An Alien Spaceship In our Garden

September 25th, 2016

It’s hard to allow others to express their creativity. Especially if that person is my husband AND he decides to express his creativity in garden design. 9400949816_7a4819e43b_z

For the record: We’ve been together for nearly 25 years. So I must be a person easy to get on with. And certainly tolerant.

The Nymph rolls her eyes. Twice.

‘Why twice?’ I ask irritated.

‘One for  the ‘easy to get on with’ and one for ‘tolerant,’’ she replies.

I decide to ignore her. She doesn’t know what a marriage can be like, if one partner has good taste and the other… well …

‘You’re being unfair.’ Peirene again. She always takes my husband’s side. ‘He writes beautiful poetry. And as a first reader of your own novels, his editorial advice is often spot-on.’

‘Ye-es,’ I admit reluctantly. She’s beginning to take the wind out of my sails.

So let me tell you what has recently happened in our back garden, and you can judge for yourself.

Two years ago we spent our family summer holiday cycling through Romania. There my husband fell in love with the traditional carved gates that stand at the entrance to villages and farm houses. After much research he found a Romanian woodcarver online and ordered a custom-made gate to put into our backgarden. ‘It won’t be big,’ he promised me, ‘We will have a work of art in our garden.’

Last week the gate arrived in a van from Romania. In six separate parts. The Nymph opened the door and let the men carry everything through the house. I wasn’t there. Which was lucky. Because I might have refused to accept the delivery. The roof alone is huge – totally out of place in a North London backgarden –  and it’s already clear that it will look more like an alien spaceship than folk art. But my husband is determined. ‘Its pillars represent the tree of life, ‘ he tells me with sparkling eyes.

‘I think the Salon guests will love it,’ Peirene now says, as we are standing side by side staring at the still cellophane wrapped roof.

‘Yes, ‘I sigh. ‘As a curiosity and because they don’t have to live with it day in day out.’

‘You will get used to it,’ she puts her arm around my shoulder.

‘I guess I have no choice.’ I pause for a moment. ‘But you have to admit, Peirene, you can’t any longer accuse me of not being tolerant.’

The Nymph squeezes my shoulder.

Image by Nan Palermo, creative commons.

Hangover in the Swiss Alps

September 20th, 2016

‘This is the life! To be swept off to the Swiss Alps in the middle of a working week. Just like that. And everything organised– including check-in at the airport and taxis at our destination’. Peirene sighs happily, as she sips her café crème sitting photoin the Piazza Collegiata. It’s Monday morning 11am. ‘And if you hadn’t insisted that James and I help with the Salon on Saturday we could have come earlier.’ She can’t resist giving me an accusing glance over the brim of her sunglasses.

We, that is James, the Nymph, breach author Annie Holmes and I are attending the international literature festival babel hosted in the Swiss town of Bellinzona. Annie and I presented breach on Sunday in the main theatre in town. We discussed the UK refugee crisis in Calais and the challenge of writing commissioned fiction. In the evening we had dinner with a group of other UK writers, including Don Patterson, Nadifa Muhammed and Chloe Aridjis. No wonder, the Nymph is content.

Although, I can’t help feeling that she might be suffering from a little hangover. I went back to the hotel at midnight, while she decided to stay on. As I got up from the table she ordered herself another cognac. For a moment I was tempted to say something but then I decided against. This morning I knocked on her door at 8am. We had agreed to go for a run. After the third knock she finally opened the door. ‘You have to go on your own. I forgot my trainers,’ she said, blinking sleepily into the light.

I’m pleased she has now risen from her bed. I already had visions of having to prop her up on our way back to Milan airport later in the day.

‘How about buying you some trainers?,’  I now suggest. ‘We still have the entire afternoon. A walk in the beautiful mountains will do you good.’

‘I-‘ the Nymph stutters, her cheeks blushing. ‘I … found the trainers after all,’ she then admits. ‘They were at the bottom of my bag.’

‘Ah! Well good!’ I pretend to be surprised. ‘We can save the money.’

I pay for our coffees. As we are walking towards the restaurant to meet the others for lunch, she suddenly says: ‘Since we didn’t need to buy new trainers but you were willing to spend the money, perhaps I could undertake some retail therapy this afternoon – instead of climbing mountains? You, Annie and James will reach the top of the mountain much faster without me.’ She smiles at me sweetly. But I’m firm. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Swiss Alps on a Monday, the least you can do is appreciate the scenery.

