snow seen in Barcelona for over a decade. He walked back and forth to the sea all night, reading the note she’d taped to the fridge door, reading until there were only her words, stripped of meaning, and all that snow under the moonlight.

Sorry but I’m not happy anymore. I must go.

He’s back in London now. He is back to what he knows, work, more work, more planning and building, and although two years have passed since he last saw her, he can’t go near Ravenscourt Park yet, and he wonders how long, before he stops needing a drink each time he sees snow like this.

He drops another shot of gin into the glass and it is hard to believe that he was once at a party like that, that he took a cab with a girl he hardly knew, that he will never again hold her like that night, ever. He watches the snow falling to the ground, and while the drink stirs up memories inside of him, he recalls now, with clarity, what he should have told her that night, when she asked what made him happy and he couldn’t find the right words.

He recalls a time twenty-five years ago—he was a kid back then—it was summer at his grandparents’ village and his father had bought him his first fishing rod to go to the lake on the following morning.

He remembers that he was all night nestled up to the fishing rod in his bed, dreaming of fish, and at dawn he joined his father who was downstairs packing their lunch.

Hurry up, his father said to the boy, grinning, sealing the sandwiches with the aluminium foil, then going on to check the hooks in the tackle box. It’s the early bird that catches the worm, uh?

The boy nodded and went out to the porch, carrying the rod. The moon was still out, pale-white and flat as a coin, and the wind smelled of hay. He sat on the steps and pictured what was about to come, the drive with father, the calm and still of the lake, the carp that he would catch, like the one that Father caught last time, heavy and strong, all green and bronze on its belly.

Such an ordinary thing, he thinks now, but perhaps if he’d found the right words at the party, if he’d been able to tell her something about that day—the coolness of the air, the joy at his father’s voice, how light yet strong the rod felt in his hands—perhaps if he’d been able to tell her this, she would have understood something important about him, she would have loved him.

He didn’t catch any carp that day, and his rod would burn in the car accident that would kill his father three months later, but he didn’t know this while he sat on the porch. Back then he didn’t know lots of things, he certainly didn’t know about the girl and her betrayals, how much hurt one human being can inflict on another.

For a split second the memory of that day with father is filling him, holding him. The world has gone quiet and he is that kid again, getting ready to fish the big carp. He is by the window now, the cold glass against his forehead, and all the lost words are here, all that he was unable to tell her, all that he had forgotten about himself, all the words of hope and happiness are drifting in the snow, falling.

pencilAnna Chieppa is a writer currently based in Luxembourg. Email: anna.chieppa[at]gmail.com

A Legacy of Waiting

Fiction
Deborah Bazalgette


Blogging?
Photo Credit: anonymouscollective

She’s almost ready to click ‘send’.

Her typing is laborious—three fingers from each hand. Someone once told her that people who could play the piano have no trouble learning to type. I must be the exception that proves the rule, she thinks.

She’s read and re-read it, changed some of the phrases and changed them back again. The first, unforced version was the best in many ways: friendly, but not too eager—she doesn’t want to be patronized. If he replies.

Now she’s held back for so long that the screensaver has come up: that generic photo of surfing waves—bright blue sky, towering water, white spray. She understands that savvy computer users can install their own photos, perhaps exchange glances with themselves before they start work, admire the proportions of their faces. Lust after the people they desire. But she is stuck with rolling waves, forever poised at their tallest reach. They remind her of that recurring, claustrophobic dream in which she is swimming in a calm sea, then finds that she is launching herself head first into an enormous wall of water, a giant wave. All her life she has dreamed this: struggled up through thick darkness to reach the creamy foam and finally, gloriously, the sunlight, where the water is again calm and blue and she floats, triumphant.

Yet then wakes without fail to a sense of panic, wondering if she’s about to drown, or is there another disaster around the corner?

She pushes the dream aside before the anxiety can transfer itself to the email she’s got to send.

Got to? I don’t have to send it, though.

And tries to quell the nervous fluttering in her stomach by revolving her chair to look at the stately grandfather clock ticking peacefully in its walnut case in the corner; the photo of her father which has sat, for the past three years, in a silver frame; her grandparents’ watercolour of a Romney Marsh church.

All is in its place here; I need only send that message if I really want to.

Or if you are ever going to answer a lifetime’s questions, nags the opposing voice in her mind. I’ll make some coffee, to give my brain a rest, and then I’ll send it.

Into the kitchen, to her old-fashioned Italian metal pot which sits on the stove and pressurizes water up through the coffee and into the top chamber. She bought it on that visit to Florence seventeen years ago; these two mugs, also—ivory-glazed terracotta decorated with green-leaved olive branches. She remembers the warmth rising from the pavements, the sense of freedom from dull routine.

