Posts from the ‘News’ Category
April 16, 2018
In Tom Russell’s song about Lightnin’ Hopkins, ‘Scars on His Ankles,” he writes of Lightnin’s scars on his ankles where the chain from the chain gang cut his skin. In Colin O’Sullivan’s jewel of a first novel, Killarney Blues, winner of the “Prix Mystere de la critique,” in France, the main characters also have scars, but they are the emotional ones, ones that were thought to be buried, ones that lie scratching deep beneath the surface of their skin, never to be forgotten.
Thirty year old Bernard Dunphy is a jarvey by trade, driving a horse-carriage, that carries the many tourists, who flock to the lovely Irish town of Killarney each year. Pulled by his old worn-out, dying, but gallant horse, Ninny, Bernard is considered by most a town weirdo. Gap-toothed, overweight, and grubby in his old tobacco and sweat stained black coat, that he wears on even the warmest of days. Walking alone through the town, large headphones in place, listening and mumbling along with the likes of blues-man Son House, as his raw, passionate, stomping sound tears up out of his body and soul, filling Bernard’s ears. “That rhythm is the beat of Bernard’s heart.”
He knows all the old blues-men, from Muddy Waters to Howling Wolf, Sleepy Ma Rainey, John Estes, and Robert Johnson. They are his heroes, and Bernard cannot get enough of them. In his small room alone at home with his guitar and voice, he records blues songs, then gives them to his childhood crush, and love of his life, the beautiful Marian, though she is less than pleased about it. In fact, her two childhood friends, Cathy and Mags, delight in teasing her relentlessly about poor old goofy Bernard’s ongoing devotion to her.
Bernard’s other childhood friend is the handsome, popular footballer, heavy drinker and ladies man, Jack Moriarty. Jack is supposed to be Mags steady, but he is spending a lot of bed time with her best friend Cathy behind Marian’s back. Bernard and Jack share a dark secret that remains a scar on their souls from a terrible night back when they were little boys, young and innocent. A terrible night that also scared Bernard’s father John Dunfey, who also loved the blues and taught Bernard to play, and his mother, Brigid, who smothers Bernard with love and devotion, since her husband John Dunfey’s questionable death by drowning in the lake. They only have each other, a home that once held lovely memories, but also a never-mentioned shameful secret. A secret that during this green, glorious summer will finally scratch through their skins, and alter all their lives.
The green and blue lake beauty of Killarney, Ireland, runs through this wonderfully written novel, and the blues are the glue that holds it all together. Colin O’Sullivan writes gloriously. Hope, frailty, sadness, joy, resilience and surprise. The novel jumps back and forth in time and character viewpoints, but never once does it alter in any way the grand flow of this lyrical and compelling story as it moves forward. The reader carried along steadily, and then hurriedly, as the pages fly by a bit faster, eyes reading in a hurry to find out what happens next, until finally the last paragraph, and a large smile spreads across the face.
Killarney Blues is what the pleasure of reading a totally enjoyable novel is all about.
–Marvin Minkler, Modern First Editions
April 3, 2018
If, like us, you value long-sellers over best-sellers and content over marketing, this book might be for you:
Book Noir review, published on March 30, 2018
Every time I read one of Hawken’s novels I enjoy it immensely; he is a consummate storyteller with a real knack for getting to the heart of the matter. La Frontera is a powerful novel because is deals with the lives of real people in tough situations. That has been a feature of Hawken’s writing since his first novel, The Dead Women of Juarez, a blistering thriller based on the murders of 1500 women in Ciudad Juarez during the drugs wars on the border. This was an important novel but Hawken has gone on to write much better thrillers (from a stylistic point of view). I don’t think anybody writes about La Frontera with the same depth of knowledge of the borderlands (north and south). Hawken is a Texan, and he brings the many stories of real people to life with compassion and honesty. In this case it is Ana, Luis and Marisol. That depth of characterisation sets his novels apart from a lot of thrillers and it’s totally engrossing. The people we meet on these pages are nuanced and complicated. Hawken seems to be able to make ordinary detail seem fascinating and once he introduces a character you will want to know their story. Most importantly Hawken knows how to tell a story with verve and depth; La Frontera is fast paced, absorbing and exciting – it is one of his best and that is saying something.
