Tuesday 30 January 2024

Segments #2, Winter 2024

The Seamstress

Look at you, look how pretty you are!

Do you think?

I don’t think, I know! You are scrumptious, darling, scrumptious!

Katerina ground down the end of her cigarette in the amber glass ashtray. Pipi-Jeni stared at her with those wet sauce eyes and tugged at her blue dress.

That’s velvet, you know. All the way from St. Petersburg. Don’t you go pulling on it so tight! I don’t want it to break before you walk out the door. Your father will never hire me again and, oh God, I’ve worked for him for the past twenty years!

Sorry, Pipi-Jeni said in a small voice. Th- th- thank you, Mistress.

Don’t call me mistress, child. Katerina’s voice boomed, the grandfather clock reverberated. It was getting dark outside and there were geese flashing past the window, somewhere distant but noticeable. Call me Katerina. Katerina was my mother’s name and her mother’s grandmother. Not her mother. She was shunned from her village for marrying a Mongolian after my grandfather had passed. Oh yes, her name was taken from her. They can do that, you know. 

Pipi-Jeni stared and swallowed. 

Stand up! Katerina ordered. Once more, stand up! Let me check the hem. I make a point of having no frayed edges, never. Those buttons there…at the back, yes. Reach around and feel them. That’s it. Pure pearl, those buttons.

There was a noise outside. Low engine and gravel. 

That must be your father. Are you ready? Shall we meet him at the door?

Yes, I’m ready.

Well, come on then! Let’s show you off. Like a pretty picture, look at you! A little ballerina, a little doll. Come, come!

Pipi-Jeni followed the seamstress to the heavy oak door. The room was cavernous and smelt of polish, which smelt of gas. The door handle was so shiny it looked slippery to the touch. 


Glass Heart

You gave me a glass heart as a symbol of our love. Because it’s transparent? I remember thinking. Because you can see right through it? I did not say this out loud of course, but that’s what I thought. I was grateful for the gesture, though it had come too late.
Predictably, we were in Paris. We were on a break, not from each other, but from our lives, and it was our final destination on our Euro trip. We’d been to Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna and back to Bruges. Paris was our ‘romantic’ segment, which of course meant it was unbearable. All the restaurants were overpriced, the food undercooked. All the museums, crowded and dull. It rained incessantly, soft and insidious, like the hiss of a broken pipe or a sound you think you might be imagining.

You must have bought the glass heart in a souvenir shop while I was in the toilet or arguing with a waiter. You were rich in those days, we both were, and so the idea of you choosing such a lacklustre, common ornament to declare your love to me, to patch things up, was a little ridiculous. It would have been charming if we were seventeen and backpacking, but we were far from it. I held the peace offering in my palm, clasping it all the way through dinner.

My focal point for the evening was an old, disused phone box which stood just outside the restaurant doors. Someone had placed a wreath of flowers at its feet and I wondered idly whether someone had died there, or whether it meant something different in France.

Your mouth, so wide. Your hair, a loud undulation of grey and white. Always so confident. Always so eager to laugh - at me, at an innocent bystander, but never at yourself.

‘Here you are, mon cherie. A token of our love. Don’t break it, mind, it’s precious,’ and I couldn’t tell if it was tongue in cheek.


Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife

In the room it was dark and hollow and cold, the chandelier hung still like something grown and the curtains fell, voluptuous in their draped velvet. I could hear him breathing by my side, he was a loud breather, the sort of breather you could hear coming down the corridor. Respiratory issues. He held my hand, a good foot between us, at arm's length. He wanted to hold me and he wanted his distance. The mirror on the wall before us lay still as a lake and I longed to gaze into its mournful glass because I believed it held more reality than this room, I could get lost in there, potentially. We stood like this for the portrait. I could hear him breathing and the floorboards creaking. Minute noise, an even ticking, a rhythmic passing of seconds not from a clock but from the time that passed between us: my husband, the painter and me. I tried not to swallow but of course the more I tried the more I swallowed. It became endless, saliva down the throat, saliva trickling down to mysterious canals, and then I started to imagine the stomach and its pool of saliva, collecting and - and all the while I wondered how could such stillness contain such activity? This activity of arteries and heartstrings and that organic, tenacious ticking. My own heartstrings were pulled taut and I could not bear the way they reverberated in this waiting - this anticipation echoed by my husband’s rasping breath. 


I hold the rose between my quivering palms. I hold the red rose as it breaks apart, petals falling and resting. I hold the dying rose in my pale dry palms as the swamp-like gurgle of the river engulfs me, on this small island, in the middle of this forest. Small critters and birds holler their songs in the distance. I am the only human here and in this knowledge I feel safe. The water is warm and viscous, runs lazy and still. A film of dead things and given up seeds line the surface and I swear I can even see smoke rising - I imagine perfume, I imagine musk. I am far away from my husband here. I am far away from his incessant breath and the chandelier that hangs heavy, threatening to spill its dripping candles. I am far away from the echoing bedchambers of my existence. I am naked in a forest, unprotected as life crawls upon me, a breeding ground for ticks and ants and mosquitoes. My nails: brittle rocks. My hair: split into the veins of a leaf. I could sink and the earth would be warm. I could gestate; mingle with fossils and become something old. I brought the rose as my final souvenir. There will be men on horses looking for me, lanterns leading the way. Galloping horses, resounding, click-clacking, taking me to the dungeons, the underground dungeons, where I might as well have been born.