Hope returns to the computer to drink her coffee but turns the chair back round, clicks the mouse to return the email to the screen, and reads.

Dear Bob,

I hope you won’t mind me sending you this message. I have been researching some family history and have discovered that you and I may be related.

She tries to imagine how his unknown face might look after reading the first sentence.

I believe that your father and my mother got to know each other in London during the war. I was born shortly afterwards, but he had returned to the USA by then and there wasn’t any further communication between them. I am anxious to establish whether I have any family in the United States, and wondered whether your father had ever mentioned my mother—Patricia, or Patsy, Rutherford.

Or me, of course. She almost laughs at the unlikelihood.

I would be most grateful if you could let me have any information about this part of what may be our—shared—family history.

With best wishes

Hope Rutherford

Her hand rests on the mouse while she re-reads the message. She likes the formality she has injected into the wording, the lack of sentimentality. But before she realizes what’s happening, the hand has sprung into action, index finger clicked the mouse button, and the email is gone. Her body is one step ahead of her mind—or is it expressing an urgency which she doesn’t allow herself to acknowledge?

Fear rushes through her stomach; her mouth is dry.

Oh God! What have I gone and done?

And now her other hand, which has kept hold of the coffee mug throughout, gives expression without warning to her emotions. There is a cracking sensation and the handle comes away. Tiny fragments of white ceramic fall like talcum powder onto the desk, mixed with darker specks of terracotta. She looks at her mug and its separate handle, still in her grip. Why is this the moment that has been chosen for its demise?

Tears flow without warning. Hope bends her head over her arms and rests her weight on the unyielding computer keyboard.

 

‘It wasn’t so much that he was good-looking,’ her mother tells her, twisting an auburn curl round her fingers. ‘It was more that he had such charm; he would make me laugh.’ Hope, who always enjoys this story, sits on the rug by her mother’s feet, arms hugging her knees while she rocks to and fro, imagining this man, her father. Her mother, Patricia, laughs as she remembers them running through Hyde Park, jumping off buses, always holding hands.

‘Holding hands,’ she repeats. ‘He always said, “I’m not gonna let you go, Patsy.” No-one else called me Patsy; I was always Patricia. But Patsy was how he thought of me.’

There is only one photograph, a small, faded, black-and-white snapshot of his head and shoulders. He is in uniform, but bare-headed, so the double crown, forcing the dark hair upright at the back, is clearly visible. Just as her dark hair sticks upright, no matter how much water she uses to try to flatten it. He is smiling, showing even, white teeth; those Hope hasn’t inherited, possessing instead her mother’s yellowish, uneven English teeth. Post-war austerity in 1950s England doesn’t allow for teeth-straightening.

But when Patricia repeats his words about never letting her go, her mouth puckers and her voice reduces to a whisper.

‘Why did I fall for it? It wrecked everything. All the things I was going to do.’

‘But then I was born,’ Hope interrupts, aware of her significance in this whole story.

‘Yes, you were born,’ Patricia replies, looking at her not unkindly. ‘None of this is your fault, of course. And I’m the luckiest person alive to have you.’

Hope can’t help wondering, however, whether her mother secretly regrets her appearance on the scene.

‘I called you Hope,’ Patricia goes on, ‘because he said that was his mother’s name, and I thought that would please her, once we got to America and met her; and because I was full of hope, and trust, that he would send for me. Like those other girls were sent for by their American soldiers.’ And she falls silent, remembering.

Hope jumps up and tugs at her sleeve.

‘Don’t worry, mummy!’ she shouts. ‘He’ll come back! When I’m big enough I’ll go and find him and make him come back!’ Her eyes glow at the thought of being the person to restore Patricia to good spirits, of the gratitude her mother will feel towards her.

‘And how will you find him?’ comes Patricia’s sour reply as she walks into the kitchen.

Hope, waiting for her tea, sits in her mother’s armchair, still warm, and nestles back into its comfortable, cushioned depths, legs sticking out over the edge. Cradling her father’s photograph, gazing into the orange glow of the gas-fire, she makes up a story, shouting through the door so her mother can hear, about going on a ship across the sea and finding him waiting for her on the quayside, arms outstretched. Unlike the stories that she tells about princesses and fairy-tale castles, this elicits no response from the kitchen.

She can’t quite imagine what a father would be like if he lived with them from day to day. She is slightly nervous of the fathers in her street, who are tall and have deep, booming voices, and knows that the children of those fathers don’t get singled out at school for particular name-calling as she does.

