Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category


Short story published in Westerly Magazine 67.1 (July 2022): https://westerlymag.com.au/digital_archives/westerly-67-1/

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Novel, written 2018-19.

K the Interpreter is a narrative emerging from contemporary global fault-lines between the powerful and the dispossessed, and the concealed truths and open deceptions that sustain a fictional status quo. It tells the interwoven story of individuals negotiating these rifts in the real, seeking to maintain integrity, as well as existential security, against overbearing odds. Traversing East and West, obscurity and infamy, its crises converge in a conclusion that appears as inevitable as it is shocking.

K. the Interpreter is shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award 2020, under the auspices of UWA Publishing (Director Dr. Terri-ann White) and the Copyright Agency. Warm congratulations to all short-listed writers: Angela Gardner, Caitlin Maling, Kylie Mirmohamadi, Robin Riedstra and Karen Wyld. For more on the shortlisted works, in poetry and fiction, see: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0542/4573/files/DHA20_Shortlist_Announcement.pdf?55

COVER brutal-photographs-from-the-frontline-of-myanmars-rohingya-genocide-889-1467844267

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An Island Emissary

Short story, in Southerly Journal, Issue 79.1: 80! (published Dec. 7th 2019 online in The Long Paddock), at:

Long Paddock for Southerly 79.1: 80!


NS Island 2

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The Aid Worker

Short story published in Mascara Literary Review, Issue 22 (June, 2018):


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In Khost Province

Short prose in Mascara Literary Review #19, September 2016: http://mascarareview.com/in-khost-province-by-martin-kovan/

Ballots not Bullets - Anja Niedringhaus, March 2014.png

“Ballot not Bullet” – Anja Niedringhaus, March, 2014


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Short-fiction (written Paris, 2006); published in modified form in the print journal (School of Culture and Communication, Melbourne University) antiTHESIS # 23: LIVE, November 2013:



The original piece is here:

There is a light which glances into the stream-of-vision of the paying commuters. It is the same light that travels from the silvery vaults of the Maison de la Monnaie through the protection warning-system and fibre-optic transmitters into the receptor-diodes of the mobile-phone of the man speaking in a reasonable American voice even though he stands bluntly in the middle of the pedestrian tunnel saying damage control an indefinite number of times into the phone mouthpiece.

The noise plays out not far ahead of him. At initial hearing it could be an edgy installation-soundscape, but this is not a music of the fibre-optic age, a post-industrial slithering zither of ultra-violet rays. It is neither sophisticated nor aurally fine, but the overtones move into the front of consciousness like a tireless assassin even so. It might be the creation of another race, an alien species half-insect or machine according to whichever side of the prototypical spectrum the human one still concedes to. There must be giant amplifiers positioned in odd acoustic proportion: the sound, its source unclear, seems to reach under the skin, even where it deceives the ear, and could be coming from the interior as much as anywhere in objective space.

The interior and objective space are not necessarily exclusive categories (nothing so new about that).

Damage control the man’s voice says again – of course ‘damage control’ might have any number of determinants not least the kind of patch-up jobs we are used to witnessing in Hanoi or Kabul or Baghdad. Defy me the music dares to declare in the tubular labyrinth and out through ventilation shafts and into the free air of the free (-ly bought) world.

The House of Money is an august institution whose proper identity has been protected for the purposes of this fiction by translation and transplantation into an indeterminate zone (you say place, or language, or signifier and I say yes and also real insofar as the power-conduit that exits from the gold-gilt gates reaches over the heads of the casseurs on the outskirts of town all the way to the reiteration of the words damage control in thin spidery italics underground, always underground, always spoken in a nuanced and reasonable American version courtesy of Time Warner and the men who brought you Quiet Days in an Evil Age, cf. Code 21CN of the Unattributed Act of Inattention #6J/art. 5-A).

It’s not an alarm, a re-run of…is it? Not here, after the hi-jinks in…er, confidentiality blues bl-ue-ue eyes, they say they’ve got blue eyes, not brown, under the hoods and burkhas and the AK47s stuffed inside all-purpose fatigue trousers and speaking of fatigue aren’t you all a bit goddamned tired by now? not least of this? (text, triste tropique, topos, hungry-ghost realm, pick any but pick).

She’s Bosnian (no prizes). Sits like a lame duck on the concrete floor with the mind-curdling gadzook between her legs as if she has given birth to a wailing serpent of ancient Illyria, the placental mess nearby, where the ticket-barriers are, trying to get through. Perhaps it is a love-song, perhaps to the damage-control man, but he isn’t listening, not right now (again no prizes, trying to get through to you), and other voices beckon – from HQ, the bunker, Mr. Big’s leather armchair, Xanadu, where you will. The dear duck doesn’t even bother with a hat out for coins or, presumptuously, paper notes. She just plays – gratis-like, sawing away for blind life, straight off the mountains. (It ain’t Easter for nuthin’, folks.)

The bow she uses has, perhaps, five or six actual hairs, but they are industrial-strength mythical human wire from the superhuman old races of Dalmatia or Carpathia or Georgia, where old men and women live the longest. The most beautiful thing is the unbowed sound-plus-body coordination, where she leans into the micro-tonally raised, then diminished, drone-note – it is a monster’s wail, a Frankenstein cry – beautiful as an idiot-infant’s eye left to weep on a highway by midnight overpass lights.

Then she swings back, heavy old-woman dugs following the line of inarticulate least resistance: it’s a single note, and she has a single tooth in her head, a single pure idea guiding her single unadulterated wish which is to live in the world, with the others, the strangers, the intergalactic youth swarming round her in tinted shades, not least the damage-control man himself.

And so she saws. She could be sawing an umbilical cord attached to that same humanity, or a birch-tree trunk from the old country, or the deep wound of war she has left behind there. It is a single-stringed instrument played with a few hairs by a single old woman who will die within two or three years of it, or less. The commuters look askance because they imagine they smell diarrhoea or vomit escaping from under the peasant skirts, the cobbled shoes, the heavy thighs that lumpenly sit turned-in under the shadows of the barrier-gates (always a barrier, always a gate). There is something a little unsavoury about the old woman’s (chinny-chin-chin) hairs, and the fact that she can’t manage to raise an actual tune, a tune of more than a single, living ground-note from the rudimentary single-stringed instrument. Where has she come from anyway? Shouldn’t she be home in her village, celebrating Easter with flammable spirits and gypsy wars and gambling and guns and mafia picaresque exploding around her? Not here – this is a different world, that’s all, not a judgement. (The saw-music is still loud and clear, its great godfearing laughter raining down stage-left between the tattered poster-bills and Brazilian boys sharing out the deal).

So that the American agent is curious, finally. Time to move into action-mode. Is that really diarrhoea I can smell? Don’t they pay someone to keep these places clean? Jesus save-them-from-themselves Christ. He even sings: we gotta get outta this place, sotto voce, not quite in tune, but reasonable, even so, the portable phone mouthpiece dangling under the jowls. KFC still on his breath. There’s a few  minutes left, left to kill. Take your time, Joe. Have a shoe-shine on the way out. Arab boy, cute as country-pie.

The most extraordinary thing is no-one would ever know how purely and superbly articulated it was. Some kind of disastrous freak accident, a hatchet-job, sheer evil-minded horse-play – the Brazilian boys, or students, the casseurs from the outskirts for that matter, all the Arabs. All the Arabs in the place, you couldn’t find enough front-end loaders to dump them.

The man moves toward the ticket-barriers, and it’s odd, but she stops playing, just as he passes (the chin-hairs, flowered skirt, the old Bosnian stink of it), and drops the little token of appreciation into her lap. The eery hawking saw-music suddenly become a silence that breaks out into the air above open ground. Like an encore, the silence, just for him. As if she knows, even as she wonders what she’s gleaned this time. (No-one else does, ever will).

