We weren’t looking for trouble, honestly. We arrived in Belfast in early July, after months of hunkering down in Portland. Apart from the fact that covid-19 was getting its teeny little hooks into an ever widening portion of the locals, cops had been using up tear gas and pepper spray like it was going out of fashion. All we wanted now was a little bit of peace. What better place to find it, I thought, than in a tiny little suburb on the outskirts of boring old Belfast?
When I looked out of the window on that first morning, I noticed that the street was positively festooned with Union Jacks and pennants of red, white and blue. There were flags in the windows and all in all the sense of a holiday mood. I realized, with some embarrassment and not a little dread, that we’d landed in East Belfast on the eve of marching season. Not just East Belfast, either, but a Loyalist holdout.
The row house we were staying in looked out on a pretty green area called Marsh-Wiggle Park, a reference to a character invented by C.S. Lewis, native son of Belfast. From our vantage point on the upper storey, starting from about July 9, we saw men and boys lugging pallets into a clearing and stacking them up as high as they could. The pallets were supplemented with whatever scrap wood they’d been saving up over the year–chairs, doors, desks, even a bicycle. The pile grew and grew and when it was perfected, on the 11th, someone put a couple of Irish Republican flags on top.
I won’t lie, the sight of this spiteful little stack of sticks gave me an unpleasant feeling. The fact that my husband and I are both descendants of Irish Catholic families made it feel a little too close to home. Even if we were in no immediate danger, it was scary. Maybe it was my imagination, but the air in general was a little electric. In fact I don’t think it was my imagination though because there were violent clasheson the nights of July 10 and 11. Even if they were small compared to those of previous years, it was a nail-biting novelty for me. Late on the eleventh, we saw a glow in the sky and heard boisterous singing.
Then, the next day, the morning of the twelfth, we heard the boom of drums and shrill whistle of fifes. This surprised me, as I’d read that the orange people intended to celebrate safely at home, whatever that would entail. Listening to Ian Paisley’s greatest rants? But lo, ten minutes later we saw a motley collection of portly musicians marching down the street followed by families cheering and waving Union Jacks. I rushed outside to get footage, nervously wondering if I would be recognized as the Enemy. No one seemed to notice me though.
A couple of days later, we’d ‘done our time’ in quarantine and I ventured out in my mask to see something of the city. Aside from all the Union Jacks hanging from streetlights, my first impression was that of a shuttered city. Lockdown restrictions had not yet been lifted and there were very few people out and about. The rows of shuttered shops had a melancholy, forlorn feeling. Bus stop ads offered public health advice. In many windows were children’s drawings of rainbows–a symbol of the National Health Service, a ‘rainbow in the rain’.
One place where there was a big crowd was on a little street near Ballymacarett Orange Hall. Quite a large crowd was drinking and mingling. I decided not to take a picture of the people because I didn’t want to provoke anyone. Several months of isolation combined with nervousness about unfamiliar sectarian triggers led me to bustle on as innocuously as possible. Unfortunately this was not very innocuously at all as I was the only person in the city wearing a mask.
In this part of town there were several murals and flags sporting the logo of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group that is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom and Ireland. While most people think of the Troubles in terms of I.R.A. bombings, the U.V.F. was responsible for the deadliest attack of the conflict, the 1974Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 civilians (and 1 full-term unborn child) and wounded 300.
Like I say, we weren’t looking for trouble but it was hard for me not to notice all this. So I decided to go on the ‘Belfast Troubles Walking Tour’ with local man Arthur McGee. I don’t want to say too much about that because if you come here you should take it. Just one of the many, many interesting things we learned on the tour was the story of theNorthern Bank robbery on December 2004, the biggest heist in British history. The thieves got away with £26.5 million in pounds sterling, cash, and the case has never been solved.
In my next post, I plan to write about fiction set in Belfast during the Troubles. Stay tuned!
Angela opened the fridge door and took out a vegetarian sausage. She started cooking it on a frying pan when suddenly she saw that the sausage had a little face. The face was furious and started yelling at Angela, telling her that she wasn’t even cooking it properly—she had to remove the plastic casing first and to put more oil in the pan. Angela peeled the plastic off as the sausage continued to berate her. Then she hurriedly got more oil and poured it in but it turned out to be gasoline and the kitchen exploded in a fireball.
Angela woke up with a scream. Sitting next to her in the darkness, watching her intently with big pop eyes, sat Melinoë. Angela screamed again.