 

The broken china is cleared up and wrapped in newspaper, out of sight in the bin. Hope has made more coffee. She didn’t want to risk the safety of her remaining Italian mug, so she reached up to the top shelf for her mother’s old Portmeirion Botanical Garden cup and saucer—purple crocuses rather than green olives; Portmeirion china doesn’t shatter easily. As her hands seem to be acting in isolation from the rest of her today, she can’t be sure what they will be capable of next. Writing a second, more honest, email?

Better to prevent that. Turn the machine off, leave it alone until there might be a reply. She goes through the shut-down process, watches the screen flash white, then go black, closes the lid. The reply could come almost instantaneously—or in a few days—or never. She could be driven mad by waiting.

More action needed, then. Time to clean out her mother’s room which has been left to gather dust during the time since Patricia died, since Hope, unable to absorb the reality of having no relatives at all, went through the motions of clearing out clothes, jewellery, possessions all and sundry. She has put off doing a proper clean ever since, but it has considerable appeal as a way of pushing the email out of her mind.

She takes a duster, some polish, a black rubbish bag and the vacuum cleaner and moves energetically upstairs, determined to dispel, with a flurry of physical work, the quiver in the pit of her stomach: mixed anticipation and terror.

 

Hope and her mother are on a bus, travelling the dingy streets of south London from Camberwell to Dulwich. The invitation for Hope to meet her grandparents, which she had given up expecting, arrived on her fifteenth birthday.

‘Is it a coincidence?’ she asked her mother pensively as they ate their toast and margarine with cheap jam. Food rationing may be over, but the beginning of 1960 hasn’t seen the arrival of luxury food in the shops—nor has their income risen. She is pleased with her new blue woollen jumper, though, which she has pretended not to notice her mother knitting over the past few weeks.

‘Who can tell?’ was Patricia’s weary reply. ‘I gave up speculating about my mother’s motives a long time ago.’

‘So how long is it since you’ve seen them, exactly?’

‘Twelve years. You were three. I was struggling to manage—as ever—and thought they might help. Didn’t want to take you with me; I thought that might irritate them, so I left you with Jenny next door.’

‘And did they help you?’

Patricia grimaced.

‘A crisp new five-pound note. And a sermon about the evils of fornication.’ Unlike many girls of her age in 1960, Hope has been left in no doubt as to how children are created. The chances of her becoming a single mother are small.

‘So should we go?’ Hope was aware of a fluttering excitement within her; the faint possibility of something that might disturb, entrancingly, the drabness of their lives.

‘I think so, yes. They are getting old. You know how important it is to try and see things from other people’s point of view. Maybe they’ve realised they went too far. I’d like you to meet them, see where you came from, as it were.’

 

(My mother worked her way through to a form of forgiveness, thinks Hope, polishing Patricia’s mahogany dressing-table. I wonder how long that took her?)

 

As they pass terrace after terrace of run-down Victorian houses, Hope follows the track of raindrops meandering down the outside of the dirty bus window beside her, wondering how Patricia will know when to ring the bell to warn the driver they want to get off; a little later, she observes the easy assurance with which her mother jumps off the bus and walks up a side road. Suddenly she realises for the first time that this is where Mother grew up.

After some hesitation Patricia, face pale against her auburn hair, presses a gloved finger to the doorbell of the sash-windowed, double-fronted house. After a while they hear a shuffling sound, and the door opens. Inside, dwarfed by the high, corniced ceiling and elaborately decorated banisters leading upwards, a small, frail, white-haired woman is leaning heavily on a walking stick. She is dressed quite formally in tweed skirt, silk blouse, and pearl necklace. She peers up at them but doesn’t seem to realise who they are.

‘Yes?’

Her tone is grander than Hope is accustomed to.

‘Hello, Mother, we’ve come as you asked us to.’ Hope sees her mother’s hands twisting around each other.

‘And who is this?’

‘This is Hope. You remember I told you she was called Hope.’ The old lady looks up at Hope, apparently disbelieving what she hears.

‘But I was expecting a small child, Patricia. This is a young lady.’

‘Time has moved on, Mother. Hope is fifteen now.’ Patricia is still fidgeting, perhaps nervous as to whether they really are going to be invited in.

‘Goodness gracious! Well, you’d better come in. Father’s getting the tea: my eyesight’s too poor now, and it’s Sarah’s day off.’ Grandmother turns and shuffles away from the door, leading them into a palely elegant drawing-room furnished with piano, grandfather clock and watercolour landscapes. They sit stiffly on upholstered chairs while she goes into the kitchen.

