Waiting For The Big Moment

May 2nd, 2016

Peirene and I are sitting at our desks. Backs straight. Chairs pushed in. Arms bent at a perfect right angle. Fingers resting on the keyboards. Motionless. Eyes fixed on the screens. Hardly blinking. For fear we might miss the moment.SONY DSC

‘Anything in your inbox yet?’ I murmur. My mouth feels dry. My heart is racing.

The Nymph shakes her head. ‘Nothing,’ she whispers.

We’ve been sitting like this since eight in the morning. It’s now midday.

‘What if Olu and Annie have changed their minds?’ Peirene’s voice is barely audible. This question has also already crossed my mind. But before I have time to reply, I hear Peirene plead: ‘I need a wee.’

‘You can’t,’ I respond tersely. ‘Not now. This is the arrival of the final draft of breach, our first fiction commission ever. You can’t miss this moment. Once gone, it won’t return. Ever.’

The Nymph nods. She crosses her legs.

A couple of hours later the Nymph whines: ‘I’m hungry. It’s well past my lunch hour now.’

‘Shh. Be quiet,’ I hiss. ‘It will be any moment now.’

But nothing.

Peirene pushes back her chair. ‘I can’t wait any longer.’ She rushes out of the room. When she comes back in, she has things to say: ‘I knew our Peirene Now! Series was a bad idea. Writers never do what you want them to do. We will certainly not commission another book.’ I nod. She might indeed have a point.

But suddenly an idea comes to me. ‘What day is it today?’ I ask.

‘Saturday. Why?’

‘We agreed that they would deliver on Sunday.’ I’m embarrassed – and I know the Nymph will be livid.  To have put her through today’s waiting ordeal! And sure enough, she rolls her eyes. ‘I don’t believe it!’ Then however she breaks out into an unexpected smile: ‘You take your books far too seriously. But I guess that’s why I like working with you.’

It is one of nicest things she has ever said to me.

Image by John Goode, creative commons.

A Wild Beast

April 25th, 2016

I’m watching the Nymph from the balcony on the first floor. She’s in the back garden trying to balance on top of the fence that separates us from our neighbours.20514854711_c9b21fa8a2_z

Truth to tell she’s not very good at balancing. Again and again she topples over onto our recently planted flowerbed. I’m not impressed.

‘Peirene, don’t destroy all the nice plants,’ I call down.

Peirene, scrambling to her feet, throws me a dismissive glance. She brushes off the dirt from her legs and hands and clambers up the fence.

‘What I’m doing here serves a larger purpose. I need to understand what it feels like to sit on the fence. There must be benefits otherwise people wouldn’t be doing it.’ She straightens, wobbles, but manages – just for a moment – to stay on top.

Suddenly I understand what this is all about. We’ve drawn up an open letter to be published on our website and in a broadsheet newspaper. In this letter we explain why, from a cultural point of view, it is vital that the UK remains in the EU. Last week we started collecting signatures for it – from cultural institutions, publishers, writers, journalists, literary critics, academics. We received enthusiastic responses. But a number declined to sign with the explanation that their job requires them to remain impartial. Each time such an email dropped into our inbox, the Nymph couldn’t hold back her outrage. ‘Aren’t they aware that if the UK leaves the EU, the country takes a step towards isolation. A vibrant, leading culture needs impulses from the outside. Brexit means cultural death for this island.’

The Nymph now sways dangerously from side to side, her arms flailing. I can see that she’s trying to fall onto our side. But – oh dear – she goes down the other way. Fifi, the aggressive little fox terrier from next door, has been observing the spectacle. This is what she has been waiting for. She races towards Peirene yapping hysterically. I laugh out loud as I watch the Nymph throwing herself back over the fence as quickly as possible, landing with her face in the mud.

Back in the kitchen I help Peirene to clean herself up. I expect her to be in a bad mood. But far from it. She’s thrilled with her adventure.

‘You see, I’ve proven my point. If you try to sit on the fence you might end up falling on the wrong side. And while I could get back to safety this country, after Brexit, will face dangers far worse than Fifi.’

Image by localpups, creative commons.

