Thursday, April 30, 2015

Z is for Zoetrope

Sometimes I felt my life was like a zoetrope spinning in a circle, giving fascinating glimpses of light and dark in the cylinder before finally slowing down. One autumn evening somewhere in France, I found myself sitting at the table of a pavement café with a strange hunched up fellow who reminded me obliquely of Quasimodo, or at least my perception of the Victor Hugo character from the novel and the film.

I had spent the day in the town square, painting the lovely limes and sycamores with their russet, yellow and vibrant leaves strewn like a tapestry across the windows of the old stone houses. Nobody had bothered me except a few visitors and one had attracted my attention and promised to see me the next day. As I filled up the long hours turning my brush on the canvass, I allowed myself to think ruefully of the brief period when I was a household name in Britain, if not France. Today when I gave people my name, nothing registered.



The art world had moved on a long time ago. Painting was passé. You only made a name for yourself if you displayed your filthy bed or a pile of bricks and called it art.

Quasimodo slugged back his absinthe. He had an English accent which was incongruous with his appearance as a ragged French peasant.

“So when did you last see Yvette?”

“It was about a year ago when I was invited to her 30th. I can’t say I fancy her new husband much. I offered to do a painting of them and can you believe he turned me down?  Said he didn’t have the time to pose. Yvette seemed a bit mortified.”



“Is he an utter shit, or just a shit in the making?”

“Oh not utter. Just too busy for family claptrap. Well who isn’t?”

And a distasteful image of Geraldine calling me a drunk came to mind. It slid away again with my second absinthe. The wedding had been the last time I had seen Geraldine too, although that had not been the time she called me a drunk. She called me it quite a bit after re-finding God. God and Marcel. I distanced myself from the Holy Trinity with a few drinks too many on occasions.

“Is he as bad as me?”

“Who?”

“Yvette’s husband, of course. Thought I’d lost you then.”

“Christ no. I keep meaning to give them that big, empty villa.”

Quasimodo grinned to himself and his fat shoulders trembled and strained his cheap shirt. Finally he continued.

“Look. If I haven’t said it enough, I wanted to thank you for putting me up at your place all this time while I get back on my feet.”

I started at him sharply. Now I had severe grey eyebrows my gaze could shatter a glass at 20 paces.
“Please do not get back on your feet again, as you put it.”

“Yes I know. I mean not like that. But not every fellow can paint like you. I used to be eaten up with jealously but now I mean it’s different. I can really appreciate your work.”

I laughed and refilled his glass. “Everything is different. That’s life. If you stayed the same you would have died. That or I would have killed you.”

“Like I tried to kill you,”

“Ha. Something like that, but I would have done it properly,” I told him. “You know my place is humble but you can stay here as long as you like. You may be interrupted by traveling artists or musicians but they are usually fun. Get to know them. You may learn a lot. You may learn how not to become an ass again.”

I looked him over from his irregular stubble to his overgrown brows. Monty was unrecognizable from the Monty of a previous age. Monty had been humbled and humiliated in jail. His spirit had been broken but here he was hunched over his absinthe. Middle aged, overweight, unattractive and yet far closer to perfection than he had ever been before in his life. There was a cool breeze now under the trees and the sounds of a mandolin drifted across the square. The silence between us was as comfortable as the worn out bar and the easy glances of the middle aged American across the bar who had heaped lavish praise on my work today.

“So are we going to head down to the Riviera soon?” said Monty.

His eager puppy dog voice seemed so incongruous in a big hunched over character with Dickensian brows.

“I’m sorry Monty. Like said I’m going away tomorrow. I need to go back to the Greek islands. I may be gone some time, hopefully not like Captain Oates.”

“How long?”

I shrugged. “ I met a drifting kid in the square today. I got him to do some painting and he showed great potential. I haven’t seen that sort of thing for a while. I said he could come along for the ride and learn the trade.”

Monty looked oddly perturbed for a moment and then he swigged back the absinthe.

“God. This is good stuff. One more and I’d convince myself I could be an artist too,” he said.
“Well I’ll drink to that. Just don’t become a stockbroker again right.”


And with that I helped the large figured get to his feet and saved him from knocking chairs across the bar.

Many thanks for reading the novella Transitions on the A to Z Challenge.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Y is for Yvette

She had told me we would call the girl Yvette even before she knew it was a girl. It was a name with long roots in Geraldine’s family and my interest in a name had gone no further than flitting through a book of baby names and arriving on the name “Gertrude.”



There was a forcefulness about Geraldine on this point and others that related to the baby, such as decking the room out for a girl before we knew the sex. Inevitably, Geraldine was right. For two months we did the perfect designer family thing. We built cribs and lined up wallpaper in the turret room overlooking the pool and the gentle hills. Anyone who saw us there touching each other lightly with the late afternoon sun in our hair would have imagined us to be the perfect couple in our designer villa overlooking the Umbrian countryside. I was a successful painter and Geraldine was pretty and wan, even in the late stages of pregnancy and surrounded by her pale blue vases and window boxes choked with camellias.



Despite the perfect symmetry of our lives, I would catch myself wondering. I would see Geraldine’s far off expression and ask her about in on occasions.  She would tell me of her homesickness for France and the smell of fresh croissants from the tiny bakery on the corner of her street. She would wake up from bad dreams about cold hours spent under stained glass windows amid the statutes of the dead. I wondered sometimes at our rootlessness and displacement and how we never fit into any landscape like the ruddy faced peasants in the work of Constable.

Yvette got in the way of our circumspection. Geraldine was right, of course. She was born with a healthy set of lungs and appetite in the small hospital of the nearby town. I had been born in a vast industrial hospital overlooking the smoke stacks of Manchester. I marveled that anyone could come into the world to the sound of bells and the sight of the old palace basking in the morning sun. It was a landscape to visit, not to be part of.

From the outset the child displayed a strong will. I took to painting her screaming, to the consternation of Geraldine who wanted me to help with the feeding. My brush was unfiltered. I painted Geraldine breast feeding her and the child’s bizarrely blue eyes. In those days all of my senses were heightened. The sun seemed to shine every day and I saw the world again with child-like clarity.

One weekend Gracie came to visit with her fiancé, a fine fellow who had studied classics at Oxford. They had driven a classic MG over from Britain and were heading to see the antiquities of Rome. Gracie looked over my sparkling new collection of paintings, the ones that the very colors of Umbria danced out of the canvass on.
“They are splendid,” she said, her Champagne tipping over on the bare floor. “Not a poor person in sight.”
We drank and talked into the night. Gracie’s fiancé had a knack of bringing the excesses of the Roman emperors to light in the most vibrant and hilarious ways, even Caligula who was by most accounts mad and frightening.

