In Love with the City by Sofia Gershevitskaya

It was love from the first step on the railway platform. You can fall in love with a city like you fall in love with a human being.  Deliriously.

She pulled along her weighty trunk. It was as stubborn as its proprietress. Eventually, after honey-sweet blandishments, it climbed the stairs. Travelers raced and the trunk kept on getting underfoot. “You go on a diet as soon as we arrive,” she said with a sniff.

To be honest, such a variety of clothes was needless. Don’t you prefer shameless nudity to matching garments when you smother with love? And what do you pull on in rare interludes? Perhaps, a baggy sweater, which is not even yours.

When her strength gave out, she stood still and drank full-flavored air. Delicate scents of freshly brewed espresso mixed with a piquant odor of history wafted from neighborhood cafeterias. She closed her eyes and inhaled, as if time were a meaningless number.

You may know how it feels when you nuzzle into the neck of your beloved. You lose sense of time and space. You want to inflate the reservoir of your lungs to compensate for the moments of agonizing separation. And it’s never enough.

The lethargy would have lasted forever if the trunk hadn’t brought her back to earth. It fell over on the stone pavement. “You are so naughty today!” she said impatiently. The wind sighed in the branches of yellow trees. It was chilly.

Every corner and every pathway seemed strikingly familiar. She loved fences overgrown with ivy and old Victorian houses that looked mysterious from the outside. It stirred irresistible curiosity, as if she had met a stranger and was about to start a conversation.

Finally, she reached her destination and her excitement went off-scale. Although the centuries-old house featured a stately façade of flaking masonry, it didn’t cry for a new coat of paint. It felt secure under the veil of a long-lived secrecy.

As a novice writer I beg your pardon, my dear reader. It is disgraceful of me not to introduce the main character of this narrative. I just wanted to put off the moment as long as possible, but it’s time to unmask the truth.

Will you ever believe me if I say that the character is not just a figment of my wild imagination? Will you believe me if I say it’s you, my dear reader?

You enter somebody’s life the way you enter a house. Sometimes the intrusion is pleasurable and the world turns upside down the moment you cross the threshold. There are places that leave nothing to be desired, yet the chaos prevails inside.

The street lights flickered on, throwing off the mantle of darkness. One could feel the chilly air through layers of clothes, and yet November’s temperature drop didn’t hinder people from strolling about the streets.

She rang the doorbell twice to revive the household. It wasn’t long before the place was alive with hurried steps and loud voices. “Don’t forget your manners!” she said rather strictly, but the trunk didn’t pay attention and her words hung in midair.

Gershevitskaya author photo

 

About the Author

At the age of nineteen, Sofia Gershevitskaya changed her life path and moved from Russia to central Europe to study Public Relations. She enjoys writing short stories because it helps her to release her thoughts and feelings. This is her first English publication.

 

Verona Style Report by Liv Monaghan

Fair Verona for a few weeks in Winter. The summer before, an old soft-leathered man I’d met in a back street in Venice, who’d marveled at my height  in broken English and with a tilted chin, was aghast to hear I was taking the train straight to Milan.

“Go to Verona. Milan is like all other big towns. Ugly.”

He was right for one part, but Milan is not like all other big towns. It’s lonelier.

I took the train directly to Milan that September, but kept in mind his tip to stop at Verona.

A misinformed member of my family once told me there was nothing in Verona apart from a fake balcony. Because Juliet and her Romeo were a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination.

Worse decisions have been made, in the history of mankind, than my attempt to escape from the motherland to a country where there exists a barrier of tongues. If nothing else, it’s good to discover that Verona holds more than just a fake—which turned out not to be fake at all—balcony.

Verona in November and December is cold. The wealthy of the north are guided along the streets at night by their dogs, in duo and trio. Italians eat ice-cream wearing linens on the street in summer, and they wrap in furs for these social parades in winter. Both the style and the dialect spoken in Verona is a little influenced by the flanking lands of France and Germany. Perhaps it is thanks to the German side that the style in Verona is measurably less fabulous than it is in Florence, for example, where I once met a young man in an excellent orchestration of colour walking his jacketed Dachshund while wearing the exposed interior of a nineties electronic hand-game for a brooch. Perhaps it is thanks to the French side that it’s a little more reserved there in Verona too, where round velvet vowels are not sung out so loudly as they might be in other departments.

