The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

Australian writer, Steven Conte

Steven Conte hit the headlines in 2008 when his novel, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, which, by the way, was won last year by Gail Jones.

That debut novel was set in Berlin during World War II and this one, The Tolstoy Estate, is also set during that war; this time in the winter of 1941 when a German Medical Unit is deployed to the Russian front where it sets up a field hospital in a vast country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, just south of Moscow, that is, in fact, the country home, and burial place of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known to us by his German appellation, Leo Tolstoy. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Bauer, is a Tolstoy fan and one of the senior surgeons of the unit. The estate is lorded over by the head custodian, and Russian firebrand, Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya. She is a formidable character, a writer herself, and a masterful creation. With her sharp tongue, hardened Russian loyalties, and fierce dedication to the great novelist she becomes a major thorn in the side of the German officers; as if they haven’t enough to deal with: the constant stream of fighting men with debilitating, challenging, and horrific wounds, their isolation, lice, and, most of all, the brain-numbing and life-threatening cold (-43°C). It defeated Napoleon and it would defeat Hitler, as Katerina Dmitrievna is continually telling them.

Conte immerses the reader in the life of the hospital, the officers and staff, their foibles and idiosyncrasies as well as their work at the operating tables. His description of a thirty six hour non-stop operating shift, where life and death tussle with each other like naughty children at play and that seemingly will never end is one of the most vivid pieces of writing I have read in a very long time.

As relationships develop, split, and reassemble it is the one between Paul Bauer and Katerina Dmitrievna that gradually pulls our focus. They have a shared love of Tolstoy and talk often about him and his work, but of course not often enough, especially for Bauer. The stability of the unit is severely challenged by the interactions between the German medical team and the Russian staff, which further complicates Bauer’s growing affection for the prickly Katerina Dmitrievna.

And then at chapter twelve, just over half way through the novel, Conte pulls a swifty. Suddenly we are twenty six years into the future, in 1967, and Katerina Dmitrievna is in Helsinki writing to Paul Bauer in Nuremberg. And so begins another narrative stream, an epistolary one, that, for the rest of the novel, runs in parallel with the harsh winter’s tale at Yasnaya Polyana in 1941.

Yes, we know that they both survive the war and we think we know what then may have happened, or even what might, but Conte is not such a formuleic writer for it was just five pages from the end that I let escape a loud and unwanted, ‘Oh no!’ as I raced to read what had happened. (No spoilers here)

Great stuff!

I loved this book and I hope we don’t have to wait 12 years for the next Conte work.

Here is an extended interview with Steven Conte about the writing of The Tolstoy Estate from Avid Reader Bookshop channel.

You can find out more about Steven Conte and his books here.

The Tolstoy Estate can be purchased in various formats here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney pic
Irish writer Sally Rooney

Two introspective young people, Connell and Marianne,  find a mutual attraction, sexual and psychological, at school but their socio-economic differences, other people’s perceived opinions, and their own view of themselves, keep them apart. As they mature and they cross paths, along with new partners, they still feel the attraction: one that they don’t fully understand.

The dialogue is simple, sparse, inarticulate like the speakers – belying their intelligence. The narrator carries all the nuances, the real meaning, and the narrative.

It’s this role of the narrator that struck me as unusual. In genre fiction the narrator’s role is very narrow: an isolated voice, in the 3rd person, past tense, with god-like abilities – seeing into everyone’s mind, their desires, regrets,  and intentions, the past, present, and future, genderless, as if one minute sitting on the shoulders of characters gaining intimate knowledge of what they are thinking, planning, the next sitting on a drone just above the action seeing what is unfolding from all angles and from all points of view.

In literary fiction the role of the narrator is more varied; not only using the usual 3rd person voice, sometimes the 1st and even the 2nd, mixing past and present tense; or multiple voices, different narrators, some reliable, some not.

Rooney uses a narrator, yes with god-like abilities, but also as interpreter, explaining what the characters are thinking but do not know how to express. They are proto-adults, unaware of what is happening to them, and also unaware of why they do things, highly-strung and sensitive, feeling at odds with their surroundings and peers.

He tells her that she is beautiful. She has never heard that before though she has privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person. She touches his hand to her breast where it hurts, and he kisses her. Her face is wet, she’s been crying. He kisses her neck. Are you okay? he says: It’s alright to be upset, you know. She lies with her face against his chest. She feels like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.

     You would never hit a girl, would you? she says. 

    God, no. Of course not. Why would you ask that?

    I don’t know.

    Do you think I’m the kind of person who would go around hitting girls. he says.

She presses her face very hard against his chest. My dad used to hit my mum, she says. For a few seconds, which seems like an unbelievably long time, Connell says nothing.

Connell and Marianne are sensitive to each other although Connell hurts her deeply, unaware of what he is doing; and she accepts the rebuke as indicative of how she sees herself: unworthy, unlovable, and possibly mentally disturbed. This ugly duckling turns into a beautiful duck but with all the feelings of ugliness she grew up with just under the surface. Her mother and brother were, and are, her greatest enemies, whom she gives into as her way of surviving them; just like she does to the various men in her life. Connell rescues her on several occasions only letting her drift away again, usually because of their educational opportunities. Academically they are both exceptional. As readers, onlookers to this on-going train crash of a relationship, we hope they will one day survive it and stay together. This is where the dramatic momentum comes from fostered by the time line: each chapter is several months into the future, although one chapter is five minutes into the future and the tension this creates is remarkable.

The joy of reading this book is the insight into her characters Rooney gives us. We’re watching them along with the narrator wishing them well, cursing their decisions, cheering with their triumphs. We desperately want them to be happy.

I loved this book.

“I found Henry James almost unreadable five or six years ago, and now I love him! Who knows what I might get into next?” Yes, we’d all like to know that.

Sally Rooney, at 29, has had two novels published, Conversations with Friends (2017) and  Normal People (2018), which was long-listed for the Booker 2018 and won the 2019 British Book Awards and will soon be on our televisions this year with a Hulu, BBC production penned by Rooney and directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Here you can watch an interview with Sally Rooney from the London Review Bookshop in May 2019.
Here is the trailer for the up-coming TV series.
You can buy the book is various formats here.


Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

David Nicholls pic
British novelist and screenwriter, David Nicholls.

I first encountered the work of David Nicholls with Us (2014) late last year. You can read my blog about it here. Starter for Ten (2003) is his first novel and there are many similarities with Us: the first person narrator, here Brian Jackson, like Douglas Peterson in Us, talks to the reader like you’re old friends, but – and here is where Nicholls shines – the hero is really a dork; yes, people call him names, especially his best friends, but you agree with them, Nicholls shows you, more than tells you, what he is really like: loveable but … for an intelligent university undergraduate he is clueless, particularly when it comes to women and himself, and that’s where most of the humour lies.

Brian Jackson has finally got to university and he heads off to engage with knowledge.

I want to know about Plato and Newton, Tolstoy and Bob Dylan; what the words ‘dialectic’ and ‘peripatetic’ mean; I want to know why people actually like jazz …

He is so enthralled with knowledge having been brought up on a diet of TV quiz shows whose list of questions has usually been introduced with the phrase ‘And your starter for ten is…’ i.e, your first question for ten points is … and his father has instilled in him at a very young age that getting it right is the ultimate point to everything.