Image by Annie Holmes of  me admiring the Alps in Bellinzona.

Green Love

September 11th, 2016

‘Where were you?’ The Nymph is standing in the hallway as if she’s been waiting for me for a while. There is a hint of accusation in her voice. It does cross my mind that her attitude is not totally reasonable since it’s Sunday just after 4pm15026914893_20eaa95b81_z

‘At a yoga retreat with Rosa.’ Rosa is my 21-year old daughter and for the last three years we have made it our mother-daughter ritual to go on an annual yoga retreat for a weekend in September.

‘Why didn’t you ask me?’ Peirene blocks my way.

‘Because you are not my daughter. And this is something special I do with Rosa alone.’

I squeeze past the Nymph and head into the kitchen where I drop my bag. Peirene follows me.

‘No, I’m not your daughter. But I always assumed…’

I hear her voice shaking. Oh dear, my poor little Nymph, her insecurity can be quite endearing.

‘Peirene, you are very important to me. And it shows. I spend more time with you than with my husband and my children taken together.’

‘But you never do anything nice with me. Only with them. With me it’s always work work work.’

I have started to unpack the groceries that I’ve picked up from the corner shop on my way home.  Spinach and kale and chard and beets with their leaves still on.

Peirene interrupts her self-pity. ‘That is a lot of greens,’ she points out.

‘I bought these for you and me.’ I tear up the chard and kale. ‘Despite your worry that I neglect you, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about us over the weekend. And wondered how we could improve our lives.’ I put the green leaves into the mixer with some water, ginger and a few nuts and almonds. ‘A yoga retreat is not just about stretching and breathing, it’s also about healthy eating. Over the last 48 hours I have lived off amazing soups and green vegetable smoothies.’ I put the mixer on. ‘I’ve come back revitalised. From now on you and I will have a green smoothie each per day and raw vegetable soup for lunch.’ I pour the smoothie into two glasses and hand her one. ‘And we will start straight away.’

‘No way. I’m not drinking that.’ She puts both hands up in defence.

Unperturbed I push the glass in her direction. ‘Come on. It’s your turn.‘

The Nymph picks up the glass between the tips of her thumb and index finger as if it might explode. ‘OK. To do you a favour I will have a sip. But suddenly, I’m rather pleased I’m not you daughter.’

Image by Mike Licht, creative commons.

Holidays in the Back Garden

September 5th, 2016

The doorbell rings. A man wants to deliver a freestanding stainless steel patio heater. I’m about to tell him that he must have got the wrong address, I didn’t buy this, when the Nymph appears next to me.5779715772_ede39d38a2_z

‘I’m so pleased. Thank you.’

She signs the delivery and drags the heater through the kitchen and into the back garden.

She has arranged a deckchair underneath a big sun umbrella. Next to it stands a table with a pile of books and jar of fruit cocktail. She places the heater beside the deckchair, strips down to her bikini, puts on her sunshades and drops down in the deckchair.

‘Do you mind moving, please.’ She waves her hand at me. ‘You are blocking the sun.’

I don’t move. Instead I put my hands to my hips. ‘May I point out that it’s Monday morning, 9am, our work week is about to start. Holidays are over.’

‘You might have had your holidays. But I’m exhausted. You made me work far too hard over the last few weeks. Our first Peirene Now! title breach was launched successfully with reviews in the national press and a blog tour by the authors, the second Peirene Now! title -  about Brexit -  has just been commissioned, Peirene No 21, The Empress and the Cake has arrived with our subscribers and we have recently announced our 2017 series.’ She drinks a few sips of her fruit cocktail through a straw. ‘I’m in desperate need for some serious me-time,’ she sighs. ‘Otherwise I will collapse before Christmas,’ she adds.

‘Peirene, I think you are exaggerating. Both James and I have been around on and off to help you throughout the past two months.’

‘On and off.’ She puts the back of her free hand to her forehead. ‘That’s precisely the problem. I had to carry the entire responsibility on my own.’

I feel guilt creeping up inside me. I have indeed relied on her, expecting everything to run smoothly.

‘I see your point,’ my tone is less harsh. ‘So how long would like to spend out here?’

‘Two weeks.’ She is now creaming her arms. ‘And I’m prepared for all types of weather. For sun,’ she points to her shades, ‘for rain,’ she points to the big umbrella, ‘and for the cold,’ she points to the heater. I’m about to say something, but she interrupts me. ‘And I’m doing it the cheap way – in our back garden.’

Her last argument has defeated me. ‘Fair enough,’ I agree. ‘But how about reducing it to a week?’

Her face breaks into a big happy grin and she blows me a kiss. ‘Thank you. That was my plan all along. But I thought if I say two weeks I would stand a better chance of you agreeing to one.’

Image by Erich Ferdinand, creative commons.

Summer Blog Break

July 2nd, 2016

I’m on my annual summer blog break until first week of September. summer-chair-small

A Warrior’s Spell

June 26th, 2016

‘Oh, my god! This is awful!’ On Friday morning Peirene and I starred in shock and disbelief at the referendum results. I felt the 4415693080_930297196c_zNymph next to me gasping for air, then tears began to roll down her cheeks. I searched for her hand and held it tight.

‘I’m going back to bed,’ she eventually said. ‘Maybe this is all a bad dream.’

She didn’t reappear for the rest of the day. In the evening I woke her up and encouraged her to eat and drink something. She did me the favour but then went straight to sleep again. I sat by her bed and stroked her head. I was worried about her. Would my little Nymph slide into depression? Or worse: leave me and this country for good?

The next morning as I emerged from an erratic sleep, I could hear commotion from the next room. My heart stood still. This could mean only one thing: Peirene was packing her suitcases.

I jumped out of bed.  ‘Don’t go!’ I shrieked and tore open the door to the office.

A most peculiar scene presented itself to me.

Peirene was standing in the middle of the room. She was wearing a rag that resembled a tunic and on her head the old plastic viking helmet that my son used to play with when he was four or five – she must have found it in the attic.  In her hand she was holding the kitchen broom like a spear. Around herself she had organised in a circle hundreds of our books. She was pointing her broom-spear from one book to the next, muttering incomprehensible words.

The Nymph had gone mad! I now noticed her red cheeks, a gleaming wild look in her eyes. She must be burning with a fever way beyond 40C. I had to get her to hospital straight away. I stepped forward.

‘Don’t!’ she hissed, directing the broom head at me. ‘You might break the spell!’

I froze. After all, unsettled nymphs might become violent. So I decided not to risk a confrontation and ambled downstairs into the kitchen. I brewed up a pot of tea and waited.

*****

‘We have a lot of work ahead of us.’ Peirene sits down opposite me and pours herself a cup of tea. She is back in her jeans and T-Shirt, her hair in a neat pony tail, her face calm.

‘So you are not leaving me?’ I watch her carefully. Then add with a lump in my throat: ‘And you’re not losing your mental stability?’ I prefer to put things on the table.

Peirene throws me a surprised glance. ‘Leave? Now? Mental stability? The referendum has made clear what we’ve always suspected: this country needs to learn to listen to other people’s stories, only then it will change for the better.’ She pauses. ‘We have an important mission that hasn’t yet been accomplished. We can’t give up half way.’

‘And your show upstairs,’ I nod towards the ceiling. ’What was that about?’

‘Something I will now do every morning. It’s an ancient ritual that gives power to our books to penetrate to the heart even of the most closed Brexiteer.’ Suddenly her face breaks out in a smile. ‘I have to admit: I don’t know if it will work. Brexiteers are hard nuts to crack. But it has made me feel more positive. And that’s a good start.’

Image by Erick E Castro, creative commons.

Knitting Therapy

June 20th, 2016

‘I have a present for you.’ Peirene hands me a parcel. I open the package.  Knitting needles, yarn and a book with retro knitting patterns fall into my lap. Surprised, I look at the Nymph. I haven’t knitted in years.151899525_24e04e590d_z

‘You should start again.’ The Nymph nods encouragingly.

‘Thank you, Peirene. That’s kind. But I just don’t have the time. I’m about to commission Peirene Now! No 2 for next year and that will take a lot of my space. Maybe when I’ll have retired from publishing in 20 or so years,’ I add.

‘Well, I was wondering if you would like to take early retirement-‘ I stare at the Nymph horrified and she corrects herself quickly. ‘I meant, sabbatical. A year of sabbatical leave would do you good.’

‘Do you think I’m losing it?’ I’ve recently felt a bit overworked. I suddenly begin to worry that I overlooked something or made a mistake?

‘No, not really. ‘ Peirene shakes her head mildly, avoiding my eyes. ‘It’s just… James and I are a great team… and you are slightly cramping our style.’

I’m utterly confused. ‘Cramping your style?’