He’s already half-way down the main street when the explosion bursts the innards out of the underground. No more of the godforsaken music, at least, a small blessing on Easter Day. Just pieces of old Bosnia on the shattered walls, a map of old, parti-coloured Europe, for the memory. She’ll be a saint, bless her heart.

And the American accent – a decoy, bluff, pretty transparent really. Not really a true-to-God American – no such thing. No see no blood, no shed no blood, where the chopping gets done.

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The Prodigal

FROM far away, from the other end of the inverted telescope of slow forgetting, her native place begins to take on a ritual, hieratic choreography. There, in the place she has left, she sees people moving towards hanging things on the far, parched horizon. Something is sought out there, with open eyes, then with closed. Are they sideshow trifles, condemned collaborators, strange fruits of the earth that hover above the line beyond which things lose all definition?

Yet things unseen, undreamt can always be imagined, we are told by the bus-stop prophets, talk-show hosts, the weekend newspapers. There is a soundtrack to every revolution, to send it on its way, which can be ordered on request. The people move, again, two steps forward, then one back. A cautious, but steady progress. It is possible to venture into the unknown, dip the toes in the waters to be found there, before returning to the safety-zone of home territory. In her telescope-view, though, the hanging things (of Babylon? the charnel-house? the Gates of Eden? she still can’t tell) beckon them onward, and no-one blocks their nose or shields their eyes out of fear or disgust of what might be there. There have been wars before, and massacres, even the occasional desert kidnapping, and young bodies found slashed to pieces in a dry gully, or not found at all, in all the thousands of dry river-beds of the wild country.

Her oneiry though suggests a modest redemption: taste of these fruits and you shall receive knowledge, in these strung-up angel wings hides the wisdom of the ages. They might be wings, she sees, thickly feathered, growing mouldy and foul under the rain and the sun. When the historians and anthropologists come to claim them it won’t be an easy thing to ready them for the museum or the government-sponsored cultural exposition. These large and ludicrous relics of an unearthly visitation will be full of ants and maggots, new live things breeding in the irrelevance of the old.

Such things are redundant, that much is clear, even in the economy of her daydream. The country she sees now only in these images of doubt (the people still walk across the ground, aching with questions) has spent its whole life in a dogged pilgrimage toward its own vast horizons, without being sure of what it has found there. Walking past the most rare of its treasures in the half-light of centuries of dusk. That is what a destiny is: to pursue a journey without knowing what has been lost and gained on the way, and to not know the destination at which you arrive.

She sees them, the pilgrims of doubt, hears the tracklist as they move: an old-time waltz in three-four time, the Internationale, accordion confections, folk-rock anthems, house-music beats that twang and thud into ventureless aeons of the sky where they are transformed into sub-acoustic skeins of delirium, of delight. If they are wings strung up there, they must belong to emus or vultures, or they’re versions of Mussolini and his mistress, her make-up kit slipping out of her handbag hanging upside down. They are enormous wasp hives, one labyrinth built onto another like post-apocalyptic cities, insect Metropoli, whose inhabitants think in five dimensions but dream outside them. They are apostle lovers who twirl and plunge in mid-air, hanging in space, hanging onto eachothers’ robes in that well-known Renaissance defiance of gravity.

As they move, she sees some of the people drop out of the race. They stumble to their knees, gasp in the dust and fall by the wayside. For many it is too much to keep moving toward whimsical uncertainties. If it is necessary to entertain hope, it is reasonable to ask what hope would hope for. These people are considerately collected by governmental health-workers and led to waiting mobile health-units, put inside sterile interiors and never seen again. They might die in there, or simply be taken away to subsist in a more or less dependent state. Those who keep walking are growing hungry, their bones beginning to show. It is still a long way to walk, though loudspeakers punctuate the air with general directions, but it is up to the ones gifted with a radar-like sense, those small-bodied female pilgrims with desert-fox ears, to know which is the right way to go. There are no signs in the ground, and the paths are vanished by wind, rain and rare floodwater. Even the animals have resisted this particular search, and stay in the shade, for rest.

The more she witnesses this vision of the ages, the more the prodigal realises she has seen it before. The procession has always been moving; with distance she is able to pay more attention to it. She would like to reverse the telescope of her inner-eye and focus on the clusters of mystery beyond it. Astronomers will in a similar way recognise galaxies within nebulae that suggest still more fractal diminutions of rediscovery, though the end point of rest is never quite reached. As a child she only grew impatient with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, after testing it out a number of times: it was only another mythology, like so many discoveries as the age of reason dawns. Is this just another? But she watches, closer, zooms further in to the tribe of her own people, some now clutching their own arms, their faces falling in an abysmal recognition, some openly collapsing as something grows inexorably clear to them. She can’t see what it is – the telescope is still reversed, she is still caught in an archaic technology. The further they move from her the smaller grow their objects of revelation. What do they see there? What are the hanging goods that meet them at this crossroads?

She sees their impersonal sky splintering a shower of inorganic circuitry, the surface of its habitual yawning blue fragmented into a disinvestiture of space under which the last of the wanderers look up and open their eyes, granted a view into something she cannot see. They move still, doggedly, almost automata, into the horizon of hanging things, and she can see no separation, there is a failure of distance between the horizontal and vertical planes, each figure walks into its dreams, and its horror, the submerged, the resurrected, the extinct, the half-alive, all infinitesimally crowding into her view.

She sees them, the explorers and the black children leading them, the massacred and the massacrers, the outlaw and his nemesis laughing in trees, the reconaissance parties camped under stringybarks, dying of starvation, the gold and the blood that drains out of sifting pans and back into the blood-red and brown indifference of the landscape. There is an epochal wind, opening and shutting the flaps of the sky, a transparent curtain of lazy time, beaches and sea-coasts echoing with lies and night-songs under its casual aspirations, whole vowels and syllables of history swallowed in an azure gaze of retreat and approach, random comings and goings of ant-colonies, cattle-trains, motorcades of transport-trucks and military convoys blistering at metallic seams under a peristaltic, heaving sun, satellite and space-stations absorbed into its sheer magnesium glow, and the expanding chorus of hanging things, of half-beings, bardo realms of ghosts and aborted genealogies moving into and through the rift of sky and space, outside of time but deep inside the place of dreaming, the place of return, the place of no-returning.

The prodigal knows she both goes with them, into their history, and flies far beyond it. Their perseverence train trails still further away, like all human trajectories, into terrains and projection-screens of imagining she will never know. As she watches them move into the unknown, she only wants to follow, and not let them go – the sympathetic resonance still vibrates in her inner-ear, as she tries to decipher the path before her.

They are already gone, and the hanging things in front of them. The dead, the forgotten, unseen and forsaken. She will go with them into a new pursuit, speaking a language none of them have heard before. The epidermis of the earth still hangs there, golden and crusting as it seeps through the entrance in the sky, the abysm of time swinging and shutting, opening and closing the moveable door of memory, absently moving back and forth in the wind that is her own breath, the canopy and portal to the country of her mind, past which new denizens emerge, waltz, drop, fade away into dunes and long nights of spinifex. There is a shift in her view, the light in abeyance, the rent sky closing before motion begins, the miniature nomad colony moving once again. A faint sound of the sea or desert, held still in amniosis. There is no separation, no arrival, in the going, in those who move, and those who have never departed.

Paris, 2006

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The day was bleached, the sun pouring a magnesium bath over the teeming city, its trains and trams and two-stroke motors beetling from place to place like an insect plague, blueing the air with prodigious clouds of waste. They were enjoying it enough, though – human and inorganic industry alike, it was all the same to them.