 

Hope, wielding the vacuum cleaner, remembers that tea. Sandwiches, fruit cake, tea out of thin china cups. Tongs for the sugar. Her grandparents looking at her furtively, in between bursts of stilted conversation about school and friends; the scratchiness of her grandfather’s tweed jacket against her hand when he took her cup to refill it.

 

‘Where do you buy the girl’s clothes, Patricia?’ asks her grandmother. It seems that Hope isn’t dressed quite to the standard expected.

‘I make them, Mother—I can’t afford to go to clothes shops. She’s learning to make them herself, as well.’ Mass-market, cheap fashion is still somewhere in the future.

Hope sees astonishment in her grandmother’s eyes, and wonders at the gulf between their two lives.

‘She seems a well-behaved girl,’ remarks her grandfather, looking over the top of his spectacles at her. Hope, unused to being discussed like this, shrinks back into her uncomfortable chair, manages a faint smile even while feeling rebellious.

‘She’s a very good girl, hasn’t given me a moment’s trouble. And she’s top of her form in English and History,’ says her mother, defiantly. Another reason I have no friends, thinks Hope; if I had had grandparents, even without a father, would I still have been called those names, and ostracised?

Going home on the bus, Hope looks out at the rain again, through the steamed-up windows. She’s relieved to be out of the stuffy atmosphere of the Dulwich house, can still smell the hint of mothball, aged books, and pipe tobacco. Wonders what the point of the afternoon has been. She turns and looks at her mother, whose eyes are closed, notices the lines around those eyes. What an ordeal they have been through, she is starting to realise: a fifteen-year ordeal. Should she feel guilty? But how could anyone have thought that it was her fault?

When they get home to the small flat, Hope feels she can breathe again, inhales with relief the beef stew her mother is heating up for their supper.

‘What did you think, then?’ Patricia asks.

‘They’re so different to us,’ replies Hope, carefully. ‘They were a bit frightening. What was it like when you—told them about me?’

‘Frightening is a good description,’ Patricia says. ‘I was brought up very differently from you—much more strictly, and not encouraged to express myself. It never occurred to them that anything like that might happen to their daughter. I can understand that in a way,’—she is dishing out baked potatoes to go with the stew—‘they are of their generation. But I would never turn my own child out of the house.’

Hope cuts her baked potato in two and breathes in the steam that rises from it. School may be a trial, but home is a real home, however modest it may be.

 

Dusting, polishing and vacuuming are done, and she’s emptied the last few bits and pieces out of the chest of drawers—mahogany, like the dressing-table—and the bedside cupboard. Time for lunch. She picks up the black bag and, almost as an afterthought, opens the wardrobe door to look inside, though she knows she emptied it three years ago.

She remembers the clearing out. It was a dark, January day, and even with the dim overhead light switched on the room looked and felt as funereal as her mood.

Today is different—perhaps the bright sunlight helped to fuel her decision to do this cleaning. And as she opens the wardrobe, a shaft of that sunlight pierces the gloom at the back, illuminating a piece of brown paper in the corner. She puts the bag and duster down again, stretches forward to retrieve this last scrap of rubbish.

It’s an envelope, not a scrap of paper. How did she miss it before? It must have been camouflaged in the dingy light. She opens the flap and pulls out the contents, which consist of three handwritten letters addressed to her mother, bearing a New York postmark. Her heart thumps wildly.

The first one is dated 1946.

Dear Patricia

Sorry, dear, for taking so long to write, but it’s been a whirlwind since I arrived. Joe was waiting for me at Staten Island—you should have seen the view of the Statue of Liberty as the ship came in!—but there were so many delays with the paperwork, many of the husbands were sent home and told to wait there.

Hope has never seen the Statue of Liberty.

Eventually I was allowed in and directed to the bus station, where I telephoned him and he came, and we had a joyful reunion. I was lucky compared with some, who hadn’t prepared their papers or brought the correct money. I’m thankful to have had the support of my family when I was getting ready to travel.

I’m having such a happy time! They are all so kind, and helping me to settle. But I do miss Mother and you, and all the old chums.

Is this leading to anything, Hope wonders?

I’m sending you some nylons—you wouldn’t believe how much luxury there is here in the shops, both food and clothing—and wish I could give you a hug.

I’ve left it till last to ask—have you heard from Samuel yet? Joe’s been so busy working hard that he’s not seen any of his old comrades, but he says he knows of several who are working hard, saving money to get their girls out here. If you’ve not heard, I should think that’s what he’s doing.

Don’t forget to write back—I need to stay in touch with home!