“What is the matter with you?” Angela cried.
“Was it scary?” Melinoë asked eagerly.
“Huh? Yes, it was scary.”
Melinoë nodded and smiled a little bit.
“That’s good. I thought it might not work.”
“What? Wait a minute, did you do this?” Angela asked, narrowing her eyes.
“Of course. Nightmares are my forte, I told you. I don’t usually get to see the people dreaming though. It’s usually long-distance, so I have no idea how effective they are.”
Angela clutched her head in her hands and groaned.
“Let’s get something straight,” she said at last. “I may be sharing a room with you, but I’m not your guinea pig. Please don’t give me any more nightmares, OK?”
“Why not?” Melinoë put her head on one side, bird like.
“Because it’s hard enough getting used to this place without bedwetting added to the mix, OK?”
“You didn’t like it?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
“Well what about when I change shape? Can I still do that?”
“You can do that all you like. Go crazy. Just don’t mess with my slee—agh! For the love of—”
Angela found herself looking at a person who was made entirely of wriggling mice.
“OK,” Angela clenched her teeth, “As I said, that’s totally fine. Just let me get some sleep.”
When Angela arrived at the Hades household dining room, Persephone and her two daughters were already daintily addressing a breakfast of pomegranate smoothies, ambrosia cups and bread made with Elysian wheat. Cerberos was sitting next to Persephone, pitifully resting on of his heads on the table hoping for a scrap of bread.
“Good morning, Angela,” Persephone said. “Did you sleep well?”
Melinoë bit her lip and shot Angela a warning glance.
“Oh, yes, I slept great, thank you,” Angela smiled.
“Good,” Persephone smiled. “I thought later, you might come up to the women’s room; we want to prepare you for your ceremony tomorrow.”
“My what?” Angela said.
“You know, your ceremonial dipping in the Acheron, to symbolize your homecoming.”
“We need to dress you and do your hair and make-up,” said Elpis, “You will look so beautiful!”
“Oh, a kind of makeover?” Angela asked. “That sounds fun.”
“But before that,” Melinoë interrupted, “I can take Angelia over to introduce her to the next-door neighbors.”
“Must you?” sighed Persephone, “They’re so ghastly.”
“Yes I must,” Melinoë pouted. “They’re really cool and Achlys said they all want to meet her.”
“All right, but be sure you get back before dinner.”
Melinoë took Angela’s hand and the two hurried out of the great cold mansion, down the steps and down the street to a house constructed of grey-veined black marble. Running along the top of six great black columns was a golden architrave engraved with scenes of murder and mayhem. As they entered the courtyard, Angela gasped at the sight of a rectangular pool filled with some viscous red liquid.
“Is…is that blood?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Melinoë murmured. “Isn’t it amazing? I really like the aesthetics here. Oops, there are the Keres—get back behind this pillar. They’re real hellions. One’s full of violent death, the other one’s the personification of disease in wartime.”
From their hiding place, they observed twin girls running at top speed around the blood pool. Both wore black tunics and wings reminiscent of black swans. One was brandishing a knife and, judging by her ferocious expression, fully intended to do the other one an injury. The other was surrounded by a mist of mosquitoes, black smoke and an indescribably rotten stench. After three or four circuits of the pool, they stopped running and paused to gather up handfuls of blood, which they drank thirstily.
“Let’s go to the women’s room. It’s usually quieter there.”
Quietly, so as not to alert the twins, Angela and Melinoë walked upstairs and found themselves in a large room containing a big loom. Around it sat three serious women, all dressed in white. One was heavily pregnant and had a distracted air. Another held a long piece of wood with notches in it. The third held a pair of scissors.
“They’re the Moirai,” Melinoë murmured. “They decide how long people live. The pregnant one is Clotho. She’s spinning thread of a life from a distaff onto a spindle. Lachesis has the measuring rod—she decides the length of a life. And Atropos holds the shears—she does the snipping.”
Angela gaped at them, fascinated.
“They do that for every single person?” she asked.
“Yes, they’re always working. Come on, let’s find Nyx.”
Melinoë took Angela’s arm and pulled her along a corridor toward a bedroom with richly painted walls. A woman dressed in diaphanous dark blue reclined on a richly decorated couch. She had long silky dark hair and her face was alarmingly pale except for black eyes, from which there flowed rivulets of what looked like black ink. She barely noticed the girls come in but made a slight gesture with her wrist, which seemed to acknowledge their presence.