Full review here: https://nudge-book.com/blog/2018/03/la-frontera-by-sam-hawken/
December 4, 2017
Thanks to all those who voted in “My Favourite Cover” prize draw!
Cover art: Keith Mallett
Cover design: JT Lindroos
The two winners have been contacted by email.
They are welcome to share their prize in social media tagging Betimes Books.
November 27, 2017
Vote for your favourite Betimes Books cover for a chance to win a print copy of one of our books!
- The Prize Draw is open to people aged 18 and over who provide their email address by voting for their favourite cover and would be happy to provide their postal address if they win.
- Please select your favourite cover and send us your vote by email, to firstname.lastname@example.org with “My favourite cover” as Subject.
- No purchase is necessary!
- Only one entry per person. Entries on behalf of another person will not be accepted and joint submissions are not allowed.
- Two winners will be chosen from the draw of votes: the person who was the first to vote for the most popular cover + one random draw.
- The winners will be notified by email on Monday, December 4, 2017.
- The prize will be sent to the winner by post.
- The prize is non-exchangeable and is not redeemable for cash.
- The first name and country of the winner will be announced on this blog and Betimes Books Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. The winners are most welcome to share their prize in social media tagging Betimes Books.
- The closing date of the Prize Draw is 23:59, Dublin time, on the 3rd of December 2017.Votes received outside this time period will not be considered.
All our covers are designed by JT Lindroos.
If you wish to have a closer look at each cover, go to our Home page.
You can also see the back covers of the print editions on Amazon. We’ve provided the links below.
List of Titles
- The Painter’s Women
- Permanent Fatal Error
- The Red-Handed League
- The Death of Tarpons
- La Frontera
- The Last Island
- Central Park West Trilogy
- Dirty Pictures
- Silk for the Feed Dogs
- The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal
- Borderland Noir
- The Angel of the Streetlamps
- Killarney Blues
- The Starved Lover Sings
- Reach the Shining River
- In Love with Paris
- One True Sentence
- Forever’s Just Pretend
- Toros & Torsos
- The Great Pretender
- Roll the Credits
- The Running Kind
- Head Games
- Print the Legend
- Death in the Face
- Three Chords & the Truth
June 7, 2017
Donald Finnaeus Mayo new novel is available HERE
Last night saw the official launch of The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal by Donald Finnaeus Mayo at the Union Club in London’s Greek Street. Family, friends, figures from the world of publishing as well as guests from many walks of life gathered at the event to chat with each other and receive signed copies from the author.
With the horrifying events of the past few weeks events on everyone’s minds, the issues raised in the novel have seldom been more pertinent. How do we effectively counter terrorist atrocities that threatens us all, and to what lengths is the state justified in going in order to protect its citizens?
Donald Finnaeus Mayo signing copies of his latest novel “The Insider’s Guide to Betrayal” at the Union Club in London’s Soho
We’d like to thank everyone who came to the event, and to the Union Club for hosting such a fabulous evening.
June 1, 2017
Ten years, ten novels… And a graphic novel coming out this Fall. Hector Lassiter has been through good and bad times. But tough times don’t last. Tough men do!
Happy 10th anniversary to Hector Lassiter and his creator, Craig McDonald, and many happy returns!
Click here to view the Hector Lassiter Series
TO WIN A SIGNED COPY OF A HECTOR LASSITER NOVEL
HECTOR LASSITER – Created by Craig McDonald
Pulp novelist and Black Mask contributor HECTOR LASSITER is more manly than you.
Or the United States Marine Corps, for that matter.
In [these] romping, stomping, wickedly imaginative historical crime novels […] by Craig “El Gavilan” McDonald, Lassiter, a combo of Ernest Hemingway and Rambo, manages to romp all over the twentieth century.