Towards noon a film-production company appeared, as they regularly did after the morning hours, scouting for unlikely talent, and lighted on Ray and Servetus. They rested spread-eagled in the sun, on the pavement beside a heroin-addict and a Scientological missionary. The two observers didn’t have a position on the minor battle of wills going on between these two prone protagonists, and Ray for his part saw as much virtue in either form of salvation, should salvation be a necessary feature in his scheme of things.

A man with a sports-cap and clipboard immediately kicked Ray and demanded he be measured for costuming. They gathered Servetus up too, with some misgivings it appeared, because his tall and dull insubstantiality seemed more filmically resistant, and in any case his features too mild-mannered to serve their dramatic purposes. But it was decided almost on the spot that Ray should be the Assassin, lying in deathly wait at the heart of the film. Servetus was – irony of ironies – to be a Christian hanger-on, decked out in a beige linen-suit, custom-made for the tropics.

“Can you sweat? Can you sweat a lot?” they asked him. Would he be able to sweat naturally, they repeated, or failing that, could he simulate the same? Servetus recalled somewhere that the young Brando had been able to sweat on cue, but it seemed clear that such a calibre was beyond him. So, still frowning, they even had a photo they could show him of the tropical suit he would wear and said it wasn’t so important for him to sweat all the time, as long as he could often be seen wiping his forehead. Which seemed within his means. Their career as amateur Assassin and Christian hit the floor running, as these people would tell them between snatches of intensive Marlboro-consumption. Ray laughed at this, as well he might, knowing that that morning they had both not known where their breakfast would be coming from.

In the rigours of another time they would look back on this one and doubt how anything like it could come to pass. They were like the old explorers, an old idealism still intact, but for one difference – they threw themselves out in the vast open spaces of possibility, not the already-known of the world, and tried to find in the present what had previously gone unseen. They might then be able to understand those who had left obscure signs, that others had passed-over in ignorance or disdain – a neglect that had refused to believe miracles, let alone other worlds, would ever be possible.

Visionaries, then, or disbelievers – and most democratically, both. You need fools as much as geniuses to keep the story going, Servetus always said. He was one of the unspoken leaders, as well as a servant, to the rest of them. The place they found themselves in was a bee-hive, a colony of pure and abundant chaos. You could almost think, in coming here, that everyone who gravitated to this place did so out of an atavistic suicidal impulse. But the first person Servetus met there had escaped both life and death.

Ray didn’t know who he was anymore. He had the spare body and economical face of a Tibetan, the sagacity, too, in his laughing but ringingly confused eyes. He said some months before he had woken up in a tent in the Himalayas with some clothes and a few hundred American dollars under his mattress. Without a passport. With no consciousness of what had come before. Without any documents or evidence offering him a potential clue to an earlier life.

He had lost his own story – surely that is a worse effacement than either the certainty of death might be, or the mixed-bag of hope and hopelessness we can at least lay claim to. He had neither, but maybe that was his liberation as well. Servetus had met him in a half-way house, to which he sought refuge when his own money had run out – as it was bound to. (He had arrived there, after all, with barely enough to last a month or two. What absurd expectations he had placed in the benevolence of the world, though he would make the same mistake again, a hundred times, and by choice). Ray was kept in the half-way house by the authorities until such time as he might recover his memory and be returned safely to his country of birth.

But in the meantime he was unable to remember his own name, let alone his country of birth. He had lately become a lover of the films of Satyajit Ray, and so he called himself Ray. The other curious thing about him was that he spoke fluent Norwegian and good English, with a marked Japanese accent, but when given the opportunity of speaking the latter tongue, claimed to be unable to and understood only by guessing what his Japanese interlocutor might have been telling him. He and Servetus spoke, then, in English, and he never again mentioned his erroneous Japanese-Tibetan identity, and he stayed Ray for the duration. Though Servetus’ private name for him was Ray-San: it seemed a truer compromise.

He had a few of his American dollars left over, and the clothes he stood in. The psychological assessment team assigned to his case had given him permission to travel for awhile, until such time as he could at least report on some fraction of recovered memory. But that never happened, so far as anyone can surmise, and despite what later befell him, it is doubtful that Ray ever reported back to them at all. Not that he has ever let anyone know in either case, and he has doubtless embarked on a third incarnation as a wandering minnesinger, making amorous overtures to silky young backpackers in his cracked Japanese voice.

The point of Ray, and much else of this time and place, was that very little seemed to sit squarely in the usual outlines of things, and a double-world seemed to co-exist just beyond the assumed borders of what appeared to their senses. On top of the dense millions of bodies (appended, presumably, to some millions of souls) swarming and surging through the sweltering streets, there seemed to be a spectral double, like a falsely-exposed negative, clinging to each as well: not really real, but there nevertheless. Was it death at the right shoulder of each, an ideal self, a twin of spirit that would accompany the mortal body until such time as it took over the work of living on behalf of the individual it accompanied?

There was no way of knowing and these are speculative notions in any case. Suffice to say that this efflorescence of replication surrounded men and women and all living things, with a palpable intimation of another world. No-one could ever be sure which one he was stepping into, so that after some months there seemed to be even a danger of multiple worlds that would never be able to be successfully distinguished. Let it be said simply that, contra Deus, there was not only one world or one Kingdom of Sensible Power directing it: there was, if anything, a prism with multiple reflecting-lens that offered the view of a new and different world with every step they took. And each prism merely a function inside each new world. So it can be seen how confused they were liable to become.

Ray and Servetus stayed in the half-way house, and in case false inference be made that assumes some artifical derangement via opium or hashish enough to explain them, they remained wholly sober and clear-sensed throughout the course of these wanderings. There was, in fact, a wide and open-armed bay gesturing out to the ocean, right where they were, and most evenings they would enjoy the cooler breezes and while away the hours with other such travelers and local folk as sought their company.

And there were many. There was doubtless something clownish and hopeless in their ambience and especially in Ray’s functional lack – barely even a loss, given that he was unable even to identify what he had lost – of a self. Children especially would be likely to gravitate to his starry and wide-awake eyes. He was always buying them the sweet tea he could barely himself afford. But Ray, far more than Servetus, put his trust in the goodness of the world and it tended to repay his investment in kind.

Little girls would improvise eccentric dances for him, little boys insist on proving the marvel of their young muscles. And the marvel of Ray was that he seemed genuinely to respond to these displays with full, completely selfless engrossment: he rarely allowed irony, let alone sarcasm, to shadow his laughter, even if he knew these things from his camaraderie with Servetus, if not the modest period of his new life as a born-again, placeless alien.

He simply responded to things as they presented to him. He said he knew no other way to live, so far, and in any case, could only experiment with a few possibilities at this point. He didn’t believe that psychology is destiny, because he had none, of a decisive kind. Not that he was a tabula rasa, either. Without psychology, he was all blood, and heart, and whatever other sentient imaginings he considered he could put his granted self to. Like a gift, whatever body and intelligence he had been given, he figured he ought to make use of, which for him meant making a further gift to others of that which he had already received.

“Received from where?” Servetus asked once during these nightly conferences. “From no-one, nowhere,” he said, with the dubious small smile he tended to wear in the vicinity of such questions. “But it has to come from somewhere – this body, this gift as you say?” “Yes, but, also, it just appears,” Ray would say, a bit simple-mindedly. “By virtue of me,” he would add. “Your own mind, Ray?” “Hah, hah! No, you want me to agree! You want me to agree! I won’t do that!” “Why not?” “Because then it would be left there in finality. There would be nothing left to talk about, and we would start decaying, like old statues. Uncertainty keeps things moving.”

And it would be left there, for the moment. Ray would go back to watching the children moving, in their awkward yet gracious dance – made lovely by intention if not physical mastery. And buying them more of the terrible, sweet tea they seemed to crave.