A Cold Dip in the Irish Sea

April 18th, 2016

‘I’m wondering if what you are doing to me is actually illegal.’ I can hear Peirene panting behind me. It’s 7.30am on a beautiful sunny morning in Aberystwyth, a picturesque little Welsh seaside town. The Nymph and I  are jogging up a steep 9489595907_1fec6dec2d_zcliff on the edge of town. ‘There must be a law against this deliberate cruelty.’ She stops gasping for breath.

I wait for her to recover. In front of us stretches the blue expanse of the Irish Sea. Pink streaks from the rising sun colour the sky. A stunning, rugged coast line to our left and right as far as our eyes reach.

‘Peirene! How can you say such horrible things. Just because I persuaded you to run up this hill? But look at the view. Wasn’t it worth the effort? We needed to experience this before we are heading into a second day of talks and workshops.’

Literature Across Frontiers who are based at the Aberystwyth Univeristy, have organised a two-day international literature conference on audience development, with delegates from across Europe. We are invited as one of the speakers.

‘I like the view’ Peirene replies ‘but I’m not keen on running. You must remember I’m a nymph’.

For some reason she is now skipping along the path. When we arrive at the bottom of the cliff, instead of walking straight along the corniche, Peirene heads on to the beach. She slips out of her trainers. ‘I’m going for a quick dip,’ she giggles. Then she strips down to her pants and bra and before I can say anything else, she runs into the water, screaming with joy and pain because of the cold. I watch in amazement.

Back at the hotel, she lies in the hot bath for nearly half an hour. After I finish in the bathroom, I discover that she is back in bed, shivering like a delicate leaf.

‘You have to do the second day of the conference on your own,’ she says with shattering teeth. ‘I need to warm up first. And that will take hours.’

I shake my head. ‘Peirene, Peirene. I could have told you that even though the Irish Sea might look like the Mediterranean, it certainly isn’t.’

Peirene is not amused. ‘First you make me run up a hill, then you fail to warn me about the sea in April,’ she laments through chattering teeth. ‘I may have to complain to the authorities after all.’

Image by Walter Stoneburner, creative commons.

Early Morning Catastrophe

April 10th, 2016

‘Meike, wake up!’ From far away the Nymph’s voice reaches my ear. She is shaking me by the shoulder. Slowly I surface from a deep sleep. I open one eye and see Peirene standing next to my bed. 14323386992_d3aece2eb2_z

‘What’s the time?’ I mumble.

‘Quarter to six. We are facing a total catastrophe.’ The Nymph switches on my  beside lamp. I squint and turn to the other side, hiding my head under the duvet. ‘It’s far too early, Peirene. I’m getting up at 7. So please leave me alone.’ I can’t possibly imagine what “catastrophe” could justify such an early start.

I feel Peirene organising pillows behind my head, then she pulls me up into a sitting position. She pushes a cup of hot coffee into my hands. ‘Drink! You will need it.’ She helps me guide the cup to my mouth. I begin to sip realizing that I have lost the battle. She won’t let me get back to sleep.

‘So, what’s happening?’ I look at the Nymph. She’s a mess. Dark shadows under her eyes, her complexion white as a wall and her hair standing up from her head in big, wild knots.

‘I couldn’t sleep.’ Her lower lip begins to quiver. ‘Because I was so excited to go through the next draft of breach. I got up an hour ago and began to read.’ She gasps for air. ‘We can’t publish it.’

She takes the cup out of my hands and places the manuscript into my lap. ‘Read and see for yourself.’

I throw a quick glance at the pages, then I tap at the edge of the bed. I clearly need to calm down the Nymph first. The previous draft was good, it just needed a couple of extra scenes and work on the overall story arch. ‘Sit down,’ I say. ‘How much did you read?’

‘The first three chapters.’

‘But there are eight chapters,’ I point out.

She nods.

‘So why did you stop?’

‘The first chapter works. But then the second is all over the place and the third only works up to the half way point.’

‘It might just be a question of rearranging the plot and fine tuning.’ I pick up the pages.

Three hours later I lift my head again. While I was engrossed in the text,  the Nymph sat very still in the armchair, hardly daring to breath.

‘And?’ She looks at me with big, worried eyes.

‘It’s great. The ending in particular is brilliant.’ I jump out of bed. ‘I can feel the characters inside me, breathing, alive. Yes, chapter two and three still need some attention. But Olu and Annie are good writers. They’ll get there.’ I slip into my clothes. ‘I’m so pleased that we are publishing this book.’