“Praises Auntie Nyx,” Melinoë curtsied, “Angelia is back.”
This made Nyx pay attention. She lifted herself on her elbow and surveyed the newcomer.
“That’s not Angelia,” she said. “She doesn’t have that catastrophic aura. Who is this?”
“You’re right auntie,” said Melinoë, “Her name is really Angela. But you can’t tell anyone, OK? Persephone’s planning to fool Hera into thinking she’s her long-lost daughter Angelia.”
“Oh, I see. Because the real Angelia has gone AWOL,” she sighed and lowered herself back. “What a lot of trouble. Persephone has so much energy. Well, never mind. Welcome to Hades, dear. Will you girls have some grapes?” she indicated a golden tray overflowing with black grapes.
Nyx inspected Angela again, her eye lingering on her sweater and jeans.
“What extraordinary clothes! Are you an eastern person?”
“No ma’am, Kansas is pretty central.”
“Have you ever done any babysitting by any chance? My children are wearing me out.”
“Well,” Angela started, but then looked at Melinoë, who was shaking her head and making the cut-throat sign. “I’m…I’m not really very good with kids.”
“What a shame. I believe I will go out of my mind as it is. Melinoë, darling, would you be a dear and tell Erebos I won’t be down for lunch. I have a terrible headache.”
“Will do, auntie, bye for now,” Melinoë kissed her hand and the girls left her apartment. As they walked the halls, an ear-splitter roar rent the air. Angela nearly jumped out of her skin.
“What was that?” she was going to say, but a deafening racket ensued, accompanied by drums so low and loud that they seemed produced by a giant’s heart. She noticed that they were steadily moving towards the infernal din, and she worried that they would be engulfed by some hitherto unimagined monster, or an army of millions.
Note: This is chapter 4. Click here for chapter 1, here for 2 and here for 3.
[This is chapter two of a serial novel. Read the previous chapter here].
Angela was caught up in a cool flurry of feathers and honey-flavored air. She closed her eyes and her breath, half terrified, half thrilled. She was filled with thoughts of her imminent ascension to the throne in the Underworld. What would the job involve? Would she mainly do charity work and ceremonial duties among the Damned? Would she have a big wedding with the Prince of Darkness? If he was ugly she could just be a Queen who ruled single-handedly and had a series of demonic courtiers like Queen Elizabeth. She fell into a pleasant reverie.
It was bitingly cold and windy when she opened her eyes again. She seemed to be in some kind of cage made of four yellow bars. Stretching her neck up, she was alarmed to see that Thanatos had become a giant falcon and was holding her gently in a talon. When she looked down, Earth lay so far beneath them so that she could see the curvature of the planet. They were currently over a big ocean—the Pacific?–and she could just make out little islands and atolls with frilly white fringes. As she gazed, they moved towards a line of darkness that signalled they were entering the ‘dark side’ of the planet.
Crossing into the darkness, she became even colder and her teeth started chattering. Noticing that one of Thanatos’ belly feathers had come loose, she pulled it down and wrapped it around her. It was extremely warm and she felt much more comfortable. Digging into her bag, she took out her smartphone and made a short video of the darkening Earth.
Suddenly, there was a prolonged, shimmering flash of fluorescent green similar in hue to the Northern Lights. Thanatos wobbled a little with the force of some great wind and Angela held tight to one of his talons with her left hand and to the feather with her right. After the flash, everything went completely dark—no stars, no sun, no little glow-worm carpet of electric lights down there. This time it was an inner chill that made her shiver, the fear that everything had disappeared forever.
Through the void she gradually perceived a faint grey shimmering beneath them. There must have been light coming from somewhere, though she could not identify the source. She realized after some time gazing uncomprehending at the shimmering that it was liquid.
“Oceanus,” Thanatos explained, “We are at the eastern edge of Hades’ realm.”
Angela’s eyes adjusted and Thanatos flew closer to the surface of the sea so that she could smell its salty, brackish scent and hear the bell-like cries of unfamiliar seabirds. They skimmed the shoreline and flew over a great dark forest, absolutely silent, through which flowed a river of fire. She got out her phone to film it.
“That’s the river Phlegethon—and this region is Tartarus, home of souls doomed to torment. The Titans live there,” he swooped over three volcanoes light grey smoke billowed up into the air for miles around and made Angela cough.