Jewellery is important here. A perfect pair sit in a fabulous Italian huff, chain-smoking but body language bound, their tanned wrists weighted down to the coffee table by chunky silver watches. Jewellery shops are dotted around; Piazza della Erbe and Via Roma have in their shop windows such extraordinary rings and necklaces that I stood mesmerised in front of them often, eating pastries.

Monaghan author photo (by Laura Radford)

 

About the Author

Liv Monaghan is a bird; a singer, a writer, a vintage fashion-forward/menswear vixen, and a sometime costume designer living a lot in Paris but often more-so in Ireland. She believes travel is key, and that inspiration comes from intense, joyful, and/or heartbreaking glances into the souls of wicked people and lonely places.

 

Making Tea in the Dark by Eric Karl Anderson

It was dark by the time Anne arrived home. She didn’t turn the lights on. Her arms were loaded with cardboard boxes and old shopping bags full of photographs, letters, clothing, books, CDs and songbooks. This jumble of personal belongings was all that was left of her son and she didn’t want to look at it. She awkwardly manoeuvred down the familiar dark corridor to Christian’s childhood bedroom, bumping against the wall and stubbing her toe on the skirting board. Once everything she had rescued from Christian’s apartment was stored in the bedroom, she could breathe a sigh of relief. They were home safe. Where they belonged. Rightfully.

The dark rooms around her were silent except for the faint bassline of the music playing in the flat above and the faint sounds of the city. The noise of cars, planes, and groups of boisterous friends used to grate so harshly but now only hovered faintly in the background of her daily life. She wanted to shut them out completely and enclose herself in this darkness. It weighed heavy around her like an enormous blanket. She breathed it in greedily, felt herself bodiless. She didn’t need to see anything because it was all there. Moving through the rooms she held out her hands to brush against the walls, her dining table, portraits, the piano which took up half of the living room, the countertops and the grooves of the door frames. In the kitchen she filled her electric kettle in the sink and set it to boil. The water slowly turned ferocious, tearing and clawing at the metal till Anne thought the kettle would explode. She took a mug from the cupboard.

‘This is how you make tea in the dark,’ Anne thought to herself:

– Place the mug on the counter.

– Carefully hold the kettle over the mug.

– Curl your finger over the cup’s rim.

– Slowly pour in the hot water until your finger feels the sting.

– Stir for several seconds until you sense the tea has sufficiently steeped.

– Pull the teabag from the mug and twist the string around the teaspoon and teabag to extract every last drop.

This is what she used to do in the early mornings before Christian awoke. Before the sun had risen sufficiently to shine through the window blinds, and while he slept soundly in his room, she made tea. But she didn’t want to wake him, didn’t want the kitchen light invading his room through the glass above his bedroom door. He was so light-sensitive that he often slept with a crumpled T-shirt draped over his face, and later, when he became a cultivated teenager, a sleep mask.

She was careful not to wake him because she liked to watch the nearly indistinguishable shape of him sleeping in the dark. As he changed and grew into a man she found her love for him changing too. One early morning while the sun was still only a pale yellow smudge on the horizon, she peeked into his bedroom and was startled by the sight of him. Sleeping soundly, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs, his beautiful dark limbs tangled in the white sheets of the bed, he reminded her so powerfully of his father.

Ever since she was a girl, Anne loved waking up before everyone else. No matter how much people might scorn or criticize her during the day, she was awake and in ownership of the world before anyone else. But as a teenager she discovered something disturbing about these mornings of solitude. She was a stranger to herself. In the dim light of her bedroom with the city so eerily quiet, Anne felt she didn’t know herself at all. During the day she ran with her friends through the streets of London, so confident in their caftans and long hair. They went to the morning pictures at the ABC cinema on Mile End Road and then down to Brixton where Anne’s friend Jan sang with a reggae group called The New Islanders. Jan’s high-pitched voice reminded people of Millie Small. It was at a New Islanders’ show that Anne met Simon. She admired how supremely confident he felt in his skin, even though he spoke about the suspicion he always felt from the police as he waited for a bus or entered a shop, the disdain he felt simply walking on the pavement outside of his community and sometimes on his own street. Their affair was quick and heated. She bit his soft ear lobe and liked the way his arms circled around her, slightly lifting her off the floor.