Later Gracie squeezed my arm as she headed upstairs to bed. “Who would have thought you would become my clever, witty and successful brother while Monty slops out in an Italian jail?” she said.
I had a vision of my cousin hunched over that was not altogether pleasant. One evening down by the pool I saw another figure doubled over. It was Geraldine. I crept closer to her but she did not hear me. I heard suppressed sobs coming from the hunched figure. It not occurred to me that I had not seen Geraldine for many hours.

I look her slender arm. “Geraldine. What’s up love?”

She turned to me and her face was a shocking mass of smudged mascara. I pulled her closer but she said nothing.

“What’s the matter?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

Still she was looking over the darkened hills and a small rim of lighter sky where the moon illuminated a cloud.

“It’s pretty here Campbell, but so much space. So empty.”

I saw a pale pinkness on her hands. A residue of blood, perhaps. There was something desperate and unhinged in her voice.

“Geraldine. What have you done with Yvette?”


No sooner had spoken the words than I heard a wail from the baby from an upstairs room that sounded high pitch and off-key.  I sprang up from the marble bench I was sitting on and ran like a madman  toward the balustrade that led to the child’s room.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

X is for Xanthocarpous

The tree outside the hospital window was xanthocarpous. It wept the color of cowardice through the long hazy afternoon. It sent its flowers subtly down like a veil at a wedding in the far off Orient until the ground outside my window was a bright carpet.



It was a strange and insubstantial afternoon. I held Geraldine’s hand and it seemed flimsy and bird-like to the touch. I feared it would break away. My story had seemed fragile too. I saw the officer look at me as if I was a madman. Surely Monty’s tale that I was drunk and he had escaped as I headed toward the precipice had more substance.

It was his word against mine. But Geraldine seemed determined that I would prevail. She had hired one of the best attorneys in this part of Umbria. He told me he had already dug up some dirt on Monty who it seemed had assaulted a friend in a drunken brawl last year. The charges had been dropped after the friend was paid a tidy sum of money to change his story but the lawyer Mr. Vinchenzo suggested his reputation was already tarnished. And then there was the media. The lawyer had contacted the British press before Monty’s people could get to them with the tale of how my cousin, jealous at my success as an artist, had tried to kill me.

I was discharged from the hospital after two days. I had torn ligaments but there were no breaks in my leg. Once I was back at the villa I felt a curious emptiness that took its cue from the hills around. There were angst ridden calls from my parents about how the family was being destroyed by the press. The presence of Monty at the villa had been obtrusive but I started to miss the idea of family. I started to miss the person I imagined Monty could be if things had been different. I took my paints and headed high into the hills. It was cold up on the bare spine of the hills now but I wanted to feel chilled to the bone. It drove me to pain a bleak series of landscapes that ripped the hills to their skeletons and exposed what lay beneath. I contemplated centuries of murder and death. Even the pleasant hill village seemed like a veneer that hid Medieval barbarity away from the manicured piazzas.



It took almost a year for the attempted murder case to come to trial. By all accounts Monty had complained about conditions in an Italian jail where he was forced to rub shoulders with ruffians and sex starved characters who saw his fine flanks as fresh meat.

Mr. Vinchenzo, a picture of pocked sized efficiency in his dark suit and prinz net, built up a picture of Monty as a wealthy and spoiled thug who had as little respect for his artistic cousin as he had for the Italian authorities who he obviously took for fools who would fall for his ruse. His case went over well with an Umbrian jury that was sick of wealthy Brits coming over and buying up their properties. Mr. Vinchenzo seldom mentioned the fine villa I found in my ownership.

The members of the press from Britain were more divided. There were the arts correspondents who had championed me a few years earlier who were apt to pain Monty as a Luddite but others appeared to easily swallow his story that I had blamed Monty for my own drunken actions because I had held a longstanding grudge against him. One publication even dug up my history of drug abuse and described how Monty had staged a compassionate intervention by taking me to rehab in France. The editorial writers of the conservative rag painted me as a feckless artist who had exploited liberal causes to make my fortune off the back of misery. A classic left – right split was opening up with the more liberal and arts-minded media tending to me on my side and the conservative papers championing a man who had made his fortune from hard graft rather than paintings of homeless people.

Monty himself was articulate and convincing but only I could discern some retreat from the great orator of previous years. I speculated that the time incarcerated had affected his poise.

After a week of evidence and cross examination, I walked into the town square to see the yellow blossoms on the air again, like a pretty veil of spring drawn across the dryness of the court house. I breathed the scented air and returned in time to see the jury lined up. The foreman a squat olive farmer and an emotional man could not bear to look at me. Monty was rocking back and forth grinning. I prepared myself for further torture.


“Have you reached a verdict?” the judge asked the foreman, although it was clear he had. He muttered his assent. “And?”

“We find the defendant Monty DeVere guilty of attempted murder.”


The tension receded but I could feel little joy in the situation. Monty stood there impassive like a big, dumb white rock. I walked over, gave his wide arm a quick squeeze and walked out into the pale spring sunlight. As I watched the late afternoon rays play on the leaden windows of a church I was hit by the strange light feeling that was coursing through me. It had started so many years ago on a pale spring day and it was ending now as nature was waking up around me.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

W is for War

Lying on the hillside as the sun came up, I examined the new round of lacerations on my leg. It was the same one that had been broken in the Balkans and the raw new wounds were melding with the old ones. The desperation of war that I thought I had left behind on those broken streets was upon me and I felt I had no time to sit in the open looking at my wounds. I feared Monty was nearby and after last night, he would fight me to the death if he thought I was still alive.



My only hope was that he had seen the car fall off the hillside and ran far away after jumping out. I wasn’t convinced. Monty was thorough. He would want to check the accident scene again before contacting the authorities and making up his tale. A searing pain ripped down my leg but I could move it. I was relieved it did not seem to be broken but I felt light headed and weak. I moved a few hundred yards from the place where my car had hung on a tree branch and entered a thicket shielded from the light. Through a small gap in the branches I could see the road up above me. 



About an hour after I had found the thicket I saw him. There was no mistaking Monty’s thick frame at the crest of the road against the skyline. As I looked I felt a weight fall in my gut as he limbered down the slope and inched in my direction. I knew I would be dead out here if he found me. This was war and Monty would give no quarter. Monty had a heavy looking staff in his right hand and the instinct of a hunter that he had learned on many pursuits of the fox.