My love

Louise

Hope refolds the yellowing paper. Her mother never mentioned Louise. Perhaps they lost touch once it became clear that Patricia would never be crossing the Atlantic.

Dear Patricia—or maybe now I’m an American I’d better call you Patsy!

That must have pleased Mother, is Hope’s grim thought.

You’ll never believe my news—I’m going to have a baby! We’re both so happy and excited. Joe’s mother, who I must call Angie rather than Mrs Newsome, keeps making me drink milk and eat steak to help the baby grow. You wouldn’t believe how much of everything there is here, and they are all so kind and generous.

Hope’s eyes skim across all this enthusiasm, searching desperately for a reason that these letters would have been preserved.

After I heard from you, I asked Joe if he thought there was any way he could find out where Samuel is, and he’s going to call a few people and see what he can discover. I will of course write again as soon as I hear anything.

My love

Louise

The third letter—it’s now 1947—is much shorter, as if its writer knew that the recipient would not want to hear about the plenteousness of love and provisions Stateside.

Dear Patricia

I kind of don’t know how to explain this to you—but I must. Joe has discovered that Samuel is married—and that he was already married before he went to fight in Europe.

Hope clutches the letter so hard that her fingers turn white.

I’m not yet sure of all the details but, dear, I’m afraid that the outlook isn’t good for you and your little girl. Let me know what I can do. We have so much of everything here, I’m sure I can send you some things if it would be of help.

My love to you

Louise

Hope stares bleakly through the window into the road. The sun has gone in; grey clouds hang over the silent, lunchtime street. Not yet time for school pick-up; babies are having their afternoon nap, adults are at work.

All the things my mother didn’t say to me. The effort of that. She knew that he would never come.

The email that Hope sent only an hour ago hovers around the edges of her mind, but she can’t cope with that now; the implications are too awful to consider. She replaces the letters in the brown envelope, picks up the black bag and duster once more, walks slowly downstairs and sinks onto the sofa.

 

There is no mention of a follow-up visit to Dulwich, but an exchange of letters takes place between her mother and grandparents, until one day Patricia makes an announcement.

‘I think you may have brought us some luck with your good behaviour the other week. Your grandparents seemed to take to you. They seem to have realised a little of what life has been like for us. They’ve offered to buy us a small house, and to make you an allowance. I’m not quite sure that I’m forgiven, but they seem at least to have come to their senses about you.’

Hope remembers looking at her mother’s pinched, white face, and thinking that she didn’t seem particularly pleased by the news. Another six years go by, and her grandparents both die, before the lack of pleasure is explained.

‘We have an appointment with a solicitor next week, on your birthday,’ Patricia says one day. ‘You’ll have to arrange for a day off from work.’

Hope has trained as a secretary. Each day she walks down the road from their small, terraced house, still in Camberwell, and catches a bus to Dulwich, ironically enough, where she is secretary to the assistant manager of a bank: not her grandparents’ bank, she is thankful to learn. She never saw them again after that intimidating tea.

At the solicitor’s office she discovers with amazement that she is expected to sign a document giving her ownership of the house in which they live. Patricia’s mouth is set in a bitter line throughout the meeting, and there is little conversation between them on the way home.

 

Hope sits on the sofa, rubbing her thumb and finger absentmindedly on the duster which lies on her lap, dirt and all. That’s why she started her search, she knows. Who will she leave her possessions to, otherwise?

It’s taken her nearly three years to find them, using genealogy websites, US Army records, anything she came across, until she narrowed it down to what she is convinced is the right family. Chose Bob—her half-brother—to contact, thinking that he might be the most approachable. Bob is a relaxed name, she could almost picture his check shirt and beer belly.

Agonised, finally, for weeks about what to say and how to say it.

But now she’s almost sure it was a mistake to send the email. Samuel was already married—he wouldn’t want anyone to know what he got up to in Europe. He will never have mentioned them.

She closes her eyes, burdened with quiet horror at what she has unknowingly done.

She must see whether there’s a reply. But not yet. It’s after two, she needs to eat. Duster still in hand, she goes into the kitchen to make a scratch lunch out of what remains in the fridge. Apprehension has removed any interest in food, so she makes do with the end of a piece of cheddar, a couple of tomatoes, and a slice of the almost-stale end of the last loaf to make an unappetising sandwich—all she deserves really, considering the crassness of the email—which she chews carefully before finishing up with a slightly wrinkled apple. There’s the remaining influence of an unprosperous fifties upbringing for you, she thinks. Inability to throw away stale remains.