Along the way, he runs into – and generally kicks the ass of – serial killers, Mexican banditos, crooked cops, hurricanes, misguided revolutionaries, the CIA, assorted tyrants and thugs, and various participants in the Spanish Civil War. He also bumps into everyone from Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Salvador Dali, John Huston and John Dos Passos to Papa himself, and lives to tell the tales.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. And Hector is just that man, a hard-living, hard-loving, hard-drinking, hard-fighting and hard-writing son of a bitch who lives by the credo of writing what you know. And sticking his nose wherever the Hell he damn well wants. […] Trust me – the Hector books are a hoot.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith
Click here to see the original article
June 1, 2017
To mark the 10th Anniversary of Craig McDonald’s Hector Lassiter series, we are running a competition in which
the authors of the best three reviews of a Hector Lassiter book
posted on any Amazon website and live by June 12, 10am Dublin time, will win a signed copy of a Hector Lassiter novel!
Click here to view the Hector Lassiter Series.
Read and review of a book of your choice.
Contact us when your review appears on Amazon.
Please note that we’ll need your mailing address to send you “the trophy”!
March 30, 2017
This Friday, March 31st, the 2017 Franco-Irish Literary Festival begins and will continue right through the weekend. Organised by Alliance Française and the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Ireland, this annual festival celebrates the unique relationship between Ireland, France and other francophone nations through highlighting the work of their writers.
With fashion as the theme of this year’s festival, Betimes Books’ own Jackie Mallon had her first novel, Silk for the Feed Dogs, selected to be included.
Silk for the Feed Dogs follows Kat Connolly’s first steps as a fashion designer after she leaves Central St Martin’s School in London. Kat’s career brings her from one major fashion capital to another and, as an Irish girl trying to make her way in the international fashion industry, Kat not only encounters plenty of culture shock, but also finds herself having to compete for a spot with people who aren’t afraid to cut down those in their path. Based on her own experiences as a globetrotting fashion designer, Mallon humorously shares with us what it was like to work in this industry as an Irishwoman from Co. Tyrone.
As part of the Franco-Irish Literary Festival, Mallon will be speaking at a panel discussion on Saturday, April 1st at 12.15pm in Dublin Castle. We would love to see you there on Saturday to hear Mallon discuss fashion and writing with French writer, critic and film director Frédéric Beigbeder and Irish journalist Deirdre McQuillan, as well as her experience writing Silk for the Feed Dogs.
But for now, to celebrate this wonderful achievement, we would like to (re-)introduce you, to some of the colourful characters from Mallon’s debut novel.
Ever since she was a little girl, Kat has never followed the rest of the crowd. As a child growing up on a farm in rural Ireland, Kat was just as content feeding cows as crafting tiaras out of sweets and colouring pencils.
“…my ‘rainbow tiara’, constructed of three tiers of Caran d’Ache pencils adorned with clusters of M&Ms and trailing ribbons. Da laughed as the calf lapped contentedly at the candy, the ribbons tickling his nose, making him snort.”
The same individualistic spirit follows her to London and Milan when she begins her career as a fashion designer. Tired of copying other people’s designs in her first job in London, Kat makes a sudden decision to follow her friend, Edward, to Milan. Kat finds Italy’s fashion capital to be teeming with artists and fashionistas – but which are friend and which are foe? In the highly competitive fashion world, will Kat be able to distinguish between who she can and cannot trust?
Edward and Kat did not get off to the best start. When they first met at Central St Martin’s School, Edward made sure to demarcate a boundary line on their shared desk, with none of Kat’s fly-away sketches or rolling pencils permitted to trespass.
Despite the chilliness of this first encounter, the pair strike up an enduring friendship, built on their dry sense of humour, taste for the eclectic, and determination to succeed in spite of the naysayers.
“He sparkled from wherever he was in the room. The sequined head of Debbie Harry — actual size — emblazoned the left boob and shoulder of his t-shirt, silver discs flashing like a smashed heart of glass.”
