Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.
Perhaps I am his hope. But then she is his present.
And if she is his present, I am not his present.
Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no-one has noticed
I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me. For I am utterly collapsed.
I lounge with glazedeyes, or weep tears of sheer weakness.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
Photographs by Catherine McNamara
A Woman Told Me This
A woman told me this: when her lover died, she went to the church and sat in the second-to-last pew, where she knew she would attract little attention for they had been colleagues for a stretch. At the front of the church stood the man’s wife with her shredded curls, and the two sons whose foibles and brushes with the law and opulent tattoos she knew as intimately as those of the children she’d never had. Did she feel robbed of a life? He had told her that she would. That one day it would seize up inside of her, the wish to uproot all he had ever planted in her, every gasp and cell and flourish of his liquid and the burning of her skin and parts. He had told her she would want to eviscerate her own bowels to be emptied of him, and remove her heart from its safe cage as a wild native, splashing it to the ground with its torn tubes. Her lover had been a dramatic, vital man who liked to toy with their darkest entwined currents, especially as he stroked her hair in bed, or his knuckles drew across her belly.
The woman told me these things, adding that the embrace of this man was the only thing that she would take from this earth.
The Not Sought-After Truth
We would have preferred ignorance, in this case. It’s as though you have been harbouring her and she has been eating our flesh. Eating through our fingertips and blackening them with her poison. How many years now? Ten or so? You never troubled yourself to think there would be a brutal ending, it is only brutal endings that give pure relief. Not battered agreements or smoothed-out divisions as though on cloth. We’re not having any of that. If you ever wanted her locked in your bowels, her fingers extended into you, giving you that disgusting pleasure you deserve, then feed her in her cage, give her more of the scraps and bones she has lived on till now.
Do not tell me this because I am your son. Your truths will dissolve within you, putrid water into soil. I hear the crashing of your implosion and we are clean.
He says My Family and the furthest reaches of your organism, regions that have dwelled in peace within your being as an undiscovered species, are incinerated by light. He says, My Family, and you are awash outside a citadel where the walls run into the sky and these are walls that would repel you with a charge, send you smashing across a room.
He says My Family, and you know you have reached your last bastion of hope, and there will be further chains, and no water.
He says My Family and you remember you were once chaste.
He says, My Family, and you imagine the song of their flesh, her cries, his body sweeping, their original compulsion; the shifted radiance, the old radiance.
He says My Family and you wonder how that pointing of his body felt within the sleeve of yours.
He says My Family and you remember feeling wishful, all intuition jammed.
The Things You Will Never Know About Your Lover
When your lover walks away to the queue at the airport after you’ve drawn a long hair from his shirt and this is not the time to cry has been whispered against your damp neck, a Ute Lemper song flings into your head. Little Water Song. You watch the assembly of his face, the stones are piling on your chest. Cairns and shrines should be made of your dry ribs. What do you know right now, and then before, about this man whose back you have inhaled as though you had given birth to him? Would you even recognise the face he wears over that border, in the worn car and kitchen, in the sedate bedroom with its cries? Would you even recognise the notes in that voice?
He waves and your guesses are so childish.
He describes the persimmon tree as an equilibrium of weight and colour, a tree Gauguin would have liked. They stand at the bottom of her wrangled garden. The wet branches are clotted with scathing orange balls you could plunge a finger into and it would come out sullied with orange jelly, like you were poking inside breasts.
In her language the fruit is called caco. There is no path between the two words.
They go to a concert which is King Arthur by Handel. When the King dies in the snow she can feel the capitulation of the army of her cells and the oozing inertness of her body.
After the concert he collects their coats. His phone rings and he stands on the ruffled carpet of the auditorium with his phone cupped to his ear.
In the car he tells her that his son has a disease and he will fly back to his country tomorrow. The disease is in its early stages and curable. He says he will stay there as long as it takes the boy to fight this malady.
How she misses him already. It's like a tourniquet applied to thrusts of blood.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She studied African and Asian Modern History and was a secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, photographer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others is forthcoming with Unbound UK, and her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Catherine's short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. She lives in northern Italy and has impressive collections of West African art and Italian heels.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
Can you tell us a little about the origins of these flash fictions and why you wrote them?
'A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces' is a selection from a larger work of flash fiction, dealing shamelessly with the fallout from complicated love - the way it slides within the bodily organs and makes itself felt, the way love can last a lifetime, bearing flaws and agony but still one of the deepest feelings our bodies will know. It was inspired by By Grand Central Central I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath.