She clears away and sits herself nervously at the computer: turns it on. The screen flashes various messages, goes black, lights up again, finally comes to its conclusion. She has long ago bypassed the log-in process—there’s no-one from whom she needs to protect her privacy, or who might wish to take a secret look at her paltry correspondence and files.

At last the motor finishes its chuntering; the computer sits silently, internet icon inviting her to enter and learn what it may have in store. She delays once more. But her body’s ahead of her again—right hand jumping at the mouse, labouring as usual over a double-click to get the connection with the outside world. She types in the details that open up the email account, but can’t bring herself to look at what’s there: looks down to study the pattern of her skirt, lying smoothly over her lap, flecked with dirt from the duster.

She looks away towards the window, at anything rather than the screen, but hasn’t allowed for her treacherously all-embracing peripheral vision. There is an email there—the bold print leaps out from the screen.

I’ll have to read it now, she thinks, now that I know it’s there.

There’s no clue in the subject line. it simply regurgitates her own, preceded by the usual abbreviation:

Re: Trying to make contact.

Hope’s hand is on the mouse; the future hovers somewhere above her index finger.

pencilDeborah Bazalgette started writing when her children left home. Her short stories ‘The Tallest Flower’ and ‘Counting Chevrons’ were published in What the Dickens magazine. She is working on a novel set in north-east Scotland while developing a collection of short stories around the theme of loss. She lives near London, England. Email: deborahbazalgette[at]gmail.com

Beginning a New Notebook

Poetry
Robert Lavett Smith


Libreta
Photo Credit: Yuri Numerov

This is the sort of thing, I imagine,
that someone like Billy Collins
could write an enormously popular
poem about—a non-event fraught
with symbolic potential. Let us
therefore consider the Moleskine,
legendary cahier of Hemingway,
Picasso, and Chatwin (proclaims
the accompanying historical
leaflet), all of whom undoubtedly
did something more significant
with it than whatever I am about
to do. I must not allow myself
to be in any way intimidated.
But there is still the prospect
of staring down that first blank page.

pencilRaised in New Jersey, Robert Lavett Smith has lived since 1987 in San Francisco, where for the past fifteen years he has worked as a Special Education Paraprofessional. He has studied with Charles Simic and Galway Kinnell. He is the author of several chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections, the most recent of which is Smoke In Cold Weather: A Gathering of Sonnets (Full Court Press, 2013). Email: rmusicbob[at]aol.com

Vagrancy is a Characteristic of the Species

Poetry
Marc Pietrzykowski


Front Porch
Photo Credit: zharth

Spring thaw arrives, the real one, no more feints,
and Ed is on his porch across the street
smoking and coughing and scowling at trees.
It’s a scowl he’s been growing all his life,
I’ve seen photos of it as a seedling,
beneath a crew cut, atop worn short pants.
He scowls at fat robins, at cars, at me;
I smile back, knowing he is kind, and so,
frightened. The next day is rain, the next hail,
then a morning of sun putting its hand
beneath our chins, lifting our heads to see.
Ed is not scowling; I notice his porch
sags at one corner, that shingles are torn.
The school bus pauses, children disembark
and scatter, but still no Ed, no smoke cloud.
I wish I could say I did not forget,
that I went and attended my neighbor,
and sped him to the emergency room,
or found his body face down on the floor,
but it was only months later I heard
of the weeks he spent plugged into the wall,
that he died in the middle of the night,
so the last thing he heard was some machine
bleeping away, announcing another
change in the ledger. His sister told me
the story, leaning on the porch railing,
the first blind idiot day of summer
bearing down. She had a rag on her head
and a mop in her hand, and her smile said
she would die smiling, if only because
she knew there was nothing to smile about.

pencilMarc Pietrzykowski lives and works and writes in Niagara County, NY, USA. He has published various and sundry poems, stories, and essays, as well as 5 books of poetry and 1 novel. His latest novel, The Emissary, was published in March 2014, as was his 6th book of poetry, Straddling the Sibyl. You can visit Marc virtually at marcpski.com. Email: pskisporch[at]gmail.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Natasha Kochicheril Moni


human skull
Photo Credit: Matt MacDonald

We speak of water
for Ilya Kaminsky

and he raises

a glass, gestures

with his free

arm as if a water

fowl is being

raised from within

(this is California, Southern)

You must have water

I am filled         I might tell

him of the many

nights I have been dreaming

of Fabergé      how dancing

on eggs    in dream        is more

like floating

how floating     is more

like eating

down

plucking          feather after (invisible)

feather          from one’s throat

irritates          the esophagus

The truth is

I have been     speaking

to another

who knows     about double

osmosis          He tells me     what

becomes          of fluids

before preserving         before the viewing

about water               after water

where drains                 in morgues

empty

how California            is

the great recycler

The truth is       I don’t know this       yet

The truth is       I am not

thirsty             The truth is

always

like separating egg             from apricot

 

The Cardiologist, his daughter cradle a model

skull—they’ve left hearts behind years ago for osteo-

cytes, sutures: sagittal, coronal—

sockets whose purpose is stationary

grace, how to hold what fills

how to balance what adheres.