It probably makes sense to suggest why they should find themselves in the place they did. Ray had forgotten his history, which was perhaps just as well for him, considering his prior life might have contained sorrows or horrors of which he might have preferred to remain ignorant. As for Servetus, like a lot of the others they met along the way, he couldn’t afford to be anywhere else. He had failed. He had little money and no steady occupation in any case, and there were few who were willing to take him on as a trusted employee. He had anarchistic and anti-social leanings. He threatened capitalists, the greedy, the exploiters of the earth, sometimes by sheer, Quixotic force. He disagreed with everyone, even his best friends. He had once cared, and now cared so much he had to care a little less just to survive. The world was a shocking travesty in his eyes, and bound for collapse.

“Travesty of what?” Ray-San would ask him. “Of it’s ultimate goodness,” Servetus would reply. “Mark my words,” he had said, and no-one did. Even his heros had gone ignored, so who was there to follow?

The idealism of other-worldly solutions demoralised him, and spiritual idealism worst of all. Sanctity made him retch, and he refused to believe in anyone who advertised themselves as such, however humbly, either in their costume or vocation, as a human being of sincerity. The bona-fide holy, if such should exist, were as far as he could tell working underground in long-suffering silence and obscurity, if they had not already been long killed-off by civilisation and its discontents. (Oh yes, he knew about those from long before. How repetitive and tedious they had themselves become – kids could now sing songs and repeat the same, with a thousand advertising agencies behind them, and make millions of dollars out of them.) Disenchantment had long before – before they were born! – become an industry in itself. In certain countries, the really advanced ones where little remained to fight for, it was de rigueur to buy the music and order the accessories, knowing beforehand that nothing would, or was meant to, change. And so flaccid irony became the currency of the time.

So there was really very little reason to go anywhere, or escape anything. Just letting the body move from place to place was a redemption from inertia or despair, knowing that history had its own trajectory for the world, deeply hidden in the nuts and bolts of cause and effect. Things would go on, of themselves, regardless of them, and so they were just flotsam willingly drawn by the wind, by happenstance, or mischance. Not everything that happens should be good, after all, and they took it all in their stride, as it came to them.


(opening chapter of a novel The End of Suffering –  Paris, 2005)

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The Theatre of Returns

AT a certain point it happened that something was perceived as coming into the airwaves, into people’s living-rooms, into the daily round, as of some significant and even urgent communication requiring immediate interpretation. This information or news, as it might be, was unfortunately not offered in an unambiguous language, or laid out for all to see like a smoke-message in the sky – yet it was undeniably there, and people claimed it could be felt in the blood, just under the skin, like an intuitive itch that threatened to never leave failing its decipherment.

     Naturally there were those, as there always are in such cases, who pretended to a full authority in the explanation of the message, and for some time there were few persuasive enough to challenge their version. There was the possibility that no-one else could hear the message as loudly as they could, which meant it could be suggesting a different content, or something being lost in the translation. That it was so self-evident to them – abundantly broadcast in their daily language, even in their nightly dreams – did not mean it was something of equal clarity to everyone else, who seemed to be generally occupied by other, more uncertain, wavelengths.

     There was not even unanimity that the message was entirely new. What, in any case, they all wondered, is a guarantee of the new? Most supposedly new things had been demonstrated on later consideration to have been only repetitions, re-occurrences, perhaps in some slightly varied guise, of other things that unequivocally had been before. The comprehension of dreams, the novelty of suicide, the demise of sex, for example – these were things that seemed to flow away and back within long cycles of historical time, unseen by most mortal observers. It would take an omniscient intelligence, a real mental panoramascope, to take in just how many repeated cycles, how many rehearsals of the same schema would stumble back on stage in their superficially surprising costumes, enact once again the same tin-pan vaudeville of misbegotten pratfall and innocent’s return, and the shuffling off the boards with a click of the heels, a reminder of the sweet goodtime certainty of it all swinging back in again (on a chandelier, perhaps) – before slipping off into the wings.

      A theatre of returns. What was the message spelling out, this time round, exactly? Certainly there were a plethora of often extravagant, but for that no less probable, interpretations. That this war, for example, would be the last. That hunger – that old stock warhorse of the repertoire – was truly down on its heels now, that it wouldn’t be making a re-entry in the next installment. But these (and others like them), were the obvious major-players; maybe some lesser-known talents could, finally, share some of the limelight.

     Disease, among these eternal throwbacks, had suddenly become wildly popular, as a subject of the new and unseen. Many were the theorists who in brightly tube-lit conference-rooms ascertained the truth in the body of the unwritten text: that the foe in their time was not the brute fact of violence or injustice so much as the invisible working of disease. Yet its working was ambiguous, for such disease was capable of turning around and carrying off undesired predators, as well. So what appeared a curse could as easily prove a blessing, and therein lay the redemption: angels and demons were twin-siblings, and would save us all from extinction if sufficiently entrusted to perform their own, however perverse, midnight rituals. After all – little else had worked (they mentioned science, reason, systematic ideologies, political and economic liberalism, etc.) Why not leave the mavericks to the field, and see where it might lead? Moreover, the field was new, the whole world was effectively untested territory now. The trick lay in not taking appearance at face-value, knowing that the angel and the demon inhabited mercurially changeable forms. It would only be enough to trust them, finally, and as many had already suggested, trust to the process they set in train.

     Was that a new thing, itself, they asked? In time past – a time whose history they, in theirs, somehow stood outside of – it had been enough to trust in God. That at least, had been vaguely if not definitively debunked – they still kept a portrait of him and his messengers hanging at the exit-doors after all, for optional use, and there’s no question he provided for some nostalgic edification, just like Charlie Chaplin, V.I.Lenin, or Confucius, for example, remarkably still could. Other entertainers had, naturally, come and gone, and monuments could be seen to them, too, here and there, as if to retroactively confess that some things that would never return still had value to the relentless march of the new. Dead things, in other words. The technology, too, allowed for an unprecedented degree of lifelike preservation: Vladimir Ilyich, for example, was still going strong. It was as if the passed-on, in petrification, could still be in modus imitatio, real, and so in a sense, new again, not merely for a second time, but forever.

     There were new everything: new forms of food-production, new modes of mass-transportation, new medical procedures, new developments in science, new religions; new kinds of media, new media-gods, new stories told in new movies, new books, new TV-shows, new combinations of all of these. New technologies mediating between a new perception of new ideas. New idea. That idea itself was not new, everyone long knew that, but the fact everyone knew that made it clearly new, and so, with a twinkle and a new kind of laughter, truly new. The possibilities, clearly, were endless. New ways of communicating, of falling in love and having sex, of procreating, of delivering new life, were advertised in new multi-media information consoles, it seemed in every new birthing season. New couplings, new extinctions, new forms of evolution that left biology and natural selection seriously in question. What was natural, in such new permutations of the possible? What was Nature, now?

     Naturally, there were many who weren’t satisfied merely by the witnessing and classification of the new in and for itself, as an objective phenomenon. They wanted to know why – knowing, of course, that there was nothing especially new in that. In all of the multiple novel perspectives of reality available to them, they also demanded – as a formula, a mantra, a bedtime-story – an explanation. Which, of course, is where the message came in.

     There were many, of course, who heard it and were content, as they said, to trust in the process. But that seemed like a circular proposition to others, who considered that to trust or not trust in the process was meaningless since all there was was the process which necessarily would determine the direction of things in any case, and trusting in it not make any difference to anyone. For others this simply wasn’t enough. For them – they have been mentioned – the purpose of the message was tantalisingly clear: that in the efflorescence of the new was a tangible proof of evolution’s grand course, and that it must be aided and abetted at every twist and turn, however unclear, amoral or deceptive its motives might appear.