He wants to join every student club there is but decides on the University Challenge team, well, he doesn’t quite get on the team, he’s given the standby spot. University Challenge is a nation-wide TV quiz show and he’s desperate to find an outlet, a successful outlet, for all that knowledge.

He also wants to be loved and fixes his sights on Alice Harbinson, the prettiest girl he has ever seen. Of course everything gets in his way, study, alcohol, friends, Alice’s parents, Alice, his Mum, and most importantly, his own view of himself – as well as his arms: what do you do with them when you’re sharing a single bed with someone?

It’s a laugh-out loud coming-of-age story, it’s become a Nicholls’ specialty, and framed by his ambition to be in the team for the coming-up new TV series of University Challenge. Yes, he gets places with Alice and yes, he gets on the team but that’s only a taste of the story. No spoilers here.

It’s highly predictable – but some unexpected twists – but entertaining and very funny.

On YouTube you can find an excellentHBO/BBC movie version (in English, you’ll soon get used to the Spanish sub-titles) made in 2006, penned by Nicholls, co-produced by Tom Hanks, with Sam Mendes as an executive producer, directed by Tom Vaughan, and  staring James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, James Condon, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

You can buy the book, and other David Nicholls titles, in various formats here.


Rough Music by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

I first read this book decades ago and then in 2016 I discovered Patrick Gale again with Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and have remained a fan.

Rough Music (2000), like several of Gale’s novels, has a double narrative, same characters, same location, different times.

Julian a small boy, son of simple parents John and Frances, is taken on an idyllic beachside holiday in Cornwall with those parents, John and Francis. The widower, Bill, a writer, and child, Skip, of John’s sister arrive from America and cause passions and the status quo to collide.

Decades later, Julian is a grown man, a successful bookshop owner, and he returns to Cornwall for a holiday with his now ageing parents; his mother with early onset dementia, to the same beach and even, possibly, to the same house. The catalyst of drama and entertainment is that he has been having an affaire with his brother-in-law, Sandy, which began on the evening of Sandy’s buck’s party and has continued through Sandy’s years of happy marriage and the birth of his two sons to Julian’s sister, Poppy, and right up to the action of the story. No one, not Poppy or his parents, know about this. While on this holiday he meets Roly, an artist and drop-out, and he can see a possible exit from this family deception if only he can orchestrate it in time.

Some of the names of these characters change between narratives so don’t be put off by this. All will be revealed.

Each story is told in alternating chapters rendering the climax of both in close proximity to each other. A double whammy for the reader.

Gale is at his best with family relationships and spends time painting them in all their complex layers of expectation, disappointment, and flowering moments of joy. He is a wise writer, or perhaps just acutely observant.

Family life:

The only real difference was children. He had never appreciated until now how much emotional clamour, interference almost, the presence of children set up, saving a relationship from listening to itself.

How children can get in the way:

‘Ma.’ ‘What?’ ‘Leave the door open this time.’ The open door was sobering, like having a dressing-gowned child bearing mutely indignant witness from the room’s corner.


It was as though the only acceptable way to face old age was in a spirit of glassy contemplation and composure, to become a fund of quaint old stories (so long as one did not repeat them too often), a calm old lap on which babies might be placed and an undemanding extra presence at a dining table.

Self awareness:

Perhaps John had been right and her surliness was simply muffled sorrow.

…flirting was a kind of knife sharpening for marriage.

And humour:

Tell me what you’re thinking. Trust me. I’m a novelist.

Sometimes while reading one can feel a ‘little jump’: when you read something that can chip ever so slightly at your suspension of disbelief but for the sake of the story, and your own enjoyment, you accept it, go with it. I think we readers do this a lot. It’s only after you put the book down, days or weeks later or when you’re telling someone about the book, that you may realise that, yes, that something doesn’t quite gel, some plot point or character trait doesn’t quite fit with what has been set up for us to accept. Don’t let this colour your view of the work or the writer adversely. It is caused, I believe, by us readers assuming that the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader; but this may not be the case. Of course, some books are written in a universe completely alien to the reader, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings for example, but most books we assume are written in our own universe. As readers we will give ourselves far more enjoyment and commitment if we let the story be what it is and not what we might want it to be, even down to the small details of the narrative and characters.

If you know and like Gale’s work you have probably read this, if not then this, along with A Perfectly Good Man (2012), two of his best, are a good way to begin your Gale adventure.

I continue my quest to read and write about all of Gale’s work and having surmised that it is only during the winter that he writes, in the spring and summer he is far too busy (festivals, garden, cello, cooking …) these seasons give me time to catch up. He is so prolific: two books every three years on average. His last Take Nothing With You came out in 2018; I’m expecting a new one next year. No pressure Patrick!

You can buy the book in various formats here.



Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.

Gulliver’s Travels (working title) by Michael K Freundt. A work in progress.

Robert Gulliver Cover picAfter sex years I’ve finally finished the first draft. I’m letting it rest for a while. Here is the Prelude and the first three chapters … a teaser.


If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.

 If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into a situation, a family, where you don’t fit in, or if circumstances render your situation suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.

This is a story of a boy who did just that.


Off to School with Daddy.

In the early Monday morning pre-light, a masculine hand hovers over a digital clock’s green numbers as they inescapably eat up time: 5:57, 5:58, 5.59 … It taps the ‘off’ button. Waking up is as close to birth as us humans can get; and we do it every day. If only we could remember to think this, maybe we would then try to make this day better than the last. 

Robert Gulliver, fifteen years old but who has suffered a heavy dose of puberty much earlier than most, desirously handsome and dark, raises his arms, hands clasped over his head, and stretches while he flexes and rotates his feet, clockwise then anti. He lies still for a moment listening to the sounds of the house. All is quiet except for the living hum he hears in his ears: the sound of himself. He flings back the covers of his three-quarter bed, swings his naked body over the side, scratches his hirsute chest and yawns. He stands on tip-toe, raises his arms above his body, and stretches, making sure he breathes normally. Hold. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. He then walks out of his room to the bathroom down the hall confident no-one is around at this hour; his parents are still asleep. He is up early because there is so much to do: the day is his first at a new school, the third this year, and it’s only June.

He uses the toilet. Drinks a handful of water from the tap, washes his hands, rinses his face, and dons running shorts, with inbuilt support, then T-shirt, socks, Nikes, and Raybans. He heads out the back door of the suburban family home, down the drive and through the front garden where a neglected, immense, and loathsome stand of Strelitzia reginae, bird-of-paradise, dominates a sparse and neglected garden. He thinks about its place, the family’s face to the world, and wonders if he should get stuck into the garden as no-one else will, but he knows he won’t. He is scared of the garden. He’s never said this and never will, and certainly not tell anyone. Even now, he is only vaguely aware of an aversion to it. But it is fear, nonetheless. 

