Photograph by omye.
by Fernando Sdrigotti
My God, with what a light heart (comparatively speaking) did I write the concluding lines!—though it may be not so much with a light heart, as with a measure of self-confidence and unquenchable hope.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler
Kim Caless invited me to a saloon she’s hosting at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I kindly declined, said I was happy to meet her later for a drink or two, for dinner, for tea, whatever she preferred. She insisted, said you should come, because Donovan Miller will be there, and I want you to meet him — he’s a nice guy. He might be nice but I didn’t have any interest in meeting any writer, not now that I’m going through this very resentful phase regarding anything vaguely related to the written word. I even wrote an essay titled “Artaud Was Right: All Writers Are Pigs,” and this Irish literary mag — Craic Review — published it, perhaps thinking I meant it as a joke. But Kim insisted, several times, and I guess I fancy her because I ended up giving up and now I’m standing at the garden in this pub down Stokey High Street, the White Hart, not knowing what to do, how to stand, how to look cool, what to do with my hands except playing with my phone. And nothing fits into place, as in a first draft.
You can tell everyone here is a writer because everyone dons a hat of one shape or the other. I don’t. But I have cigarettes and I light one and suck at it two or three times and put it out and go back inside, slightly dizzy. There’s a free table, there are many free tables — everyone is flocking around the bar now. So I sit and get my pocket Moleskine out, eager to jot something down, something inevitably pointless. My notepad is uncomfortable, its pages are too small, impossible to flow on them, impossible to keep a neat handwriting. I can only write a couple of ideas or draw something. Most of my creative output these years has been limited to these small pages and to short witticisms I then post online, for my 67 Twitter followers.
I write Manuel Puig x Kafka= A melodrama of nothingness. I take a picture with my mobile phone and tweet it. I’m aware that this tweet is very likely to get lost in translation. Nobody will make the connection between Puig and Kafka, mainly because there’s no connection but my own reading habits. And if someone found it interesting this person would be some academic from a modern languages department in some university in the middle of nowhere, where students pay £9k a year for a mediocre education. Between obscurity or being an item on someone’s CV I take the first option — I’m actually doing very well being obscure. Perhaps my whole relationship with writing is limited to a drive to remain obscure and irrelevant, even to academics, which might explain the size of my notebook. I might be a Kafka without the talent. A Kafka from Rosario, Argentina, not even Buenos Aires. Not writing because of X, Y, and Z also helps.
I jot a bit more and finish my drink. It’s twenty to eight and the reading starts at eight. I have time for one more drink before heading upstairs. I approach the bar: it’s still packed but my pint is now empty and waiting become a categorical imperative. There are four bar staff serving dozens of people and I’m at the end of the queue. I’ll be here a long time — I arm myself with patience and try to keep my phone in my pocket while I balance myself back and forth on my feet, humming something, I don’t know exactly what. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn around: it’s Kim Caless with a tall guy. Kim is wearing a Panama hat and a XXL Joy Division t-shirt, as if it were a dress. Her legs are slim, long and pale. She’s wearing orange socks and a pair of Doc Martens 1461, burgundy. The tall guy is wearing a brown corduroy jacket and matching corduroy trousers and hemp shirt — matching too — and a pair of brogues that look like undersize canoes; he’s holding a fedora hat in his right hand. He looks like a huge brown totem, watching the world from the heights.
“Hey Ariel!” Kim says. “You came!” She seems happy to see me.
“Hey, Kim! Nice dress. Nice hat. Nice shoes,” I say. The tall guy has an affable smile.
“Ariel, this is Donovan Miller, the famous novelist; Donovan, this is Ariel, he’s from Argentina,” she says.
“Hey, nice to meet you!” says Miller and we shake hands. His handshake is rather limp, but all British writers have a limp handshake.
“Nice to meet you too!” I say.
“Cool, guys, I’ll leave you here. We’ll start in ten minutes. Don’t be late,” Kim says and disappears towards the stairs. We watch her walk away, struggling to lift her heavy footwear from the floor, slightly bow-legged but beautiful.
“I’m buying a drink,” I say, “can I get you one, Donovan?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! Go on!”
“A Laphroaig,” says Miller.
“Sorry,” I say, “I missed that.”
“A Laphroaig. It’s that whisky with the white label. That one over there,” he says and points towards a bottle. “With ice. And a glass of water.”
“Sure,” I say.
“I can become invisible to the bar staff, that’s my superpower,” says Miller.
“Yeah, me too. But we’re early. No need to worry.”
“Yes, we are early. Let’s see what happens…” he says and we both move to a space that has suddenly become clear and lean against the bar. A couple of minutes elapse and we are still in silence, still leaning against the bar. You could say we both feel uncomfortable. At least I do, because I’m not an omniscient narrator this time and I have no idea about what goes on in Miller’s mind.
“They’re taking too long,” says Miller.
“Yes. But I think I’ve established eye contact with one of the barmaids,” I say. “She looked at me. I’m pretty sure she did.”
