RECENT WORK – Short stories and Poetry

 

Knish

It’s a long time since I had a knish, down on Brighton Beach, Coney Island, with everyone speaking Yiddish or Russian, smoking long white cigarettes, wearing fur-coats, even the dogs, fur-on-fur with studded collars, and a knish… you take a lump of stuff and wrap pastry round it, that’s the recipe, fried in enough oil to seize the arteries, or baked.  Potato, kasha, onion, cheese; any way you gotta eat it with mustard.

For a long time I never met Uncle Freddy, just heard about how he ate nothing but knish and horseradish, wore an astrakhan coat all weathers, like an old Chassid and if ever a pause visited our family conversation someone muttered how Uncle Freddy would have something to say about that, with a joke for every occasion and you never expected Freddy, suddenly he was there.  But never when we were visiting…

So I liked Uncle Freddy, even though I’d never met him and I didn’t like knish.  (How can a person not like a fried lump of mush smeared with enough mustard to turn your face red and yellow both at the same time) and they said how Freddy loved Coney Island, how he was Coney Island, even though it was always changing, Jews, Russians and Uzbeks coming and going, and each lot previous wouldn’t be seen dead with the newcomers.  Freddy was Coney Island.

What even is a coney?  Some kind of rabbit, my father said when he got my mother a rabbit fur coat.  ‘A coat made of rabbit? My whole life is a disappointment.’ 

Our family was half in New-York and half in London, always hopping one place to the next and I’d been there a week, bored of relatives, wishing I had money for the funfair, taking photos of people, boardwalk, people, boardwalk, always careful, because some people don’t want their picture taken so I’d focus on a menu board or churning iced blue slush and shift as I clicked the shutter, like it was an accident. 

This old guy was walking by with a nose pumped-up red with burst blood-vessels like a big ugly boil, pulling a dog with curled-up back legs so he ploughed the sand.

I photographed that nose, but he caught me. ‘What’s the idea, camera boy?’ he said. ‘A face like this costs money.’   He knocked a stick deep in the sand and hooked the dog-leash over it.  ‘See that boy?’ he said to the dog. ‘You watch him.’

The dog let out a mournful wail as the man joined the line at the knish shop.

‘Hey it’s okay. He’s coming back soon.’  I said, and the dog barked at kids with a Frisbee, a unicyclist, a juggler before settling down on the sand. 

I’d always wanted a dog. I’d point at them in the street. ‘What about that one?  What about that?’ 

‘He who asks doesn’t get,’ my mother always said so I stopped asking and still didn’t get. 

The man left the shop with the Knish combination box. I knew the range. I’d photographed that board: Potato, onion, kasha, ground meat, cheese, blueberry, sour cherry. All the flavours, sized from Cocktail to stop-you-eating-for-a-week.

He came by and dropped a knish into sand for the dog. ‘You watch my dog for me,’ he said. ‘I got business to attend to,’ and he went off down the boardwalk.

At first the dog had snarled if I strayed within the circle of his leash, but now he sniffed the knish and lay on his back for me stroke to him.  He had a lopsided head and patchy fur and when the man returned I would tell him I wanted his dog and if he gave him to me he could have my watch, a chronometer with all the buttons so he could time things to a tenth of a second. 

I broke off a bit of knish where it wasn’t sandy, offered it to the dog, then ate it myself.  

‘He’s not coming back,’ I said to the dog.  ‘You’ll starve. Kasha. Who gives a dog kasha knish?’ The dog didn’t tell me I was wrong, so I unhooked the leash and took him home with me. 

‘I was worried about you,’ my mother said. ‘You must be starving,’ but the lump of buckwheat was still heavy in my stomach.

‘The dog needs food.’

My mother shook her head in despair. ‘Oh my god. A dog. That’s all we need. A dog is always eating. And we’ve got a visitor too…’ 

The man stood in the kitchen doorway eating a knish with a smear of mustard on his big red nose, still wearing in his coat. So that was astrakhan.

‘It’s… it’s…’ My mother was lost for words. 

‘Hey, camera boy,’ he said, ‘it’s the knish man.’ He mimed taking my photograph. ‘A knish for every occasion…’ he said, pointing at the box as if it was the funniest thing in the world.

We ate knishes the rest of the week, all the flavours and sizes, our bellies heavy with stuff and no-one ever mentioned that dog.

Two poems

18th November 1987 – Kings Cross fire

After five days of training and cooked breakfasts
ten ways to improve performance and a
full English in the Travelodge in Hitchin
we’re bloated and weary
sitting in the bar where they’ve
run out of everything except
Ayingerbrau on promotion and Larry
a station supervisor says he’ll get the drinks
and we can see the chambermaid at the bar
with the love bites on her neck
only partially concealed by her scarf
This is my chance mate
he says twenty fucking years of marriage

then someone tells me how last night some
of the team had a fight with the postmen
at a pub quiz in Paddington, five broken teeth
a dislocated hip and a scratched cornea
three linemen sacked for
disreputable behavior.
So we’ve got to finish our film
about improving performance
with cut-out paper figures
using our fingers for legs and
Larry is asking the chambermaid
if he saw her in Kilburn
at the Rose of Tralee contest
last November

and that’s when we see the TV at the bar
a newsreader giving out casualty numbers
a fireman with a worried face
who can’t say much but he’s shaking his head.
and we call it a night cause no-one is thinking
about performance
and Larry finally buys the round
with peanuts for us all and a
double port for the chambermaid
and he says he can show her round his station,
or anywhere in London and she tells him
she’s never been to Kilburn or Tralee
but will probably visit London tomorrow
whiis her day off.