A Sunday morning only a few years ago when he was still a boy, a real boy, a hairless little boy, he was watering the garden and he let the curved force of the water from the hose in his hand linger in a spot of dirt. A muddy hole appeared and gurgled and mesmerised him, spoke to him. Yes, the sound became voices, the words were unintelligible but the conversation, was definitely hostile. He was caught by the sound, pulled by it, but repulsed by the tone. He strove to catch the words. Who belonged to these voices? He concentrated to understand but it was impossible to discern any meaning or purpose; they didn’t even sound like words, but there were two voices and they were full of hate, unmistakable hate. He yanked himself away despite the tug of perverse curiosity, but the fear was worse; a fear that at any moment he would be dragged into the hateful dialogue and have to explain himself. He never had anything more to do with the garden, any garden.  

Now that he has looked at his own garden, well, Ewan, his father’s, garden, with the eyes of a stranger, he glances up and takes in the whole neighbourhood. A straight street of single storey houses all built the same distance from the road, as if there was a plan, or at least, an intention or will. They all are of different designs, nothing matched, but the predominant feature of the vista was the low fences and walls, that separate each front yard; all different too, like personalities, but in this neighbourhood not very stylish personalities. Some in tact, some falling down or covered in weeds pretending to be ground-cover, or ground-cover that has escaped the ground. It was all built well before the brief social experiment of no fences, vast lawn-scapes that was supposed to be egalitarian but ended up being separatist. No one had a fence to talk over so nobody talked. But here no-body talks much anyway. Everyone’s life is pretty much like their neighbour’s. He knows the neighbours to the left, Joe and Betty Dodd, nice people but Betty looks at him too hard sometimes, like she’s weighing things up, and he used to have a yen to catch a glimpse of Joe Dodd in the shower, which was possible since their respective bathroom windows faced each other; and he did – he had to stand of the bath-rim to get the angle he needed – but once he did he didn’t want to anymore; so now he avoids any close association with them; the ones on the right are renters and are rarely seen. Both left and right gardens don’t seem to be tended much either, but they are infinitely neater than the Gulliver’s. If location defines you, he’s not too pleased about this location and what it might say about him. Cromer, northern beaches, but annoyingly inland from the beach and so a little suburban self-loathing has crept into the street, called an Avenue but looks nothing like one. He thinks about doing something about it – the garden? – the house? – the suburb? – but not sure what, just yet. 

He sets ear-phones to his smartphone, opens the National Broadcaster, and chooses News. He walks briskly at first, gearing up to a power walk, and then a more energetic lope; but never a jog. He concentrates on the news wanting to hear something to agree with but well aware that that won’t happen, but, news, somehow, is addictive. He’s a left-leaning moderate while the government of the day is conservative although led by a broad-spectrum party failing to come to terms with its outdated conservatism and led by a centrist ditherer desperately trying to maintain his leadership until attrition and bi-elections foster in new blood and through which he can bring the party to where he wants it to be. Wrong! Meanwhile he is hounded by the media and old far-right-old-boys on the back bench in equal measure. He plods two steps forward, two steps back, but smiles at the cameras confident that he is making headway; and sometimes he does, but less of a step and more of a shuffle. He frustrates Robert as does the opposition leader who is too much from the old-school believing politics not policy will be his way to the top-job. Those days are over. Ewan is a backbencher in the Labor opposition but the State scenario is pretty much the same as the national only smaller, narrower, and pettier. 

As happens when exercising, the brain can sometimes randomly rove. Robert, despite the battling political voices dishing up platitudes into his ear, remembers, or tries to remember, this morning’s dream that suddenly impinges itself on his mind. He is aware of a blurry Arcadian scene, of countryside, picturesque vistas, streams with verdant banks, but where farming has disrupted the living cycles. Machines have turned the sod, oblivious farmers have planted horizons of alien grasses, and tend ignorant creatures from other climes. Through this he walks becoming increasingly bereft at the damage he sees – you know what dreams can be like – but finally he discovers a field that looks at peace. The headed grasses have been cut, waiting he knows for another machine that will thunder over them making enormous round bungles of what now lies peacefully where they grew. But not now. Not yet. He feels a calmness and an incredible urge to lie down with the fallen stems and all the other naked men where he knows he will find serenity, and an odour akin to kindness wafts over him and … and … but the rest is gone, buried within the maze of neurones and synapses, hibernating, but ready to return unannounced at any inconvenient moment in the future. Or lost forever. But, he knows enough about the mysterious process of writing fiction, practiced by his mother, sometimes with his help, to know that such neurone memory can serendipitously splutter into his fingers as they dance over the keys in a red-hot spurt of creativity. He shares this glorious, but untetherable creative agility with Edith. It binds them. 

By 6.30 as the day brightens Robert is back home. He shaves slowly, his beard is thick and dark: his hormones belie his age. Personal attention takes time. He showers, with an olive oil based gel, ‘washes’ his hair with conditioner, and then pat-dries himself thoroughly. On his face he uses a liquid cleanser, exfoliant, and moisturiser; for his short thick hair – but longer in front, he likes the floppy look, especially late in the day – he uses Aesop Violet-Leaf Balm. It’s the best. He’s tried them all. He believes soap on the body is as evil as sugar in it.

Back in his room he dons a pair of white Giorgio Armani briefs; always Giorgio, never Emporio. He used to iron his shirt the night before but he now prefers to do it in the morning; for a fresher look. There is something meditative about ironing in the quiet. The ironing board always stands waiting in front of his curtained window, under which stands his broad dresser which holds several photographs of himself as a child, so long ago it feels historic, but really it’s only two years, not ten. There is also a photograph of a youngish Sean Connery. Robert’s clean but creased shirts lie in a deep top drawer. It takes him seven and a half minutes to iron a shirt. He cleaned and polished his shoes last night. He takes his new grey and blue school uniform and tie out of their dry-cleaner plastic and dresses. He always uses a full Windsor Knot and a shirt with a cutaway collar: he likes their proportions which he believes suits his facial geography. Robert Gulliver cares about these things.

So there, in his full length mirror on the back of his door, a model for Everyman; fifteen going on thirty two, in more ways than age; a man in a school uniform which, on any other man would look silly, but on Robert? It’s a head-turning magnet of a look.

By the time he enters the kitchen, his parents, Ewan, the back-bencher, is already at the breakfast table. His mother, Edith, an eBook novelist who produces a generally lucrative line of novellas about a woman called Veronica and her sex and work life – sometimes intermingling, – is, as usual, already at her desk, down the hall in, what was, the third bedroom but is now Edith’s writing room.

Ewan looks up from his newspaper, runs his eyes slowly over his son, and gives a frustrated sigh, or is it something else? “You’re going to school dressed like that?”

“Good morning, Ewan!” says Robert, sarcastically as Edith, pencil in her mouth, comes into the kitchen. “Morning, Mother Dear.”

Through teeth clenched on the pencil she says, “What? Don’t talk to me. I’m not here.” She goes to a cupboard, opens it and takes out a packet of Bushells tea. “Ah, two els.”

“You know, Mum, you could’ve googled that and saved a trip.”

“Ssh! I’m not here.”

“Ewan doesn’t like my uniform,” says Robert.

“Oh, come on, Ewan, you know Robert likes to look neat.”

“And does he like having his neat little head punched in as well?” But she’s gone.

