In 2012, The Reader Berlin and ‘one of the world’s greatest bookshops’ (BBC Travel) invited writers to share their stories featuring Another Country. The judges were Sharmaine Lovegrove (Dialogue Books), Kenneth Macleod (THE INCIDENT, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) and Jen Hewson (Rogers, Coleridge & White). This book is an anthology of the winning entries, a showcase of new writing talent and a tribute to a very special venue. With further contributions by Sophia Raphaeline, owner of Another Country, and Reader Berlin founder, Victoria Gosling. The authors of the anthology are: Victoria Gosling Sophia Raphaeline Ambika Thompson Marcus Speh Johanne Da Rocha Abreu Brittani Sonnenberg Pippa Anais Gaubert Neil Bristow Bronwyn Carter
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The Reader Berlin
TALES FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY
Edited by Victoria Gosling
Published by The Reader Berlin in association with Another Country bookshop.
Text copyright © individual authors 2014
published by: epubli GmbH, Berlin, www.epubli.de
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Foreword by Victoria Gosling
The Cellar Quiz by Sophie Raphaeline
The Inheritance by Neil Bristow
Train by Pippa Anais Gaubert
May 1st by Johanna da Rocha Abreu
A Guide to Shoplifting in Berlin by Brittani Sonnenberg
The Preparation by Marcus Speh
A Sexually Provocative Short Story by Ambika Thompson
Another Country – Some Short Histories by Sophie Raphaeline
The Dream of a Library by Victoria Gosling
Tuesday in the Basement by Bronwyn Carter
This book is very much a team effort. It would not exist without Kenny Macleod, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Jennifer Hewson, Sophie Raphaeline, Anna Marijn Koppen, Jane Flett and Annabel Brady-Brown.
With special thanks to epubli and The Curved House.
Where questions, tossed like thistle spears,
prick the attempt, the gasp of secret knowledge, leavening
the slow outbreath that fills a room unanswered by the word.
A cornucopia of knowing, a wine of truth,
flush cheeks out with the fill and rush of it,
as Circe’s pets, puffed up, bay out the law
of sweet sophistry from the basement’s maw.
A knocking at the gate; the intention
of visitation raising such questions that tempt,
that lead me to a different part, another play
and played upon… Come, court me now,
with scents and smokes and seals, with dusty hands and heels,
call me to accounts – Where? Who? What? When?
Conjure my beating heart again.
Welcome to Tales from Another Country, an extension of that strange realm, the Another Country Bookshop. Showcased here are the winners of The Reader Berlin’s 2012 Short Story Competition. From Neil Bristow’s “The Inheritance”, which went on to win the competition and be published in The EXBERLINER, to the marvellous tales dreamt up by Ambika Thompson, Johanna da Rocha Abreu, Brittani Sonnenberg, Pippa Anais Gaubert and Marcus Speh, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to discover the work of such talented writers.
This project has been in the pipeline for some time now – time moves more slowly in Another Country – and since then The Reader Berlin has hosted all kinds of workshops and events in the creative writing sphere. It’s wonderful to see that Berlin continues to foster and attract authors from all over the world.
Some of our courses take place in the bookshop and I never come through the doors without experiencing a thrill of pleasure that such a place exists. It is, after all, the kind of bookshop one finds in books: ramshackle, pungent, full of odd finds. The librarian is herself a magical creature – part sphinx, part oracle. She of the roast bird-in-a-bird and dazzling non-sequiturs. You can eat, drink, smoke even, and there is a gratifying lack of signs telling you not to touch something. On a pile of books, papal purple, clasped tight as a rosebud, is a cabbage intended for Friday’s supper. Someone is having a nap by the radiator downstairs. Sophie busies herself creating questions for the quiz as customers recline in armchairs or roam the shelves.
Once upon a time there seemed to be more of these places, small kingdoms run according to the owner’s passionate enthusiasms, that you couldn’t imagine making a profit and yet which seemed to be there year after year. There is something magic about them, and these days we are less comfortable with magic – perhaps it reminds us too much of what we have lost – which is perhaps why they grow scarcer.