 

Salvage

Horn of plenty lurks by the path, its cracking black trumpet emerging from the leaf litter.  Patches of clear ground struggle as the tangled grass takes hold again; you follow its line until all that is left is the rich smell of decay.  In the dense part of the wood you hear rumbling; something is burrowing beneath the sinking ground and it will emerge if only you keep quiet long enough.  But long enough is forever and your breath is catching up with you. 
 
The hut in the clearing is painted blue, and underneath the blue it has flaked to watery yellow.  And white, crumbling white.  A bucket sits two steps high, overflowing with White Shield bottles, damp labels peeling; and Johnny Walker, all empties.  Thick blue washing line that can’t be cut coils at the end and three pairs of grey school shorts have turned white from hanging there so long.  Someone had said he’d seen the bottles full of blood, but they were empty now.  Just a dribble of beer, mixed with rainwater.  You can see a man with a black beard inside, eyebrows wild and tangled, eyes flashing every time his head turns.  His face is picked out by the light of something hidden, the tremblings maybe of a candle, and he talks, shouts, at an imaginary person, or rehearses an argument for the evening, taking both sides.  The argument goes on forever in silence.
 
Last time you’d taken fright, seeing those bottles, hearing his shouting….
 
* * *
 
The path from the road into the woodland is darker.  Every time your family drove past on your Grandmother looked into the black wood and said, as if the first time, ‘That would be a good place to bury a body,’ and you all groaned.  
 

You hear the voices as your feet crunch leaves on the path, voices that whisper to you to turn back.  ‘Don’t follow us.’  But they are only voices in the ground beneath, and no-one listens to them.  There are ructions in the soil, as if a life had been about to break through, but changed its mind.

 

* * *
 
On the ridge you could see the motorway where a lorry had pushed half into the grass embankment.  The back was open and a gang of kids emerged with white boxes, triumphantly flinging candles and soap into the air, onto the tarmac.  Or down the grass embankment far as they could.  A siren sounded, and in the approach of the flashing blue light the kids disappeared.  As if they were never there.  The police car paused beside the lorry before shooting off, light flashing but silent.
 
The back of that lorry was a dark black box that contained anything you could imagine, if you slid down the slope and made sure you stayed hidden.  Kept an eye open for police cars.  Sometimes unmarked. They put their hands in but the good stuff was always just out of reach.  When they were done, there were blackberries and small sweet apples on the tree by the path. 
 
You watched them.  In the distance.
 
And they said that he’d give you beer if you were there in the afternoon.  He would stand at the gate holding two bottles, but only one opened; saying nothing, waiting.  You just had to take him a gift, something he needed, living in a hut in the woods.  Soap and candles.  But if he needed them so much where did the beer come from?  Where did he get all that stuff in the hut?
 
You never knew anyone who’d been there before for definite except the McGuire twins and they were tough and fought like tigers.  Until Sam threw his brother through the first-floor window and cut a vein in his own arm doing it. You stood in collective horror, as the blood ran down his arm dropping down from above onto damp earth, forming a darker puddle on the water collected there.  Light glinting off hard angled glass and soft water.  Sam was shouting through the window still, silver daggers pointing up to his chest. The McGuire rage they called it.  Red hair.  Red rage.   Angry at something and nothing.  Shouting, what was he shouting? 
 
They had been to the hut; you’d smelt the beer on those boys’ breath; they weren’t lying.  So it couldn’t be true, everything people said. 
 
You’d heard about the boys chased by the police, another police car cutting them off between the abattoir and the fields of the open prison where the grass cut your legs.   They ran fast through the fields but the police were relentless. 
 
Gasping but relentless. You’d watched as they were marched, still clutching the candles and soap on the walk of shame with the whole school at lunch, to the Headmaster who was entertaining a distinguished guest, a councillor and business man, probably a Freemason with secret punishments for thieving. You couldn’t help feeling jealous, like you wished you were with the boys, sharing their fear, their notoriety, holding the stolen goods.  They’d said they’d take you with them but they didn’t.  Left you waiting.  Now their lies were breathless with fear, cut off mid-word, in front of the parade of green and white, boxes of candles and fairy liquid.  
 
* * *
 
There is a whisper that you can hear from someone you used to know well, whose face is hidden in the trees; in the forms in the bark; in the shapes the leaves make. On the tree there’s a line of brown rubber Jew’s Ear’s and you can tell there’s stinkhorn somewhere, poking through the ground.  You have forgotten their name but you want to see their face once more.  To hear their voice.  In the silence.
 
Along that path in the woodland you can hear the jackdaw crying, coarse and thuggish, and you want to go to that door, knock on that wooden paneling with the crumbling paint, to stop the muted shouting even though you have no gift, no roadside treasure to trade for a beer. You want to leave it all behind, to drink beer, not just sips, to drink it properly, gulp it down.  To taste whisky.  Feel it burn your throat.  The taste of oblivion.  The clearing. 
 
The bare earth gives a little.  The leaves crunch down, leaving the marks of your trail,  dark tracks in the woods…. but still clearly visible in torch light….  when they come looking

Published by Grist – Points of View Anthology 2017  

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