Anne and Simon saw each other regularly. But one morning Anne woke feeling queasy-like, as if she had just rode a roller coaster. Without giving him a reason, she quickly informed Simon she never wanted to see him again. She deliberated how to get rid of the baby. There were options, but she couldn’t bring herself to go through with any of them. Her parents were outraged to have a pregnant daughter with no husband in sight. Anne claimed she had only been with him for one night and didn’t even know his name. When Christian was born and her parents saw the colour of his skin, they threatened to expel her from their house. Anne cried and pleaded. They grudgingly supported her, though she had to contend daily with their disdain. Money was always tight and she took a job in a shop as soon as she was able. Her circumstances were only bearable because when she looked at her child in the morning light Anne knew for certain who she was.

During the day, she had to endure the looks from people on the street or on the bus who saw a white woman carrying a black child. These looks from black people and white people were different, but were most definitely looks that had something to say. “You don’t know what they’re thinking,” her neighbour Paulette said when Anne complained about them to her. But Anne knew. She’d seen enough of them. In the bedroom, in the mornings, with the stupid world shrouded and unconscious, there was just the two of them.

Anne paced back and forth in her darkened hallway remembering all of this. Her tea had gone cold on the countertop so she made a fresh cup. Her thoughts kept circling back to the day of the bombing. It still felt to her like she could have done something to prevent his death in that pub two months earlier. She thought about this obsessively. If only she had kept in better touch with him. If only she had asked Christian and his boyfriend to come round that evening so he wouldn’t have been in Soho. If only she had called him a few minutes before the explosion so he would have stepped out of the noisy pub to speak to her on the street. She dug into the palm of her hands with her fingernails.

There was a knock at the door. Her limbs ached as she rose from the sofa to answer it. There stood her neighbour Paulette under the bright hall light. She embraced Anne and held her tight. Though Anne immediately wanted to recoil, she softened into her friend.

The great warm mass of the woman held her tight and said, “The verdict is in. I heard on the news. He was charged with murder, seven consecutive life sentences.” Anne held her breath as she tried to take this information in. It was incomprehensible. She pulled away from Paulette, who turned the hall light on. Anne squinted at the brightness of it and slunk away to her bedroom.

Paulette cautiously followed behind. She noticed a jumble of things on the floor of Christian’s old bedroom as she passed by it. “Should I leave you alone?”

“No no,” Anne replied collapsing onto her bed. “Thank you for telling me the news. I went to Christian’s flat today. To get his things.”

Paulette stood in the doorway to her bedroom, “Was Mark there?”

“Yes. I was hoping he wouldn’t be,” Anne said and then paused, rubbing her face harshly. “He tried to be nice. He disgusted me.”

“What happened?”

Anne was suddenly desperate to speak about all of the things she wanted to wrap in silence and bury.

“He tried to console me at first, but I wasn’t having any of it. I told him I was only there for Christian’s things. But then he said he wanted me to go with him to the Old Bailey to hear the verdict being given today. Journalists want to speak to us. Doesn’t he think I know that? They’ve been calling me and knocking on the door. And he said that there is a group of them committed to seeing justice done. And they want to continue on, appeal to the government to do something about the intolerance in this country. He told me all of this, but I only wanted Christian’s things.”

“Of course. You don’t have to get involved with any of that,” Paulette assured her.

“So I went to Christian’s bedroom with my box to take his things and Mark tried to stop me. He said we had to sit down and sort Christian’s things out. We had to decide what each of us would keep. And I said, ‘But this is my son! His things are mine!’ I grabbed at everything I could. Then he tried to take something back out of the box so I slapped him. He backed away, and do you know what he said to me? That I didn’t teach Christian how to love himself enough. He may have acted brave to the world and looked confident on the outside, but inside he was sad and scared. That I couldn’t respect he was a gay man. I failed to prepare him for the world as a black man. Even though he’s my son. That I couldn’t understand what my child needed and couldn’t protect him.”