Why do you write?
As a quiet child I read copiously, and dreamed of writing short stories and novels. I started early with corny, illustrated texts. After a family tragedy involving my young cousin I found solace in reading, and felt closer to writers than to living humans for many years, revelling in this evasion. Later, I read translations of the Russians and the French in original language. It became an obsession that chased me to Paris when I was twenty-one, where I finally stepped outside into the vivid world with all its risks and pleasures. Living above a sweatshop in the then-drug-ridden-but-now-chic 11th arrondisement, I began to write.
As a young woman, I married an Italian economist and moved to East Africa. There I quickly learned that what I wished to write about was home-brewed and not yet enriched by true experience. I left off with writing and went back to work, a pattern that would continue throughout my twelve years in Africa, where I moved between the world of isolated creation and back to the world of employment or child-rearing - ever guilty in either sphere that I was neglecting the other. But these non-writing phases - embassy secretary in Mogadishu, translator from Italian to English, co-manager of a bar and art gallery in Accra - charged the short stories I had begun publishing in literary reviews, providing characters and contrasts and blueprints that triggered my imagination and fuelled my words. I travelled extensively in East and West Africa, lived hard and my personal trials were many. I learned to listen and observe and step outside of myself, not only to make myself a better writer, but for the joy of being human, and my enduring love of story-telling.
I continue to write because I enjoy the act of creation, the collusion of experience, observation and invention. The themes that inspire me most include the impact of historical injustice upon contemporary life and migration, the human experience of cultural displacement and adaptation - these are the areas where I attempt to make a meaningful and heartening contribution.
Who introduced you to literature? Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
My mother was a pianist and music teacher so I studied classical piano throughout my childhood. But my father raced speedboats and listened to Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin. So I grew up on Bach, Mozart, Lizst, Wonder and Joplin. But I was a shy, brainy kid who read a lot and very quickly aspired to write.
The books and poetry I studied at high school became companions for life. I was thrilled by language. John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, Joseph Conrad, Simone de Beauvoir were my core interests and I devoured their works. However, at university, I studied French and Modern African and Asian History - not wishing to have my love of literature conditioned by study.
I received a copy of my first published short story when I was a new mother with a baby in a basket on the floor, living in Mogadishu. Throughout those years in Africa I began to write and submit work, although feedback and interaction were rare. The solitude was challenging, but this was when I developed my craft, made many of my beginners' mistakes, and felt my way blindly ahead, all the while waiting - this was pre-internet - for the diplomatic pouch to deliver my latest rejection letters.
When I returned to Europe after almost a decade in Ghana I settled in northeastern Italy. Again I found myself isolated by language, although this linguistic island in truth allows one to work and explore ideas with tranquility, while the knowledge of another tongue (in my case Italian and French) also provides another plane of thought. Gradually, I built up my editing and submission skills, published further, and began to go to conferences and festivals when I could. In London I participated in masterclasses with authors I admired, and when my first books came out I learned to read and discuss my work in public. I consider myself a self-taught, grassroots writer who is still learning her craft.
Your writing is very visual. What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I am also interested in music and photography, and find I often have characters who are involved in these worlds. When younger, I was torn between the image and the word, and to date there is a strong visual component in my work. The riches of music and performance are often present also, and the vicisstudes of the artist's life.
In our household we often discuss the merits of each art form - my daughter is a soprano - and while literature is where I have experience in expressing myself, I have great admiration for singers and classical musicians, who live their art through performance. It seems to capture the present in a vital, resounding way.
My dream is to see one of my stories produced as a film and I am currently working towards this.
Can you tell us about your film collaboration and some of your current projects?
My short story collection The Cartography of Others is coming out with Unbound UK in 2018. The stories speak of the geography of the mind and the migration of the heart, and are set from Hong Kong to Bamako, from Sydney to Paris, from London to Accra. Several of the stories have been shortlisted in competitions, with one Pushcart nomination. Hilary Mantel wrote 'stongly atmospheric from the first sentence' of my story 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him'.
I have also completed a flash fiction collection which is ready for submission, and had two stories in this year's Wigleaf Top 50. I am currently working on a novella.
I am collaborating with a film producer to adapt my short story "Three Days in Hong Kong" as a short film.
Short stories remain my passion and I continue to write these with joy and trepidation.