The Nymph & Co are off on their Christmas break. Thank you for following our adventure in 2016. Have a wonderful Christmas and einen Guten Rutsch into 2017. We will be back here second week in January.
‘Meike, we need to have a word.’ The Nymph closes the office door behind her and invites me with a stern nod of her head to sit down on the sofa. She settles down opposite me in the chair. From her voice I can tell that this is going to be a serious conversation.
She clears her throat. ‘Why wasn’t I nominated for a Best of 2016?’
For a split second I’m confused, while she continues:
‘James got a prize. Anthony got a prize. Even Baby Tamu,’ she rolls her eyes in utter disbelief, ‘received a prize. The only one who was left standing in a corner empty-handedly was me.’
The coin has dropped. She’s talking about our own Best of 2016 Awards. I laugh. ‘Peirene, there is really no need to be envious. These awards aren’t to be taken seriously. They are just a way for me to highlight our achievements of this past year.’
But Peirene is not in a jokey mood. ‘This can’t just be shrugged off. Awards are awards. Last year I received the ‘Best Nymph’ award. That was the least I expected this year too.’
‘Last year I struggled to fill the ten nominations,’ I admit. ‘This year we had so much more to celebrate: breach and The Cut, our first Booker nomination, the kickstarter campaign, the EU Open letter and our work with Counterpoints Arts. All new things. All so exciting. We’ve expanded our work considerably in 2016.’
Peirene leans back, folding her arms and crossing her legs. The tip of her right foot is kicking the air as she is obviously trying to reflect on what I just said.
‘I’m still not happy,’ she doesn’t lift her gaze. ‘Of course you are right to celebrate our new achievements. They show our commitment that good literature should engage with society. Still, you can’t just ignore my tender, artistic soul that yearns for public acknowledgement too.’
In the silence that ensues I become aware of my emerging guilt feelings. When I drew up the nomination list, I noticed the absence of Peirene. Suddenly I have an idea. I lean over to her and whisper:
‘How about this: Our office Christmas party is coming up on Wednesday. I will get pink Champagne and draw up a little speech in honour of your artistic soul and its inspirational powers. But you are not allowed to breathe a word to the Peirene team. Deal?’
Peirene’s face brightens like the rising sun. ‘Deal! And what a brilliant excuse to go to the hairdresser and maybe even buy a dress worthy of the occasion.’
‘I think you might soon be out of a job,’ I hear the Nymph say. She is standing in the door, both hands in hips, watching me hoover the living room after last nights Salon. I’m working very slowly. My bones are aching, my head is aching. I’m tired.
‘Why?’ I brush away the sweat from my forehead, turn off the hoover and sink exhausted into the sofa. I love hosting my salons but they take a lot of effort to prepare and clear up.
‘Your work ethic isn’t good enough. You just want to drink your tea and stare into the void.’
‘You are right! I could do with a cup of tea,’ I sigh and hope Peirene will take the hint.
She doesn’t move. Instead she rolls her eyes. ‘You see. That’s what just what I mean. All you have to do is tidy the house a bit, and what happens? You collapse! That attitude would not have got you from Sudan to the UK.’
I suddenly see what’s on her mind. Yesterday’s Salon was all about ‘breach’, our first Peirene Now! commission. The stars of the night were the authors, Olu and Annie, who were joined by Mohamed, a young Sudanese man who they met in the Calais refugee camp last autumn when they did the research for the book. Shortly afterwards, Mohamed made it to England and is now legally working and studying here.
I asked him: ‘How long were you in Calais?’ ‘Only one month,’ he replied. ‘I kept on trying to get on a truck every single night. That was the only thing on my mind. I just didn’t give up. Others gave up after three or maybe four times. I didn’t. And then I was lucky. I managed to hide in a truck full of tyres where no scanner or police dog could find me.’
‘Take Mohamed as an example.’ The Nymph walks now over to the hoover. ‘He will be a successful man what ever he does. Because he has focus, determination and knows that he has to create his own luck. You should be worried, I might give your job to him. Then things would get done.’ She pushes the hoover in my direction.
For a moment I want to protest. But she’s got a point. I’ve recently moaned a lot, about too much admin, about having to sort out issues that didn’t go right straight away and about why it’s always me who has to pick up the pieces. In fact I have spent a fair amount of energy feeling sorry for myself. And truth to tell that’s what actually exhausted me. Time to change.
I lift myself up from the sofa and turn on the hoover.
