RECENT WORK – Short stories and Poetry
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Published by Grist – Points of View Anthology 2017