The words rushed out of Anne’s mouth, even though Mark hadn’t said any of this to her.

“You should get some sleep,” Paulette said.

Anne looked exhausted lying on the bed. She covered her face and rolled on her side. Paulette quietly left the flat, turning the light off and shutting the front door behind her. She was glad to have the silence and darkness again. Instead of thinking of her son, she conjured fantasies and half-dreams of visiting the man labelled the ‘London nail bomber’ in his now permanent cell. She wanted to ask him if he was happy to have killed her son, even if it meant a pregnant white woman had to die alongside him. The bombing had killed more than just the minorities Copeland had targeted. Was her son’s blood worth it? If so, shouldn’t we all be exterminated, the earth completely cleansed?

Hours of wide-eyed darkness passed. Darkness which refused to fully accept her into it. Darkness she strove to embrace. Darkness was all she wanted to know. Here was the only place her love could exist. Perhaps this was the only place it had ever truly existed. Eyes open and searching for familiar shapes in the darkness, the barest form of a sillohouette concealed and safe. Hidden in the darkness her love. And as time passed, the darkness dissipated. Painfully, in nearly indistinguishable hints and gradations of colour it lifted slowly slowly slowly. Leaving her present. Leaving her alive. Alone…

And there was the sound of the rubbish truck and the sound of birds. The city awakening. Neighbours showering. The creak of floorboards. The drone of a passing airplane. The squeak of bedsprings, the sound of lazy lovemaking. Shadows appeared. The clock ticked on. And there was Anne. With bleary eyes, she turned to the window and saw a cold light invading her room telling her it was morning.

 

About the Author

Eric Karl Anderson is a native New Englander who currently lives in London. He is the author of the novel ENOUGH and has published fiction in a variety of publications, including The Ontario Review, Glitterwolf, Oval Short Fiction, and the anthology Between Men 2. He runs the book blog www.lonesomereader.com.

 

Only the Visible Can Vanish by Anna Maconochie

You come to London to make it. That’s what young women do in countries possessing a world-class financial hub. Of course I wasn’t thinking about my part in this phenomenon beyond the economics of my immediate survival, day to day, even hour to hour sometimes, and neither were any of my contemporaries. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do. In short, I vanished. Not in the sense that I have left London, or even this world. Physically, I am still very much here, if a little smaller, having lost some weight (a fitting by-product of the vanishing process, simply due to having less money to spend on food, more on which later).

It was 1999 when I arrived. We were starlets, hustlers, setters of scenes to a beat. Sculptors and tweakers of mood and trend. Valliant weeders of the pretentious from the authentic. I came from Devon, and I told everyone I met it was the land of Dairy. I even looked like I was made of milk back then, I was so unblemished. Three hundred quid in cash and a car so clapped out all I could do in the end was sleep in it until I’d scared myself enough to put a deposit on a room. We all had a story like my car story. We hadn’t officially proven our status but in the least egotistical way possible; we knew we must treasure these years as office minions, waiters, unknown actors, unpublished writers, gigging, wordslamming, transmitting electronic music to a dozen darkly-lit faces in a too-large pub. Soon we would be ruined with success.

To vanish, you must be first seen. It took a long time. You might be wondering if I was a well-liked or, once, even slightly famous person. Or what event or personal anguish led me to self-erase? But it’s not like that, it really isn’t.

You don’t always see how something begins but now I can tell you where it began. On the DLR on my way to work one morning, I saw a seat become available at Poplar. I worked for a company in the Docklands that helped other companies move office. Even homely old Space Interactive aspired to be something it was not. The head once called it an interior design outfit but we spent most our time shifting freight and furniture, reconfiguring bad electrics and insurance disputes. By now it was 2002. I’d started as a temp covering for a sick assistant, but she didn’t improve in the months to come and neither did my ability to make money from SpeakerSlam, the poetry and spoken word night I was running at a pub in New Cross. I had planned for it to be a launchpad for my poet and musician friends, as well as my own poetry, but we rarely secured public funding and the SpeakerSlam zine never went into profit. Within a year Space Interactive was talking about promoting me to office manager, which infuriated me. I wasn’t supposed to be good at this job.