I would like to thank Sophie personally, not only for her support for The Reader Berlin, but on behalf of all of those who have over the years found in the bookshop, not only a source of reading matter (or, at the other end of the scale, sexual partners) but welcome, haven and society. She once told me with cheerful acceptance that not everyone who comes through her doors – for a book, or a workshop, or a Friday night feast – becomes a bookshop person, but I would like to imagine that they do, that that is the spell Another Country casts, and that no matter where they go and what they do, her customers will remain bookshop people, and I hope that this particular book will help them remember that.
Daniel sat in the corner, next to his bag, watching the man in the corner who was watching him. Several decades divided them, and on the floor separating where each of them sat was the generation in between. They were mostly men, old enough to be Daniel’s father, or the sons of the one observing him, but here and there a woman stood too, idly smoking or drinking, bemused, not quite fitting in. From time to time they would step aside and the eyes of Daniel and the man would meet. Then the people would cross back over, blocking the view, and the two again would have to wait. But they would not wait long, this much Daniel knew. He looked again at the man and thought: this night is for me and you.
The stranger stood up from his chair and started to cross the floor. As he came out of the shadows and into the light, his years visibly increased: the slick grey hair was thinner than it had seemed, and around the mouth, with the pearly teeth that had glinted in the darkness, were grooves that ran to his cheeks and down his chin. But his gait was straight, and even if the buckle of his belt was partly obscured by the belly that hung low in his shirt, a flame of vitality shone in his eyes, the sort of flame that shines so brightly on the very cusp of its final decline.
“English?” he asked as he stopped by Daniel’s side. His tone was complacent, as if even a negative answer would be no hindrance.
“English,” Daniel replied.
The man smiled and sat on the seat to Daniel’s right. He had a glass of white wine which he placed on the table, beside Daniel’s water.
“I’m Lev,” the man said, and held out his hand.
Daniel took the hand and shook it. He noticed how the man didn’t look straight back at him, at least not for long, rather his gaze flickered up and down, taking in Daniel’s brow, cheeks, mouth and chin, as if assessing a sculpture rather than a human being.
“Where are you from?” Lev asked.
“Near here.” It was the same thing Daniel said to everyone, and they seldom pried further, even those who returned a second time. “You?” he inquired, not because he cared, but to be polite.
“Oh, my home is the world,” the man replied, as if exacting a subtle revenge for Daniel’s evasive answer. He had a strange, mongrel accent that was hard to place. “But anyway, don’t worry, I’m just passing through here.”
“I’m not worried,” Daniel took a sip of his drink.
Again a smile passed over the man’s face. It was a smile of confidence, of one who enjoyed a challenge.
“I was born in Latvia,” he said. For a moment he paused, as if sunk in some childhood memory of his mother, of his home, of those decades now far behind him. Daniel watched him closely, wondering if he was drunk. “My parents called me Lev – the lion. But you can call me Leo if you want. Most people do.”
“I’ll call you whatever you want me to,” Daniel said, and for the first time he too now smiled. This seemed to relax his companion.
“Very kind,” Lev said. “Are you here every night?”
Daniel shrugged. “It depends. Sometimes.”
“But you’ve been here all night. I’ve been watching you.”
“Yes,” Daniel said, “I noticed. And I’ve been waiting all evening for you to come over.”
“Oh.” Lev reached for his glass. “If I’d known that then I might have joined you earlier. I wouldn’t have wasted my time over there. There’s a lot of riffraff here tonight.”
“If you say so.”
Looking up, Daniel noticed another man standing at the bar, gazing over. He was about fifty, slim and well-groomed, probably a politician or entrepreneur of some sort. He’d been eyeing Daniel earlier, too, but had lacked the courage to approach of his own accord. Now that he saw another in his place he stared all the more intensely, as if to say: “See what you’ve ended up with. If you’d been a little smarter it could have been me.” There was a trace of scorn in his eyes, but also regret. Daniel stared coldly back at him until the man looked away. Then he turned back to his companion.
“You know, I don’t share my seat with everyone.”
“Oh. Then I suppose I should feel honoured,” Lev said. His voice rose at the end, as if he were not quite sure whether to phrase this as a statement or question.
They looked at one another a moment, saying nothing. They were like two players who were still trying to establish the rules of their game. The man gestured to Daniel’s glass, which was nearly empty.
“Another drink for the young man?”
Daniel looked at the glass, then that of the older man, which contained not much more than his own, and back to where the offer had come from.