‘Yes.’ She now leans back in her chair and swings her feet on the table. I notice a new butterfly tattoo on her ankle. She folds her arms demonstratively behind her head. Her sleeves slide up to her elbows and a tattoo of an open book appears on her lower right arm. Also new. ‘As you know, James pulled off this super cool event on Thursday in the hip Libraria bookshop in Brick Lane, with Octavia and Carrie from the trendy Literary Friction as moderators. Marie Sizun, our French author, was a star, too. The place was packed. Lots of young, arty people.’ Peirene begins to twirl her hair. Her fingernails are painted black.

‘You’re right.’ I agree. ‘James did a fantastic job on Thursday. But I’m not sure I cramped your or his style that night.’

‘No, you didn’t that evening. However, middle-aged woman just aren’t ‘it’. Sorry,’ she says in that annoyingly teenage tone that doesn’t mean sorry at all.

I quickly lean over to her and scratch her ankle tattoo with my fingernail. It’s peeling off straight away. I laugh.

‘And you think fake tattoos and black nail varnish is ‘it’?

‘It shows that, at heart, I’m a non-conformist,’ she informs me.

I pick up the needles and yarn and begin to cast on stitches. I still remember how to do it and it feels good. Maybe I should start to knit again?

‘Fair enough,’ I say. ‘If you want to run the company for a while…the monthly accounts need doing.’ I’m counting the stitches on the needle and wonder what I should aim for – a scarf or a jumper?

‘Accounts?’ I hear the Nymph swallow. She hesitates, then mutters: ‘Perhaps you should stay and do those – and then take sabbatical.‘

Image by meknits, creative commons.

Debating The EU

June 13th, 2016

‘So, let’s look at the facts,’ the Nymph says matter-of-factly. ‘We’ve tried to get media attention for our EU Remain Open letter and have failed. And that’s despite the fact that we have collected more than 220 signatures, including writers Sara photoMaitland, Marina Warner, Sarah Waters and publishers Adam Freudenheim at Pushkin, Max Porter at Granta and Will Atkinson from Atlantic. The Guardian said: “I’m afraid we decided that our EU writers piece was the Review contribution – and I suspect the letters page will feel they’ve carried a cultural open letter already. Sorry!” – The Economist said: “However, our policy is not to publish open letters, or any letter that has run whole or in part elsewhere.” – ‘No one has run our letter,’ Peirene adds, then continues her list: ‘The Sunday Times stated: “Unfortunately the mailbag on the subject gets bigger and as a Sunday paper we have a limited time frame to the countdown so it is unlikely to be included.” And the TLS in the last minutes before going to print even cut our statement out of their EU edition.’

‘The publisher of the TLS apologized in a personal email to me,’ I throw in. ‘And subsequently they added our piece online.’

Peirene shrugs her shoulders, unimpressed. ‘Seen in isolation, each individual reaction appears excusable. But taken together this points to a shockingly weak stand of the creative and media industries on the EU referendum. The bookies are showing that the Brexit camp is catching up by the hour and Remain is no longer a certain outcome.’ Peirene lends forward, hugging her tummy with both arms. ‘This whole thing gives me a stomach cramp.’ She distorts her face in pain. ‘Any responsible newspaper should shout from the rooftops that writers, publishers, academics – leaders in thought and imagination – are for staying in. They should print letters like ours that go beyond the argument of money and migration and show the danger of an isolationism.’

‘We are not famous enough,’ I explain. ‘That’s why they have no interest in publishing our letter.’

‘Not famous enough!’ The Nymph is now hyperventilating. ‘We are one of the leading publishers of foreign fiction in this county. Our books are on major prize lists every single year. And we do more than anyone else to spread the word of foreign lit with our pop-up stalls outside supermarkets and distributing newspapers at tube stations.

Peirene is beside herself.

‘And you, Meike. You always pretend to be so cool in this blog. But you are not! Weren’t you wondering the other day if this is what it might have felt like in Germany in the 1930s when everyone knew that something bad was about to happen but too many people looked the other way until it was too late?’

‘Peirene!’ It’s now my turn to be outraged. ‘You can’t say that – at least not out loud.’

Peirene raises an eyebrow. ‘You have become more British than the Brits.’ She sighs. ‘Luckily you have me as your saving grace.’

I see her heading out of the office with a poster in her hand. She hangs it into the window of our front room for everyone to see. Keep Calm and Stay In the EU, it says.

Reading Break

May 26th, 2016

I’m in Scotland for a week – to catch up with my reading and stock up on whiskey for the next salons. I will be back with new Peirene adventures second week of June.

 

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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.