The Cardiologist, his daughter love to learn

the language of mater: dura,

arachnoid, pia—whisper

the sound CSF

would make if it were

external, how not

rapid but river

one flow sub-

dividing.

 

When I Approach my Advisor for Advice on How to Move Forward With Greater Ease After a Bumpy Start of Going Premed in My Thirties, He Performs a Well-Rehearsed Soliloquy

Every year there are those who fall.
He draws me a curve—

epinephrine on the x, performance on the y.
A straight line to the top where some—

he references me—go over.
I imagine the remains,

the class of forty trimmed
extra length in the row below

the Periodic Table, the ease with which
legs stretch in the presence of space.

He has never performed surgery,
never cleaved anything but a hypothetical

student from the breast of Postbacc
status, never attended

himself, but he is an expert
of probability. Vex one student

and observe wilt under scrutiny.
Take three quizzes and don’t call me.

I would bottle it if I could—he speaks
of success, those shy of adrenaline

junkies—I would be rich.
I think of my father with only three

dollars upon immigrating. Practicing in his native
country, the requirement of redoing his residency—

the subsequent years of specializing, cardiology.
My father thinks of me, my advisor thinks.

 

The Cardiologist’s daughter is concerned

with needles, the thought of what keeps

blood fixed—what accounts
for system failure, a heart spilling—

what blurs on screen
a mitral valve prolapsing.

She learns to mind
adjusts to right side

reduces intake of sugar
caffeine. The cardiologist’s daughter

feels so much, removes
tags from sweaters

will not stand anything approaching
her throat—remembers the time

when D. slapped a bee clear
into her back—the sting

she had never felt
before, nothing

like needle, more like twinge.
The instructor not believing

her calmness, taking
ten minutes to notice

stinger through flesh.
The Cardiologist’s daughter

is complicated. She has a thing
for discovery, keeps a collection

including the bear
claw, countless bones,

something potentially human.
She would have the complete

skeleton, if she could afford—
She has made peace

with weird, has a pink
dot on her i.d., sees

herself on that metal
table while waiting

at checkouts—those tabloids—
so less appealing. Called

morbid, she cannot help
a family that served

obituaries with cornflakes
longer than she has been drinking

her coffee near black.
She fills herself with herself

as a baker would install a pie
with nectarine—there are places

where the color blurs and she forgets
outer for inner. They call

her edgy and she says I am
regardless, concentrated with core.

 

On an Interview to Rent Space from a Chiropractor,
I Discover a Mutual Admiration for Handling Skulls
for the Benson family

He says I’ll just be
a minute and disappears beyond
the door marked Employees Only.
In the room labeled A, I turn
to the erase board that spells
the definition of something kinetic,
as the doctor returns.

His fingers lace
a human skull. Can’t get these
anymore, he claims and what
others leave, I seize.

How did you? I ask and he tells me
A religious sect in India had no problem
selling these; only problem was people left
their bodies more quickly.

I trace the parietal
suture below my finger. How young, I think
and he responds how neatly ossified, how not old and I try
not to think of family and I think of family as I speak
the tongue of sutures, what seals
bone to bone what breathes if given

He tells me
of his daughter as he wings
open the gates of the teeth, his daughter
pre-med for dentistry, she will inherit
this. It will be necessary.

We close with the orbits—a simple communion, we sip
from their thinness, tip the skull to locate light.

pencilNatasha Kochicheril Moni, a naturopathic medical student, writes and resides in the Pacific Northwest. Her first full-length collection, The Cardiologist’s Daughter, is forthcoming from Two Sylvias Press this Fall 2014. For more information regarding her work or upcoming readings, please visit her website. Email: natashamoni[at]yahoo.com

Thanksgiving Dinner

Poetry
Pat Hanahoe-Dosch


Thanksgiving table at the Brown Street house
Photo Credit: Katie Inglis

We talk and talk; we sit and pass around
more wine, potatoes, turkey, yams and peas.
We cannot hear each voice for all the sound.

Outside the cold blows trash across the ground.
The kitchen’s heat seeps in the room as we drink tea.
We talk and talk, we sit and pass around

pies and more wine and tea. We are bound
by manners and grit to ignore past history.
We cannot hear each voice for all the sound.