A freebie paper had been dumped on the empty seat and, in a move that felt out of character, I picked it up. I read about a forty-year-old woman, living in London, who had tackled a devastating depression not with pills or a therapist but by removing everything in her life that caused her anxiety. This woman had left her job, ditched her boyfriend, sold her flat, closed all bank and email accounts but one, and got rid of most of her possessions, including her car and her computer. When she needed the Internet she went to a library. She still lived in London in a flatshare but now her time was devoted to meditation, seeing only a few friends and doing volunteer work. Some of her week was spent on her perpetual job hunt, as she had to convey a certain amount of goodwill to those who doled out her benefits. Yes, she would take a job, she said, if it was easy and part-time but so far she had not got a job, despite regular interviews. She made it clear she wasn’t looking for a job at her former executive level and she wasn’t looking for a new boyfriend. She didn’t bother with beauty appointments or new clothes. I had expected the woman, named Agnes L in the article to protect her identity, to have a written a memoir or manifesto but there was no title at the end of the article. It wasn’t particularly clear to me why she was being interviewed. Except I missed my stop, so intently was I reading about her. ‘Life is often about making the most of a botched operation,’ Agnes said. The journalist probed further – what exactly did Agnes do when she did ‘nothing’? ‘Lie around the house,’ she answered. ‘Listen to Bach’s harpsichord pieces. Hard work and ambition drove me to madness. Depression is not necessarily just an internal journey. It was all external pressures for me, not what my parents did to mess me up, although, yes, they had unrealistic expectations. It felt like my life was full of tumours.’

I didn’t think about the article for years. I only remembered it in my mid-thirties, waking up in a man’s bed, hungover after a party in his flat the night before, wanting to get up and make a cup of tea in the hope that would lead to my dressing and leaving, ideally without too much conversation. I had been here before and knew his kitchen and what was in it. I both wanted to leave and desperately didn’t, but I knew nothing could happen without the tea, the tea that I couldn’t get up and make. The handsome man snored contentedly on while I tried to do that exercise where you tell yourself not to worry, just stay there and I’ll get up, I’ll make you a cup of tea and bring it to you, then you can have your tea in the still-warm bed and plot your next move. It had always worked for me and it felt like a self-violation to coax myself, yet still fail to get up. Finally I managed to sit up in the bed. The man, a painter, was also an occasional market trader for extra cash and his room was full of curios – old coins, perhaps Roman, old paperbacks, piles of newspapers and magazines, a long clothes rack nearly sinking with the weight of ladies’ vintage clothes, boxes of bonbon-coloured stilettos spilling out beneath the long gown hems, old-fashioned writing quills and brushes that he probably wanted me or some other woman to imagine he used. Perhaps this chaos caused me to think of Agnes L, perhaps it didn’t – but I thought of her story that I’d read so intently all those years ago and, boom, I was up. I felt a diversion signalling itself on my life’s road, a drastic detour, except this new road would reveal itself to be the only true road in the end. I barely took in my unceremonious goodbye with the sleepy man, the lip service to non-intentions and friendship to come. I had wanted him but I had already decided that losing him would be easier if I felt no need for a replacement.

I got home that morning and I wrote a list which I still have, tacked on a pinboard in my room:

Get rid of flat and move into cheaper houseshare.

Shut down SpeakerSlam and website.

Remove all social media and Internet dating presences.

Cancel hair appointment and never cut hair again. Same for eyebrows. And body hair.

Cancel gym membership.

Ask Space Interactive if you can work part-time. If not, quit and start temping.

Delete contact details for anyone who cannot be considered a real friend.

Sort through possessions and discard all non-essentials.

File away theatre script. You don’t have to write another word. Ever.