“So how would you like me to dress, Ewan?” says Robert cheerfully as he carefully drapes his jacket over the back of his chair and sits, “flapping shirt-tales, a tie skew-wiff and loose, and a crotch dangling to my knees?”

“You could at least try to fit in this time.”

Edith’s head appears around the door frame, “Your toast is in the toaster. Ah! And Ewan, you know Robert needs a cloth napkin.” She disappears again.

“I’ll get it,” says Robert as he retrieves one from the dresser drawer. As he drapes his napkin, edged in lace and ironed stiffly, carefully on his lap, sits and contemplates his Swiss muesli, Greek yoghurt and red papaya, he says “Oh, and while we’re on the subject of fashion, your national leader dresses exactly like you seem to want me to. You’d think with such a glamorous wife she’d help him out; he could, at least, wear clothes that actually fit him.”

“I have no concern for the federal leader, it’s my state leader I’m focused on.”

“That’s the trouble with the Left in this country: all the branches looking out for themselves; and can’t agree on exactly the shade of left they want to be.” Edith appears and goes straight for the cupboard again. “So, what’s Veronica up to these days, Mum? Bonking a client again?”

“What? Oh, she’s bonking a builder,” she says as she takes the Bushells tea packet out again and takes it with her. At the door she turns and says, “Well, she had to, really. He caught her staring at him on the bus. And she was staring but not because of him, but because of who he reminded her of. She tried to explain that to him while he rubbed up against her in the crowd, but no man want’s a woman he fancies to talk to him of another man, does he? She’s having a little bit of a crisis over this one not because she should’ve known, which she should’ve, but because she quite liked being rubbed up against in a public place.”

“Ha!” guffaws Robert, “I love you Mum, for all your distance, you must have a never-ending treasure trove of unfulfilled fantasies, wouldn’t you say Ewan?” And he throws a look at his father who refuses to look up. “And what does this one look like?”

“A bit like you. Can’t chat. Must go,” and she disappears with the packet of Bushells tea but pops her head back and says, “I may need your help later today, Robert. I’ll text you,” and she is gone again.

“I suppose you know most of Veronica’s roots look like you,” says Ewan without looking up.

Robert ignores the comment. “And what has this Monday in store for you, Ewan?” says Robert making family morning chit-chat.

“I have a party meeting at 9.30 so I can take you to your new school if you like.”

“Isn’t it wonderful that all the world starts their work at 9 but politicians like to start at 9.30; makes them feel so, so, special.”

“No, so fathers like me can take children like you to school. I could also have a word with the principal which may, at least, postpone the inevitable.”

“Nothing’s happened yet.”

“It will. You’re a shit-magnet, Robert.”

“And you think dressing like shit will help?”

“At least you’ll fit in.”

“Oh, yes, that old blend-in philosophy; don’t stand out, be grey and everything will be alright.”

“At least it may save your pretty face being smashed in.”

“Nothing touches my face unless it’s out of a beautifully designed and expensive tube.”

“Be ready in 25 minutes,” says Ewan and he downs his coffee, folds the paper and leaves the kitchen.

“You know he loves you, Robert,” comes Edith’s voice sailing down the passage from her office, or was that a voice from a god somewhere?

Robert says quietly, “And so do you, precious.”


The car, a Volvo, faded Green and far from the the latest model, is always in the drive, never in the garage as the garage is full of rubbish, sorry, storage. Robert stands with his jacket over his arm waiting for Ewan who eventually emerges from the house.

“When are you going to tend to this Strelitzia?” asks Robert.

“I planted it for the very reason that it doesn’t need tending to.”

“Have you ever read John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids?”


“You should. It’s very prophetic.”

“Come on. Get in. We’re late.”

“Get real! We’re only late because you’re late.”

As Ewan backs out of the weedy driveway and joins the morning traffic Robert tends to his seat belt. It takes him five blocks to make sure there are no shirt creases under his seat belt straps.

Robert has for some years been aware of his dislocation within his family and the precarious position, both emotionally and financially, it holds in the weave of the society in which they live: his mother writes salacious novels, self-publishes them online, and receives payment, eventually, via her online publishing platform straight into her bank account which a debit card gives her access to, therefore rendering her daily working life free from any human contact outside her husband and son; his father sits on the back-bench for a major political party, now in opposition, who does nothing but sit in the seat he is elected to – and continues to be elected to – but should he attract any attention from the media, and therefore the world, which in the realm of political life is more likely than not – the state of his front garden alone – and let’s leave out, for the moment, his proclivities, history, and immediate future – would be enough to send worrying waves to his party, the media, and constituents. Robert seems to be the only one, of the three of them, who understands this.

“Later this morning, Eastern Standard Time, the state opposition will gather for a party meeting behind closed doors to try to wheedle three backbenchers, Thomas Undershaft, Marion Heath, and Ewan Gulliver, into supporting the contentious vote on euthanasia,” the car radio says.

“Ewan! You’ve made the news! Wow. Now you will have to do something about the front garden.”

“Whatever for?”

“It’s the first thing the paparazzi will photograph and the first story the journos will write about. Next thing you know the producers of “Celebrity Makeover” will be banging on our door to bring our front garden into the 21st century. And once the journos dig, Ewan … well, you know.”

The radio continues its morning roundup of news, weather, and not-so-current affairs. Father and son sit in silence in the heavy traffic. Ewan’s knuckles begin to turn white, he indicates, pulls over, and stops the car.

“Ewan! You can’t park here. It’s a bus lane.”

Ewan replies by covering his son’s hand with his own.

Robert quickly pulls his hand away. “If you get picked up by the traffic police they’ll start asking questions and next thing you know your face will be on the front page of some gutter tabloid, and you know what they…

“Robert,” interrupts Ewan, “we have to talk.”

“No, we don’t and there’s a bus coming.”


“Don’t call me that and that bus is not a figment of my imagination. Ewan!”

Ewan checks his rear-view mirrors and pulls out into the traffic again. It is slow.

The Volvo eventually pulls into the curb outside the high school with a yard empty of children. The men sit: Robert waiting for, but not wanting, Ewan to say something and worried about why he himself is so confused about this.

“Sorry about the traffic,” says Ewan.

“Not your fault.”

“You remember the principal’s name? Mr Steen?”

“I know. It’s tragic.”

Ewan has more important things to say. “… Robert,” begins Ewan in a different, soft, but alarming voice that causes Robert to angrily interrupt.

“Ewan! Stop! We are going to be like a normal, well, normal-ish, family and tonight I’ll tell you about my day and Mum will tell us about Veronica’s day, and you’ll tell us about your day; and while we’re on the subject of your day, do what you have to, to stay out of the media’s sites. And you know perfectly well why.”

As he gets out of the car Ewan says irritably, “Oh, so you want me to blend in, do you? Don’t stand out, is that it?”

“Exactly!” Robert prepares to slam the door.

But in a swift move Ewan, held by his seatbelt, leans low on the passenger seat where he can feel the still, but fading, warmth of Robert’s body and holds the door open, looks up at his son and says pleadingly, “But I don’t understand, Baby, why you are so afraid of what you did. I didn’t mind; don’t mind.”

“I was underage,” says Robert harshly but in a whisper, foolishly, as there was no-one around, “I wasn’t responsible!”