“You know somewhere nice?” Lev asked.
“I thought you might. Where are you staying?”
The man smiled, and Daniel asked himself, as he often had before: Does he think I’m an easy one? That I’m his plaything now? That he has me in his hand, ready to be devoured?
“I can’t remember the name,” Lev said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “But I can tell you it’s very nice. I’ll show you, if you’re willing to come with me. If you have the time.”
With an offer like that, from a man like this, Daniel was not going to refuse.
“Let’s go,” Daniel said, and stood up.
It seemed only natural that Lev paid for both their drinks on the way out.
* * *
It was a large room with a king-sized bed and a grand old chair in the corner. Golden curtains framed the windows, which looked out over the city and its cracked and rusty rooftops, now bathed in a murky, nocturnal light. On the middle of the bed was a silver bucket with a bottle of champagne in a bath of ice, glistening under the glow of the lamp. Next to the bucket were two fine glasses, tall, engraved with double-headed eagles, and a folded white napkin, laid out on a tray. It had all been there when they arrived. Either Lev had expected company or had somehow, without Daniel noticing, managed to order ahead.
Daniel sat on the bed, clothed apart from his jacket and shoes, which were placed side by side at the door, while Lev went into the bathroom to take a shower. Daniel had asked should he, too, have a wash but his companion said no, all Daniel should do was relax and make himself comfortable. Lev invited him to read, pointing to a collection of stories he’d picked up in a bookshop called Another Country while out sightseeing that day. And yet as Lev showered he left the bathroom door open, as if to say that were Daniel to invite himself in, his company would not be refused. Daniel didn’t move, but stayed, his little bag by his side, and waited for Lev to return.
Five minutes later the older man emerged, feet bare and still dripping wet, not seeming to care if they stained the floor. He was wrapped in a navy dressing gown that was a size too small.
“Pour yourself a drink, it’s what it’s there for,” Lev said, gesturing to the champagne on the bed. He almost sounded put out that Daniel hadn’t helped himself. Some were like that, insisting on informality. Others were the opposite – nothing to be done without their command.
“I don’t drink,” Daniel said.
It was a lie, he drank when occasion called for it, but it was time to see what the man would permit and where he would draw the line.
“Very well,” Lev said, wandering over to the bed and loosening the belt on his gown, “then I’ll have to drink alone.” He sat down and poured himself a glass, his lips forming a pout. His stomach forced the folds of his gown open and a mound of fat, covered in grey fuzz, peeked out. He tried one more time: “You’re sure? It’s the very best, you know. You won’t taste champagne like this every night. And it is so lonely to drink on one’s own.”
“All right,” Daniel said and smiled, “but just a small one.”
The old man grinned like a child. He even filled the two glasses to order: his own to the brim, Daniel’s half way to the rim.
As they drank, Lev pulled up his pillow and sat leaning against it, his back at the head of the bed, the base of his glass resting on the dome of his belly, which gently swelled and subsided, like a sickly balloon. Looking down the bed, Daniel saw that there was no nail on Lev’s big left toe.
“Come,” Lev patted the space beside him, “there’s no need to be shy. We don’t have all night. And off, off,” he said, with a sudden gesture that was half irritable, half playful, waving his free hand at Daniel’s shirt and trousers. “No need for all that. We’ve got privacy here. No one’s going to come in.”
Daniel unbuttoned and slipped off his shirt, exposing his hairless torso, then did the same with his trousers, folding them neatly on the back of a chair. He crossed back to the bed in just his sleek white pants and reclined beside his partner. How often he had done this before, yet so seldom with the same person, for even those who enjoyed it were not prone to come back a second time. He drank his champagne and ran his tongue, the bubbles still dancing upon it, along his sharp teeth. He then pulled his bag towards him and waited for the question to come, as it always did, now when he was stripped to his pants and would soon be relieved of these:
“What have you got in there?”
It was, Daniel knew, the defining moment of the night. Some would sound giddy, as if anticipating a toy of some kind. Others, grown paranoid from decades of a double-life, would tense up, fearing they’d fallen into a trap. All that mattered was that it came at the right time, when he lay there, offered up to them, when it was too late to turn back.
“It’s something I brought for you,” Daniel said.
“Oh?” Lev looked at him with curiosity. “A present?”
“If you like. Yes.”
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