Of course, this great undoing of everything made me temporarily busier than ever. Space Interactive wouldn’t compromise on my hours so I gave up my job and joined a few temping agencies. I moved into a three person flatshare with strangers and made it clear I didn’t want to chat too long over the dishes. I had feared I would gain weight now I wasn’t a gym-hamster but instead the muscle mass decrease made me smaller. Plus I ate less as I didn’t have an office to bore me into seeking out croissants and those supposedly ‘healthy’ bars of fake fruit mulch. My new skinniness frightened me a little but since I didn’t want a man anymore. The only thing that mattered was maintaining basic health.

I told a few friends about the changes I was planning to make. I didn’t tell them about shutting down my spoken word night, which, amazingly, had never quite died all these years, or removing myself from the Internet apart from one email account, exactly like Agnes L. You’ll have so much space in your life for new adventures, they all said. But that’s not why I’m doing it, I wanted to say.

One friend staged an intervention. How she found my new address I still can’t work out. See a doctor, she said. This is not the behaviour of a healthy person. You’re so thin. Then she said, if you won’t see a doctor I’ll pay for you to see my telekinetic healer, which just goes to prove the suburban have-it-all working mothers can be the most cuckoo of them all. Bored and curious, I went to the healer, a surprisingly well-heeled middle-aged woman whose name was Mercy. Halfway through, she cut the session short. Your aura is troubling, she said. How? I asked. It’s dark, she said. Opaque. I can’t help you.

It’s been over five years since I vanished. Money isn’t what I would class as a struggle yet. I temp when I have to. Sometimes I do shifts in the bar down the road. No one recognises me there apart from my flatmates. I spend very little. I don’t have a travelcard and I’m lucky enough to have been given a bicycle that works. I walk a lot and recognise faces in the main square of Woolwich, where I live now. I suppose I live the kind of localised life I might have lived without moving to London. I’m good at cooking on the cheap. My parents are far away in my little home town, doing whatever it is that preoccupies them. There are a few friends who drop in. They ask me if I’m okay and sometimes it takes a lot to convince them I am. But the thing is, I am okay. I hate repeating I am okay because no one believes me and then I start to doubt it myself. But, really, I am okay.

There’s just one detail I can’t let slip by. I am pregnant. I had to come to London, but my child will be born already here. We will vanish together in the city into a home of our own, and her father (the scan revealed it’s a girl) will visit us and take her away for weekends. I am forty now, the age Agnes L was when she shared her tale, and there could be complications but it’s highly likely I will have this child, which I did not plan for and then could not face discarding and now wholeheartedly want. Then I will be visible all over again, my body a tiny city for a tiny human before I become, to her, a finite animal. I will become a striver all over again before I vanish for the second time as most people do, ever so slowly in those ways they observe in the masses but cannot always apply to their own evaporating selves.

Jason Wilde's Free Portrait Studio

 

About the Author

Anna Maconochie is a short story writer based in London. Her work has been published in The Erotic Review and Prole Books, while her first short story collection is due in 2016 from Cultured Llama Publishing.

 

Little Queen of London by Pami Estalilla

When things in her world got a little dull, twelve-year-old Malaya would keep calm, close her eyes, and think of London, England. When they got especially taxing, she would actually go there. Depending on where she was standing, it usually wasn’t that far. She was lucky to have, her very own London on a wall at the back of her house.

Malaya travelled in style—via worn-out rattan bench with a lumpy cushion. She would make herself comfortable, put on an invisible seatbelt, tilt her head upwards and get whisked away among the clouds. Then she would roam the London of her Imagination, the perfect little city she had so lovingly put together.

If a true Londoner ever blundered into Malaya’s imagined London, he would be completely baffled. Its creator had never set foot in the British Isles, had never even been outside her little island in the Pacific. This trifling matter did not stop her from putting bits and bobs together from postcards, films, picture books, television shows, and her daydreams. There was the red-tented Piccadilly Circus, populated by a menagerie. The London Eye was simply a bigger version of the ones in her hometown’s fiesta fairs, nailed together with rickety planks of wood. Big Ben had a Littler Ben to keep it company. Downtown boasted Westminster Abbey.