‘You think I overreacted?’

I walk over to the Nymph and squeeze her pale face between my hands. ‘It’s never good to read a manuscript after a sleepless night. Every typo feels like the end of the world. Go back to bed for a couple of hours, then finish the story. And I promise you an exciting read.’

Image by Jean L., creative commons.

 

Spring Break

March 23rd, 2016

Meike and Peirene have gone Easter egg hunting. We will be back here 2nd week of April.

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Operatic Aspirations

March 20th, 2016

‘Done!’ I type in the last figure and lean back from my desk in content. ‘The royalty statements are all ready to go. They need to be sent out before the Easter break. Peirene, can you please do that?’ I turn towards the Nymph and realise that she Maria_Callas_(La_Traviata)_2probably didn’t hear a single word of what I’ve just said. She has her earphones on and is singing silently at the screen. She has half-closed her eyes and lifts her arms as if receiving applause.

Slightly irritated – after all it’s work hours – I walk over to her and tap her on the shoulder. She takes out one earplug.  ‘Please don’t disturb me. Singing requires concentration.’

On her screen a youtube video is playing, showing Maria Callas performing the Violetta aria from La Traviata. Maria is gazing into the distance longing for true love.

As if the Nymph has read my mind, she continues: ‘Yes, this is work. I have to practice my voice. It needs to become stronger. I have to develop my voice.…’ she becomes serious ’…to its full potential’

‘Why do you need to develop your voice?’ This is all news to me. I must also admit to some doubts about the Nymph as a singer. Actually, to our regret neither of us are very good at holding a note.

Counterpoints Arts! You heard the directors, Almir and Áine at the board meeting last Wednesday. They think our voice and branding is really effective. And therefore they want us to teach them how it’s done. So, I thought, we would split the task. I will teach them about voice and you teach them about branding.’ She looks at her watch. ‘Oh dear, I have to go. I’ve booked myself in for some private singing lessons.’ She pulls out the other earplug.

‘Peirene, Peirene,’ I’m shaking my head. ‘They don’t want singing lessons from us. It’s more to do with how we communicate to the outside what we are about. They are keen to learn about our communication and marketing strategy.’

Unperturbed, Peirene takes her bag and heads towards the door. ‘It can’t harm can it? And after all communication can only improve if one of us has a strong, clear, beautiful,’ her voice begins to go up and down octaves and she adds a trill for good measure, ‘resonant, expressive, singing voice’. She stops at the door. ‘Do you want to come? It’ll be fun. And you might bring your singing up to my level. I need an alto for my duets. ‘

For a moment I hesitate. But only for a moment.  And who knows, with professional help, I might become a rather good alto. And the royalty statements can wait until we are back.

Image: public domain.

A New Romance (and new boots)

March 13th, 2016

‘Red top and white trousers? Or white top and red trousers?’ Peirene is holding up the various clothes turning in front of the big mirror.5341914496_353e666f07_z

‘I like the white top,’ I comment.

‘Hm? I think the red top is better.’ She drops the white one and puts the red on. ‘White trousers will work better with…‘ She doesn’t complete the sentence as she leans forward into the mirror, applying red lipstick.

‘What’s the occasion?’ I enquire.

‘I have a date.’ Peirene pauses. ‘A romantic date.’ She applies mascara and powders her face.

‘Whose the lucky one?’

‘Arsène Wenger.’ She’s completing her outfit with a red and white striped scarf and pom-pom hat.

I’m not sure about the hat. It somehow clashes with the rest of her otherwise elegant appearance. Still, I decide to keep quiet. ‘Arsène who?’ This is the first time I hear her mention this name.

She rolls her eyes. ‘Meike, where have you been? He is only the most important man in North London. The manager of Arsenal football club.’

I’m a bit confused. ‘Since when were you a football fan?’

‘I’m not. Women don’t love men for what they do. They love them in spite of what they do. And what’s true for women, is true for ancient Greek Nymphs too.’

I’m now intrigued. ‘So where will he take you?’