As their careers progress in Europe’s fashion capitals and they grapple with shrewd landlords, exploitative bosses, and the might of the continental male, their friendship means they always have each other to fall back on.
“She was one of those women: the ones that intimidated me just passing them in the street, a lioness.”
Lioness – this is Kat’s word for the beautiful, confident women she sees every day in Milan. Ginevra, her Italian roommate, is just such a creature; her dainty frame may lead you to believe she’s a delicate flower, but in fact she’s a no-nonsense woman with her eye on the prize. Her prize? A strong Italian husband.
“With her tumbling tresses and prominently displayed bosom, she called to mind a saloon madam stepping between two cowboys who were brawling over one of her ‘girls’.”
With experience searching high and low for the ideal man, and having met one too many bambinos and Lotharios, Ginevra is well-trained to be Kat’s cultural advisor on the Italian male. Cocky or passionate? Or both? Kat’s at a loss. But Ginevra can help with that.
“They seemed to dance with a fire just behind the pupil. His black hair spiked every which way and his wide smile looked almost sinister outlined by a thick goatee like the ones people draw on posters at bus stops.”
The barman from Atomic who stares at Kat every time she’s there. Massimiliano looks like a cross between a wild pirate and a mysterious rock star, and it doesn’t take him long to grab Kat’s attention. But how will this Irish girl deal with his advances? With Ginevra’s vast wisdom at the back of her mind, can Kat work out whether Massimiliano is someone she can trust, or whether he is just another Lothario in it for the thrill?
“She was addressing a blond, middle-aged woman in a long coat and green gloves. It was an expensive coat that had led the life of an inexpensive one.”
Having missed out on featuring her designs in the graduate fashion show, Kat doesn’t feel very confident about her job prospects after college. While roaming through a clothes market in London, Kat comes across Lynda, her first boss. At first, Lynda and her design business look like the image of success, but not long into her job at Lynda Winter Designs, Kat begins to wonder what exactly she has gotten herself into. How long can she put up with Lynda’s ever-changing mood and love of pitting employees against each other?
A visionary. A shining beacon of fashion. One of the most renowned designers in the world – and Kat managed to get a job with him.
No one, including Kat, can understand how she stumbled across a position at the illustrious House of Adriani. Rude and unreasonable, Adriani does not warm to Kat at first; in actual fact, he treats her exactly the way he treats the rest of his employees.
“He’s like a child responding to a tone of voice but paying no attention to the words. You see, he’s so removed from the real world, he has no idea what’s going on.”
The difference though is that Kat has never been one to fall at the feet of another. Stubbornly refusing to become another one of his submissive “Adroids”, Kat has to find a way of keeping true to herself while keeping her job at the same time.
“The Adroids clucked approval at Signor Adriani’s every decision: if he said ‘white’, it was met with enthusiastic nods; if he abruptly changed to ‘black’, they chorused anew in the affirmative. When he talked down to them, they agreed wholeheartedly”.
Arturo and Paola
In Kat’s eyes, Arturo, the Creative Director of the House of Adriani, and Paola, his co-conspirator, closely resemble phantoms.
“Arturo and Paola floated silently by like two characters from a Japanese horror movie, pale faces gazing alertly through the glass. Both wore black, their bottom halves billowing.”
It seems to her that they lurk ominously around every corner, intent on proving to Adriani that she is an imposter undeserving of sharing their workplace. Arturo and Paola are Adroids through and through; they shower Adriani with praise and are hostile to anyone else’s ideas. But a fresh insight was exactly why Kat was hired. How is she going to be effective at her job while fending off Arturo’s and Paola’s repeated attacks?
