Conquering Italy By Bike

May 23rd, 2016

Peirene is a changed Nymph. She has turned into a fitness fanatic.5153334431_19e4bbb507_z

While only last month it was me who had to persuade her to come out for a run, this week she’s been to the gym for an hour each morning before work. More curiously, books about long distance cycling are piling high on her desk. And then yesterday a huge parcel arrived. Peirene has replaced her desk chair with a gym bike.

She has balanced her lap-top on the handle bar and she cycles while she types. I have to admit the noise of the turning wheels is starting to get on my nerves.

‘Aren’t you overdoing it, Peirene?’ I don’t want to discourage her because I know how much good physical exercise does me. It helps me to concentrate and my best ideas come to me on a run. But I’m not sure I can stand a gym bike in the office for much longer.

‘I need to get into shape. This summer I will cycle the length of Italy.’

That’s news to me. ‘Isn’t that a bit ambitious…’ I want to add ‘at your age,’ After all wasn’t she complaining about heart palpitation last week? But I keep quiet.

Peirene has suddenly slowed down, hanging exhausted over the handle bar, no longer typing.

‘I owe it to the Italians to pay them a visit.’ She’s gasping for air. ‘They adore me and it’s rude to ignore their admiration. By cycling the length of the country I give the entire nation a chance to meet me.’ I hand her the water bottle. She takes a sip. Then continues to explain: ‘Look at this week, for example: On Tuesday Chiara Macconi from the Italian publishing house Armando came to visit. They will set up a new series of international female novelist and want to find out more about our authors. And on Thursday we received an email from a university professor at Miami University in the US who has taught our books for years and is now in Rome researching Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman.’ Peirene slides off the bike and lies down on the floor.  ‘I need to take the rest of the day off.’


Good news: the Nymph and I have agreed to get rid of the gym bike. However, she still hasn’t given up on the Italy trip. She now believes that I should accompany her in case she needs a push up the Alps. Maybe if I offer her a pay-rise to buy a couple of new bikinis she might decide to come with me on a beach holiday.

Image by Seika.


Saving Peirene’s Heart

May 16th, 2016

‘I think there is something wrong with my heart.’ Peirene stops in her stride, bends forward, both hands on her heart.South Western Ambulance VX09FYO 1802

‘We don’t have time for this. We are late.’ I grab the Nymph by the arm, trying to pull her along. We are heading towards the Underground. European Literature Night starts in half an hour.

Peirene frees herself from my grip, leans against a front garden wall. ‘No, no, I’m not joking. I’ve detected it now a few times. My heart jumps about. I’m so quickly out of breath.’ She wipes her forehead. I notice her perspiration and I suddenly become concerned. ‘Perhaps we should go to A&E?’ I suggest.

For a while she fans herself with closed eyes. ‘Do you think so?’ Then she opens her eyes. ‘No. I’m better already. Let’s get to the event. If my heart irregularity comes back, we can jump into a cab and go to a hospital.’

The evening at the British Library is a stunning success. Six international authors, including our own Flemish author Peter Verhelst, on stage with the glamorous Rosie Goldsmith followed by a beautiful wine reception in the main hall of the library. But at about 10pm I want to go home. I’m looking for the Nymph. I haven’t seen her all evening. For a terrible moment I’m overwhelmed by guilt: What if she has collapsed somewhere in a corner. Then I spot her: chatting and laughing with the handsome Dutch author Jaab Robben, another star of the evening.

‘How is your heart?’ I ask.

‘My heart is on fire,’ the Nymph giggles. Her cheeks are rosy, her eyes gleam brightly. ‘The atmosphere this evening was electric. What a show. It’s just a pity that such events still struggle to draw in the general English reader. Or even English writers. I’d say 90% of the audience were people like us – people whose professions connect with foreign literature. ’

‘So your heart is no longer beating irregularly?’ I wonder.

‘Irregular? My heart?’ Peirene looks at me surprised. Then she catches herself: ‘Ah, yes, yes, of course. It did beat irregularly. Before. But not now. ‘

As we leave, she gives a little wave in the general direction of the authors and their audience. Then she adds: ‘I think people should understand that European Literature Night is a healing experience for any heart condition.’

Image by Graham Richardson, creative commons.

Radio Killed The Video Star

May 9th, 2016

‘Peirene, we need to go!’ I call. I’m standing at the bottom of the stairs, ready to leave. It’s Sunday and it’s the first outing of our Roaming Store after a long winter break. We are kick-starting our summer book selling season with a stall at 4204009461_969810e279_zAlexander Palace Farmer’s market. Moreover, Peirene and I will train Jack, one of our three new booksellers today.

‘I’m coming, just a minute.’

The minute passes, another minute passes. No Peirene. I’m starting to lose my patience. ‘Peireeeene!’ I shout. ‘Hurry!’

The Nymph appears at the top of the stairs, wearing nothing but her knickers and bra. ‘I just don’t know what to wear.’ Her voice is shaking.

I can’t believe my eyes. Half an hour ago she was dressed in jeans, T-Shirt, jumper, flat shoes – the perfect outfit for a long day at the stall. What’s got into her?

I rush up the stairs. The content of her entire wardrobe is spread out onto the bed. ‘It’s such a beautiful day out there. Jeans and T-Shirt are all you need today,’ I say.

‘That’s precisely my issue.’ She points out of the window to the cloudless blue sky. ‘It’s going to be 28 degrees today. A heatwave in early May. This weather has taken me by total surprise. I want to wear a nice summer dress, not my old jeans. But I don’t know which one. Somehow nothing from last year looks right any longer.’ She bends over the pile, lifts up one dress after the other, looks at it briefly, then sends it flying over her shoulder onto to floor. ‘Too boring… too short…too long… too see-through.’ Eventually she throws herself belly down on to the bed. ‘I can’t do this. I’m not doing the stall today. I can’t  possibly appear on  German TV in jeans. I need to look at least as good as my books.’

Ah! That’s what the drama is all about. I suddenly understand. ‘It’s not German TV who are making the feature about us, it’s German radio,’ I say coolly. I hate to shatter her dreams about TV stardom, but we really need to get going.

She sits up, wiping away her tears. ‘Are you making this up just to get me out of the house? ’ I shake my head.

As we are heading out of the front door – the Nymph back in jeans and T-Shirt – she turns to me: ‘I was wondering… since it’s not often that Ancient Green Nymphs are heard on the radio, do you mind, if I talk and you keep quiet in the background?’

And so a radio star is born. You can listen to her on Deutschlandradio Kultur in June.

Image by David Quigley, creative commons.


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.


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.