“And you’re still not,” says Ewan with a calm inevitability that renders his son shocked and speechless. Robert abruptly turns, leaving the door open and walks rapidly away and into the deserted playground. He hears the door close and the Volvo pull away but doesn’t turn around. He stands in a sea of black asphalt. He knows he’s late, but since late is late, later is still just late. He might only be fifteen but he’s also a man; he thinks of himself as one, and one that feels responsibility even if the law won’t let him. But here he is; a man in a playground. Its implications belie its flatness. Another school. Let’s hope this one is a little more … accommodating.


Pretty Straight Back

Familiar noises and the habiliments of school architecture, direct him into a building and a short corridor turns him down a longer one. He can see up ahead a teacher’s aid in a lab coat mopping the floor next to a free-standing, yellow, warning sign, and heads for him to ask directions. But as he approaches he becomes gradually aware that this man has the potential to be incredibly attractive; not in a conventional sense he thinks, but craggy, well built, and to Robert’s well developed sexual senses, luscious. Dearie me! Look at that! Robert can’t help a sensuous smile begin to teeter on his lips as he excitingly anticipates gazing into this man’s eyes; but just as the smile is involuntary so is the rest of his face and as the man hears Robert’s approaching steps, he looks up and locks eyes on the lad. Robert chucks him a lascivious wink. The man’s shocked reaction has its altering affect and Robert lets his momentum propel him past without being able to utter a word, much to his annoyance, but he can’t help looking back. Be still my beating heart! What is it about those deep creases, like parentheses around a sensual mouth? The man is staring after him, standing next to the yellow sign: caution.

It’s as if another Robert, the man, vies for space in his body and mind of Robert, the boy. He looks like a man, thinks like a man, his penis certainly behaves like a man, but although the chemical cocktail that unleashed the man in him was spilt way too soon there are still boyish elements lurking beneath his adult exterior that bubble up at times sending his mind racing around a traffic clover trying to find the nearest exit to rationality and a calm breathing pattern. Robert has adapted to these moments of libidinal confusion by taking, as he likes to call it, my rational pill: the sensical, almost female, attribute of  attending to the stimuli of reality around him at this present moment: the smell of a school corridor, finding the Principal, being a school boy.

He finds the Principal’s office where he notes the man’s name on the door as C. E Steen: Principal. He knocks and enters and sees the man rise from his desk. He is grossly fat and, when he speaks, flummoxed by a seemingly random stammer and a casual link between tongue and intellect. His desk is messy. A good sign, thinks Robert. A laptop, stacks of papers, a small secretaire of ancient polished wood, and a small photo frame. He’d love to see what it holds. 

“Ah, yes. Am I expecting you?” the man says with a frown.

“Yes, I think so. I’m the new student transferred from Sanderson High. Robert Gulliver.”

“Oh! Is that so? You’re late! And I was expecting someone a little, well, you know, younger, and not so w-well d-dressed. Your file says you’re fifteen, but” Robert’s slightly annoyed look has its effect, “ well, you know what b-boys can be like these days. Yes. Well, now. You’ve got a little reputation stuck to your b-boots, my lad. But Elliot, that’s Will Elliot, the Councillor – old friend of mine from w-way back, says you’re a bold lad, or some such thing. Ah, yes, my lad. Yes. Yes. E-expecting you. Yes, G-gulliver. R-robert. Yes. Robert, I think. Come in. Sit down. Here’s a chair. I’m the boss around here,” and he laughs rather sillily.

“Pleased to meet you sir.”

“Now, no need, no need, you know, around here to be so, well, formal. You can call me Mr Steen or P-principal. Everyone d-does. Someone called me ‘Prince’ once and I quite liked it. Now, there’s a form somewhere around here. Somewhere. For you to fill-in, or is it fill-out? Silly language at t-times,” and he chuckles to himself.

“I filled in all the necessary forms online. I’m sure we don’t have to do them again,” says Robert, trying to help.

“Yes. Yes. Certainly. Of course. Of course. The office staff will deal with that, that you know, computer stuff. So. W-what can I do for you then?”

“What I don’t have is the weekly schedule and …..”

“Yes, of course! Of course. That’s here too, somewhere. Somewhere. Oh yes! Here it is! Glory be! Here’s the whole d-damn thing: a folder with your name on it. Robert Gulliver. This must be yours,” and he hands Robert a full manila folder. “W-what else do you need to know?”

“I was hoping you could show me to my first class. but Sir, Mr Steen, you need to keep this file, I think.” He hands it back.

“Ah, yes. Of course. But now, what? Oh, yes, come with me,” and the Principal rises with difficulty from his seat and leads Robert out into the corridor, talking all the time. “Your home teacher is Mr Luff. G-good bloke. Very knowledgeable about literature and all that. English, I think, is first up this morning,” and on and on about Mr Luff and his string of qualities until they get to a closed door. He knocks and enters. The entire class shuffles to its feet, but the Principle waves them down. “Thank you, people, thank you. Good morning, Good morning, Adrian.” Everyone sits. Robert follows but his view of the room is almost completely restricted by the bulk of Mr Steen. “This is the new chap I told you about, Adrian. Robert Gulliver,” and as Mr Steen steps aside a breathless “Oh shit” escapes Robert’s lips. Mr Luff is the craggy-handsome teacher’s aid minus his lab coat.

There is a pause, like a stop-frame, as Adrian Luff takes in Robert Gulliver, especially his clothes as does the whole class. “You? Mr Gulliver? We’ve been expected you,” says Adrian Luff with a touch of irony in his voice.

“Good morning, sir,” and he looks around the room. It is as expected: students in various states of hormone-induced dishevelment all around fifteen loll on their chairs, or against, or over, their single and double desks, as if to belie the furniture’s shape. Three rough-pretty boys up the back attract his attention as they lean into each other like conspirators, like the trio from Macbeth. One of them, a lanky lad stares at him and mouths a word with derision: an unmistakable ‘Poofta’. Ah, yes. Here we go again, thinks Robert but his attention is taken by a very pretty girl who, of all of them, is sitting up straight.

“Not so formal here, Mr Gulliver. Mr Luff is all that is needed.”

“Fine. Where would you like me to sit?”

“Why not over there, third row back.”

“Ah, a window seat. Thank you,” and Robert walks to his seat, takes off his jacket and hangs it neatly on the back of his chair. All eyes are locked on him as he sits.

“We’re talking this morning about A Passage to India. Have you read it?”

“It’s on the syllabus.”

“Yes, but have you read it,” says Adrian Luff in a tone that suggests that everybody should, but nobody has. There’s a few chuckles of acknowledgement.

“Yes, I have. Twice,” and a few groans punctuate the dying laughter.

“Ah, then you might like to enlighten us on your theories of what happened in the Malabar Caves.”

“I think I’d prefer to sit this one out, Mr Luff, if you don’t mind. It’s my first day. I’ll just gauge the lie of the land, if you know what I mean. But thanks for the offer.”

“Oh, come now, Mr Gulliver. You must know I’ve read your file.”

Oh, fucken hell. So much for starting with a new slate when the one he’s given is already scratched and bloodied. He can feel the look of mischief from Adrian Luff; a little pay back probably for Robert’s audacious wink in the corridor.