‘Well – ‘ the Nymph blushes. ‘He’s not really yet aware of me. But he will be soon. We are meant for each other. Not only is Arsène a Greek name – meaning a strong, virile man. More than that, Arsène and I, we have a deep connection.’ She places her hand to her heart and closes her eyes. ‘I feel it here.’ Then she opens her eyes again and explains with an earnest face: ‘Under Arsène’s management, Arsenal has been one of the top teams year in year out. But for ten years they have been unable to win the Premier League. This year their fortunes might turn. Same with us. Here we are again, longlisted for the Man Booker International prize. Which means that each year since we started we’ve been nominated for the most prestigious foreign literature prize in the entire English-speaking world. But we’ve never won. We’ve come close. But again and again we have just fallen short. Therefore – ‘ She bends down and pulls a new shoe box from underneath the bed, opens the lid and slips into shiny red boots. ‘It’s time I help our fate along. Arsène is a clever man. He’ll understand quickly that united, Peirene and Arsenal will be stronger. And unbeatable.’

She blows me a kiss and is out of the door. I smile to myself. So that’s why she decided on the white trousers. To show off her new, red, boots.

Image by Harsh Patel, creative commons.

Journey to the Underworld

March 6th, 2016

There is a big hole in our back garden. The Nymph – in red wellies and a yellow safety helmet on her head – is standing at the edge. She’s directing the three men who have nearly disappeared inside the hole to dig deeper and deeper. I’m 3417148914_b5ca1a115a_zobserving the spectacle from the kitchen door.

‘I’m not paying for this.’ I point to where the men have now completely vanished. They are working fast.

‘No worries.’ Peirene waves at me smiling. ‘They are doing it for free.’

‘Building a tunnel to the Underworld?!’ I shake my head. I have never come across a builder who does anything for free. And especially not for such ludicrous project.

‘They understand it’s for a good cause.’ The Nymph turns her attention back to her workers. ‘Good job.’ Then she adds ‘Keep on going lads’ and, slightly self-consciously, she raises both of her thumbs towards them.

On Thursday evening at 11pm Peirene announced: ‘I might have to die.’ We were sitting in the train from Norwich back to London. I was dozing, content with the paper we had given at the University of East Anglia that afternoon on foreign literature and the symbolic meaning of plot.

‘Why?’ I didn’t open my eyes. Late at night the Nymph often has bizarre ideas.

‘To make a point that plot should never be taken at face value. Language is a system of symbols. And therefore anything created within language is always a symbol. It is never reality. I ‘m not sure the audience today got it. The Anglo-Saxons insist on taking plot literally. But I will show them. I will act it out. I will go down to the Underworld, stay there for a while, and then come back.’

‘So you’ll be dead. But not dead,’ I mumbled.

‘That’s right.’ The Nymph next to me was getting excited. ‘And this will prove my point that nothing in literature is what it appears to be. A death in a story is not about dying, but might be about rebirth.’

Peirene has now stepped back into the kitchen. ‘How have you persuaded the men to do this job for free?,’ I ask, while she is putting on the kettle and preparing three cups of tea. ‘I can’t believe they are doing it for the love of literature,’ I add.

‘Well… ’ Peirene is pouring the milk into the tea mugs avoiding my eyes. ‘I told them if they do a fine job out there, you will employ them to redecorate the entire house, inside and out.’ She waves with the spoon in her hand towards the ceiling. ‘This place desperately needs a new coat of paint, you have to admit. It’s been nearly ten years. It will soon be embarrassing to let the Salon guests come here. We have to uphold standards.’ The Nymph flashes me a broad smile. ‘For the sake of literature.’

Image by Joshua Ganderson, creative commons.

 

After Midnight

February 28th, 2016

‘James won’t be able to load the dishwasher probably. Not like Clara. And then what? Then I will have to reload it tonight after the Salon. In the middle of the night. When I’m totally 14408695072_b109e5f8d3_zexhausted.’

It’s Saturday. Peirene and I are preparing our 28th salon. I’m making the potato salad. She is supposed to tidy the kitchen. But for the last ten minutes she’s done nothing except stand in front of the dishwasher. She has opened it, closed it, opened it again. She has shaken her head. Now she is pulling out the bottom tray.