I’m in mid-prep this morning. I’m delighted, if a little freaked out, to be participating in the Franco-Irish Literary Festival in Dublin at the end of this month with a bunch of exciting Irish and French writers, journalists and auteurs. There’ll be a film premier, an Yves Saint Laurent exhibition, readings and roundtable discussions (featuring moi!) throughout the three-day event. How did I end up among such an auspicious gathering of well-heeled intellectuals? Well, the theme of the festival this year is Fashion. E voilà, the French know a thing or two about both Fashion and Literature, and the Irish…well, the Irish can certainly write!
Copies of Silk for the Feed Dogs will be available for sale at the event along with the works of all the other participants. There will be time for some hobnobbing, earwigging, chin- scratching and tipple-sipping. Held in Dublin Castle, it’s open to the…
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December 21, 2016
At long last, readers can discover an eight-page sample from Craig McDonald’s forthcoming graphic novel “Head Games”, adapted from his Edgar- and Anthony-shortlisted novel (written by Craig himself and illustrated by Kevin Singles). A few more month to wait until the October release, but have a look at the dedicated page on the Macmillan US website.
And if you haven’t read the novel, click to preview below.
December 8, 2016
Feliz Navidad is a sombre Christmas tale from Sam Hawken that serves as a powerful and poignant reminder that Christmas is a time when we need to reach out to others. Encompassing the importance of the gift of charity, and of extending a compassionate welcome to all people, Feliz Navidad is a story that explores the true meaning of Christmas.
In mid-2014 a wave of undocumented migrants swamped the United States’ southern border. Most of them were under the age of eighteen and many were as young as six or seven years old, all traveling without adults to accompany them. They came from all across Central America, fleeing the scourge of violence American demand for illegal drugs has created. These children believed that if they turned themselves into the American authorities, they would have a chance at a new life free from danger.
The massive surge of youths has abated somewhat, but the journey north continues for many thousands desperate for safety and opportunity. This is the story of one such child.
FELIZ NAVIDAD by Sam Hawken
“On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula in Honduras, his older brother, Osvaldo, was killed in the street. They didn’t know if he was shot deliberately, or if he had simply been unlucky enough to be on the scene. Two others died in the same incident. Raúl packed his things in a blue Adidas gym bag, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had he had five hundred and eleven dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything his family had been able to put together. He was fourteen years old.
He took a bus to the city limits, riding until there were no more stops to be made. He was the last person on the bus besides an old man with a ratty paperback book with no cover. Raúl helped the old man get off at the end of the line, then turned south and walked.
It took him the better part of two hours to reach Chamelecón at the southeast corner of the El Merendón National Forest, and he was feeling good about the journey. He stopped only for a bottle of water at a vendor selling from a cart. He kept on, walking along the CA-4 highway. It started to rain.
He walked for the rest of the day, and when it grew dark he stepped back into the forest out of sight of the road and lay down under the spreading branches of a pine tree, his bed a thick layer of old needles. This kept the worst of the rain from him, and the ground was not soaked. It was cooler than it had been during the day, but it only dropped into the twenties. He was warm enough in his fleece running jacket and jeans, though he woke up with dew forming on his body.
Things went on like this for three days until he made the border with Guatemala. He was ragged by then and his clothes were dirty. The men at the border crossing looked at him suspiciously, but he tried to smile when he lied to them about where he was going and what he would do when he got there. He knew it was another three or four days’ walk to Guatemala City and already his feet hurt and his legs were very tired. It was only the beginning. They ignored the fact that he was only fourteen and let him through.
Raúl was careful with his money and he didn’t eat on opposite days, and then only a little. He knew it robbed him of energy, but he only had a small amount of cash to make the journey and he could not afford to spend much. On a bad day he was forced to drink from a puddle of rainwater formed in a depression in the road. He kept wearing the same clothes he left wearing until he was close to the Mexican border, and he only changed when he was within sight of the crossing, ducking between two buildings and shucking off his filthy garments to replace them with fresher ones.
“Where are you from?” the Mexican at the crossing asked him.
“I’m not stupid,” the Mexican said. “You have a Honduran passport. Where in Honduras?”
“San Pedro Sula.”