“There comes a time when you become invisible to other people,” says Miller.
“How’s your novel coming along,” I ask, trying to avoid any deep ground. He looks surprised. “Kim told me you were working on a new novel,” I add.
“I’ve finished it already!” says Miller.
“That’s great!” I say. I feel envious: Miller is taller than me, he has published a couple of spy thrillers that sold well, he got interviewed by The Frognal and Finchley Review and The Black Review, he’s married to the famous neo-beat writer Joanna Welsh, and I’m paying for the drinks. But what pisses me off the most is that he looks like the kind of guy who could sit at a table right now and write ten, twenty thousand words in one go, no misspelling, no misplaced prepositions or weird turns of phrase. I bet he churns out manuscripts like I run through toilet paper rolls.
“But my agent quit,” he adds. I don’t know what to make of this.
“Hmmm,” I say, being neutral.
Luckily, just at that moment the barmaid approaches our end of the bar and I wave my twenty pound note on her face. I hate it when people do this, but I’m feeling bitter, lonely, and thirsty.
“YES?” she asks.
“Sorry, I say, we were waiting for about fifteen minutes.”
“What do you want?” She’s not chewing gum but probably chewing her own cheeks.
“A pint of that and a glass of that,” I say and I point to one of the taps and the white bottle of whisky on the shelf.
“Laphroaig,” says Miller.
“Right.” She turns around and gets a shot glass.
“Excuse me! EXCUSE ME!” says Miller. “Can I have it in a glass, with a bit of ice? This is a single malt, you know…” Clearly she doesn’t. And he seems irritated, passively irritated but irritated nevertheless. She stares at him for what might be half a second but feels like an eternity.
“OK,” she says at last.
“And a glass of water. Please,” adds Miller. She doesn’t answer. But when she goes to pull the pint to a tap towards the other side of the bar I can see she’s staring at us, moving her lips, very likely cursing us in some foreign language. “Well, I guess that’s it,” says Miller. “We’ll never get served again in this bar. I do apologise, but that’s not the kind of drink you want to down like a cowboy.”
“I guess so.” I quite like Miller after this sudden minor single malt rage. I’m generally compassionate with the bar staff but I feel I could have gone past the moment of my life when I start becoming reactionary, like all Argentine writers do with time. “There’s a Wetherspoon down the road,” I say and regret it.
“That’s good news,” he says. “We could head there later: ‘spoons are conducive to talking and thinking.”
“Yes, that too,” says Miller.
We take our drinks upstairs and sit through an hour and a half of sensitive people with bowties reading poetry about Hackney, Walthamstow and Leytonstone.
When we are out I’m glad that we are out. I mean there was a lot of clapping, so maybe the poetry wasn’t that bad. And I clapped too. But I didn’t get much of what was being read. You can live 15 years in a country and yet there will always be things that you miss. The same happens with films. Only that there are no subs in real life or poetry readings. But luckily we are soon sitting with Miller at the back of the Rochester Castle, towards the back of the pub, far from the wordpeople, and maybe things will get better, because Miller has a pristine accent and he speaks very clear to me and I understand everything he says.
“What you describe is fascinating,” says Miller. “I’ve read some of your stuff and it doesn’t come across as tortuous. There’s flair there, actually.”
“What have you read?”
“Off of the top of my head, I remember something about writers being not very nice, a short satirical piece — very funny.”
“Ah, yes. That’s the only thing I ever published,” I say.
“That’s the one I read.”
“Well, I wrote it four years ago. Only that I took forever to edit it.”
“Came out good in the end…” says Miller.
“I couldn’t wrap it,” I say. “There’s always something missing, a preposition, an odd word.
“You should have someone proof your work. I wouldn’t mind proofing your work every now and then,” says Miller and I can tell that he means it.
“I used to do that, even if I never send my work around… But to be fair: you can’t depend on someone else all the time.”
“I don’t know why… It feels like cheating, maybe…”
“Fascinating,” he says.
Fuck this. All the best literature has been written by guys like Miller. I can tell that he goes home, sits with his Laphroaig and writes, just writes — no doubts, no insecurity, no need for reassurance or anyone proofing his work, no tiny Moleskine, no Twitter. He probably even sends it out the next day. He must be working on a new book already. He’s probably finishing it in his head as we speak.
“But of course, there’s an element of freedom in not getting published,” I say, “like this guy Andrei Gallevich, the one who edits 3:PM Magazine, says… You know… It’s almost like a statement against the market and the publishing industry. Or something like that.”
“I guess so,” he says, “fascinating”.
Miller says fascinating a lot, that makes me jealous as well. I wish I were fascinated by things or that I could pretend I am.
“Anyway, I feel writing is impossible,” I say, upgrading.
“What do you mean?”
“Yes, writing is impossible. Can I give you an example?”
“Sure! I’m curious!”
I get my Moleskine out. “I’ve been working on this paragraph since 1999,” I say — it’s a free remix of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. I’ve got some five hundred words of manuscript already. I clear my throat: “Soon Alexei realises that Polina is the same girl he had met ten years earlier by the sea.” Miller nods in agreement — he’s trying to be nice.