They continued over high, forbidding icy mountains and deep quarries, over the river Acheron and a huge flat plain that Tartarus called Asphodel Meadows. It was brighter there, and Angela could make out groves of trees and fields of wild flowers. In fact, it seemed to be brightening all the time and when she remarked on this, Thanatos explained that it was due to a system of mirrors the people called a helioscope, which diverted sunlight from the Overland to the Underworld.
Swerving to catch a serendipitous zephyr, Thanatos flew over a different river, which he called Lethe, which meant Oblivion. Everyone who drank from it immediately forgot their earthly life. Across the river, the land was one large meadow, very bright and pleasant, with rolling green hills, beautiful gardens and sparkling lakes. As Thanatos swooped closer to the long grasses, Angela heard the sound of music and noticed a herd of white horses galloping.
“Not horses, Centaurs,” Thanatos corrected her. “They like to play their lyres when they run. This is the Elysian Fields, the happy resting place of blessed souls.”
Already, they were back at a beach but some way out, in the blue-green deeps of Oceanus, several islands jutted up into the sky. Forested and steep, they were encircled by colorful birds and here and there Angela could see a white sandy beach far below. The water was so clear that she could even see dolphins and whales swimming in it.
“These are the Isles of the Blessed,” Thanatos said, “Where only a few souls live—those who have been reincarnated three times and each time attained the distinction of blessedness. Not even I may approach them without censure. We must turn back.”
And, after describing three circles, he returned back the way he had come. They flew over the Elysian Fields and the Asphodel Meadows. When Thanatos approached the murky grey waters of the River Styx, he adjusted his wings to slow down and prepare for landing. There was a pier on one bank, crowded by men, women and children. Approaching the queue and leading them with a golden torch was a tall young man wearing a winged cap, a cloak, winged sandals and very little else.
“That’s Hermes Psychopomopos,” Thanatos said, shaking himself back into the form of a winged boy. “He leads souls here, to the ferry.”
“He’s not wearing very much,” Angela said, “Actually no one is.” A horrifying thought struck her. “I’m not going to have to dress like that, am I?”
Thanatos ignored the question and pulled her along towards the river.
With her free hand, she took out her smartphone and filmed the mass of interesting humanity. “What have they got in their mouths?” she whispered as they walked briskly along the outskirts of the crowd.
“They keep a coin under their tongues to pay the ferryman.”
“Ew, that’s disgusting. Imagine how many people have touched that coin! Poor him, too, having to take the coin covered with spit. Ugh.”
The pair finally burst through to the ferry dock and Thanatos pointed to Charon the ferryman. Angela immediately saw that this was a character who would not be fazed by coins covered in saliva. He was maybe the most revolting person she had ever seen in her life, including her uncle Ralph. His hair was like an eagle’s nest—a sprawling, bristling, dirt-encrusted mess. His eyebrows were stupendous, hanging over the deep, smoldering bituminous pits of his eyes. His nose was bulbous and red, covered with warts. His skin was crusty and yellow, like cooked wax paper. His lips were unpleasantly red and emitted a smell like compost. He was dressed in rags, and they weren’t clean rags. His feet were black and swollen.
“Fee,” he growled at Thanatos.
“No fee,” Thanatos said. “Hades’ orders.”
“For this juvenile skunk?” Charon folded his arms sceptically.
“Hey!” Angela squeaked.
“She is coming aboard. Hades’ orders.”
Charon narrowed his eyes and glared at Thanatos, who stared back at him. The crowd behind murmured and pushed.
“No fee, no ferry,” Charon growled.
“Fine. Here’s your fee—but Hades won’t be happy,” Thanatos picked a silk purse out of a pocket in his tunic and thrust it at the ferryman.
Charon hocked and spat, then laughed like cold water squeezing down a hair-clogged drain.
“Hades, ha! More like that coal digger of his wife. She’s up to something rank, no doubt. I don’t know what things are coming to when she brings living ”
“Get on the ferry before he changes his mind,” Thanatos whispered and pushed Angela onto a very small and unstable wooden dinghy.
The river was thick and sluggish, as if comprised of something thicker than water. Pale shapes moved lazily in the liquid beneath the boat. As there was no breeze or air movement, Charon’s unusual fragrance settled over the whole boat. Angela felt dizzy from holding her breath. But they got to the other bank eventually.