Image by Connie, creative commons.
‘What’s the honour?’ I laugh. Then I stop in my stride. The office floor is covered in confetti. Mountains of it. Red and blue and yellow and silver and gold and pink.
‘Nothing special.’ Peirene throws more confetti over me. ‘I just got carried away. Couldn’t stop making it all night long.’
‘Making it!?’ I start coughing as some has got into my mouth. I lift my arms to protect my face. ‘Stop it, please,’ I beg her.
The paper shower ceases and Peirene stands in front of me, holding out a hole-punch. ‘The best thing that has happened to me in such a long time.’
I’m slightly bewildered, to say the least. ‘Don’t tell me you sat here all night and punched holes in paper?’
She nods enthusiastically, then sits down on the floor again, piling up a few loose magazine pages and punches holes into them with a face as if she’s performing a stunning party trick. ‘Look, what it can do. It punches perfect holes into all the pages, even when we have ten lying on top of each other.’
Suddenly she calms down and looks at me sternly. ‘You know, I think you could be sued for years of unreasonable behaviour towards your staff.’
I’m speechless. I’m not aware that I’ve committed a crime.
But the Nymph continues. ‘For ages everyone in this office had to put up with your old hole-punch that you inherited from your father because he didn’t want it 30 years ago. That monstrosity was such nuisance. Everyone hated it. At the end it could only make one hole at a time, in a single sheet of paper. And that often didn’t come out properly. But it never crossed your mind to get a new one and make our lives easy.’ She sighs. ‘Luckily we have James. A man of action. He decided to sort the situation out once and for all and bought a new hole-punch from his own money and gave it to me as a gift.’ She hands me the hole-punch. ‘Try it. It’s amazing. You won’t ever look back.’
Slightly reluctantly I do her the favour. After all, a hole-punch is a hole-punch, surely. But! Wow! What a feeling. Two perfect holes appear without any effort. I didn’t even need to push down hard. I try the same trick with a few pieces of paper lying on top of each other. Again, perfect. I repeat it a few more times. What fun!
‘It’s my turn again!’ Peirene grabs the hole-punch from me.
‘Ok, how about we take it in turns. You do ten holes, then I do ten,’ I propose, feeling slightly silly. But it’s so exhilarating to own a hole-punch that actually works.
Image by Asia Boros, creative commons.
Peirene is sitting in the corner of the sofa in her PJs, hugging her legs to her chest. She has one hot water bottle by her feet and another clutched to her tummy. An empty cup of hot chocolate is standing by her side, and a plate with the last crumbs of a Nutella toast on the floor.
She’s talking about the builders. Since the end of September, each morning, Monday to Saturday at 8am on the dot seven of them turn up to work inside our house, outside our house, on top of our house. Privacy has gone out of the window. Everything is covered in dust. We spend our evenings moving the contents of one room into the next and then into the next.
A few months ago the roof of our house began caving in. It quickly became apparent that the entire top had to be taken off and rebuilt. Peirene and I saw our chance. We could convert the attic into the office and finally – after nearly 10 years – move out of the front room. But of course this meant breaking through the ceiling to create a staircase. Once you are doing that you might as well repaint all the rooms and sort out the plumbing and electrics. And then, since the scaffolding is up, we should repoint the outside walls to prevent damp and double-glaze the windows to save energy. The builders are progressing fantastically and are set to leave on schedule by Christmas.
But suddenly it’s all proving too much for an Ancient Greek Nymph.
‘I’m not moving from this sofa corner until the builders have left. Left for good. And I will eat Nutella toast, morning, noon and night. Because it’s the only thing left that makes me feel happy. And I don’t care if it’s healthy or not. Because anyway my life has turned into utter misery.’ Peirene is letting her head hang down in glorious self-pity.
For a moment I’m standing in front of her and don’t know what to do. Then I grab her by the wrist, pulling her with me. We climb the ladder up into the loft. The velux windows are in now and the plastering has been done too. It’s starting to take shape. I explain to her that we will both have desks, but so too will James and the intern. The printer and franking machine will no longer have to live on the floor, and there will be plenty of storage space for the boxes with books.
‘A proper adult office!’ Peirene has perked up again. Half an hour later she is dressed. ‘I’m off to scan the second hand shops for a little round table and chairs. So we can have proper company meetings. There is space for that too in our new office. How exciting!’
‘Wait!’ I hold her back. ‘I’m not sure we have any money left for extras.’