     War, in such a case, and as so often before then, could be easily confirmed as evolutionary necessity, and to offer still further confirmation it seemed for why a new one was breaking out every year in a different part of the world. (It was an issue of some perplexity, however, in seeking to gauge the true existence of these far-flung conflicts: they came to public attention in bits and bytes of digital data, perceived and misperceived by human bodies, notoriously prone to misinterpretation).

     War could be, at least, a moral landmark bloodying the horizon, could be relied on to make a direct statement about the state of trust in the world. It has been seen that trust was the catch-all word of many of those who claimed the message for themselves: trust your husband, trust your wife, your bank, your insurance-fund, your analyst, your neighbour, your local street-crazy, your government, your nation, your guru, your friendly night-time navigator through the dark and troubled skies, trust yourself, trust even in God if it’s absolutely necessary, but above all trust in the process.

     And yet war, that evolutionary staple, and an indubitable demonstration of the new (even where death was a demonstration of the eternal), pointed confident and authoritarian fingers at its own existence, its unmediated acting-out of the loss of trust between antipathetic parties – apart of course from that convention of trust which sees consensual war as a noble and morally sound form of human engagement. War, as everyone knew, has its history, its glory, and its honour, and may not be gainsaid. It was creator and destroyer both, a Lord Shiva of the spinning of the cyclic worlds.

     As always, these things came full circle, with both dramatic and quotidian punctuations of the new littering its repeated round. Time, some venerable once suggested, is not a circle on a plane but a spiral that passes by its double (triple, quadruple…), looking down through the generations to all the terrible errors and more terrible solutions that have been found to keep the record spinning. The only problem was that on the twisting, ascending path some were blindfolded and others weren’t, some could hear the message loud and clear, and others couldn’t – could not even hear the quiet but insistent voice of their own futures. And it was those deaf ones, the message seemed to spell out, who by force of ignorance were able to deny the evidence of the message itself, and the trust the message endowed. It wouldn’t be enough to hear, they thought, those who, even in their sleep, couldn’t close their ears to the fierce ringing of necessity. It would have to take a surrender, as well. And even that, they feared – even a surrender to trust – might not be enough.

Paris 2006


(published in the GROUP ONLINE MAGAZINE, March 13, 2011: http://groupmag.blogspot.com/2011/03/group-7.html)

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     THE girls wake up much earlier than he does. From the shadows of the moving bed he can see windows, their rooms, the identical filmy asphalt paths, between the stores and hotels and the sea-coast promenades. The people – rapacious, harried; the women are babied, hobbled in silly shoes. Who designed it all this way? Has it been designed at all? Normally he speaks to few of them, few of them come to him. Except the mad ones. They always, sooner or later, make an appearance. The reasoning is that he is either crazed himself, throws out the right (wrong) frequency of sympathetic resonance for the approach, or enough of a beacon of compassion to promise an ever-present reception. Either way it is a liability; its only benefit that he has necessarily become a master of the quick, unseen exit.

     Human beings slip away from eachother in infinite chess-moves of greater or lesser complexity. What was the last escape? It is a long-enough ride, between the two large cities – one dripping with fin-de-siecle orchestral merinque, the other with ferrous industry – but not so far to keep the three of them from constant, recycled conversation, turning over through the night. Nothing seems impossible. They talk like old lovers who take for granted a level of nudity proffered, like a wager, to the other. The two women are attractive: in the very late hours, from the top tiers of the sleeping compartment, they lean to eachother over the space between them to confide whispers – intended to be kept from him, or only esoteric feminine strategies for play?

     But he is happy to see the full, limpid gleam of their thighs, angled discreetly above him in the rattling darkness, the promise of the crotch defined by the flimsy thin underpants they wear to sleep in. He watches the hips of the longer, duskier one, on the bunk above and opposite his, turn and re-position under the loosely-thrown sheet, the globe of them enacting an also discreet, well-behaved choreography that he immediately thinks is natural to most women. The ways their bodies seem to know, innately skilful, how to move, how to retreat, re-configure, send a catalogue of signals that mean only one thing, but can be read as many.

     He wants to say it too, out loud, to the darkened compartment (they have finally turned off their reading-lights): you know it’s amazing the way you two come together to share some mystery and then re-settle your bodies again. Hips like fruit in a wooden bowl, breast that knows how to sleep underneath you. He could say it, as well, the familiarity is already there – they might be amused, secretly charmed, disdaining, given new information to incorporate into their state-of-play: a small space of weakness they could, at some later stage, take advantage of. Or is he really calling their bluff, do men ever mean what they say? This one, they know, has something authentically poetic in the speech, the immature tone of voice – they take him at face value. They might seduce him, if he makes the right moves – keeps back, reserves any offensive, pretends a mediocrity he might or might not have.

      In the first light of morning what happens is that they undress in front of him, and change into new clothes: covertly, as if he is still asleep, or assuming ingenuously that he isn’t really there, and not nursing the painful erection he keeps straightened inside his own clothes. The unsuspected whiteness of the skin, pale, milky-blue dough of breast, whisked away under bra and a casual flung t-shirt. The pubic hairs of the one above him, when she leans over yet again to ask the other something in their own language, as if he would be unable to perceive, in an extension of his ignorance of the words they speak – or for the fact of sheer obviousness – the globe of her duskiness right in front of his eyes, the loud arrows pointing to the crease of skin at the high end of her thighs, where the hair already begins. She is so close he can just smell her from where he lies, the humid domain of the hair, where a lazy smile shifts perpendicular, moves under the near-transparency of strained cotton. In the light seeping through the train-windows, he can see the smile, all the same: it is intended purely for him. He wants to reach up himself, to put his lips there; its extreme proximity in fact an obstacle, so close it is an unthinkable abyss to breach, to bring within his potential frame of reality, so that he lies there, breathes deeply the musty air of the compartment, and says: “I thought it would never end.”

     They look at him, as girls in adolescent American movies do, and reply in tandem, “What would never end?”

     “Last night. What happened, I’ve never said so much. So easily…”

     They can’t really believe his defencelessness, and it must be a ploy, a false innocence with which they would be spun in a deceptive web and then tackled together. Even though what he has said is true for them as well, also surprised by how much has been so easily divulged, though he hardly knows them, hardly shares even the same language let alone mingled lives. Maybe it is because he is a foreigner, obviously sensitive, can respond with depth and verve to anything they say, is a detached but willing player, more ambiguous than they are, more disinterested but more aroused…the underpants thing, that is cool, the way it gives away enough but wins the opening play before it really has a chance to go anywhere. The pale girl flicks at the bra-strap under her t-shirt as they speak to him: “Maybe it’s because we trust you,” she says, and her friend echoes it. “When I’m comfortable with someone I’ll tell them almost anything.”

     Then looking at him, with casual, deflated, domestic smiles, as if they are all long-known siblings, one of the women seems to decide without prior consultation that a bra is more trouble than it’s worth, unclips it beneath the t-shirt and draws it out under her long, slender arms. They keep talking, desultory – the issues turning around trust, respect, honesty and openness, the Great Female Virtues – but he hears them only incoherently when two friendly, avuncular breasts start bounding along to the shunting rhythm of the train.

     “It’s as if we’ve all been friends, many times, before. D’you think that’s possible? Married, in our past lives or something. I hope you don’t mind,” they mock-ask him, wide-raffish smiles now. “Sometimes it’s too much, when a virtual stranger suddenly invades your life and throws it all at you, on a platter or something.”

     “You’re not going to use it against us,” the dusky one says, still grinning, tousled and gamin-eyed from sleep. “No – I don’t mean that.”

     “Well, I could,” he says, “but what would I get out of it? I’d prefer to ask straight out for any leverage I could claim.”