There were precisely three streets in her version of London—Downing Street, Baker Street, and Abbey Road—they winded and looped every which way like a roller coaster or a Seuss illustration. Being a sensible girl, she had thoughtfully installed a system of transportation; black cabs and red buses had a grand time on those loopy roads. There was a Tube like a giant laundry chute and a flying umbrella or two. And the phone boxes! Red and blue, they were planted haphazardly all throughout—on rooftops, in the middle of roads, in castle gardens (there were many along either road).

Part of the fun was not knowing where she would land. Today it was Kensington Gardens, where ladies in pretty hats were having an enthusiastic conversation about Wimbledon over tea and crumpets. She waved at them and they curtsied; she then scampered over a hedge and into Trafalgar Square, where high-cheekboned young Etonians were feeding the pigeons.

‘Good day,’ said Malaya.

‘Your Highness,’ they said in unison.

‘Carry on,’ she said, with a little wink at the tallest, fittest one, then she remembered she was Queen, and quickly put on a dignified air. There were pressing matters at Buckingham Palace to attend to, and so she hopped and skipped past the statues and the enormous fountains with as much queenly dignity as she could muster.

It was hard to stay focused; there were the most fascinating passers-by.

A man in a long scarf hopped out of a blue phone box (that may not have been there five minutes ago) and gawked in surprise at his surroundings. ‘Too early!’ he muttered. ‘An entire century early, and not a single lizard.’

Stephen Fry, Simon Cowell, and Sherlock Holmes were having chips.

A troupe of theatre players was rehearsing. She’d seen posters of an upcoming show at the Globe; this must be it. But the lead seemed to be struggling with his lines. ‘To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to . . . to snore—’

‘Stop right there! Hamlet doesn’t bloody snore!’ a balding man, possibly the director, barked.

‘How would you know? Anyway, this is tedious—can we just skip all this and go straight to the sword fight?’

‘I don’t see why not.’

At last Queen Malaya could see Buckingham Palace right down the block. Her moat, the Thames, greeted her. Men in kilts were patrolling the yards. She made her way across Waterloo Bridge and to the Palace Gates, where her Royal Guards marched up and down. Doing her best to conceal her amusement at their stoic expressions, she entered and plonked herself on her velvet-cushioned throne. She thought of something queenly to say, but just as she was about to say it, a subject flung the door open and demanded, ‘Didn’t I tell you to bring in the laundry an hour ago?’

Malaya looked up. Hot sun. A full clothes line. Angry mother, hands on hips.

Imaginary London tipped its hat as it dissolved into the tropical atmosphere, onto a mural on the wall on the back of a house, while its little foreign queen went about her chores with a dreamy smile, soon to return.

Estalilla author photo 2

 

About the Author

Pami Estalilla is primarily a copy editor—which is to say she fusses over and occasionally grumbles about other people’s books—but dabbles in many other things. This includes bustling about (often clumsily) with her little troupe, the Offbeats, to create stories for the local stage. A native of Cebu, Philippines, she dreams of seeing the rest of the world. Like the character in her story, she has never been to London but has begun negotiations with her fairy godmother.

 

Becoming Cleopatra by Jill Pearlman

I loved watching the silent statues on the Ramblas in Barcelona as they dressed. In the morning, as the bird sellers uncovered their cages, and the flower sellers arranged their bouquets and flowering trees, mimes enacted a private ritual of becoming.  First they were ordinary, then quasi-ordinary, then extraordinary.  They were small actors who stepped into great people’s identities. I had just arrived alone from New York and turned my broken self to the gig of miming Cleopatra.  I was transfixed by that strange process, knowing one thing was gone but not yet knowing what was to come.

They were actors, musicians, opera singers, nurses’ aides from Barcelona, Blanes, Besalu, Seville, Raval.  In the filtered light from the plane trees, they came silently, one by one, pulling their handcarts with noisy wheels behind them.  They unsnapped the elastic that held their stand and props. They unpacked the costumes and accoutrements of Napoleon and Pancho Villa and Death.  The public walkway became their dressing room. In averting their eyes from passersby on the wide Ramblas, they went through the process of becoming.