The Mexican exchanged glances with the uniformed man nearest him, then looked back to Raúl. “And you’ve come to Mexico to visit your Mexican relatives.”
“Mexican relatives,” the man said firmly, cutting Raúl off. “Did you say they were in Oaxaca?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Oaxaca,” the Mexican said, and he stamped Raul’s passport. “Your mother is coming up in line?”
“Good, because I cannot let a minor across the border without an adult escort.”
The Mexican gave Raúl his passport still open. The ink from the stamp was fresh and dark. “Thank you, sir,” Raúl said.
“Don’t thank me. Move along.”
Raúl moved along. He crossed with a collection of adults and children he didn’t know and took up alongside the highway as he had all the way from his home. The numbers had changed, but the road was just the same: two lanes heading in either direction, the middle lines nearly invisible from sun and rain.
He forgot what day it was. All there was for him was walking and restless sleep in doorways and alleys and out in the wilds between towns. He followed the signs north through Chiapas, aware only that he was moving forward step by step and that eventually the journey would come to an end. When he reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez he spotted a date on a calendar in a small shop where he bought a sweet bun and a carton of milk.
He had been on the road for two weeks. He was unclean down to the pores and his skin itched all the time. He found a public washroom and waited until there was a lull, then he stripped to the waist and washed himself in the sink, using a dirty shirt as a washcloth. There was only powdered soap in the dispenser and it was gritty against his body, but when he was done he did not smell so bad and even his hair had lost some of its greasiness.
Ten days to Oaxaca, the city where the Mexican pretended he had family. Nine days to Mexico City. More than two weeks to walk the distance to Monterrey and then four more days to reach Reynosa on the Rio Grande across from McAllen, Texas. He dragged into Reynosa with numb feet, feeling drained in every way. His clothes fit loosely on him because he had lost much weight on the journey. He had run out of clean clothes a long time before and hadn’t wanted to spare the cash to clean them at a lavandería. Now he saw the river beyond a metal fence with many holes in it and on the far side America.
He didn’t wait. He pushed his bag through a hole in the fence and then squeezed through after it, tearing his shirt. The embankment was steep, but he crashed down to the water and plunged in. It was colder than he expected.
The current was strong, though the surface seemed placid. He tried to swim while holding the Adidas bag, but he couldn’t. It was gone in an instant. He heard shouting in English from the far bank. He stroked with his arm and kicked with his legs. He wished he’d left his shoes behind.
In the middle of the crossing he managed to look up on the far side and he saw men in uniform and a white truck with a green stripe. The men had something round and orange and they climbed down their side of the river, which was reinforced with concrete. They threw the orange ring into the water and it landed a distance to Raul’s right. He struck out toward it, brushed it with his fingers, got a grip he would not release. He put his other hand on the ring and hung on as they hauled him in.
The men grabbed him under his arms when he reached the American bank, hauling him dripping from the water. One of them was speaking Spanish to him, but he didn’t understand because his head was whirling. They laid him down on the dirt. Raúl struggled to focus on the man who spoke.
“You could have died!” the man said in Spanish. “You could have died!”
Raúl reached for the man’s arm and caught it and squeezed. “I am not dead,” he said. “I am in America.”
An ambulance came. An overweight medic examined him with his shirt off, and Raúl knew the Border Patrol officers watching him were talking about how thin he was. When the examination was over, he wrapped up in a plastic thing like a blanket, only it looked like tinfoil. It kept him warm all the way to the hospital.
At the hospital he was stripped completely out of his wet clothes and given soft footies with rubber strips on the soles, and two gowns he could wear front and back to cover himself. He lay on a comfortable bed in a room with a television playing an English-language station, and an orderly brought him food, real food. It took all his willpower not shove the sandwich into his face with both hands, or to slurp the Jell-O out of its container. He consumed a whole banana in two bites. The milk he got in a paper carton was guzzled down in a second. After a while, the orderly came back to him and asked him a question in English. “No hablo Inglés,” Raúl told the man, and the orderly went away.