No Reflections

The world changed when the mirrors stopped working. Even lakes, the backs of spoons, windows in the dark, even TV screens and the eyes of our beloved. No reflections. We could only imagine ourselves in the lens of that particular day, that particular moment. 

We focused on others and in others we recognised our own gestures: a smile held too long, darting eye contact and fidgeting legs. When we passed shops we looked at the displays, not just ourselves walking past. 

Dinners were more engrossing after a few glasses of wine, though it was a nightmare sometimes imagining stained teeth - there was no way to check, of course, and so we had to practise non-vanity or rely on the honesty of friends. 

The view from above meant you always had a bloated, skewed view of your stomach. You had no idea how deep your bags sat under eye, how furrowed your brow. 

It balanced out, though, as people became more present, moving with time rather than chasing its tail, grasping at the chemtrails of comets. 

Death became a beautiful melting, a receding into hills. We became more reliant on others’ impressions of us, which was both healthy and annoying. 

Of course there were questions. There were theories from all corners of science and religion. Reflection became a symbol of the old world. We saw this new era as a time of merging, species into species. 

Enmeshment, un-self-conscious.  


Courting Narcissus

He was a gorgeous boy and I did love him. The way he hunted through the tall reeds, scoping out the birds that feasted on freshwater fish. His feet crunching the stalks of plants, crackling under his substance. 

Narcissus: like the flower. 

Narcissus: the smell of white peach and pollen, the taste of everything un-eaten, the taste of flesh wrapped up in skin. 

I could have eaten him, and indeed I dreamt of it. I am not used to rejection, being a nymph, and so I did not take it well, when he turned his head to the side and showed me his cheek, dropping my gaze as if it were a hollow nut. I, with my bounteous curls and reams and reams of charm. I, with my voice of silver satin, my knowledge of moonlight, the cut-glass sonata of my song. It was I he rejected, I. I could not fathom one single reason why he would deny himself the pleasure of courting a nymph. 

I wore little clothes to help guide his decision. I lay like a prize goose by the pond, friends with the low vibrating frogs. The day had reached its crescendo and we basked in its glow, sated and heavy, after a long sun-drenched meal. I could see the boy but he was distracted, watching a water buffalo cross the plain, lumbering towards its herd in the distance. Always, he paid attention to animals. His focus was unwavering. You could say he got lost in their movements, their sinew, their joints. 

I watched him and waited for him to notice. I'd already played out the scene: him, looking over, catching my gleaming naked breasts, plump and ripe and yielding, and my legs, covered thinly with gossamer, my dark patch of jungle, beckoning. He would take me in. Slowly, in disbelief. I had been there so many times before, the shock of attraction, that thick gloopy desire spreading like ink, staining me with attention. And I loved it, I yearned for it. My desire called out and responded to itself. I was the queen of repetition: over and over, limbs, shoulders, hot breath. 

Can you imagine, then, my horror to see him turn away, red-faced, an awkward clearing of the throat, bending his head downwards towards the pond’s surface: the hunter ignoring his prey. 


The Feast

I sat down at the feast, the plates piled high with golden cooked birds, mounds of cherries, figs, vases strewn and overflowing with willowy grasses, snowing seeds all over the tablecloth. It was a gathering of important people and I did not shy away from calling a spade a spade: we were here to impress one another and secure lucrative deals - subtly, but with force - to build and forge relationships, to secure bonds. Underneath it all: the brittle belief that, together, we were stronger, but also, we all had backs that needed to be scratched and we all had two hands free, at least for the duration of the evening. 

The smells circulated like the chatter: intoxicating and drowsy. Oaky wine, flowing freely form clay jugs, something sweet from the large pot of stew - could it be apricot? Something Moroccan? - and the savory tang of roasted chicken skin. Thyme somewhere too - citrus. I was enjoying myself in a moderate, distant fashion. Usually these gatherings bored me to tears but I was in a good mood, I had just visited Cecilia and had emptied myself of all that pent-up feeling I’d accumulated over a stressful week, all that stored-up heat. 

I felt lighter and placid, removed from the social niggles and awkwardness I’d usually have felt, being amongst all these men; hungry, older men who both intimidated and disgusted me. Well, there I was, at the table. On my second plate of the evening. Grease running happily down my chin like a gluttonous river. In conversation with a man who pulled a fair amount of strings at the printer’s, knew who to speak to about getting a new paper printed, which was my intention. I was respected because of the success of The Star, but it was still fairly unknown. I still had something to prove. 

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