‘I’ve explained to him what to do,’ she mumbles as if talking to herself. ‘When most of the guests have gone, he has to collect all the plates, rinse them and then stack the machine. Only plates, no glasses. Like this, ‘ she bends down and demonstrates with the palm of her hand how many plates can fit into the dishwasher if they are stacked in a certain order.

‘I’m sure he will do it just right,’ I say. ‘I wish you would stop being nervous and just get on with your own task.’ I take the first pot of potatoes from the fire and drain the water.

‘I know men,’ with heavy steps she walks over to the table and sits down. ‘They are not into details. He will stack it any odd way and only fit five plates. While it is absolutely vital to fit at least 30.’ She lets her head hang low, hair in front of her face. ‘He won’t succeed. And he can’t succeed.’ She sighs. ‘At his home they prefer to do the washing up by hand.’

Abruptly she lifts her head: ‘I will never find myself in this situation again. Never. Do you hear me? Next time we interview for a new assistant, I will ask them how often they have loaded dishwashers during their lifetime. One hundred is the minimum requirement.’

****

It is midnight by the time the last guest leaves. I lock the door, turn off the lights and want to head upstairs. Suddenly Peirene holds me back. ‘You have to come into the kitchen and see this.’

I shake my head. I’m tired. I want to go to bed.

‘No, you have to come. ‘ She takes me by the wrist and pulls me inside the kitchen. She turns the light back on and opens the dishwasher. A perfectly, beautifully stacked machine appears in front of me.

‘Wow!’ I exclaim. ‘That is Clara standard.’

‘It certainly is.’ The Nymph nods happily. ‘I guess the young man has potential to become a high class publisher’s assistant.’

Image by Rachel Kramer, creative commons.

Mediterranean Temperament

February 22nd, 2016

‘These people are impressive and their enthusiasm for the cause is palpable but aren’t they preaching to the converted?,’ I whisper into Peirene’s ear.Belen_maya

The Nymph and I are attending the Refugee Week Conference. We have been invited by Counterpoints Arts as their in-house bloggers. We are sitting in the front row in the main auditorium of the Amnesty International Human Rights Action centre. The room is packed. Delegates from across the UK are outlining what they have done to help the integration of refugees in the last year and what awareness raising events they are planning to stage during the nationwide Refugee week in June. Refugee Week has been going for 17 years but this year’s promises to be the largest yet.

‘And I fear that the grassroots movement is not as widespread as all that,’ I continue hissing into the Nymph’s ear. ‘Because the government couldn’t get away with its anti-refugee policies if it didn’t have the backing of the general public.’

Peirene ignores me until the break.

‘Meike, sometimes it’s important to be analytical, but sometimes you have to respond with passion. This comes naturally to Greek nymphs – it’s our Mediterranean temperament.  If you’re not in the right mood, you can go home,’ she snaps as we are queuing for coffee and water.

I’m a bit shocked about her reaction. ‘I want to be here. This is all very interesting. And truth to tell I am impressed by the number of initiatives in this country aiming to help refugees. Simple Acts and Talking Syria and the National Refugee Welcome Board and many more.’

‘Then why were you a nuisance just now?’ Peirene empties her water in one go. I can tell what she’s intending to do. She wants to head back as quickly as possible into the auditorium to find a seat far away from me.

‘I was just thinking aloud,’ I justify myself in a hurt voice. ‘You and I know how hard it is to persuade readers to pick up a book of foreign literature. So to convince people that an open policy towards refugees will not mean a loss of identity must be a near impossible task. That’s all I wanted to point out.’

I feel the Nymph softening towards me. But before she can say anything, I continue: ‘And just for the record: I believe that personal initiatives are often so much more effective than anything a big organization can do. Take for example the man who organized a fair with food cooked by refugees on his village green. He’s probably planted the seeds for a change of attitude in a number of his fellow villagers that day. And that’s what counts.’

I turn on my heel and walk back into the hall. After all, I’m a grown up woman and don’t need a Nymph to hold my hand. As soon as I sit down she appears next to me.

‘I thought you didn’t want to be associated with me today.’ I throw her a defiant glance.

‘Well,’ Peirene smiles apologetically. ‘Your heart is in the right place. You deserve the company of an ancient Greek Nymph.’

For a moment I try to hide my delight. Then I, too, smile.

Image by Gilles Larrain.