Stumbling out of the boat and onto the other pier, Angela saw a stone wall and a large gate. Following Thanatos to the entrance, she wonderingly looked at a big rock on the left side of the entrance. It seemed untidy. She was about to ask Thanatos about it when it moved—a triangular section of it twitched a little. She gave a little scream and the whole rock suddenly came apart and reassembled as a terrifying beast. Through the mist of her fear, she saw that it was behaving somewhat like a dog. There was a tail-like thing wagging happily, though when she looked closer she saw that it was a long king cobra. It had three large heads, each one with a tongue hanging out goofily as it sprang about at Thanatos’ feet,
“Cerebos sit!” Thanatos commanded.
Obligingly, very seriously, Cerebos sat, the cobra still wagging.
“Good dog!” Thanatos flung him something that looked a lot like raw meat. The middle head snatched the morsel, revealing a set of very sharp teeth in the process. Appalled, Angela hurried in through the gates, followed by her guide.
“Can you believe the nerve of that ferryman?” Angela muttered to Thanataos as he strode through a Greek-looking town resplendent with marble buildings and fountains, “Just you wait until he finds out that I’m going to be queen around here. I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” she cackled.
“Mmm,” Thanatos said. “Ah, look, here’s the agora.”
“The—how you say?—market square. It is the same your courthouse. The judges sit there all day eating sunflower seeds with eagle eyes. I must show you to them.”
“They will make a shouting otherwise,” said Thanatos, chewing his lower lip. “They are the big men here.” After a thoughtful pause he said, “Keep quiet, OK? It’s better if I do the talking.”
Sure enough, sitting in the dappled shade of three bay laurel trees, three elderly men sat on benches carved from translucent white marble. They were dressed in white woollen cloaks and wreaths of hammered gold. They were gesticulating energetically and peeling husks off sunflowers as they chatted together. When they caught sight of Thanatos and Angela approaching, they fell silent and brushed husks off their laps, frowning with proud dignity.
“Joy and health to you, lords!” Thanatos said, with a heartiness that did not come naturally to him. “Let it be a joyous day for you.”
They nodded coolly, and looked pointedly at Angela.
“Lords,” said Thanatos, “I present to you Angela, daughter of Gerry Smith of Wichita.”
They looked inquiringly at each other. The oldest judge stood up, with the help of a polished walking stick.
“Wichita?” he said. “Is that one of the lesser islands of the Cyclades?”
“Very near, Lord Rhadamanthus,” murmured Thanatos.
“You, girl, come near to me,” said the judge. “So I can look at you.”
Angela approached, trembling a little.
Rhadamanthus was as straight and stony as a pillar, his features unyielding, his eyes (though watery) sharp and critical. Nothing escaped his notice.
“This is a living soul!” he declared. “What does it mean?”
The other two judges rumbled with displeasure.
“Hades’ orders,” Thanatos bowed.
The fattest judge cleared his throat and extended his hand.
“Where’s the royal decree?” he said. “If Hades ordered it, there must be a decree.”
“I have a permit undersigned by Lady Persephone, Lord Minos.”
Minos exchanged a meaning glance with the thin, beaky judge at his side.
Thanatos proferred a papyrus scroll, which Rhadamanthus took reluctantly and unrolled.
The soul before you, one Angela Kirby daughter of Gerry Kirby of Wichita, has full license to enter the realm of the Dead for an indefinite period to be decided by Hades, Lord of the Dead. No argument on the matter may be entered into.
“This is highly irregular,” muttered Minos.
The beaky judge spoke in a dry, cracked voice. “The law is very clear. No living soul may enter the realm without the signed permission of Lord Hades himself. This was decided to avoid a repeat of the Herakles debacle.”
“Right you are, Aeacus,” said Minos. “It makes a mockery of the system! What is the purpose of having us here if any warm-blooded worm can slither in?”
“Excuse me,” Angela snapped.
“Shhh,” Thanatos hissed.
“My colleagues are right,” Rhadamanthus said. “Without a document signed by Hades himself, I’m afraid the girl may not enter. We need to uphold the standards of justice and right.”
“My Lords,” Thanatos bowed. “All praise to you for your unbending adherence to the Law. Hades will be happy to hear it. You have passed this test. King Hades wanted to know what your reaction would be if I tried to smuggle in a hot-breather. I congratulate you all, and My Lord Hades begged of me to present you with a gift in exchange for the peerless practices.”
Thanatos produced three bags and presented one each to the three old men.
Minos and Aeacus opened them up and their faces brightened as they fingered gold coins. Rhadamanthus, however, handed his back.
“We cannot accept these,” he glared at the other two, who looked crestfallen. “We do our duty to the people of Hades not for monetary gain but for Glory alone.”
Scowling, Minos and Aeacus handed theirs back too.
“Praises,” murmured Thanatos. “Hades will know of your reply, believe me. We must now go to him directly to inform him of your great integrity. I’m sure he will ask Orpheus to compose a song singing your virtues to the skies.”
With that, Thanatos grabbed Angela by the hand and hurried off down the street towards a great palace on a hill.
If there’s one group of people who have already perfected the art of ‘social distancing’, it’s publishers. Like the endangered Ribbon-tailed Astrapias of Papua New Guinea, a publisher would much prefer isolation foraging in its native jungle habitat than having to deal with unknown authors. Writers, in their view, are the moral equivalent of blood-sucking poachers who will wring their necks and wear their beaks as nose rings.
After a week of trawling through inhospitable websites/jungles, I’ve noticed some patterns in this avoidant behavior. The biggest publishers don’t even bother mentioning submissions. When they see you coming, they fly to the highest tree top where you have no way of reaching them without abseiling equipment and a flight suit. Mid-level publishers can’t quite reach those tranquil heights so they use a different strategy; they lead you away from the nest with a series of clever feints. First, they make you to scroll to the bottom of the home page to find a ‘contact us’ link (in the tiniest possible font size, in the faintest feasible color). Once you’ve clicked that link, you scroll to the bottom of the contacts page, down, down, down past all the people the publisher would rather to talk to: readers, booksellers, publicity professionals, lawyers, undertakers… finally, at the bottom of that page you will see a message addressed to you: “RarissimaAvis does not accept unsolicited submissions. Any unsolicited manuscripts, proposals or query letters that we receive will not be returned, and RarissimaAvis is not responsible for any materials submitted,” which is publishing legalese for ‘Bog off bumface’. But then there are the smaller, more sociable niche publishers—the litter-inhabiting wrens—who provide detailed submissions requirements, with the caveat that they only have five staff and millions of manuscripts coming in every minute and can only publish half a book a year and please don’t fax or email them and also they can’t reply to anyone and can’t really justify the cost of reading a single paragraph of your blather.
Such is the sorry state of affairs, and no wonder writers are sad.
Ordinarily, self-publishing seems like a better bet. If I were looking to publish my own work, I’d skip the middle man and toddle over to Smashwords, where my memoir about Saudi living Teacher, We Girls! is simmering along nicely with more than 50 sales! However, at the moment I’m sitting on a hot bet—a translation the Sizzlingest Socialist Comedy of the Decade—and feel that if only I can get close enough to one of these secretive publishing birds I should be able to lure it off its branch long enough to gmake friends and let me into its special flock.
To wit, here are 20 of the less-shy publishers of literary fiction and translation. This list is not just for writers and translators, either, but readers who want to find a source of literature in translation. I was a little shocked to learn recently that translation is only 3% of annual publishing in the USA. Considering how quickly a virus can travel around the world, it seems a shame that the riches of global literature are still so inaccessible.
Note: They do not publish previously unknown authors but are open to suggestions for translations of well known works in other languages. The backlist is very niche–you’d basically have to be a furry cup to fit in.
How to submit: It will be 18 months before they start considering single-author collections again, but you can enter their competitions or anthologies in the meantime. Contact email@example.com for questions.
Notes: They are especially interested in translations from smaller regional and minority languages.
How to submit: Knopf usually only accepts mss from agents. You might have a snowball’s chance on a chilly day in Hell, though, so why not try? Just send 25-50 pages and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to THE EDITORS/Knopf/1745 Broadway/New York/NY 10019.
Notes: It will take them a year to get back to you, IF AT ALL.
How to submit: Details here; complete manuscripts are preferred.
Notes: This is University of Rochester’s literary translation press. It publishes 10 books per year. Their website is called Three Percent because only 3% of all books published in the USA per year are literary translations. SAD FACE
“It’s funny–it always strikes me how amazing it is–that in less than half a day you can be on the other side of the planet,” Lee, our fellow guest muses as the hostess carefully places dishes in front of him—dahl, rice, fried eggplant with mango chutney, bitter greens and chicken curry.
Lee has spent a few weeks in the country, a large part of it at an Ayurdevic spa doing nothing but meditating and having hot oil massaged into him, and he could easily be an advertisement for the practice. He must be in his sixties, but looks as healthy and lithe as a twenty-year-old and emanates perfect health and supreme calm. Pressed by us for an account of his travels, he obliges and gives some recommendations: especially the retreat in Bentota and the Bomburu falls at Ella.
Aside from me and John, Lee is the only guest at Randoni Villa, a secluded little place just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport. It sits at the end of a country lane, surrounded by greenery on the bank of Attangalu Oya river. Ananda, the father, is away doing his other job as a tour guide, so we are attended to by his wife, who is the talented cook, and his daughters, the eldest of whom, Huruni, speaks excellent English and acts as interpreter and travel advisor. The younger daughters don’t speak much but stand to one side smiling and looking on with interest, holding one of the three resident Persian cats.
Our first night there John sleeps well but I’m kept awake by jetlag and scary noises. At first, there is something like a katydid but more metallic, emitting a sound like rhythmic audible sparks. Then there are the chirps of geckos. Later in the night comes the ghostly loon-like whipperings of waterbirds from the river, then scamperings and scritchings on the roof, and a tuneful singing that might or might not be a nightjar perched in a tree in the surrounding garden. I finally manage to drift off when I am wrenched awake by the terrifying roar of an airplane that seems on the verge of crashing into our hotel room. Stifling a scream, I lie very still and wait for the fireball that never comes. During the silent aftermath, a gentle scraping sound starts swishing on the far wall, somehow reminiscent of a garden hose and I start imagining a giant octopus made of vines that goes forth in the night to devour what it may. No sooner does that calm down than something lands on the roof, does a little dance and starts to hammer like a woodpecker drumming up grubs. This manages to wake John, and after a few drumming sessions, he yells at it to go away, which it does. I manage to sleep a couple of hours but around five in the morning, I have to get up to the bathroom, which is a sort of roofed shack with gaps in the walls so you can hear everything. Looking down into the toilet and noticing that a colony of ants has inexplicably decided that it’s a fantastic place to congregate, I hear something that chills my blood—a very low and tuneful chanting that sounds like the Red Army Choir about to perform a ritual sacrifice. And over this, suddenly, is the shrill, jingling tune of an icecream truck playing ”It’s a Small World After All”.
At breakfast I’m a little strung out after my night of sound effects. Even so, I manage to polish off the feast of dhosas and green chilli coconut sambol along with toast, butter, jam, fresh pineapple and coffee. As we munch away, I see movement in the trees behind John and realize it’s a kind of palm squirrel, with a stripe that reminds me of a chipmunk.
Hiruni tells us that our taxi has arrived—we are going into Colombo for a day—so we gulp the rest of our coffee and jump in. The ride takes about an hour and the contrast between the green peace of the countryside and the frenetic activity of the city is marked. There are motorized tuk-tuks everywhere, each one decorated in a distinctive way, though not as elaborately as the trucks, some of which are mobile works of art. I gaze with interest at the people: businessmen in white shirts and black trousers, workmen in hi-viz vests, women in dresses and heels, school children in formal uniforms, mechanics in oil-stained T-shirts, tuk-tuk drivers in T-shirts and jeans, policemen in meticulously ironed uniforms and very skinny elderly people in long batik sarongs.
Looming over the whole city is the Lotus Tower, which our driver points out on the way past, though he really doesn’t need to—you can see it from anywhere. As we reach the coast, looking out to the Indian Ocean, he pulls to a stop and points to an enormous mall surrounded by fences and policemen.
“Brand new,” he explains. We realize that this is what he understands as ‘the shopping district’ we requested as our destination. John explains that we are actually looking for a big street with lots of shops on it, where the locals go. The driver shrugs, which seems to mean there isn’t really anywhere like that. We get out and go through the entrance, which is manned by security guards and x-ray machines for bags. Just outside, cars are checked by a Malinois shepherd in a police vest. It has only been eight months since the Easter bombings that killed 259 people, so presumably the dog is sniffing for explosives. On this occasion, luckily, nothing is detected and the car is allowed to go on.