“So, come on, Mr Gulliver. Enlighten us with your opinion,” and his soft-looking lips form a little challenging smirk.

I know what I’d like to do to those lips of yours. Stick my tongue through them and press them hard against mine as I run my hand up and under your shirt and then down behind your belt. Robert smiles and says “Do you mind if I stand?”

“Not at all Mr Gulliver. Be our guest.” And it is something about that reply, a little too smug, a little too all-inclusive – us against you, too condescending and challenging with a hope of failure no doubt, that Robert doesn’t just stand but also grabs and dons his coat as he walks to the front of the class – into Adrian Luff’s territory – turns, and boldly and unflinchingly begins – but first he tugs on his cuffs and buttons his jacket.

“Miss Adela Quested, rather plain, has led a slow and very ordinary English life, but despite very little happening in it she has found herself rushing past, at an alarming rate, her marriageable age. No female then would ever contemplate being left on the shelf. However, she is now engaged, probably hurriedly so, to be married, but to a rather pompous and dull prick who has been all this time in India while she has been, all this time, on the other side of the world, being plain and un-noticed.” And then staring at Lanky Lad up the back says, “She’s a virgin, wouldn’t you say?”

The dumb lad falls for the trap and says rather cockily, “Yeah, but I reckon she’d like a bit of the old rumpy-pumpy,” and his two off-siders punch each other and giggle like twits. “Because, you know, she gets all moist and gagging-for-it just lookin’ at all those Karma Sutra statues humpin’ each other, like all over the place.” And the twits giggle some more.

“Ah, so you’ve seen the movie,” says Robert egging the boy on.

“Yeah, I have. Twice!” and the class laughs with him as his chest puffs up like a gobbler.

“But you haven’t read the book, laddy!” The laughter dies. “Because if you had you would have known that scene is not in the book. It’s a little invention from Mr Lean, the director, just to make it a little easier for people who aren’t comfortable just with words on a page, or even pictures on a screen, but need a little extra to help them understand what’s going on.” Lanky Lad sinks a little in his chair and fixes Robert with a hateful stare, although Robert can see that the lad isn ‘t quite sure why he feels put down. Robert’s eyes move from Lanky Lad’s to Pretty Straight Back. She’s smiling at him. “So,” Robert continues, “Miss Quested is a virgin, sexually repressed and about to marry a bore who is also sexually repressed. A disaster in the making. Missionary Position 101 with the lights off. But then she spots the good man, Dr Aziz, with his swarthy good looks,” Robert prances before his audience letting his own attractiveness work for him, “a handsome, exotic, and friendly man,” – he tosses a smiling “Hi!” to Pretty Straight Back – “and poor Adela is hooked. It’s Dr Aziz she wants, although wanting a man isn’t something she would ever contemplate; more like, wanting him to do something to her. So, in the cave, the dark and eerie cave, just the place for a randy man to take advantage of an inexperienced but willing virgin” – and Robert rubs his nipples – “Mmmmm. But Dr Aziz is not with her: he’s somewhere else in the labyrinth with the other tourists. She’s alone in the gloom, exotic, and sensual place with nothing but her imagination” and his hands wander again. “So, what does she do? She lets her imagination go wide to a point where she can’t help herself. She masturbates” – he demonstrates, “Breaks her hymen, gets blood on her hands, -Ah! – panics, runs from the cave, and stumbles into a convenient bramble bush. Now! The real question here – and much more interesting – is not what happened in the cave – I just told you what happened, end of mystery – but, did she accidentally stumble into the bramble bush or did she do that deliberately to cover up her vaginal blood; blood with more blood? Right! I want 500 words from each and every one of you on your opinion on the bramble bush equation, on my desk by 3.45 this afternoon. Thank you for your attention.” Pretty Straight Back leads the mediocre applause. He smiles back at her as he walks back to his seat and, removing his jacket, replaces it on the back of his chair and sits. Adrian Luff takes an unsatisfactory amount of time to get the class back and under his control so he can proceed with the lesson he has planned.

Eventually, a harsh sound of an electric bell, left over from when Brutus was a boy, pierces the air and as the class room erupts with eager but underdeveloped bodies scrambling to get out of here, Robert gathers his things and finds he is the last to leave.

“I’d like a word with you, Mr Gulliver,” says Adrian Luff.

“Certainly, Mr Luff,” says Robert as he alters his momentum and leans against the desk immediately in front of Mr Luff who sits watching Robert’s every move.

“Are you aware of what is in the report from your previous school?” asks the older man.

“No,” says Robert, “but I’d like to be.” And I think there’s a few other things I’d like to be aware of at this very moment, Luffy.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

“You mean, I’m stuck forever with my crumpled past?”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Oh! So you have a crumpled past too, do you Mr Luff?”

Mr Luff chooses to ignore the question; so instead he says, “My job is to make sure you fit in well to this school and keep – incidents – from happening that we’d rather not happen.”

“And how do you suppose to do that?” asks Robert cheekily.

“By understanding a little bit of what’s going on in that head of yours.”

Robert can’t help a smirk distorting his lips, “Oh, Mr Luff, even if you did know what was going on in this head of mine, you may not understand it” which I would greatly regret as I run my hand up your naked body to a nipple and squeeze it ever-so gently while I grab your erect penis in my fist and guide it, expertly, inevitably, into my waiting mouth “Sorry, did you say something?” asks Robert snapping out of his little reverie.


“Oh,” and then coquettishly “would you like to say something?”

“Mr Gulliver,” begins Mr Luff in a slightly exasperated voice but he is prevented from continuing by a knock on the door.

“Yes?” calls out Mr Luff.

Oh look! It’s Pretty Straight Back. “Excuse me, Mr Luff, but as Mr Gulliver has a free-period this session, as I do, I thought I’d take the opportunity to show him around.”

“A very good idea, Ms Lately, as it seems he needs a bit of looking after.”

“Oh, Mr Luff,” says Robert, “why don’t we forget about our crumbly pasts and start afresh?”

Again, Mr Luff ignores the question. “I’ll see you back here for the last session de-brief.”

“Oo! A de-brief,” says Robert as he collects his bag, “I look forward to that,” and he pushes himself off the desk and heads to the waiting Ms Pretty Straight Back, sorry, Ms Lately; but then he stops, turns back to Mr Luff, walks over to the man still sitting in his chair, stands a little too close signifying an intimacy that apparently the older man does not object to – Mmm – and says conspiratorially, “What where you doing dressed as a teacher’s aid mopping a corridor earlier this morning?”

“It was a lab coat. I also teach Junior Chemistry. I broke a beaker. I mopped rather than swept to make sure I got every shard of glass.”

The men stare at each other, one looking up, one smiling down and then “Very sensible,” says Robert who then turns and continues towards Ms Lately waiting at the door.

A few steps from the recently closed door Ms Lately says, “Are you always that arrogant on day one?”

Robert looks at her with some surprise as her question was, well, surprising, and then quizzically as if her question consolidates the basis of their relationship and so he consolidates it even more by saying, “Yes. And are you always so abrupt on first meetings?”


“We are going to get along just fine.”