     They are close to stunned, it is left there for the moment, there is still a lot of train-ride to get through. Their open-mouthed gazes shift in simultaneous blank tandem, alert desert marmots tuned to the pinprick landscape outside the windows, still unperturbed to be sitting on the lowest tier with their bare legs up on the upholstery so that when the middle-aged morning-attendant comes with coffee and a croissant for each passenger he will be able to discern the dark hairs, if he looks, as the younger man has in the early hours during the across-the-breach confidentials. They soon cover themselves, nonetheless, throwing a sheet over their legs like good, indulgent girls of the middle-class. The pale girl pinches herself just below a pointed nipple as the man exits the compartment, close to giggling, a wink at his departure. Sitting across from them he concentrates on the eyes, now – it is a new day, there are new terms of placement, suddenly since the night whatever stakes there were have steeply increased. There is even a serious danger of something, of a happening happening.

     “I’m glad you finally said something – you were ignoring us, or trying to, for the first few hours. Why was that? I felt disapproval, as if you were judging the situation,” she says.

     “I was – I think you’re immoral women. I didn’t like you from the first moment I saw you.”

     They are both laughing. “And now?”

     “After your revelations, your small daring acts of confession, your unwitting displays, your gameness, I’m reconsidering. You keep offering these little gifts – for women you’re pretty generous.

     “Really!? What little gifts?”

      He can’t help noticing at least one pair of free-moving nipples attacking their constraint, biting into air as if to move closer to him. It is the pale one, brighter but more obviously willing, powerless against the parasympathetic response. “Oh, just little things neither of you would probably notice.”

     He leaves them in the carriage to go to the bathroom to adjust his own clothes. He can see them, in his absence, pulling up jeans and exchanging soft-voiced assessment on the situation in dead-earnest. Is he too much, or just enough? they wonder. They are all travelling in the same direction, it turns out – his destination is further on, but he’s willing to stop awhile, and he’s not bound to any watertight schedule, if he even really has one. There is already a future staring them, all three, full in the face. They are of the age for the worst, the messiest of circumstances, this is when it happens. He is their age, there is a gauntlet already thrown out, it would seem impossible not to take it up with a fierce, liberated, female vengeance.

     The exchange for the next train is chaotic, dust flying in their faces and the flippered catalogue of destinations rushing them to a greasy machine that sighs restlessly on smoothed heels. A small swarthy man ushers them onto a smoking car and the train pulls away and they sink back into tired red upholstery, a feather of hunger in the insides and the tickling of the antennae of desire, because no-one says anything, can only breathe, audibly, deeply, to extract the nervy fray out of the visceral pull towards explosiveness. The women are aware of the new dimension in their bodies, how heat comes to fine surface and urges contact with the open air – he can see their legs strain against tight denim, breasts impatient under clothes. Still no-one says anything, the brown-skinned girl puts her leg up on the opposite seat against his, observes how it gently brushes his knee with the sway of the train. It turns a slow corner, her leg is unexpectedly warm against his, her breasts shift perceptibly against the gradient of the journey, girl’s adam’s apple bobbing above the sleepy smooth skin of collar-bones unhealthy ivory against the louche red of the seats.

     She looks away, out the window. Back again to him, the two independent legs, touching, outside again, and back to his face which to her lazy exhaustion, just under the skin like a mental itch she can’t reach, looks childish and wrongly preoccupied. He is someone who she is certain lives largely in abstraction or perpetual turns of strategy, the minute placings of the self in a vast intersubjective web that has remained only nominally physical in his mind. So she raises her other longish leg, encased smoothly in the tight jeans, to the space left between his knees, raises also her knee so that her bare foot won’t disturb his lap but only linger in the vicinity of boney, thin, male knees. One leg stretches to his left, the other rests between his own, the pale girl says suddenly, very gently but with certitude, “Why don’t you touch her foot?”

     The foot is large and dirty, there is a thin silver ring on one of the smaller toes. She says it again, “Touch it.”

     The girl who owns the foot says nothing, the face is veiled with fatigue and the passivity of disappearing into the red upholstery. He notices now how patchy with grime the material is, dirt dotted into the animalish pores of the leather, many generations of overnight passenger leaving trace of tedium or sickness. She smiles, barely. And moves the big toe, a little, a little faster. “Go on,” the other one says.

     A kind of trick question. Complying is submission but also reward. Refraining is autonomy but also bad sportsmanship. He chooses the latter, returns the smile, only half-genuine, not wide, not compressed, a small, modest gesture of a male cat. They maybe don’t like him now, despite the perseverence. “What’s wrong? You have cold feet?” the first, pale-face. Again her breasts seem to grow, challenge him with along with the words, swell against her arm so that he knows if she were to throw the t-shirt off onto the floor and they tumbled and swung swelling beneath their eyes he would immediately have to get up and do something ill-considered or at the least escape to the corridor to calm his breath or re-adjust his underwear or take a cigarette from someone and stand there pretending to stare at the patchy early-morning landscape pretending to smoke it as he felt the heat of jism escaping down his inner-leg. And none of those things happen, he is surprisingly at ease in his own small patch of leathery humidity, and smiles again, like a young boy.

     “No – it’s my feet that are cold,” the darker girl says, “look,” she touches her own foot, rubs it in her hands. “I’m frozen hard,” she laughs.


     “What? Stiff?”

     “You’re frozen stiff. Like a corpse. Bad circulation, breathe more deeply. Down in the diaphragm.”

     And as if to justify those words or demonstrate their tangibility, he beckons her stretch the same leg out again, towards him, yes, closer, which she does extending it only so far that it doesn’t invade his crotch and so that he can hold the foot between both his hands by leaning forward a little, not uncomfortably.

     “Oh, you don’t have to. It’s alright,” the same girl says, there is a curious fearful sincerity now in the voice that wasn’t there before. “No, let him – go on – or you can do mine as well, please??”

     He is wholly receptive but formidable, an apprentice, hard-eyed warrior. He holds her foot on light, warm hands, nimbly turns it, cracks the filthy toes, finds the most juicy pressure-points so that she mock-complains Ow! and only momentarily removes the foot, her canvas of crotch opening before his eyes, the jeans a strange oceanic blue-white texture that suggests greater distances to his eye than can conceivably be there, a vast stretch of anatomy suggested somewhere on the other side of it, she is not a girl and still more than a woman – an oceanic indeterminate mammal presence defined by the telescoping legs projected back and forth before him, the expanse of space between them, the dirt in the toes and the plenitudes shifting beneath collar-bones. Eyes with curtains of ambiguity hanging lazily over them.

     She is from the provinces, he is sure, who in adolescence took very long baths when she shaved her legs and read bad literature, had posters of now-forgotten mid-of-the-road boy bands on her walls which she lay under in the early hours as they grew blurry to the sweep of her fingers inside her. He can see her whole history in her beautiful body, the privilege and a high-protein diet that kept the lineaments of her face healthy but still carved with a sharp cruelty that goes back to the smartest and bravest of her tribe, if not the most intelligent. There is still the same hard, graven insouciance in her chiselled mouth, that takes on the animal prey of her ancestry and the organs of young uncertain men with an equal, expert confidence. She smiles again as if to blandly confirm this: it is true I want you, the lips tell him as he drives his thumbs into the soles of the dirty, warmly clammy feet, I want you for breakfast, if you can be the sacrifice.

      “I still don’t understand,” the white diabolic one says, a new perverse smile on her face. “You didn’t do as I said, you disobeyed me, was that some kind of provocation?”

     “Not at all,” he says simply. “It’s just that I’m not used to touching people without some kind of larger context if you know what I mean. I can’t just reach out and touch someone in a vacuum. I need a purpose, a reason,” a little unclear himself why the words pretend to a needless male justification, he knows already they aren’t even true, they are only a good excuse for a potential retreat, a definitive return into his own sweaty, red-upholstered space, for good, before they get off at the next main station and leave him forever.

