‘Oh, my god! This is awful!’ On Friday morning Peirene and I starred in shock and disbelief at the referendum results. I felt the Nymph 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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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 Maitland, 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.
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.
‘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.
‘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 Alexander 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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
‘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.
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.