“Actually, I’m not usually that abrupt…”

“So, you lied?”

“No. There’s something about you that elicits – honesty.”

“Something, what exactly?”

“Something in your face.”

“What about my face?”

“Well, apart from it being incredibly handsome …”

“I know.”

“… really!” with a sigh, “it’s also incredibly open.”

“And it gets me into a lot of trouble.”

“Being open?”

“No, the other bit.”

Ms Lately ignores that. “A virgin doesn’t necessarily bleed when she masturbates.”

“She does if her hymen breaks.”

“Not necessarily. I didn’t.”

“Oh. It’s a good story though, don’t you think?”

“What other theories do you have about Ms Quested?”

“I don’t want to talk about Ms Quested.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Adrian Luff.”

“Do you fancy him?”

“Of, course!”

“He’s off limits, I’m afraid.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

“I may not know what’s in that report about you, but I can sure as hell guess. You really …..”

“Ah!” gasps Robert, “I haven’t yet asked your name.”

“I wonder why that would be?”

“And you haven’t told me.”

“It’s Penny.”

“Ah, Penelope.”

“No, Penny.”

“Why not Penelope?”

“It’s so old fashioned.”

“But with a noble pedigree.”

“And you’re now going to tell me all about it.”

“She was the wife of Odysseus, better known as Ulysses, who stayed loyal to him for more than twenty years while he was away fighting in the Trojan wars.”

“Was she dull?”

“No, she was very beautiful and had over 180 suitors, but she shunned them all, aching for the day when Ulysses would return to her. And he did. She is known for her connubial fidelity.”

“Why do you know so much stuff?”

“I have an uncanny ability to remember everything I see, touch, smell, hear, and taste.”

“And make-up.”

“You have a healthy skepticism. I like that. We’re going to be very close. Anyway, I’m calling you Penelope.”

“Must you?”

“It’s your name, just like my name is Robert. Robert.”

“Robert. Not Bobby?”

He looks at her as if she just farted. “Robert.”


“Penelope. Penelope Lately. Nice. And where does the family Lately come from?”

“It’s the English version….”

Anglicised is the word you need, if it’s the adjective you want.” Robert can be incredibly annoying.

“It’s the Anglicised version of some Eastern European name with too many zeds and not enough vowels.”

“You mean like Latzkowzkizitzky?”

“Something like that.”

“So, Penelope Lately, I think you were about to tell me all you know about the delectable Adrian Luff.”

“OK. Ermm … he’s a teacher.” 


Rough Pretty Boys

Penelope Lately is tiny with a luscious crop of very bark brown hair, almost black but not quite. Her small stature belies her intellect and sense of humour. It’s as if, when aged seven, all her growing energy was transferred to her brain leaving her frame stationary. 

Robert said one morning, “You have gorgeous hair.”

“Would you like to touch it?”

“Er … No!” said Robert a little taken aback. “Why would I want to touch it?”

“Well, I just thought, since you liked it, you might want to, you know, touch it.”

“No. I just like looking at it.”

“Oh.” Penelope doesn’t quite know why but she’s a little disappointed.

“The Mona Lisa in the Lourve in Paris is covered by a sheet of glass so when you look at it all you can see is the reflection of the boards of people staring at it.”

“And why did you tell me that?”

“Nobody wants to touch it.”

“Well, you couldn’t touch it, even if you wanted to.”

“That’s right.”

” … you’re weird.”

During that first meeting of Penelope and Robert not a lot of ‘showing-around’ went on, which Robert didn’t mind as school-yard geography is very much the same the world over: building, asphalt, building, asphalt, boutique bushes, demountable, worn grass, asphalt, building. But it did set a precedent and all their subsequent free time between classes and other annoying educational commitments were spent together. Robert, basically self-educated, simply is marking time until he comes of age when his real life, he believes, will begin. Robert makes no other friends; he adopts a friendly but sarcastic, slightly belittling tone to all others which they can’t actually recognise as such but know it isn’t welcoming. His feelings for Penelope quickly grow close to love, brotherly love that is, and his feelings for Adrian Luff stay frustratingly close to lust-from-afar; not a feeling Robert is comfortable with. He usually gets what he wants.

“Look at them!” says Robert after a short pause that ended a satisfying but exhausted discussion about the modern uselessness of royalty. “Horsing around like children.” The rough-pretty boys are tagging each other; their shirttails blowin’ in the wind.

“They are children,” says Penelope chewing on her apple core.

Lanky Lad and his two accomplices are energetically teasing each other some metres away, chasing and grabbing each other for no apparent purpose or gain.

“Who are they again?”

“Don’t you know their names?”

“I only remember the names of people who interest me.”

“The tall skinny one is Lenny, Leonard Averset. His family owns a delivery business. Gio Chang is from Korean parents, they have two restaurants in the inner East. He was born here not long after his parents arrived from Korea and they chose what they thought was an English name for their new little boy, Giovanni. He’s the brightest of the three; and the other one is Tommy Masood, Lebanese I think. Don’t know about his family.”

“Look at him trying to get his hands under their shirts, flesh on flesh.”

“Play isn’t all about homo-eroticism, Robert.”

“Wanna bet?”

“You’ve got your hand on my knee.”

“I’ve always got my hand on your knee, your hand, your arm, your neck. That’s got nothing to do with eroticism.”

“What is actually erotic for you, Robert? Humour me.”

“Oh, a mustache, hairy chest, with a truck outside.”

“Does it ever worry you that your sexual fantasies are such a cliché?”


“Mr Luff is none of those things.”

“Ah, but Mr Luff has the flavour of all of those things? He’s in a category all of his own.

“So why don’t you want to move your hand further up my leg?”

“I told you. It’s got nothing to do with eroticism.”

“What does it have to do with?”

“Love and affection.”

“Aah, you’re sweet.”

“I know. But, look at them. He’s got his arms around his waist, under his shirt and his crotch smack up against his arse. And loving it.”

“Leave them alone. I’m more interested about why you don’t want to move your hand up my leg.”

“You know perfectly well why.”

“You could still try.”


“Because I want you to.”

“No, you don’t. What you want is a boyfriend.”

“I’ve got a boy, friend.”

“A fuck-buddy then.”

“I’ve tried that. It didn’t work out.”

“No no. What you need is a straight me.”

“And where am I going to find one of those?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll find you one.”

“So, if I have you and a straight-you, how would you feel about that?”

“Fine. You’d have me for 90% of the time and him when you feel horny.”

“And where did you get that statistic from?”

“The point is, he’s there when you need him.”

“And what if he falls in love with me and wants to marry me?”

“And what if you get hit with a plummeting piece of burning space junk on the way to Social Science? Come on!”

“Are you saying that the chance of me …..!?”

“Relax! You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t exactly. Take your hand off my knee.”

He removes his hand. “My point is, seriously,” says Robert pulling her chin around to look at him to prove he is serious, “you are gorgeous, funny, caring, self-ware, and intelligent but finding a bloke, a straight bloke, to match you is not going to be easy; not if those three are anything to go by. But I promise you, Ms Penelope Lately, I will find him. Where ever he is.”

“…you can put your hand back on my knee, if you like.”