She waves at me. ‘Don’t worry. I sense that from our new office we will conquer the world.’
Image by JD Hancock, creative commons.
‘What time do you call this?’ The Nymph is not amused.
‘I have been thrown off balance by the US election results,’ I mumble.
For the next half an hour I organise my desk. Then I check on facebook how my friends have reacted to the elections – tears and rage and sadness and incomprehension everywhere. I find it difficult to focus. Peirene, on the other hand, exudes intense concentration this morning.
‘Aren’t you disturbed by what has happened in the US?,’ I finally ask, while I begin to put our stationary in order. That’s at least something I can do without much thinking.
She shrugs her shoulders absentmindedly. ‘I am. But so what!’ She continues typing. ‘Brexit shocked me more. That was my wakeup call. The American election has merely confirmed that the shift is taking place all over the Western world.’ The Nymph now stops typing and glances at me sternly, her eyes appearing huge through her reading glasses. ‘You and I,’ she then continues, ‘are part of a social group that has done well over the last 30 years. We settled in London, educated ourselves, set up a publishing house. You yourself tell me that you feel lucky that you weren’t born in your grandmother’s or even your mother’s generation. Right?’ I nod and she adds ‘There are many fellow country men and women who clearly don’t feel that way. I like to understand them better and then see where we all have to adjust our thinking in order to progress together towards a more inspiring future.’
‘That’s a tall order.’ I sit down. ‘And how are you intending to reach that wisdom?’
‘The Cut, our Brexit novel. It will give me some insights.’
‘No pressure on Anthony as the writer,’ I say sarcastically. I pause for a moment. ‘And me as the editor.’ I swallow.
‘Anthony is up to the task. As for you – it depends if you will now finally get down to work and stop wasting your time clicking through news channels and social media.’
Image by Monica H., creative commons.
‘This one.’ I point to one where she smiles straight into the camera. It looks very natural.
‘Impossible! Too many wrinkles around my eyes.’
She continues flicking through, then shows me a picture where she is heavily made up – back combed hair, bright blue eye shadow and scarlet red lipstick. She’s looking over her shoulder, pouting lips, eyes half closed.
‘Peirene, I’m not sure this is you,’ I laugh.
‘So, you think I look ridiculous?!’ she glares at me angrily.
‘Well-‘ I can see she’s hurt and I stop myself. ‘What is it for anyway?’
‘I need new facebook, twitter, instagram and what’s up accounts.’ She’s now standing in front of the mirror, continuing to pull seductive faces, photographing her image in quick successions.
‘But we’ve got all of that,’ I reply.
‘Yes, as a company,’ she rolls her eyes as if I’m slow off the mark. ‘But these accounts are going to be my own, private ones.’
I’m suddenly intrigued. ‘And for whose benefit?’
‘Anthony’s.’ She’s leaning into the mirror, putting blush onto her cheeks.
I’m surprised to hear this. The Nymph is usually quite pragmatic with her romantic feelings and only becomes infatuated with people – and men in particular – who have delivered results. Anthony Cartwright is still a few drafts away from the final version of Peirene Now! No2, so I expected the Nymph to hold back.
She seems to have read my mind. ‘My heart belongs to the other Anthony, and to him alone, the one who pushed us over the £6500 mark to ensure we receive our kickstarter funding.’
That Anthony! Of course! I could have guessed. He’s been the talk in our office since last week. He’s a Peirene fan. None of us knows him personally but he was one of the first pledgers for our kickstarter project with a gift of £18. Then, when we were very close to hit our target, we put out another call, asking our supporters to increase their pledge by £5 each. Anthony increased his donation to £150 and then must have seen that if he added another £12 we would hit our goal. And so he adjusted his pledge again, pushing us over the victory line. What a man! What a hero!
‘Peirene, he already likes you. No need to lure him with selfies.’ I feel I have to save the Nymph from herself.
She lets her shoulders hang down in disappointment. ‘But I thought that’s what the youth of today does, post selfies for their sweethearts on social media.’
I put the arm around her. ‘You’ve impressed him with your books. That’s far more important.’ I wet my thumb and wipe away blue eye shadow that has smudged her cheeks.
Image by Annie Pilon, creative commons.
‘I feel hurt.’ Peirene is sitting on the sofa in the office, holding a plate with a half eaten slice of Black Forest gateau on her knees. ‘My soul is weeping.’ Two big round tears are running down her cheeks as she pushes another forkfull into her mouth.