I saw him prod the scars on the steep hillside where the Citroen had scoured the ground. Would he work out the car had not fallen in one movement? He continued, moving down the steep slope, showing great dexterity for a man of broad frame. Alarmingly he was making a path directly toward the bush I was hiding it. 

The discomfort in my leg was ratcheting up and I wanted to move it. It twitched and throbbed and I grimaced in pain. Monty stopped. He was about 20 yards away from where I was lying. He was listening for something. There was a low buzz of a car engine on a far off hill that rose and fell with the contours. I held my leg and resisted the urge to moan. Then I saw it.

In a dark mass of roots close to my face, vibrant colors were moving on a branch. I stared at the chilly eyes of a snake as it uncoiled fast down the branch and swung toward my head. Instinctively I jerked my head back. The bushes shook and a large bird rose out of the trees, squawking.  I looked again out through the gap and was horrified to see Monty was staring straight at me. He had picked up on the movement. He took another two steps closer to me and stopped again in his tracks in the moist grass. He was almost close enough to touch. I readied myself for a crushing blow of his cane. Then suddenly I noticed he was looking again down the hillside. He took a few steps away from the bush and looked down to where the grass gave way for a rock face. Monty was looking at the wreckage of the 2CV more than 100 feet below. He gave out a grunt that sounded self-satisfied and started climbing back up toward the road. I did not dare to move until he had vanished from sight. After more than an hour in the bush I crawled out.


 I managed to pull myself to my feet but I was weak and the hillside was steep. Gradually I limped about half a mile until the hill became more manageable. There was a small walled stone town in the distance beyond the Lombardy poplars that rose like spears from the sides of the hills. The sun was becoming hot and I was desperately in need of water but I walked slowly on, until I found myself in a path shaded by high banks. It took me two hours to reach the village and it had passed noon. The locals looked on warily at the ragged and bloody figure that had arrived from the hills. 

There were small pavement cafes here and a clear silver fountain. The beauty was not lost on me and it mixed with the heady feeling that was coursing through my ragged body. It was the joy to be alive and I felt like embracing random strangers. Instead I headed to a small brick police station to file a report to a startled little man who looked like he had dealt with little more serious than missing cats and shoplifters for the last five years.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

V is for Visitors

Monty and Carolina were staying in the pool room. On a summer morning a delicate sun would flood the terrace and the fragrance of oleander and jasmine would drift across the sun loungers.

Monty had taken to the villa like a natural. He had put on some weight but looked like a stately cruise liner in his dressing gown, his teeth white as bow paint and a cocktail glass in each hand.

“You have fallen on your feet old boy. Who would have thought it? You were frightful as a teen. I always joked with your parents that you’d wind up in an orange suit,” he said. “Of course they didn’t see the funny side.”



And with that he collapsed into a heap of self-satisfied belly laughs. Carolina hung on his every word and tittered at his abject buffoonery. Monty was due to be made a partner at his firm, giving Carolina, a secretary at the firm, a small glimpse of riches beyond her imagination.

The high vistas of Umbria has given Geraldine back some of her panache. Although she spoke little of her last few years and steered clear of Monty’s drinking games, she had a ruddy glow and a swelling in her belly. Sometimes as the sun slipped off the distant mountain peaks I would think about what I had lost and what I had gained. Sometimes a vision came to me late at night of Marcel, constructed of the small fragments she had let me see. I saw a puritanical and aloof figure who had forced his wife into days of solitary confinement with just a statue of the Virgin for company, to force her to mend her ways.

One afternoon Monty pulled me aside at the pool. “Look Campbell, much as I like hanging out with the women here I think they guys need to go out for a few beers. I know this great little place in Perugia.  Went there on a rugby trip once.”

“It’s quite a drive over the mountains.”

“Oh come on Campbell. You are getting to be so staid in your young age.”

I didn’t want to tell Monty I would be hard pressed to bear his company on the drive.

“OK. I’ll see you on the terrace at 6.”

As it turned out the jaunt seemed to be more fun than I imagined. Monty’s talk about his ambitions turned into self-parody and I had to enlist him in the joke about his pompousness.



“Yes. OK. I have always been a bit self-absorbed. But it’s a ‘me’ society. You know that. This beer’s good.”
“Strong too,” I said. “Very hoppy. But frankly Monty – don’t you think success is overrated?”
I caught an odd look in his eyes, as captured in the antique yellow lights in the square of Perugia.

“No. Why?”

I abandoned the line of conversation and we were soon out in the town square where a light rain was falling. I found the 2 CV with some difficulty. “Christ. Do I have to drive this thing?”

“Drank too much?” quipped Monty.

“I don’t know. I just feel a bit unsteady.”

“It will pass old boy.”

"Perugia 079" by Georges Jansoone (JoJan) - 

We took another walk around the town square before we got back on the narrow roads. There was a low evening fog and the damp road came and went like an indistinct tide before my vision. Still we climbed up into the great humped backed hills and I was conscious of the gaping nothingness to my left that was the side of the hill and lights twinkling below a great abyss of night.

“I love Italy but I hate the roads,” I said tersely.

Monty didn’t reply. I saw his head lolled back as he slept in his chair. I cursed to myself at the notion of traversing these hills with no company and imagined a steaming pot of coffee. Higher up the rain became more persistent and the visibility caved in. I slowed down into the hairpin bends. Something moved to my right. I was perturbed to see Monty’s large form sitting bolt upright. He was staring into the rain.

“It’s fine. Sleep,” I said. I was alarmed to see his eyes boring into me in the half light. They were vacant but for a small pin prick of hatred.

“Monty.”

“Fuck you.” And after growling the insult, his large body was on my side, shoving and pushing. I yelled at him and flailed out. Brakes squealed and the car lurched across the road toward the gap. I smashed at Monty’s face with my first and I felt something give. Then his great first made contact with my jaw and I felt something go loose. I tried to push back but he was strong. He had the steering wheel and there was still some motion left in the car. His grip was unwavering. I saw the rocks below me. Monty sprung away from me and was out the passenger door. To my horror I saw the tiny lights jump at me and realized I was going over the edge. My head crashed against the side of the window, I felt the sickening rush of descent and there was blackness. Later some small nagging voice told me I was dead but I didn’t think I was dead if there was a nagging voice. The metal of blood was thick in my mouth. There was a jarring pain in my leg. I felt something alien inside the 2CV and saw the branches of a tree. I moved the window and the whole car swayed sickeningly. I saw the light again far away.