     He looks hard at them. “I’m on my way to a monastery. And I need to get used to the rules.”

     The diabolus actually raises her eyes, where the other slinks deeper into her seat the more gratifying the work on her foot becomes.

     “Is that true?” she continues. “Why are you doing that?”

     “I’ve been offered a job there, some temporary work. And the life holds some attraction. I don’t like men much, but I appreciate solitude and the idea of full retreat from the world.”

     “What’s wrong with the world?”

     “Everything. And nothing, is wrong with it. But expecting some kind of redemption in it is only pain. It never delivers what you want. Just for a moment, then it’s gone, and there’s a new hill to climb.”

     “You’re over climbing.”

     He smiles and works on the brown foot. “There comes a time when climbing doesn’t hold any attraction anymore.”

     “But who wants redemption?” she presses on him, even as she moves deeper into the compartment seat. “Isn’t that just more climbing? You should know that.”

     He stops on the foot and for a moment stares at it, holds the slender warmth of it in his hand and doesn’t say anything. It’s owner suddenly speaks to him from the depths of comfort, the words seem to come directly out of the red upholstery as if her whole mouth has encompassed it, they are merely human bacteria in a larger biological complex which will sooner or later deposit them outside in some alien environment incompatible with the system of warm mutuality that operates in this one.

     “My leg hurts. Can I stretch it out a little – like this I have to hold it up and I just want you to look after it.”

     He will comply, but he won’t smile about it, and he takes hold of the foot in both hands, it could be his own organ, and brings it onto his lap, covered with his functional coat, almost military, ecologically khaki, understated but solid, like the honest but suave work on the foot that satisfies her as the skin warms under his hands and her face softens inside its fine web of draped hair. He is sure he can hear her cooing, the foot alone tells him, the channels of blood under the skin, warming his own body, the cold under his coat, in his lap. Both of them know that it will only be a matter of moments before he will be forced to change tactics, face embarrassment or capitulate to the necessity the foot presses on him. It is not for nothing the provincial schoolgirl – he knows she is older, but how much? – moves the long, dirty foot, back and then closer to him, barely perceptible, a vertical proposition, in the same way the genital smile had shifted ninety-degrees and greeted him with its beautiful welcome to the world, the real world of light in the fields in the morning, a rocking train and two women of honey changing clothes wordlessly before him as if they knew he wasn’t yet awake but not so unconscious that he would miss the filaments of light echoing in the fine blue veins under the rarely-exposed skin.

     The breathtaking diabolus slips her index finger under her bra-strap and slowly brings it down under her t-shirt to stop under the collar-bone, stretching the material, intending a completion of the movement which she instead repeats a number of times so that all three are now engaged in a peculiar subtle rhythm of interaction as he kneads and seeks out tender parts of the foot, as the foot slips back and forth over the covered male crotch and the bra-strap is negotiated to its furthest point before fingers could very easily slip into warmth and bring out an upholstered, proffered nipple, pink against the grimey red seat, warm to the cool morning air.

     At the same moment they both know he is forced into a corner and compelled to surrender some of the carefully-nurtured enigma of distance. She feels the hardening under her foot, mildly stretches it out again as if in some resolution so that he is able to say: it is finished.

      “I might go find a drink of water,” he says very quietly and leaves the compartment before turning around himself like an animal in wonder.

     “Have you lost something?”

     “No, no – I just need something  -“


     “ – to drink out of.”

     He walks to one end of the corridor and back and returns to find them in exactly the same positions in which he has left them. “Can you do the other foot? I feel amazing.”

     “Yes. But not now. When we get where we’re going.”

     “Where are we going?”

     It is a place by the sea, there are wide elegant boulevardes and densely-peopled salubrious seafood-restaurants ranged across the foreshore sparkling in a moderate late-summer sun. They drag themselves out of the station in a filigree euphoria of missed sleep, hunger and viciously intense expectation that bursts up from under lightly humorous banter traded as much between the women as with him, so that a democratic delectation forms a substrate to any likely subversion, it is a classical game of proportion that they play, and to intellectualise it they need strong black coffee which a local elderly Frenchwoman waves them to – go there, it is the most delightful place to have coffee, and lovely young people like you three should offer yourselves something special once in a while. Life is not meant to be all hard.

     It is not cheap but the tables are very close together and all six legs bump and mingle for the time it takes to drink three espressos each so that he suddenly leaves the table and hobbles away into the back area of the building in search of the bathroom. Enervation and too-much talk drives them down to the beach, caffeine stings the triplicate nerve-ends of need connecting them, and the large, round stones they fall on not far from the edge of the water feel like an ultimate bed of love, they would not be able to leave there if they wanted to. Inevitability keeps them tied down there, despite the helium of euphoria that could as easily lift up the expanding bubble of the balloon they bounce around in.

     One of the first things they see though in front of them is someone thrashing in the waves, limply calling out for help. The two girls have stripped down to panties and t-shirts, and recline on their elbows staring at the shapeless figure, some kind of human jellyfish, bobbing between the light waves. The women look to eachother to gauge a mutual response, they will not stand up again in their underpants to rescue something not of their making, and he is there anyway, the young guy, lithe in his clothes, and restless, he can prove a certain masculinity, they would like to see him throwing himself into the pallid waves to bring out to them – a trophy? a mermaid, that they could compare themselves to? a submarine treasure they could enjoy between them?

     He is wet, too, already in the brackish water, sand and seaweed up against his legs, grimaces of discomfort useless against the cold, somehow overstretching himself here, knowing already his concern is not finally for the body in the water, but the bodies on the shore, his estimation in their eyes, the two sirens lying back now on the stones, not even directly watching him, two sets of knees and nipples pointing delicately into the air. He can glance back and see them slightly move the knees side to side out of laziness, see the creases in the crotch, where silk skin meets the body-warmth of hair, a kind of refuge, he could slip in there, and stay warm – but the suffering body is reaching out for him now: a vast overgrown woman, huge swathes of fat weighing her down in the water, her mouth can’t vocalise but the double-chins flap and swish in the paltry waves, so that he knows he must find and hold her, his arms up under that untenable weight, the epic breasts, the flab of the stomach and hips and legs a massive gelatine against his own spare-rib of a body, so that it could get lost in there, float around awhile, finally die with the behemoth thrashing against its own inevitable entropy, the inexplicably human body his own could be fatefully, unthinkably tied to.

     The rubber frilly cap lodged crookedly over the woman’s head comes off in his hands and he spends some time working against the waves to try to return it to her sodden head. He can see she is grateful, but nearly in tears, a water-logged sad walrus of a woman who surrenders to his arms like a silent-movie heroine, so that he has to work twice as hard against her passivity to drag her back in to shore. She doesn’t kick or paddle, she lies hopelessly in his arms, her face turned pathetically to the leaden sky. He feels like he is leading a whale to dock – where its vast white whorling blubber will be sliced up and sold for soap. When they reach the stoney shore he is not gasping out of physical exhaustion alone – the surprise, the heavy humanity, the ugliness, exhibition, pride of the rescue are in the end a demoralisation, and even when the blonde girl turns to tell him, dripping and forlorn as he is, that he is a hero, that it was the best thing to do, even though it wouldn’t have made much difference, it doesn’t improve anything for him.

     “What do you mean wouldn’t make any difference?” he asks. The other one responds, “You could see she was in no danger, the waves would’ve brought her in in any case”.

     “But it was still an admirable thing to do,” the blonde one confirms.

     They lie on the cool stones; he pants in the cold, the sticky wet against his skin, his genitals curling in their cocoon. Something only changes when he notices them, by his side, lightly moving their fingers over their breasts so that all four nipples stand up straighter, announce themselves fully to the indifferent grey sky overhead, so that he feels the crustacean in his pants tremble and stretch, as if in imitation of the women’s bodies.