The children run, screaming, kicking, all wound
up with sugar and toys. They don’t understand the key
is to talk and talk, to sit and pass around

the stories and jokes that say little, but go round
past betrayals, tensions, differences; please,
we cannot hear each voice for all the sound.

This is the one time of year we are all bound
to gather in one place though no one sees
how we talk and talk, sit and pass our lives around.
We cannot hear each voice for all the sound.

pencilPat Hanahoe-Dosch’s educational background includes an MFA from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona; she is currently an Associate Professor of English at Harrisburg Area Community College, Lancaster campus. Her poems have been published in The Atticus Review, War, Art and Literature, Confrontation, The Red River Review, San Pedro River Review, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Red Ochre Lit, Nervous Breakdown, Quantum Poetry Magazine, The Paterson Literary Review, Abalone Moon, Apt, Switched-on Gutenberg, and Paterson: The Poets’ City (an anthology edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan), among others. Articles of hers have appeared in Travel Belles, On a Junket, and Wholistic Living News. Her story “Sighting Bia” was selected as a finalist for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s 2012 Orlando Prize for Flash Fiction. Her story “Serendip” was published in In Posse Review. Her book, Fleeing Back, (a collection of poems), is available from FutureCycle.org and Amazon.com. Email: pahanaho[at]gmail.com.

Terror Alert

Poetry
Ryan Quinn Flanagan


hunter sausage and onions
Photo Credit: Amanda/pinprick

The sausages are in the pan,
then the onions
and mushrooms.

There is plenty of steam
and the smoke detector in the hall
goes off.

It is very loud,
the neighbours must
be wondering:

Could al-Qaeda be in my kitchen?

Rearranging the cutlery?

Radicalizing the dish soap?

Converting all the cutting boards to Islam?

I have very imaginative neighbours,
they watch the nightly news
and believe all kinds
of horrors.

Me, I’m more pragmatic.

Like the sausages
and the onions
and the mushrooms
in the pan.

Standing on a chair
I wave a green dish towel
under the smoke detector
until the threat of terror
is gone.

pencilRyan Quinn Flanagan presently resides in Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada under 12 feet of snow. He is looking quite forward to the spring thaw or getting away to warmer weather. Florida is his friend. The snow plow is not. Email: cyanogen_rqf[at]hotmail.com

The Last Day

Poetry
Holly Day


Sunrise
Photo Credit: Diganta Talukdar

we go about our day
whisper about angels
leave homes full of the past behind us
as the sun rises, one last time

we pray that the signs are real and
the whispers grow louder
climb the hills, set up camp, make plans
the occasional ecstatic shout. people leave their doors unlocked
fields unturned, the animals
ask if it’s true.

pencilHolly Day was born in Hereford, Texas, also known as “The Town Without a Toothache.” She and her family currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches at the Loft Literary Center. Her published books include Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, and Guitar All-in-One for Dummies. Email: lalena[at]bitstream.net

Two Poems

Poetry
Jim Daniels


Day 226 - Bedtime story
Photo Credit: John Carleton

Talking About the Day

Each night after reading three books to my two children—
we each pick one—to unwind them into dreamland,
I’d turn off the lights and sit between their beds
in the wide heirloom rocker we’d had reupholstered blue,
still feeling the close-reading warmth of their bodies beside me,
and ask them to talk about the day—we did this,
we did that, like an O’Hara poem, sometimes leading somewhere,
sometimes not, but always ending up at the happy ending of now.
Now, in still darkness, listening to their breath slow and ease
into sleep’s regular rhythm.
They are grown, you might’ve guessed.
The past tense solid, unyielding, against the dropped bombs
of recent years. But how it calmed us then, rewinding
the gentle loop, and in the trusting darkness, pressing play.

 

Weeding Out the Weak

In dark slits between houses
only strong weeds grew.
Like stiff rags, spiked curses. Weeds

that spelled themselves in all caps, rising
from cracks, rubble, cold dirt.
Rough brick rose on either side, mortar crumbling

to dust, dust falling to earth, earth’s bad breath
breeding sin. What better place for our first
kisses, frantic meeting of mouths, open too far,

not enough, mad tongues, gasping echoes of breath,
moist, toxic, nourishing? Or second kisses,
or third? Spiders told no lies, and weeds told

no secrets. Curious dogs sniffed our crotches
and moved on.

pencilJim Daniels’ latest book of poems, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013 and was selected as a Michigan Notable Book. His next book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, will be published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. A native of Detroit, Daniels teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Email: jimdaniels[at]cmu.edu