I sat back and recalled what had happened, but there was no reality to root my experience. Then it occurred to me that a tree had stopped the car’s plunge and I was dangling over a vertical height. It felt like an impossible situation and I thought I should wait for help. However, I doubted if Monty would have told anyone. I could be here for hours. There was another sickening lurch as if the tree was unable to keep its grip on the Citroen. I realized I would have to get out. With a pain shooting down my leg, I moved across the passenger seat to the open door. The 2CV swayed again. I saw the gradient sloping away. It was steep but not a sheer rock face as I had feared. It looked like the kind of hill I could climb down if my legs would oblige. There was another groan from the Citroen and something gave. 

Tree branches cracked. It occurred to be that pushing myself through the passenger door was my last hope. With one great effort that sent sharp blue pain flying through my right leg, I lurched out  of the passenger door. I was on the sodden hillside. Using my arms and my other leg, I crawled away from the 2CV. Five minutes later there was a final snap as my beloved car broke away and rolled down the hillside. I saw a fire leap up in the valley as her gas tank was ruptured. I was alone in the vastness of the Umbrian hills.

Friday, April 24, 2015

U is for Umbria

I located Jacques’ old 2 CV in a rusty lockup on the outskirts of Budapest. It was covered in a fine layer of dust and looked like an ancient farm car. But once I wiped it off with a cloth it saw the fine sunflower yellow and blacks of the bumper shining through the dirt.


It was a curiously minimalist car with flap windows and a roof that rolled up like a tin of sardines. I was surprised when I turned the key in the ignition and the car started up the first time. The old man who ran the garage said he had regularly started her up. He said he would have buffed the car up had he known I was going to show up and shooed me out into the sunshine for 20 minutes while he got out his rag.
Soon I was driving across the bridges of the Danube in the minimalist car with the top rolled down and the late afternoon sunshine in my hair. I only had a vague idea where I was going but I headed west for cornfields and then to Vienna and Munich and views of the distant and majestic Alps. For three days my mood was carefree. I stopped in Alpine meadows and painted sweeping vistas that were so at odds with my gritty work on the banks of the Thames.


Then, as I entered Alsace, my mood changed and I was filled with apprehension at my meeting with a girl I had not seen for more than two years. When I drove into her village, the air was thick and heavy with bees and pollen. I saw ivy clad round towers peeking out over the thickets of weeds and the black woods behind. I felt myself dismount from the 2CV as if in slow motion and each foot forward was as if I was walking in thick water. 

I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and squinted at the address. The humming of the bees clogged the air. Geraldine’s home was the grand and shuttered square building at the end of the avenue. The iron gates topped with dragon heads were more like a warning than a barrier. I opened the small gate with a squeak. Each step forward felt like one I would regret. There was a young, wall eyed girl in the front garden clipping a bush.


Alsace

Her blank expression met mine and her eyes narrowed as if she detected something. “Geraldine,” I mouthed. She looked at me but did not move. I repeated the name. She got up, brushed dirt off her dress and walked into the house.
I looked back and saw how this grand house behind shutters marshalled the whole village that cowered before it. Rooks hung in the dense air and here and there I saw the back of a villager in a scene that seemed little changed in 500 years.

I heard a small voice and turned to see a girl wearing a dowdy brown dress in the doorway. There was something about Geraldine in her eyes but her face seemed careworn and there were dark lines swirling under her eyes.

“Geraldine?”

“Yes.” Her voice was toneless and flat..

“It’s me Campbell.”

“Campbell.” For a second she was distracted by the call of the rooks. Then she turned back to me. “If you are Campbell, you should come inside.”

Mute, I followed her across an uneven stone floor to a parlor infused with the yellow light of dandelions.

In the delicate light, some notion of the old Geraldine came back to me.  I saw she was smiling at me quietly.

“So what have you been doing Geraldine?”

“Oh not much. I have been here. Waiting for you, right.”
“Right.”

The girl clasped her hands in her lap as I tried to reconcile the figure in a shapeless dress with the bikini at the rehab center. “So what have you been doing  Campbell?”

“Too much to talk about here Geraldine,” I stumbled over my words. I didn’t want to sit here in the suffocating old house anymore, fearing one of her devout family members would show up. “Look, I want you to come away with me.”

The girl looked blankly at me as if I had mentioned a mission to Jupiter and turned her glistening eyes to the lattice window.

“OK.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I said OK Campbell.”

I stood up feeling flustered. “Alright. When?”

“Now, of course, silly.” Her arm slipped around my waist and propelled me to the door. I almost dragged her to the Citroen. Days later we saw the city of Assisi, a vast fresco of pink marble on the hill. I turned to see Geraldine’s ghost of a smile. The girl had hardly spoken for two days and here we were about to play happy families in new villa overlooking the Apennines.


Umbria

Geraldine was more drawn than I remembered her but she was still a vision of loveliness against the Medieval skyline. I ran my hands through her hair and she turned to me.
“Will Marcel be visiting?” she finally asked.
“I’m sorry.”
“My husband.”

Chapters from my novella Transitions are entirely fictitious and no resemblance is intended to real people or events.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

T is for Train

When Paris came into a view again it was late spring. The famous landmarks were broken up by the pink and white blossoms and high mackerel clouds parted like a fan above the Eiffel Tower. I dismounted from the Eurostar with the intention of meandering around this city for a few days before taking the train east into the heart of Europe.



Setting up my easel in Paris felt different from in London where I was a curiosity. Here I was one of the many artists and was happy to blend into the crowd and be unknown. If I was praised by passers-by, it was for my talent rather than my name of what someone had read about me in the Evening Standard. I took the Metro up to Montmartre where the artists of yesteryear had given way to mawkish Disney cartoonists planted like insects around the lumpen white edifice of the Sacre Couer. I walked down the hill again and lost myself in a maze of alleys. 

Away from the garish tourist memorabilia and the church like a great sickly wedding cake, there was filth in the gutters, a faint odor of sewers and run down basement apartments. Here and there were studios inhabited by real artists, punctuated by the screams of babies and the rattle of industrial air conditioners.  An old man lifted his brush and shot me a crooked grin. Suddenly I had an image of Jacques and that far off look of triumph in his eyes when he surveyed his completed work.

Jacques had learned his trade in this magnificent city but it had chewed him up like so many before him. I vowed to get back on the train before the city stripped me of my sureness in my own ability and destiny and reawakened the ghosts of yesteryear. By the time I reached the Gare de L’Est I was missing my mentor and wishing to hasten my meeting with his lawyer, even though I had put it off for more than a year. I boarded an express train that headed east. I watched France become more rustic and Medieval and then I was in Germany and flitting through warm evening fields and distant blue hills that made it hard to square this place with the grim tales of marching men and conflicts that I had read about in dusty books back in my bedroom in Britain.

When I emerged into the sunshine again I was in another great European capital and surrounded my high church towers and magnificence. Bells were ringing across the piazzas and small boats were fluttering on the Danube. This time I ignored the magnificence and jumped in a taxi . I gave the driver an address in a low key part of Pest. We clattered through a working class suburb where washing hung over alley and he dropped my outside a small courtyard with a tiny door. 

The plaque had the name of Pierre Blanc, a Frenchman who had somehow ended up in this obscure part of Budapest. I went through a dark passage and ended up in a tiny room like a cell with a sour faced receptionist behind a desk who communicated in a series of grunts. After half an hour of guttural noises and paper clips being pushed across a desk for no apparent purpose, a louder grunt than the rest led me to believe I was being ushered in to see Monsieur Blanc.

I was confronted by a short, balding man with a flat face. He took my hand unenthusiastically, 

shuffled through some papers, raised his thick specs and finally said: “Why are you here?”

“I thought you would know that. Jacques the painter said I should come here.”

The lawyer wiped some sweat off his head and cleared his throat.

“I’m afraid I know nobody by that name.”

“On come on. The artist. Jacques.”

“Do we have a last name?”

The question troubled me. I had known it once in another world. As the panic rose within the memory of the name was slipping out of my consciousness. A large bird of prey had settled on the window ledge and it was starting intently at me. I felt it suited the lawyer’s office. Pierre Blanc seemed to have discounted me already. He was tapping his pencil and about to pick up the phone.
“Vielneuf,” I said finally and desperately.

“I will check my files monsieur.”

He rose to his feet and I noticed his saggy trousers as he pulled open the drawers of his filing cabinet. He was humming impatiently and there was more sweat on his forehead. He closed a couple of drawers and shook his head. Finally he pulled out a large brown folder.

“We do have a Jacques Vielneuf,” he said with some disbelief. He pulled out some papers and uttered a small exclamation. “Ah. Artist Jacques.”

“Um yes.”

“And I take it you are Campbell Lawrence. Identification please.”

I pulled out my passport. This was the easy bit.

“I hope you are not expecting millions.”

“I don’t know what I’m expecting.”

“So look here,” said the lawyer. “He has left you ownership of his property in Umbria, as well as this.”

I looked it over. It was a letter Jacques had dictated to the law firm.


“My Dear Campbell. It was a great pleasure knowing you in the last year of my life. In you I saw the kind of great talent I could only dream about as a lad. Maybe you have realized that talent by now. I know from what you told me that you missed her terribly. Here is the address of Geraldine. God knows if she is still there. I would like you to go to her and take her with you to my villa in Umbria which will be yours by the time you read this. It’s probably worth a lot but I don’t want you to ever sell it. The view from the lemon grove over the hills is heaven itself. Of course, I could never live there. It’s a long story for an old man of fading health. Let’s just say it involved a woman. Don’t they always. This letter also contains a key to my car, so as you can drive to Alsace. Don’t get too excited about that. It’s a 2CV. It will get you there, just avoid the Autobahns. I wish you love, happiness, success and the most succulent of olives which grow around the villa. Au revoir – Jacques.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

S is for Success

Success did not come to me overnight after my story appeared in a large national newspaper but it was as if a corner had been turned. When I first saw the spread, I was awestruck. Phoebe stared out of the pages at me and my brush strokes seem to have heightened her pale blue sadness. The writer told a fantastic tale that I only half recognized, about a boy who had escaped from a rehabilitation center, hit the dusty roads of Europe with a well-known French artist and picked up his skills from the master. 



I thought Jacques was just another wannabe artist who hung around squares and picked up the odd commission, but it turned out he had been viewed as one of the leading painters of his generation back in the 1960s. Brian Shepherd, the art critic used up a forest of trees meticulously explaining his pedigree. The article went on to explain how witnessed suffering at first hand in Bosnia and painted it again on the streets of London, adding a frisson of hope.

Most importantly Shepherd used superlatives to describe my work suggesting I was one of the most promising young artists of my generation. I knew I he had based his observation on nothing other than his hope and the chance that if it became a self-fulfilling prophecy he would say he had been the one who discovered my talent.

It didn’t bother me. Shepherd’s word was taken seriously by artists. The days when I watched the empty street from my gallery were soon over. A steady trickle of visitors made it my way and they bought work. I started to realize these were serious figures in the art world. Other newspapers piggybacked on Shepherd’s piece and tried to find a new angle on the Phoebe story. One of the tabloids dug up the fact that Pheobe had been a victim of domestic abuse and I had saved her from Frank. One reporter tracked down Frank to a slum south of the river to depict him as the face of a domestic violence epidemic. Frank didn’t look like a poster child for anything in the picture. He was unshaven, bleary eyes and clearly had no idea what the reporter was talking about, although he had the poor judgment to raise a middle figure at the camera, which clearly pleased the news editor.
I became overwhelmed by the flurry of invitations for cocktails with the leading lights of the art world, although I was uncomfortable with the gossip and backstabbing. At such times, I would wonder if I could enlist Monty to attend in my place.

My social awkwardness didn’t faze the attendees. “Campbell. We love it that you are the real deal,” said Livinia D’Arrabatia, the veteran arts correspondent of the Sunday Times. “You are a blank canvass. It’s so refreshing in the art world.” There was an intensity beyond the well powdered crows’ feet that ringed her eyes. I sidestepped the offer of a private viewing of her art collection.

I was persuaded to move my art exhibition to a luxurious building on the South Bank. I had sponsors lining up to pay for it. Here the light came flooding in through giant plate windows like that sudden moment when you pull the curtains apart, stretched out for the whole day. There was no place to hide the flaws in my work, but the people who came in to see it didn’t seem to care. Arabs and thick set businessmen who seemed to have little appreciation for my work would grunt and offer me sums for the work that made me think I had made a mistake in adding too many zeros. There were more appearances on TV shows and I came to realize my paintings were one of this season’s must haves – a topic for soirees and something to boast about on a languid weekend.

The great and the good would pay me exorbitant sums of money to go to their homes to paint them with their dogs or horses. The work unsettled me but I obliged.

On my 23rd birthday I threw a lavish party at my apartment in Greenwich in which I showcased some of my new work.
It was the first time I had been in the same room as my parents, Monty and Grace for a long time. My father, who was becoming increasingly disorientated generally seemed to find it hard to equate me with the figure who has been escorted on a train to rehab. Grace was upbeat. “Your paintings are so much more bouncy than usual now you’ve cut out the poor people.”

Monty seemed more subdued but got roaringly drunk and narrowly missed a painting of the Countess of Warwick’s horse with his pino noir. “So what’s the secret old boy? How do you make money out of this stuff?” He said it over and over.


At midnight the party was showing no signs of ending but I was cold sober. I walked away down the spiral stairs to the garage that held by Audi. I careered out and down a road and sped through the slumbering city. It seemed miles before I came to countryside but I was happy to see the milky light of dawn appear over the trees of the Ashdown Forest. Slowly the sun came up, rendering the acres of heathland lovely. I breathed in the thin air and ditched the Audi on a farm track. Then I started walking to the horizon and a plan formed in my head. I was going to leave it all behind, I was going to ditch the hollowness of the big city with its fake smiles. I was going to Budapest to meet Jacques’ lawyer.



Chapters from my novella Transitions are entirely fictitious and no resemblance is intended to real people or events.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

R is for Renaissance

Renaissance was my first art exhibition in London in a gallery on the King’s Road. I dedicated it to the memory of Phoebe and her portraits were the centerpiece. Sometimes I wondered if there could be any triumph in death, given the despair I had felt on days after she passed away.



But my paintings said otherwise. They were defiant and powerful. Phoebe’s blue eyes pieced the canvass and her sublime nakedness was a fist raised in the air against death and all of the Franks and Montys of the world.  The other paintings were a moving chronicle of my long expeditions across London and the characters I met. They were building  a new London from the ashes and showing a spirit that confounded their predicament.

I had high hopes for Renaissance but in the first week few people came into the gallery. There was a trickle of sales but visitors would tell me how London was saturated with exhibitions.
“Yours is a bit different,” said one man. “It makes me feel uneasy to be honest.”
Monty showed up to visit on the Friday of the first week. I saw the wide backside of his Beamer pull up and instantly I felt something tighten inside. Life as a stockbroker was clearly suiting Monty. His car and his coat reeked of long night in the office followed by a gigantic fee. He was playing fastidiously with his lapels, clearly confused by what he was seeing.

“Congrats on the exhibition old boy. Not at all what I imagined.”

“Oh and what did you imagine?”

“Oh God. I don’t know. Tower Bridge. I’m not a big art expert. Not my bag.”

“Well do you like the paintings?”

“They are OK. Someone should have told that old bird to keep her clothes on.”

I felt a prickly sensation and my face reddened. “You are not seeing any beauty in her.”

“Oh God no. Not being funny but there should be a law about what age you can strip off at. I was at Brighton this summer and some of the sights on the beach were horrendous.”

“Well feel free to look around,” I said and moved to walk off, before realizing there was nowhere to walk to in the small gallery.

Monty’s voice followed me. “Have you thought of giving up all this art stuff and getting a proper job? I’m not saying you have no talent but your style is odd. You know anyone can make money in the city if they set their mind to it.”

“It’s not something I have an interest in setting my mind to, but thank you for the advice.”
After Monty left a feeling of bleakness descended on me. For two hours nobody walked into the gallery. My parents were due to see the exhibition tomorrow and I expected similar comments to the ones Monty had made. I had not sold enough paintings to keep me in London for much longer. The image of a cul-de-sac and pleasant semi-detached houses was returning to haunt me. Still something about the perfectly manicured hedges chilled me to the core. I thought about turning the lights out early. It was a drizzly December day. I could not remember how many hours ago it had been light.
A small hunched up man arrived in the gallery just before closing and proceeded to eye up each painting meticulously. It was just my luck to have this kind of visitor in when I wanted to close and drown my disappointment in beer.

The man shuffled up to me and addressed me in a furtive tone that seemed to be muffled by his moustache and the thick coat that was shielding him from the cold night. “Have you been painting for long?”

“Just over two years.”

“Remarkable.”

“Oh why?”

The man said nothing and went on muttering to himself and making notes in a small pad. “The girl asked you to paint her because she knew she was dying?”

“That’s right. How do you know that?”

“I can tell. It comes across from the paintings. Look. I’m an art writer for one of the papers. I don’t usually do these small exhibitions but I like this story. I love her expression and the way you have conveyed it here. Do you mind awfully if I come back tomorrow with a photographer. It’s kind of late and I have to get home to the wife and kids.”

I told him I didn’t mind in the slightest.

Usual disclaimer about all this being fictitious etc.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Q is for Queen’s Park

The first time I met Frank I also tasted blood. I seldom saw him but I understood he was Phoebe’s boyfriend. He didn’t stay at her house very often but when he did I would often hear animated conversation.

One night I was heading to the toilet when he came out. I was confronted by a short but muscle-bound individual in a dirty white T-shirt. I nodded and went to move past him.



“Woa,” muttered Frank and moved to block my path.

“Is there a problem?”

“Only some pansy artist living at my girlfriend’s place.”

I said nothing but looked at him steadily. There was a beer bottle in his hand and he was swaying slightly.



“Nothing to say for yourself shirt lifter,” he growled into my silence.

I sensed a presence behind him and Phoebe was in the doorway. “Leave him alone Frank.”

Frank swayed backwards and his bloodshot eyes took her in. “Defending him now are you, you bitch.” He shoved Phoebe and she went clattering against the door. Instinctively I swung at his face, landing a flailing blow at his ear.

Frank swung around again, like some kind of mechanical enforcer and hit me full in the mouth with an efficient right hook. I went flying to the ground and blood started trickling from my mouth. He started kicking at me on the ground, sending the breath rushing out of my ribs. The blows were stopped abruptly as a blood curdling yelp emanated from Frank. I watched him stagger and hold his legs. I saw Phoebe behind him with a curtain pole.

That night when Frank had limped off, Phoebe bathed my bleeding mouth. Her delicate hair fell on my face and I touched her tears feeling the pain of this middle aged woman who was trapped between her dreams of a spectral watercolor world and the hard reality of Frank.

“You have to change the locks. Tell him you never want to see him again Phoebe.”
The woman suddenly looked very old and the tears welled up again. “How can I? I have been with him for six years.”

I looked at the tall elegant vase in her room, a gentle fusion of ibises and palm trees, but noticed a crack near the foot of it where it had been repaired. Her pale blue eyes were looking up at me, pleading. Suddenly, I felt older than Phoebe.

“Does he hit you often?”

“Here,” she said and lifted the folds of her nightie to reveal a series of bruises on her long, white leg. “Always where people can’t see. I don’t mind showing you.”

“By the end of tonight we will have drawn up a plan for Frank to never be in your life again.”

Phoebe inched up the nightie a bit further. “By the end of the night we may have achieved a lot of things.”