“Pretty good. Can you read it again?”
“Sure. Soon Alexei realises that Polina, young Polina, is the same girl he had met ten years earlier by the sea… I’ve changed it a little bit… Soon Alexei realises that Polina, young and naive Polina, is the same girl, that girl he had met ten years earlier by the sea.”
“I like that one!” he says.
“Let me write it down…” I get my pen out and write. “Soon Alexei figures out that Polina, young and naive Polina, is that girl, that young girl he had met by the sea, ten years earlier.”
“You’ve changed it a bit…”
“That’s what I mean when I say that writing is impossible,” I say. “It’s been going on for seventeen years.”
“That’s fascinating!” snorts Miller.
“You say fascinating a lot, don’t you?”
“Only because you are writing this. I tend to avoid unnecessary repetition,” he says, (I would say) slightly offended.
“Well, write this yourself, mate,” I say, very offended and pretty drunk.
“No, no. Don’t take it like that! It’s your story!” says Miller and he smiles again.
“No, please, go ahead. Take over! Let’s call it an experiment.”
“Fair enough,” said Miller and he had a drink from his glass.
“It’s hot in here,” said Juan, fanning himself with the cocktail menu, moving his sweaty back from the chair. It was five hours since they had walked into the bar to meet Mendoza — five long hours and no sign of the man. Juan was anxious, perhaps scared too: you don’t get to walk around with one hundred thousand dollars in a briefcase chained to your left wrist every day. Miller was way cooler: there was no trace of doubt in his eyes; he calmly scanned the bar with his right hand under the table and his Beretta at the ready, all awareness. He was a seasoned soldier — there was hardly anything he hadn’t seen before. “It’s too hot in here, Miller. Too hot. It’s too goddam hot…”
“You’ve said that, Juan. Several times. It’s hot, yes. Now keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and we might get out of here soon. Alive.”
Miller didn’t like Juan. He had tried to reason with the Senior Command, to no avail. Political correctness had gone mad, tokenism, and all that. The story was taking place in South America and for that reason it needed a Latino character, a good Latino character, and not only a Latino drug dealer; this was enough in the 80s, cue Miami Vice, but no longer possible in 2016. So there he was, Donovan Miller, agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the best, stuck with a rookie, a nervous rookie, a sweaty and smelly rookie. But worse of all: he was stuck there with a bad writer.
“Look,” said Juan, for a minute forgetting about the heat, slightly shaken out of his savage-like unawareness of everything that surrounded him. He was pointing with his chin to the tall blonde now crossing the floor in their direction. She was stunning, still, she had always been stunning. Even the salsa dancers were looking in her direction, perhaps feeling threatened by her beauty. “She’s coming this way…” said Juan, his voice shaking with desire.
“Of course she is,” said Miller, “of course she is…”
It took an eternity for her to slide all the way across the dance floor and to their table, her legs gliding like heeled flamingoes, and when she finally did she stared at him, at Miller, imposing, her piercing blue eyes making love to him, once more.
“Miller… Donovan Miller… Long time,” she said with her coarse voice.
“Caless. Kim Caless…” who would have guessed,” said Miller and he pushed a chair inviting her to sit down. And she did, crossing her beautiful legs and gifting Miller a lot of leg.
“Miller, this is shit,” I say.
“What’s wrong with him? He looks fidgety… And sweaty… He smells too,” said Kim Caless.
“Miller. Stop. This is embarrassing. It’s very bad,” I say.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” said Miller, “he’s just a resentful Argentine full of grievances. And he’s a bad writer. Have a look at the first part of this draft.”
“Yes. I wish you had written this from the start,” said Kim Caless.
“FUCK YOU, Miller. FUCK YOU, Kim,” I say and get up and leave. I can hear Kim calling me but I just walk away, cross the door, and never look back.
I haven’t even reached the corner when I forgot about this incident, about Kim, about Miller, about everything. Because just when I step outside of the Rochester Castle I bump into a woman. I literally bump into her, and all the A4 pages she was carrying with her, close to her chest, get scattered all over Stoke Newington High Street.
“Sorry!” I say.
“My bad! I didn’t see you,” she says and we go down and try to pick up the pages that the wind hasn’t swept all the way to Whitechapel. She laughs, she finds the situation incredibly funny, and when I try to run after some of the papers rolling south she holds my arm and shakes her head and I understand. We save whatever we can, laughing.
“Here you go,” I say. “I’m very sorry… Hope they weren’t important.”
“Don’t worry! Just some notes towards something you were writing; but it was quite bad and you’ll never finish it anyway. Thanks for your help!”
“I’m Alexei, by the way,” he says and extends his hand.
“Polina,” she says and extends hers.
And soon Alexei realises that Polina, that beautiful woman standing before him, is the same girl he had met by the sea, seventeen years earlier. And for once, just once, perhaps only for a while, everything fits into place.
About the Author:
Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd