Up Down Strange Charm

A short story, written 2 years ago after a weekend in Pomorie, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea.


Baba Radka’s hair, which should have been sown on the crown of her head as thick as spring wheat, migrated like the storks do, and unlike the storks it stayed forever on her chin. It was at that point that she moved here for one summer only.

They needed somebody to let the holidaymakers in to the concrete cells sandwiched up and down. Nobody else wanted to live in a four storey ballad like that.

When she rolled out her misery like pumpkin baklava, as thin as that kind of filo, then she knew she would die here so she papered the windows with it so she couldn’t see out any more. The windows just let in the smells, imagined, of roasting aubergine and peppers on a wood fire, making her old villa recede, and she already struggled to keep it built straight in her head. Plus, the rays of sun sliced the picture on the big screen so Slavi on the Slavi show had to wear dark glasses and he was a nice boy, a nice boy that one.


No, that’s her name. Radka. Joy. To you and me it’s bittersweet but she doesn’t see the joke because of the panoply of pills guarding her bedside table, plus Zhivkov. One for sorrow, two for oh I don’t know, sorrow, too (she finds sorrow comforting,) three aspirin and not even the nip of plum brandy that she used to savour—her stomach can’t cope on account of the acid.

The best days are when some small boy comes.  She pinches their cheeks. It’s only they who are not asphyxiated by the air in the stairwell.The grown-ups taste it straight away, and shtum as if a body on a cart has passed. But the little ones just make eyes for the bonbons, for it is those that are her insurance policy.

The parents look down when they see the window paper, thinking she must not afford blinds, they must not pay her well, but Radka’s brown teeth smile and say she stays here for free.

And so.

The owner, you see, is a businessmen in London. No, we can’t fathom what he does. But his friend is a tiler and see the bathroom with the wet room styled in haute Nineties.

Oh, but the Westerners think, must I step through the wet from the shower in my stockinged feet why for Pete’s sake can’t they think of shower curtains or better a bath? That’s nice, they say. Perfect, perfect.

In the corner of the master bedroom is an alcove where another wet room could be, but isn’t, just like that baby girl she lost fifty winters ago when her womb stayed a cavern as if it was still expecting something to come about. She feels phantom quickening when finely slicing chicken liver. Tripe soup she cannot eat.

Today there are no little boys, just gays, can you believe it, fleeing Putin. Or looking for a cheap beach holiday. She wonders whether they take it in the, you know, whilst simultaneously banishing that thought and knowing she will repent for having it. All the same, it’s she who has to launder. O, Bozhe.

Three pairs of eyes clock the medium density fibreboard shelf with its copper urn and giant pinecone. They see:

– A shrine

– An abomination

– Everything in its place.

The sensitive one with fluff hiding in his dimple of a chin feels iron bands tightening around his chest for the pine trees which surely stood here. Sorry, she flaps, sorry for the noise.

As they open the door to the balcon, which is as fine a euphemism for boobs as you’ll ever hear, their dreams of tiny terrace coffees evaporate and they are flooded with nostalgia for the experience they’ll never have. Prestalgia, perhaps. That’s due to the hammering and drilling, clattering of rebar and boys sliding pallets over concrete slab. They’re building another funereal block, oh, a plum stone’s throw from here. Because we need more accommodation on the Black Sea, sarcasm that is.

You can look up, and slightly to the west, and you’ll see a gorilla bulging over the bars, bagpipe stomach, ashtray suicidal on the edge. Down and to the east is hers, yoghurt-potted tomatoes and peppers fighting the concrete dust. She collects the drips from the heat pump just in case. You never waste things.

They will not eat at the expensive Russian restaurant belonging to the ogre that is the hotel up the end of the track, the one with stone lions and Mercedes and Audis and the rubbish piled out of sight between the fence and the dunes where the gypsies rummage. No, they will suck juice from tiny salted sprat and they will taste potatoes with fresh dill and garlic, they will find the tacked-on bistro run by Chicho Zhoro. They will divine the soul of this place somehow.

Whatever, she thinks. She doesn’t like to speak Russian, so she seasons her words with bile. Well, she has to go, do call if there’s anything. The supernatural channel is starting its Saturday afternoon extravaganza, that’s the reason. She will sit, levitating over the telephone, daring herself to call the premium line number. Just to speak to her Dimitar. She wants to ask him what happened to that watch her mother gave her, the bastard. And she wore black full twelve moons for him.

I know all this because I am the ghost of the tallest blue cedar. I was the big cheese here on this coast. Boss of the panopticon. I didn’t stand alone (cedars cannot stand alone: we need to be part of  an elaborately scaffolded ecosystem) but still I was shoulders above the rest. My head is in the fourth floor, my heart in the third, my dick, unfortunately, in the second and my feet on the first.

These are the things I hear when the hammering finally stops:

Cats wauling in moonlight.

Mussels singing in a choir from the rocks, singing for their lost brothers, or else perhaps ABBA.

Sprattus sprattus disco tunes.

The last blooms of wild chamomile and shepherd’s purse, dandelion and clover reciting each other bedtime poems.

The howls from the cows whose bones they ground for the china tea set on her floor.

Eeeeiuuuueeeeeeeeeee (that’s the only way I can describe it – consonant-less) static from the life trapped in lime which was made from seashells and will return there once more as soon as the plaster falls off in approximately nine and a half years.

Quarks charming each other, spinning and in love.

In the morning I can see it like a flash of sun on the bay. I can see what will happen. The simultaneous brewing of coffee; a three-act play. She will use the long-handled pot, Turkish style. They will unscrew the portable Italian espresso steamer, ravenous as sailors for shore leave. He upstairs will bite the head off a sachet of 3-in-1 and watch the foam swirl sea scum.

To the place where the builders swarm like ants, a boy brings machine-coffee, six at a time, held by his pincer grip. In another life he could be a lobster and go for a hundred euro on a bed of rucola and lemon.

The boy treads over the souls of three thousand of my kin. My late aunt still hums like a top. He picks his way around the rebar which is piled not so much pick-up-sticks as resembling the skeleton of a bloodied tunafish, or a previously electrocuted porcupine, left dead for metal on the earth.

He—the fluoro-trainered boy—hasn’t earned coffee. He is the chimp. I see all this and I know how it will unfold. They bring their espresso to the balcony, shorts and teeshirts and hangovers, if only to say they’ve coffeed al fresco. He, the gorilla, comes out for a smoke. She, in a housecoat with deep pockets packed with fingernails, comes to hang three vests and watch those above.

The song of the place rises to an F sharp banshee wail only they don’t hear it. But they do see the boy falling like a sycamore helicopter, yellow shoes slashing an arabesque in the sky, landing as fresh shish on the iron quills below.

At least, she thinks, I don’t have to clean that up.

Sky and earth come together and will fuse together, in the end, I say. Except nobody hears me any more.

By Jo

Writer, artist, builder

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