Over the next few weeks my easel was my constant companion. From dawn to dusk I would be out on the streets of London, finding obscure Medieval alleys, hidden monuments and beauty in the midst of everyday streets. If I visited to the tourist attractions, it would be to look at them from a different angle, the down-and-outs selling the Big Issue as Americans lined up to spend a small fortune outside Madame Tussaudes, and the toothless, old woman pushing a shopping cart outside Harrods. But as time went by my work evolved. At the homeless encampment by the Thames I painted men dancing with their arms in the air. I painted love among the loveless and Indian weddings in the meanest streets of Bethel Green. Increasingly my theme became triumph over adversity rather than being a mere recorder of the misery itself. For the most part, I crossed the great city on foot. At night I would collapse into Phoebe’s bed and be roused to a new level of passion that would renew my zeal to seek out my subjects on the streets of London.

I never forgot the intensity in her face the day she asked me to paint her. Her small hands were hard on my cheek bones and her eyes bored into me.

“I need you to do this Campbell. As I am now. Clothed. Naked. Doing the laundry.”
“Why the sudden urgency?”

“I’m dying of cancer Campbell. I want you to paint me as you see me now. In blue. Always blue, Campbell.”
Over the next few weeks, I removed myself from the streets and devoted myself to Phoebe from every angle and position I could imagine. The aching sadness we shared seemed to move my brushstrokes. I wondered whatever happened to my portrait of Jacques when he was dead and I thought of the mutilated boy in the streets of Mostar. Phoebe was the longest and saddest goodbye. The colors were beautiful that fall as if the russets of the rolling countryside had invaded the city bringing a lovely amber light. “Shut it out,” Phoebe told me. “Just blue darling.”

One day late in fall we drove Phoebe’s old car to the Dorset countryside, far up into the rolling hills. It felt like a sad parody of young lovers. “It’s not too cold to roll down the top,” she told me.
It was late in the day by the time we came to the Cerne Abbas giant, a man carved in chalk in the hillside, known for his prominent genitalia.


“It’s a fertility symbol. Couples come here to do it to conceive,” she told me. “I need you to paint passing life, not new life. See how the blue shadows of evening are creeping in to the west over the hills. Blue should not be a problem for you, Campbell. You suit blue.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

P is for Painting

I had been staying in Monty’s flat in Pimlico but increasingly I had been feeling like I had overstayed my welcome. At first when I had returned from Bosnia, Monty had wasted no opportunity of introducing me to his house guests as a returning hero. Now I was old news and they walked past me.

Westminster Abbey by Canaletto (Wikipedia)


Now the hubbub had subsided I was pleased to find my easel again. It was scratched and scuffed from my time in Bosnia but I could still use it. My paints were gone and I headed out to the markets of London to buy new ones. I lost myself in the mazes and eclectic streets of Camden Market. I spoke to girls with piercings in their noses and tattoos down their arms, men dressed in leather and hard drinking characters in bare bones pubs. I smelled the odd fusion of the canals, mixed with incense and jasmine rice. A fortune teller beckoned me in. She had young eyes behind the veil but was dressed the dark robes of an old hag.  She touched my palms and recoiled as if stung before regaining her composure.



“I see interesting things. A field full of shimmering poppies and dark water with a vicious undertow,” she told me. “Light and dark.”

“Covering your bases, I suppose.”

Her eyes followed me out of the booth. The next stop was a ramshackle arts supply shop where I spent much of the money my parents had given me on paints. On the way out I saw a phone number on the door for an artists’ collective that met at the White Dragon pub that evening. I decided to kill a few hours in Camden Town before attending. I drank some strong beer in a pub and the fatigue of the late afternoon fell over me.  I started to think of my parents’ solid home in the suburbs. An image of a well kept gravel path and Tilly the poodle running down it came into my mind. There were hydrangeas that were tireless in their late afternoon purple and snippets of conversation drifted over the sound  of the lawnmower, nothing meaningful – Mr. Jones talking about his new Ford, light and harmless laughter on a sunny day. The vision made me long for home and something half remembered. My parents were urging me to return to Cheltenham. I thought of the wide chaise lounge. Then I thought of fading away in the late afternoon to be as inconsequential as the dandelion gossamer that drifted away from its host in the breeze. I looked around again at the hard angles of the pub and the crackling sounds of the TV. There was a challenge in these sharp walls. I decided there and then I would not be going home.

The artists’ collective was a predictable affair. Hippies who thought they could turn their hands to moonscapes and elderly women putting the finishing touches on the overworked paintings of their miniature poodles. I liked the way we were allowed to get on with our work with little interaction. 

Now and again the organizer, a woman in her early 40s with flimsy blonde hair, walked around to look at the work. The artists would be staging an exhibition in a church in two weeks’ time and the best paintings would be featured. I painted from memory that day. For some reason the image of the child in the street in Mostar kept returning to my mind and I painted his tortured limbs and the dim shadows of the snipers down the street.

The organizer who was called Phoebe stopped by my easel, walked off and returned. When she spoke her voice was both willowy and sultry.

“Do you mind if I give you some advice?”

“I don’t mind.”

She cleared her throat and I knew some kind of criticism was coming. “I’m afraid that’s not the sort of thing we can feature at the church exhibition.” Her featured were pinched; her expression inscrutable.

“Oh.”

“Yup. They like uplifting subject matter and that’s not it. Sorry.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint.”

She sat down on the stool next to me and I caught a glimpse of cornflower blue eyes. I was taken aback at the fragility of her bone structure through her dress.

“I didn’t say you disappointed,” she said. “I mean it’s good. No good is an inadequate word. It’s dark and grim and quite epic. If I didn’t know better I would have thought you had been there.”

I said nothing and she started to question me about my past. I told her I had traveled with a French artist for a while but I missed out the part about Bosnia. I was tired of talking about Bosnia. I told her I would be returning home to Cheltenham next week because my money had run out.

Phoebe’s right hand started frantically tapping her chin. “Oh and you will paint horses or something?”

“I have no interest in that direction.”

“Look,” said Phoebe. “You need to stay in London or your talent will die. I have a junk room in Queen’s Park. It’s small and cold and it looks out on a fire escape. You can stay there for free. Just two requirements, OK. You give me some painting lessons and you steer clear of Frank.”

That night I returned to Pimlico and walked into a rowdy party being hosted by Monty. I caught sight of his thick slab of face, the edges softened by sherry.


“Oh Melissa,” he said to the girl next to him. “This is Campbell. He was famous for five minutes for ..” Monty trailed off into squeals of laughter and Melissa turned away from me. I put my few belongings in a bag and disappeared again for the second time in my short life.


