By MARK RUSSELL.
Men as Architects
ABOUT WAR, THEY say, there is nothing new to plan, design, and execute. It is as common to be mightily addicted to rum, as it is to crave the company of unknown spectators at the carnival. It is the driving out of evil night spirits, and by equal turns, the welcoming of longer days and unrestrained fertility, that may excuse a whole community their neglect of the poor and their burning of witches. A man who builds cities may use bricks, or he may use stories. Two men who build cities may view them from the safety of their drawings alone, or as a pair of spunky flâneurs knowing the cities will crumble with or without their assistance, and with or without an army at their walls.
Men Awaiting Assignments
ABOUT WAR, THEY say, there is nothing new to cannibalise. It is as common to celebrate intelligence, as it is to be entertained by stupidity. It is the widespread regard for monsters, and by equal turns, the widespread fear of monsters, that may reduce our susceptibility to notions of ‘monsters’. A man bold and conceptual in his use of language may disregard all reviews (particularly those in The Edinburgh Review), or grow discontent with the product of his practice. Two men bold and conceptual in their use of language may change agent after every project, or attempt to pare language down to their static floor shows, such that we begin to read their bodies as violence committed in silent and motionless space.
Men at the Pub Quiz
ABOUT WAR, THEY say, there is nothing new to do when living near the Equator. It is as common to repel the east and west, as it is the north and south. It is the slapped face of Alexander, and by equal turns, the kicked arse of Genghis Khan, that may steel a man’s backbone when the British and Russians come calling. A man skilled at playing the Buffer Game may be fluent in thirteen languages, or deficient in all but his own. Two men skilled at playing the Buffer Game may be blackmailed into espionage, or astonished that somebody once considered inventing a game from which nobody emerges as victor.
Men Who Suffer Flashbacks
ABOUT WAR, THEY say, there is nothing new to serialise. It is as common to etch a dying soldier’s last words into the warm black tarmac of the I-95 as it slips quietly past sleeping voters in the Carolinas, as it is to hunt for young boys and old women in the oily swamplands. It is the shallowness of the river one has to cross, and by equal turns, the ethnicity of one’s afflatus, that may set alight the sky’s divine wind. A man counting Roman scholars may be seeking grounds for his refutation of evolutionary biology, or reliving a childhood plagued by dyscalculia. Two men counting Roman scholars may be riddled with gonorrhoea, or re-purposing the works of Norman Mailer to impress their girlfriends.
Men Covering Chuck Berry
ABOUT WAR, THEY say, there is nothing new to rhyme with ‘hurricane’. It is as common to lay down one’s weapons on the eighteenth day, as it is to pick them up again on the nineteenth day. It is the inconclusive dating of the war’s beginning, and by equal turns, the certainty of the war’s legacies, that may lead to yet another profitless commission to write a biography of Field Marshal J.B. Goode. A man who builds a house in an earthquake zone may be a hopeful but blind seer, or a hopeful masochist with 20:20 vision. Two men who build a house in an earthquake zone may have been hornswoggled by an unqualified architect, or have built it as a present for somebody they despise.
Mystery Writers of America
FIVE WOMEN WEARING blue suits with white shirts were holding down a man in a corridor leading to the toilets. A sixth was going through his manbag. She held up a dossier, read out its title, ‘Football,’ and threw it over her shoulder. Several more were despatched the same way: ‘Exfoliation’, ‘The Bandersnatch’, ‘Nabokov: The Jest of Genius’. ‘Wait,’ the woman with her hands around his neck said. ‘Anything about lepidopterology?’ The sixth woman flicked through the pages and shook her head. ‘Véra?’ The sixth woman flicked through again. ‘No.’ The strangler tightened her grip, ‘You bastard,’ she said to the man. The sixth woman went on: ‘Clive of India’, ‘Mystery Writers of America.’ ‘Bingo!’ cried the strangler, loosening her grip slightly. ‘Read it out! Read it out!’ the others said. ‘No,’ the sixth woman said. ‘He can’t harm us now.’ They released him and he got to his feet. The sixth woman looked at her watch. ‘Come on, the symposium has started.’ They made their way toward the buffet. ‘Everybody grab a glass of fresh orange juice on your way through, it’s going to be a tough couple of hours.’ The man began to pick up his scattered papers. ‘Blimey,’ I said. ‘How many papers are you giving this weekend?’ He straightened his waistcoat. ‘Please don’t tell anybody what you saw here. Is my tie all right?’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I said, even though there were spots of blood on it. ‘Here, let me give you something for your silence.’ He handed me his cufflinks. ‘They were my father’s,’ he said. They were hideous but I took them anyway. ‘We men must stick together,’ he said.
We Know What You’re Thinking
WE WERE GATHERED around a man with a small goatee, listening to his account of dying, going to heaven, and returning to live among us. Nobody could tell whether this was testimony of miracle, or delirium. With that, everybody froze and turned toward me. A middle-aged man still in his pyjamas stood. ‘Don’t be so patronising. We know it’s delirium. Take that back.’ he said. ‘Don’t you want to hear the stories?’ said a man with an emerald in his nose. ‘Sit down, Frank,’ his partner said from behind his hand, ‘he’s mentioned your emerald.’ Frank covered his face. ‘Damn you,’ he said. Somehow, they could hear my thoughts. ‘So,’ I said, ‘you’re all in this together, are you?’ Momentarily chastened, the man in his pyjamas regained his composure. ‘All but him.’ He pointed to the man with the goatee, who cleared his throat. ‘First,’ he said, ‘how do you know those are his pyjamas?’ The man in the pyjamas joined in the general laughter, while assuring those around him that they were indeed his pyjamas. ‘Second, I prefer the term ‘Van Dyke’, not ‘goatee’.’ Many in the crowd supported this preference. ‘And third, when I was dwelling in the house of the Lord, miracles and delirium were considered equals. There is no principle of false equivalence in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ A man I knew to be Ronnie rose to his feet, slapped the face of a man in a Hawaiian shirt, and left. A woman I knew to be Claudette Somebody reached across a table and began to strangle a man I knew to be Antonin Somebody with his own tie. ‘This isn’t going well,’ I said to the man with the Van Dyke. ‘Wait until the coffee arrives,’ he said. ‘They’ll confess everything.’