     The walrus-woman is not far by – she could be watching them with a curious, bedraggled, bovine fascination. Because the girls continue to touch themselves, slipping fingers down from the breast over the belly to the minor depression of the bellybutton, which they encircle and slip into before reaching the border of cotton underpants and the first hair there, explorers greeting the edge of rough territory. But the fingers quickly slip, too, into the protection of the wilds, where birds and waterfalls will greet them.

     He doesn’t watch how long the fingers linger there, how deeply they enter in, he only feels a warm silken hand soon take his and lead him again to the edge of the water, feels the hand against the arm that holds his, two sets of fine shoulders bumping into his as the desultory waves bring them together, then apart, together again, his eyes half-closed perceiving the increased dark in the sky, it is sunset, already, so soon, they had not even had a sun to warm by, but it is strangely warm in the water, a deep vast bowl to hold them in, the salt placental, so that they don’t seem to float but are suspended in a near-viscous depth that could never drown them, only hold them wholly suspended there, so that the old, enormous woman with the frilly cap had been wrong to panic, the ocean never kills, only human fear, human ignorance, does.

     He knows their t-shirts are off, under the water, can see the pale shapes of breasts set loose in the marine green, all four dancing like exotic squid before the touch of his tentacular hand. They keep just out of reach, so that if he leans out to them, the crash of the waves or mysterious mermaid dance of the silent girls’ bodies eludes him, and aren’t there anymore. They would not notice the erection pushed out of his pants, a slender human sign standing out unseen, ignored in the salty waste, no-one would read its urgent message, it stands out for itself alone, a seahorse in its own domain. The women swim around him, encircle him, sometimes take water in their mouths and shoot hard wet streams in his face that only makes the seahorse stand up straighter to attention. They come close, swirl untouchably far away. He sees dripping hair and breasts come to the surface of the water, rest there against the ceramic pink light in the late sky, four separate nipples moving side to side, sometimes over, sometimes under the surface, as they reach out to the silvery touch of the early, night stars.

     The night seems both short and inexplicably long. They move between bars, drink shots of pastis and tequila, dodge soccer fans, grow exhausted and stand breathless on different street corners of the town, finally decide to find a friend’s apartment where they can truly stop and surrender. His pants are still wet, the lips of the pale girl against his ear, her voice, deep, somehow muddy, telling him, “Come with us, it will be alright, she’s a good friend of ours”.

     But the friend is suddenly there, on a corner they come to, already drinking, laughing with men, touching their hairy arms: she is smiling and sour-faced, she kisses him on both cheeks. For nearly an hour all four wander the steaming, neon-lit foreshore, crowded with drunk travellers, British sportsmen, the newly-arrived stock of sex-workers come from Bulgaria or Rumania. They all look about fifteen, and press small childish hands to his wet groin as he moves past them. The walrus-woman, the cold stones, alcohol, neon lights, the Bulgarian children, are all demoralising. Only the two sets of nipples as defined as Hokusai against the failing light have had any sense in them. There is still some untouchable grace in them.

     The friend asks that he request politely to be let into her domicile. It is two o’clock in the morning, she perhaps has some grounds for her demands, he must kneel to one knee to ask for her hospitality before they climb three floors to her tiny, nondescript apartment. She is prunish and sour but drunk as he is he can kneel to the goddess and grant her every desire; on this night he will do anything, for anyone, it is – he finally understands this – a night for redemption. He is a talking clown: your wish is my command. (The words are perhaps in a different order, they come out of the mouth like sand; she doesn’t understand his language too well in any case, and he must continually wager with mistranslation, so that anything he says is negligible.)

     “Please, come into my warm house,” she says.

     The house is neither a stable for his seahorse, nor a cosy shelter for weary travellers; in the dingy grey of the kitchen they can at least drink some more, there is bootleg Lithuanian vodka with a crisp air of alpine forest in its breath, one of them has put on a complementary music of huskies and sleds and bells ringing outside log saunas. The time comes for a question he must answer – the blonde girl puts it to him.

     “Do you want to stay here, with us?”

     He smiles probably a little drunkenly and says, “Yes, sure, if you want me to.”

     “No,” she insists, “do you want to?”

     Again he says, “If there is room for me. I could stay in the kitchen a few hours before catching the first early train – I have to be somewhere, in any case.”

     “Oh, there’s room, of course there is, we can squeeze up, in any case.”

     But the two girls quickly collapse on the single bed and he and the sour-faced friend are left staring at the thin blanket on the floor, and he knows it would be better not to be there with her. He watches the sad, slope-shouldered woman adjusting the blanket on the floor, there is reluctance hanging off her lank hair, he says to her in an almost silent voice that he could leave if she wants.

     “Yes, that would be easier.”

     It is a few hours to sunrise, there are few hotels, if any, open, they are not worth the expense. “Well, I could just quietly sit in the kitchen for a couple of hours before going out at dawn. I have a book I can read.” But she is still uncertain. “Then you would have to leave the door unbolted after you go, while we sleep – I wouldn’t like that.”

     “I’ll only be here a short time, before morning comes.”

     The woman looks at him, for the first time directly in his eyes; he is unsure but thinks there is a burning resentment, dull embers of revolt lying cold in their sockets. When she goes into the bathroom, he writes his name and contact details on a newspaper lying in the middle of the kitchen-table, leaves it torn off and separate there, slips out the door, down the four flights of stairs before she has come out to put her hair into a knot and join the other girls, snoring like mermaids out of their element, in cold, wet, marine dreams.

     On the boulevardes the Bulgarians are out in force. Half a dozen crowd into a bus-shelter huddling in the cold wind off the sea. He would like the company of warmth with them, only, to still drink and laugh at the foibles of ordinary people, on the other side of life. He understands the sex-workers far better, he believes, than all the others, the bourgeois sea-siders. But as he approaches them they wave him away, throw arms and daggery eyes his way; he has just enough cash still in his pocket to take one of them down to the beach if he wanted, but they don’t want even his money. “No understand – go! Go!!” they shout, their fiery brown angry eyes thrusting him further down into the solitude of empty boulevardes.

     The sea seems to be raging now, in the night wind. He sees little else on this flaneur’s parade: people passed-out in the gutters, dead or dying fish, with the ice cast-out from their ice-boxes. The glinting green of broken wine-bottles gleam against the silvery sheen of the scales. The whole night slides into a green, submarine netherworld where salt, sand, the shame of unwanted sex are the only currency.

     Further towards the sea, under the arch of an old pavilion stretching into the shadows, he sees two figures hunched over an old box on the ground. They are dishevelled, but as old French gentlemen are, and they both look up at him as he passes closer to them. One of the old men holds a chess-piece in his hand – his queen – as he stops and speaks; held like a stone of eternity over the exquisite symmetry of the game beneath his hand.

     “Do you play?” he asks. The face is youthful, intelligent, despite the broken teeth, the breath of cheap port-wine, the archaic waistcoat. And the game, he can see, is a compelling one: the pieces are marked out by an eloquent balance of power, everything held within the frame of the board is necessary, and beautiful. He can see that clearly. “Yes,” he answers. “I play”.

     The man pauses a moment, looks intently at him before asking again, “Do you want to play?”

     Both chess-players stare at him some time before he looks again at the suspended beauty of the game, the queen held in perpetual stasis above it.

     “No”, he answers.

     He doesn’t repeat the word. Once is enough. He already knows he will never hear from the two, sleeping, girls. He wanders away from the men in his still-wet pants, towards the further end of the beach where the waves are strongest, the beautiful, necessary game behind him, he is grateful to see them, high and heavy, pounding down onto the sand, there are few lights there, and the sea-spray in his eyes keeps them blurred, but he staggers down there anyway. He goes down there.

Paris, 2004

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