A woman lifted a pair of wings from the handles of her cart, unfolded them and let them rest on a small rug she had laid on the sidewalk.  Sitting cross-legged on the rug, she opened her little makeup bag and, looking into a hand mirror, began to paint her face angel-white.

There was a boy I liked. He had wide cheekbones and fleshy lips, was sullen and red-eyed. He was as empty as I was. He opened his treasure chest suddenly, with no expression, and took out a pair of pants that had been painted to stand and crack like glorified leather.  Soon he would be Pancho Villa, hero of outlaws and rebels!  He turned from the pedestrians, thinking of nothing as he dabbed gold on his smooth cheeks.  The sun reflected in his hand mirror as he communed with the void.  It was the same emptiness that actors, hungover or not, artists of various intelligence, even the god according to the Kabbalah, had to know before they could create.

Pancho stuck a fat Cuban cigar in this mouth.  He adjusted a double belt of heavy bullets over his chest and donned a big-brimmed hat. His shoulders spread, his height increased, his eyes sparkled.  He rotated towards the crowd with arms at his side, knees bent and spread wide, and in a flash, he drew his gun.

I learned from the others.  My dress went on slinky over my hips, then I arranged the wig of black hair braided with gold beads on my head.  After tying the sandals up my painted legs, I turned to the privacy of my hand mirror.  I painted my face gold and adorned my eyes, preparing to become the great Queen Cleopatra.  The reminiscence blipped in my mind of how I had always had a private ritual of drawing myself into being, drawing the snaky line on my eyelid in black liner, even when I was a New Yorker.

‘Look, there’s Cleopatra!’ I heard a kid on the other side of my head say.  Like a magnet to his voice, I let my chin move slowly towards the caller; my head followed, then my shoulders and waist.  I felt my heart pounding with a jungle drum beat.   As a living Cleopatra statue, I could hardly move and couldn’t talk.  As slowly as I could, I let my lashes part, and gazed upon the red-faced kid in shorts.  He stood there, staring, pointing, looking.  ‘She blinked!’ he said with his British accent.  Yes, I did.

The kid looked intently, expecting my white robe to flutter or my gold-painted knee to quiver.  If he put a mirror under my nose, he’d see breath marks.   Finally he looked at his father and wandered away, frustrated by the ambiguous display.  I pushed back my tired shoulders and drew in a jagged breath.  Then I did what I always did to quiet myself – turn outside, listen, take in the noises of the avenue.

I heard the high, nervous chirp of little parakeets in cages, the convergence of hundreds of singing birds.  I heard the shutter of a camera open, then close.  There were words of Polish, Korean, French, Russian. I felt my stomach grumble.  My arm ached from holding my scepter.  There was perfume and exhaust in the air, a flowery scent and the smell of a wet dog, and cigarette smoke.  I had a tickle in the hairs; soft-moving waves of warm air brushed against the skin on the back of my neck.  Under the cacophony of languages, I heard church bells toll.  There was a pleasant saltiness in my mouth, reminding me of the Serrano ham I’d eaten for breakfast at a café on the corner near the cheap hotel in the barrio antico where I was staying.  When I raised my head to the sky, there was a pattern in the leaves of the plane trees, and through it was a high, light blue sky.

It was a one-month stint.  I’d entered with curiosity and no expectation at all.  For one month, I had no self. I would be empty.  I was not Clio, nothing like the old Clio who had been so tightly scripted and so deaf to herself.  The Ramblas was the noisiest boulevard in the noisiest of cities.  I wouldn’t have to hear my inner voice, with its complaints of my limits and failures.

I could be silent, a living statue.

 

About the Author

Jill Pearlman is a writer who works in different genres—fiction, poetry, flash fiction, blog essays. Writing is a way of stepping into the space between ideologies, places, relationships, parts of the self. While living in French Catalonia, she often crossed the border to Barcelona. From her meditations on medieval Shephardic history, absence and place, she wrote her new novel, Clio’s Mobile Home, from which this piece is adapted. She now lives in Providence, RI.