Chapters from my novella Transitions are entirely fictitious and no resemblance is intended to real people or events.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

O is for Oval

The polite applause rose and fell in waves around The Oval as thousands of dainty fingers touched each other.  England had been batting for two hours but were making slow inroads on the scoreboard. Monty’s wide arms held a plate of cucumber sandwiches and the kids asked for lemonade. The July sun was unsure of itself and the weather man had forecast rain showers later.



I stared down at the casts on my leg, the sun shining on its jarring whiteness. I read some of the messages from well-wishers written on it. When I had left 18 months ago, I had been a disgrace. Now I was something of a returning hero. The TV stations had picked up on the strange story of the British boy caught up in the Bosnian war who had been injured and flown home.



For a while the doctors thought I would lose my left leg. But after the swelling subsided, they declared I would probably walk again, although I would have a limp and would need a cane. At 20, I found myself part of a media circus and serious news commentators would ask me for my insights on the war. I lost count of the interviews I had given and felt my stories to be flimsy against the onslaught of questions. The whole episode started to feel so unreal that I started to doubt I had ever been in Bosnia and Jacques and Geraldine seemed like parts of a fragmented dream.

My parents said they had been worried sick by my disappearance and had been elated to see my face on prime time news. When I pointed out I had made the news because of my almost deathly injury, they shrugged and patted me on the back and told me how I was like a cat with nine lives.  It seemed impolite to ask if they planned to let me rot in rehab and whenever I mentioned the facility they changed the subject.

One night Monty wheeled my to his gentleman’s club to recount my war ordeal. Lots of hale fellows who were probably Monty’s age but seemed much older placed their arms around my shoulders and urged me to share a glass of port with them.

“You have some great tales,” Monty told me. “I knew you’d  make something of yourself in the end.”
The problem was I did not believe I had made anything of myself. I had been to some exotic places and played some strange cameo roles. None of it seemed to be about me. I had no career path and was instead forced to suck up Monty’s stories about how he had rubbed shoulders with Percy Godwin, a millionaire hedge fund guru, who had promised him a berth in his merchant bank, when he was qualified. Monty’s stories invariably revolved around Monty. I would look around at the rapt expressions on the faces of those who listened to him. I would look at the awe my parents reserved for a Monty story as if it was the crescendo of their night.

Only Grace seemed to share some of my skepticism. One day in the bar as Monty described a wager he had made with a colleague that he would make a million by the time he was 25, she shot me an expression that  looked like a particularly sour crab apple had put her teeth on edge.  I admired my sister’s ability to be completely nonplussed by Monty.

About a month after I had arrived back in England they took off my cast and I was able to walk again with the help of a cane. Monty had arranged a hectic tour of friends and social connections for me but with each appearance my story started to feel more disconnected and forced. I was going through the motions and it showed.

One later night Monty took me aside at the bar. He had chugged down one Chardonnay too many. Bruschetta crumbs clung to his wide chin.

He finally turned to me and there was a vacuous expression in his dark eyes that reminded me of some of the faces I had looked at in Bosnia.

“Look Campbell. I don’t want to be funny but I think your act is past its sell by date. Nobody wants to hear about Bosnia anymore and I’m feeling we hear the same thing every time. Do you mind dreadfully…”


I told him patiently I did not mind dreadfully. In fact, I was heartily sick of the whole routine. He looked taken aback for a moment before becoming distracted by the short skirt of the girl next to him at the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out into the London night and breathed a satisfied sigh at finding myself finally alone.

N is for Nihilism

Before the early 1990s Mostar was a pleasant town where restaurant lights danced on its rivers to the delight of tourists who visited its famous Medieval bridge.  By the end of the decade it was a visitor attraction again. When I arrived there, against my will in 1993, it was a hell hole and a testimony to man’s inhumanity to man.



In Bosnia in the early 1990s the Bosnian Serbs turned against the Bosnian Muslims and implemented a policy of ethnic cleansing. In Mostar the Croats fought the Serbs and later turned against the Moslems, splitting the old town in half.

In a basement in eastern Mostar, we slept and woke to the rhythm of the mortars. The whine of the shells and the shrieks of the injured were all part of our daily routine. Mostar was testimony to the fragility of peace and how when things go bad, they can go bad quickly. The kindness of the strangers who had let Jacques and I share their cars back in France, was a distant memory, as was the turquoise waters of Greece.

Each day swarthy men would put their faces next to mine and urge me in a foreign tongue to get out and fight. Each day my body was unwilling to move and I was racked with thirst due to the shortage of water. Sometimes there was even a beauty to these sun drenched streets despite the jagged and wrecked buildings. The mountains above me held a serenity. Then I would be forced to fire at dusky figures at the end of the street. Sometimes woman and children would pass the ever shifting front line. There would be screaming and livid red pools would split the grey in two.

The only fighter who took an interest in me was called Drago. We would share fire water liquor in a bunker and he would tell me about how the Serbs were pulling down the minarets to the south of us and how his cousins were raped by the neighbors they had drank coffee with for the last 30 years.
“It is war and it is the worst thing I have ever seen,” he told me. He would pump his large first in the air. “Give me boredom any time. Even my wife, God forbid.”

Drago told me the Muslims were constrained by international restrictions on getting arms and were pitted against regular soldiers. Yet their ranks were being boosted by sullen bearded men from Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East.

“Mujahideen. They have cold eyes and even colder hearts. They would shoot me in the head without a second thought for not bending down far enough when I pray. You might think this war is bad but it’s tame compared to the atrocities they have seen. “


I wasn’t convinced. One Friday they sent me out down a narrow defile known as “sniper alley.” From the morning there had been a steady boom, boom of gunfire. Our objective was to force our way down the alley and take out a Croat position on top of an old bakery. We could see the shadowy figures up there, moving across the barbed wire. We could hear shouts and screams. A harsh rattling of a machine gun fire sounded down the alley and we flattened ourselves against a wall. I saw the bullets pushing up dirt and mud. 

Then I saw him in the mud and the filth of the alley. The child must have been only four but he had the face of someone older. It was contorted in a rictus of pain. The child was holding his stomach and black liquid was swelling out and running into the mud and the slime of the street where the shelling had blasted apart the sewers months ago. I ignored the shrieks from my company and found myself running into the alley to scoop up the child. He looked at me intently, his eyes were already whitening over and saliva ran down my arms. The black liquid continued to pump from him. I was close to a doorway when I heard the deadly rattle of the machine gun resume. Something that felt like the jagged edge of pain was searing at my leg, gnawing and biting. I went crashing to the floor and the guns resumed. After that there was nothing; just a numbing darkness and a vision of a bloody skein being pulled over the moon.