The Mobile Bottom Implant Truck
I WAS RETURNING to the conference after a short stroll to clear my mind, when I came upon a queue of people in the overflow car park. ‘What’s going on?’ I said to a couple who seemed very excited. ‘It’s the mobile bottom implant truck!’ said the young woman. ‘The what?’ I said. ‘Isn’t it great? Nobody knows when or where it will show up,’ the young man said. ‘I’m sorry, but did you say, ‘bottom implant’?’ I said. They laughed, nudging other people in the queue. ‘You make it sound like you don’t know what bottom implants are!’ I looked at the long line of people. ‘It’s certainly very popular,’ I said. ‘Billy has finally agreed to have his done,’ the young woman said, reaching for his hand. ‘I had mine eight months ago. Do you like it?’ she turned and bent over. ‘I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out,’ I said. They were aghast. ‘Don’t be sad, Tina,’ the young man said. ‘Do you think I should ask for an upgrade?’ she said. An elderly woman pinched my arm. ‘That was uncalled for,’ she said to me. ‘I didn’t mean to upset her,’ I said, rubbing my arm. ‘Anyway, you’re a little old for bottom implants, aren’t you?’ I said to her. She pinched me again. ‘It’s not for me, it’s for Raymond,’ she said. ‘Who’s Raymond?’ I said. A head popped out from inside her coat. ‘Oh my god,’ I said. ‘What the hell is that?’ It tried to leap from her grasp and bite me, but she was strong. ‘Raymond is going to be the cutest big-bottomed Terrier cross in all of Greater Manchester, aren’t you darling?’ she said, rubbing her nose on Raymond’s. ‘Does Raymond have any say in this?’ I said. ‘Are you some kind of simpleton?’ she said. ‘Raymond’s just a dog.’ Raymond licked her chin. She looked like she might French kiss him. I would need a second breakfast to get over this.
The Dangers of Small Talk
WHILE OUT WALKING in the local countryside I came upon a small volunteer-run building designed for tourists. Giant historical photographs hung on the walls. Some dangled from the ceiling by catgut. Information about the area was inscribed upon them: people, industries, culture. I needed the toilet, but a polite elderly man kept talking about old landowners, the difficulty finding work now, and the old days when there were so many jobs: maids, stable boys, piano tuners, and the like. He apologised for there being no public toilet, but said it was included in the next phase of development if they could raise enough money through donations and sponsorships. ‘Is that your wife?’ he asked me. ‘Who?’ I said, looking around to see a woman who had followed me from the hotel. She had her back to us and was pretending to admire a three-metre square black and white photograph of sheep shearers in 1934. ‘Her? Oh no, she’s a total stranger.’ ‘She’s very pretty,’ he said. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘What are you going to do with her?’ The woman was checking something on her phone. ‘I think I’ll ask her to marry me,’ I said. He nodded. ‘I like a nice wedding. Will you invite me?’ I watched as the woman made her way out of the door and back into the woods. ‘Don’t be preposterous,’ I said. ‘I hardly know you.’ The woman was gone and I missed her terribly. ‘I play the fiddle,’ the elderly man said. ‘That could come in handy. I’ll put you on the reserve list,’ I said. We stared at the open door. He put a blanket around me. ‘She’d only have broken your heart,’ he said, handing me a piece of toilet paper from his pocket. ‘Shall I go after her? Try to win her back?’ I blew my nose. ‘Don’t let her win,’ he said. ‘Retain your dignity.’
IT HAD BEEN a long time since I’d had a smoke, so long in fact, I doubted I’d ever smoked. The good thing about smokers though, is that they welcome other smokers, ex-smokers, and non-smokers into their fold. Their generosity toward one another is legendary. Eight of us were standing outside, just to the left of the revolving doors. ‘Bernie’ offered me a pink cigarette. ‘I used to enjoy sitting on the leather banquettes at Bemelmans sipping a Black Russian and smoking a cocktail Sobranie,’ he said. Three delegates from Romania were discussing the shape and brightness of the night’s moon. From my fractured understanding of the Balkan languages, they seemed to think that despite its fullness and palpable fertility, they were too tired for full and palpable night-time activities. After their long journey, they were going to retire early. When I relayed this translation to Bernie, he was downcast. ‘What’s up, Bernie?’ I said. ‘My name’s not Bernie,’ he said, pulling off his name tag and throwing it into an unhealthy-looking shrub. ‘I found that in a bowl of custard. I don’t like my own name.’ I hadn’t the heart to ask him what his real name was, nor why he disliked it. As we finished our cigarettes, I started to develop a creeping antagonism toward my own name. Bernie sensed it. ‘It only hurts when the sun goes down,’ he said. His honesty was uplifting. We stared across the water to the lights of the BBC headquarters, and the prospect of our own long winters. ‘It’s like an eternal flame, isn’t it?’ he said.
Mark Russell has published two full collections and five chapbooks/pamphlets, the latest being o (the book of gatherings), published by Red Ceilings. He won the 2020 Magma Poetry Judge’s Prize, and his poems have appeared in Stand, Shearsman, The Manchester Review, Tears in the Fence, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, The Interpreter’s House, and elsewhere.