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

British writer, Patrick Gale

This is a very different book, Gale’s latest, from his other work which have usually been an insular look at a group of people in a localised area, usually a small Cornish community. A Place Called Winter is epic in its geography, historic in its time and language, and romantic in its tone. If you had to write a précis of this book it would read something like a historical romance, complete with abandonment of wife and family, a journey across the ocean to a strange and inhospitable land, the finding of love in the most unlikely place, a world war, murder, insanity, tragedy, and a villain of truly despicable proportions, but Gale avoids all the possible clichés that would otherwise render such a story fit only for the sensational shelves of suburban bookshops patronised by retired ladies.

“I didn’t decide, ‘Now for an historical novel!’ Rather I found myself more and more possessed by the material suggested by the fragments of my great-grandfather’s story,” and Gale has been reported many times as saying that for the purposes of fiction, and to account for surprising decisions from his ancestor’s known but sketchy life, he ‘turned’ his great-grandfather gay. This is not surprising for Gale readers, as Gale, an out gay man, writes often and well about sexuality. However “The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary we take for granted now.” Indeed, in his first homosexual experience, which he, Harry Cane, subconsciously seeks out under the guise of a remedy for his stuttering from a handsome, but opportunistic actor and speech therapist, says, when it is obvious what is going to happen and without any stutter at all, “I have absolutely no idea what to do.”

Once his affair is discovered by a kind but firm brother he is forced to avoid a family scandal and possible imprisonment, and flees to the wild cold west of Canada where he is befriended, then abused, but finally set up by a land agent next to a shy and reclusive brother and sister pair, there for their own reasons of displacement. It is here, near a place called Winter, that he discovers what life, love, sacrifice and family really mean. Plot points of self-realization, murder and reunion are described in unsentimental terms and even the climatic act of …. No; no spoilers here.

For all of Gale’s extolling his attention “on the psychology and emotional life” of his characters I found A Place Called Winter, although enjoyable and sustaining, not as rewarding as his other works that focused on a domestic band of rural characters dealing with each other, and more importantly, themselves. The Cornish landscape, both emotional and geographic, he knows well and writes about it with, insight, force and understanding, while such considerations in A Place Called Winter are a little overshadowed by the grandeur of the plot. However, there is a lot to gain from this book; it’s probably the most commercial of his works and one that will gain him a new and, hopefully, loyal readership. He’s prolific: this is his 17th work and I eagerly look forward to what next he has to offer.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

The Irish writer, Colm Toibin
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

On Colm Tóibín’s website under ‘Essays” is a short story called “House for Sale.” It was written decades ago and attempts to recreate the atmosphere and situation of late 1967 when Tóibín’s father died and he and his brother were left alone in the house with his mother. Early in the story a nosy neighbour comes to visit and relates a story of two Irish men who meet in a hospital ward in Brooklyn. They discover not only that they are from Ireland, and not only from the same county, but from the same town. This obviously got Tóibín thinking about immigration and in particular the Irish kind of immigration: what is it you want by leaving and what is it that you leave behind? As a result of this digression another novel was born, Brooklyn (2010). This is the opening paragraph:

Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clery’s in Dublin in the sale. Rose was wearing a cream-coloured cardigan over her shoulders. Her golf clubs were in the hall; in a few minutes, Eilis knew, someone would call for her and her sister would not return until the summer evening had faded.

The language is simple – it is hard to imagine it being simpler – but contains a wealth of information. This is going to be a story about Eilis. Her sister works but she does not. Rose has her own money: she has taste and buys leather handbags in the sales in Dublin. She also plays golf, golf clubs are not cheap, and she is part of a crowd that Eilis is not; and the flit into the future makes it clear that this is a routine. Rose works but also parties, and parties late, eats and drinks at clubs, while Eilis does none of these things, she stays at home gazing at other people’s lives from a window.

By the way, the short story eventually became chapter one of his 2014 novel, Nora Webster.

What interests Tóibín is how the immigrant changes, not through any conscious decisions, but merely through contact with the strange and how that strange becomes normal by the immigrant adopting it as a matter of course; and this change is only evident if and when the immigrant goes back home. This is what happens to Eilis Lacey. She goes; she changes; she comes back; she is forced to choose. This provides a neat bi-line for the current movie adaptation of Tóibín’s novel: two loves, two countries, one heart.

Saoirse Ronan Brooklyn pic
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn

The film, directed by John Crowley, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, stars Saoirse (Ser sha) Ronan who you might remember as the 13 year old girl, Bryony, who gets it so so wrong in the film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s Atonement. Ronan, Hornby, and the film are all nominated for Oscars in this year’s awards announced on February 28th.

Having just read, and reviewed Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (see previous blog February 6) I was curious to know why one award winning author left me unmoved (James) while another (Tóibín) had the opposite effect.

Tóibín places one character at the centre; his third person narrator describes her feelings, emotions, indecisions, prejudices, desires, faithfulness, and faithlessness in the simplest terms possible, even when the character herself is not aware, or does not understand them. He does this with no other character. Everything is seen through her eyes, her prism. It is as if the narrator is sitting close on her shoulder, spying on her thoughts, seeing everything from her point of view; it is the closest to a first person narrator as a third person narrator can get.

“When she returned she realised that Father Flood had heard about her job at Miss Kelly’s.” Tóibín could have left it up to the narrator to simply say ” Father Flood had heard about her job at Miss Kelly’s.” But he does not do this, we get the information through what Eilis does; how she sees it. His language is formal, no contractions, and straightforward which enhances his authority and leaves our emotions vulnerable and easily affected. However plot points are not obvious. We know all her misgivings, prevarications, fears and hopes; is she in love with Tony? She almost has to talk herself into it, but it is Tony’s reaction to her rehearsed confession that convinces her; but does she really?

 “…and the next time if you tell me that you love me. I’ll …”

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll say I love you too.”

“Are you sure?”


“Holy shit! Sorry for my language but I thought you were telling me that you didn’t want to see me again.”

She stood beside him looking at him. She was shaking.

“You don’t look as though you mean it.”

“I mean it.”

“Well, why aren’t you smiling?”

She hesitated and then smiled weakly.

“Can I go home now?”

“No. I want to jump up and down. Can I do that?”

“Quietly, ” she said and laughed.

He jumped into the air waving his hands.

All of Tóibín’s Irish characters come from his hometown, Enniscorthy, in Wexford, southeast Ireland. He knows these people but by putting them into unusual surroundings (Eilis in 1950’s New York: Katherine Proctor in Spain, The South; Richard Garay in Buenos Aires, The Story of the Night; Nora in widowhood, Nora Webster) he delights in seeing them falter, challenged, confronted, but ultimately surviving; getting through it all, if not unscathed.

Tóibín is not long on descriptions. In Nora Webster, no descriptions at all! However a sense of place and time is effectively created through fashion and behaviour of the day: the prices and availability of things, the New York Irish attitude to Jews and Norwegians; when coloured women are first served in department stores; the morality of dating, dancing, and music; and what your job, clothes, and choice of words say about you.

It is a romance, a tale of dislocation, of loyalty and belonging, and the meaning of ‘home’. It is also a bloody good read. You may guess the ending but you will not guess how it happens.