I sit down beside her. ‘What’s the matter?’ I eye the cake. I wouldn’t mind a couple of bites.
‘Have you recently looked at our kickstarter?,’ she sniffs.
I nod and wipe away a bit of cream that has got stuck at the tip of the Nymph’s nose. ‘It’s going fine,’ I say. ‘We are up to 60% after two weeks and we have another three weeks left.’
‘That’s not why I’m upset.’ Peirene takes another, massive bite. Then she continues: ‘Of all the goodies that we are offering our pledgers, the two that have received the least attention involve me’. I know what she has in mind: a day at Peirene HQ with the Nymph and a personalized character assessment based on the investor’s three favourite book titles. ‘Meike, you tell me, when, over the last 2000 years has there been an opportunity anywhere in the world to have your character analysed by an Ancient Greek Nymph! Not to mention the preparation I have done to satisfy my customers!‘ She pointes to the big pile of books at the side of the sofa, ‘So many nights in the past few weeks I’ve spend brushing up on my Freud, Jung and Melanie Klein. I’m fully prepared.’ She rises to her feet. ‘I need another piece of cake. This defeat is unbearable.’
I follow her into the kitchen. ‘I wouldn’t take it too personally, Peirene. People might not have the money to pay for your expertise,’ I try to calm her.
She takes the remainder of the gateau out of the fridge.
‘Wow, that’s a bit excessive,’ I exclaim.
She shakes her head, cuts a slice and hands it to me. She cuts another one for herself. ‘There is a guy who made tens of thousands of dollars with his kickstarter project and what did he offer? Each pledger received a personal insult – yes insult – from him on a postcard. People loved it. They paid for the joke.’
‘But that’s not you,’ I remark, feeling slightly sick of having eaten the cake so fast. The Nymph is now on her third slice.
‘I’m too serious, too odd. No one loves an oddity like me,’ she whines.
Before she has time to go for the fourth slice, I put the cake back into the fridge.
‘You and I we are going for a run now. Because I still love you. And I don’t want an unhealthy Nymph. And when we come back I will pledge money for our kickstarter project so that you can analyse my character.’
Peirene immediately perks up. ‘Let’s go.’ She has already grabbed her trainers. ‘I will finally be able to tell you the truth about yourself.’
Suddenly I feel less certain that my offer was such a good idea.
‘We are far too early!’ Peirene exclaims. She shivers and her teeth begin to chatter. We are standing on a cold, deserted platform in Paddington station. It’s 6.20am on Thursday morning and Peirene is wearing a little skimpy dress and a
cardigan as if we are still in the middle of summer.
She is right. We have arrived too soon for the 7am train to Totnes, but at least there is no doubt that we will arrive on time at Dartington Hall – the venue where Counterpoints Arts is organising a retreat about art and social change, with special focus on migration.
I buy us a coffee and a chocolate croissant, but Peirene is not that easily appeased when she hasn’t had enough sleep.
‘I don’t understand why we are going,’ she complains.
‘Because it’s an important subject and Counterpoints Arts has invited us,’ I reply tersely. Then I go and stand a few meters away from her. I don’t like the Nymph when she is in such a whiny mood. And truth to tell, I don’t know either what to expect from this retreat. At the moment I worry about all the work on my desk that won’t get done in the next two days.
At Dartington Hall we step onto an exhilarating roller coaster of ideas, discussions and workshops. We meet performance artists and activists and funders and directors of Irish and Danish arts organisations. We exchange experiences and insights. We talk about how art can facilitate social change, how to avoid the trap of talking to ourselves and how to reach out to different audiences.
‘Wow! That was just what I needed.’ The Nymph slips off her shoes and stretches out her feet on the seat opposite her. We are on the train back to London. ‘Publishing conferences often feel so stale and stuck. But this retreat has given me a thought for a publishing project that if we manage to pull it off could change the book world and maybe even bring about a small amount of social change.’
I, too, feel utterly content and satisfied, as if I had just devoured a beautiful meal. ‘I know what you are thinking,’ I wink at Peirene. ‘But let’s go steady. We first need to arrange a few meetings to test the viability of our idea.’
The Nymph nods: ‘I agree. Still, this could be the beginning of an exciting new chapter in our life together.’
We smile at each other in blissful harmony. And the cold start from Paddington train station less than 48 hours ago is but a faint memory.
Image by Jeremy Thompson, creative commons.