At 10 in the morning, the mall is only very slowly coming to life. John and I find a bookstore that is one of the few shops open, buy a few tomes on Sri Lankan history but are disappointed that there are no city maps available. Waiting for other shops to open, we wander around the mall. Already, a big crowd is gathering around an enormous Christmas tree and young couples and friends are taking each other’s pictures in front of it. As we learn later from our host, Sri Lanka has quite a small Christian population (about 7%) and almost all of it is concentrated in Colombo and on the west coast. This, he explains, is due to the fact that the Portuguese stuck to port towns and converted people in those towns to Catholicism. This perhaps explains why we saw so many trees and nativity scenes around the city.
The main reason we’ve come to the city is that John needs a foreign-legion hat, the other one is lost somewhere in Italy. But a quick reconnaissance mission on all five floors of the complex shows that foreign-legion hats are as rare as Sumatran rhinos. These are high-end fashion shops where the only hats available are baseball caps or those little short-brimmed hats favored by Justin Timberlake. So we go outside and get into a tuk-tuk asking the driver for a shopping street.
“You mean the city centre?” he asks.
“Yes!” We nod enthusiastically.
“OK!” he zips around town and deposits us outside another big mall, called ‘City Center Shopping Centre’. Resigned to our fate, knowing there will not be a hat here either, we trudge in and go through another security check. Sure enough, this place has all the same hat-less shops. We decide to make the best of it by getting John some linen trousers. Pants shopping is one of his least favorite activities but he does it quickly and efficiently with only a hint of anguished groaning.
To celebrate this achievement, we go downstairs to have lunch at the supermarket foodcourt, where businessmen are grabbing a bite to eat before going back to work. I order beef and noodles for John and tuna curry, which are filling but nothing extraordinary. Before going upstairs we decide to look at all the weird food: dozens of varieties of locally grown rice; wood apples; rambutan; headless sprats that locals chew like peanuts; egg hopper flour and aisles of spice. It gives me a nostalgic feeling to find Commonwealthy food familiar from my childhood such as Marmite (which you can use on noodles apparently), Milo and tins of golden syrup.
At this point we are ready to head back to the hotel and venture outside in search of taxis. A man responds to our request, but when we realize he is leading us to a line of tuk-tuks, we stop and said we want a car—the mere thought of travelling the distance back to the hotel in a little open-air jalopy makes my bum hurt.
“OK, OK,” says the head guy, “I call car now. You wait 15 minutes, inside. I call you.”
We duly go back inside and sit down at ‘Il Caffe’ where I order a gelato.
“What flavor madam?”
“Um, rum and raisin.”
“Ahh,” he said knowingly. “Alcohol.”
“I no like this,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
Soon enough, the taxi impresario returns, leads us outside and introduces us to a man with a moustache whose car is parked across the road.
“You know madam,” the driver says to me, sweating, “I need to drive by my shop, just ten minutes madam. There you go sit in shop. No need to buy, but if you want to buy OK. I need to pick up petrol vouchers there, two, three vouchers.”
He is avoiding looking at or addressing John, perhaps because John is glaring.
Sure enough, the guy drives us in the wrong direction across the city and decants us into a gem shop. The sofa by the door is taken, so we go and sit on a couple of chairs in front of a display case full of rings and necklaces. No sooner have we taken a seat than a guy drifts over and starts the hard sell, urging me to try on various rings and necklaces.
“Actually,” I say finally, with some apology, “We’re just waiting for our driver.”
He nods briefly and then just launches into the same spiel. John and I stand up and walk away, pretending to look at other stuff. The guy follows us.
“You like gemstones? We have many fine gemstones.”
“No thanks,” we say and sit down on the sofa, which is now free. We both start to read books intently. Coincidentally, just at this time our taxi driver returns to shepherd us back to the car. He has the Greatest Hits of Boney-M playing. They are very cheering, especially “Rasputin” (there was a cat who really was gone) and “Rivers of Babylon”, which includes an illusion to Psalm 137:4, “Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?”, which is used in a lot of songs and which I always find moving. However, even Boney M palls a bit as it takes us ages to get out of the city even though the driver takes plenty of short cuts through side alleys. By the time we near the airport, the driver starts periodically stopping the car and asking people where our hotel is. We’ve given him the hotel phone number, but his phone has run out of credit or something. Inch by inch we near our oasis. Finally, he makes it.
We get in and sleep for three hours, exhausted by the whole experience.