Eventually he saw a doctor, who took his vital signs and asked him in Spanish to do things like breathe deeply and say ah. “Have you been sick recently? A cold or anything?” the doctor asked him.
“Not sick. Very hungry.”
“I’ll see about getting you some more food,” the doctor said. He was dark-skinned and Latino, and the name on his hospital identification was Garcia. “And then they’ll want to take you.”
“Take me where?”
“Somewhere you can rest and sleep.”
“Can’t I stay here for a while?”
Dr. Garcia looked at Raúl with sad eyes. “I’m afraid not. This is a hospital, not a shelter. Don’t worry. It will be all right.”
The same orderly as before brought Raúl a fresh tray of food. He ate in a more measured fashion this time. By the time he was done he felt almost full.
It was an hour before men in uniform arrived. Raúl didn’t recognize their badges or their faces, but they were authority, and that was all that mattered. They brought him clothes: white socks and underpants and a t-shirt, white slip-on shoes and then loose pants and a top made of bright orange linen. “Put these on,” said one of them. “Don’t take too long.”
Raúl reluctantly shed the hospital gowns and got into the clothes. It was prisoners’ clothing, though it lacked any writing to indicate where the wearer belongs. When was finished dressing he said, “I’m ready,” and the uniformed men re-entered the room. One of them put handcuffs on him, though they cuffed his hands in front.
He was led out of the hospital past many faces, white, black and brown. They watched him with a mixture of emotions, though most seemed sad for him. Others looked strangely, inexplicably angry, including a white man who flushed red when Raúl marched by. The man whispered something to the woman with him and the both of them glared at Raúl until he was out of sight.
The uniformed men put Raúl in a white van and they drove for a while. He could not be certain how long. They were in McAllen properly now, not just in the part that skirted the river. Everywhere there were unreadable signs in English and cars and activity. Spanish appeared regularly as if to comfort him, offering drugstores and televisions and places to cash checks. Though it was not so terribly different from what he saw in Reynosa, it was also alien. These things he saw were American and he was not in his home or the home of anyone south of the river.
They approached a forbidding, angular building made of red and gray stone. The van cruised past a line of police units on the way to a gated entrance manned by another uniform. The van drove down an angled slope into an underground receiving area where finally the driver killed the engine and Raúl’s escorts got out.
He was released from the back of the van and brought through two sets of doors with electric locks into a room with a long counter divided into sections. People were at every section, speaking in Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English to the men and women in uniform behind the counter. All the people doing the talking were cuffed like Raúl.
“Wait behind the blue line,” said one of the men with Raúl. The other one left. Raúl stood behind the blue line.
It took most of an hour before someone at the counter could see him. Raúl listened as his escort talked to the woman in his section in English. They both laughed and then finally Raúl was alone with the woman. A man on his left spoke animatedly in Salvadoran-accented Spanish. On his right, a Mexican woman was barely audible through the tears she shed.
“My name is Agent Flores,” said the woman behind the counter. “What is your name?”
Agent Flores typed. Raúl could not see the screen. “Where are you from, Raúl?”
“San Pedro Sula. In Honduras.”
She looked directly at him. “How old are you, Raúl?”
“Where are your parents?”
“My father is in prison. My mother is at home.”
“You came alone?”
Raúl hesitated. “They say… they say if a boy comes here, he can stay. That they won’t send him away. Is that true?”
“Sometimes,” Agent Flores said, and Raúl thought she looked sad. His eyes strayed past her to the Christmas decorations on the wall. Santa Claus and snowmen and mistletoe and holly. And Christmas trees and snowflakes.
She asked him other questions, about how many brothers and sisters he had, and where he had gone on his long walk. She asked him how much they said he weighed at the hospital and how tall he was. She asked him if he had relatives in the United States. She asked him question after question for a long time until finally there were no more questions.
“What happens to me now?” Raúl asked.
Agent Flores smiled unhappily. “They’ll take you somewhere to stay.”
The building was full of many halls and doors. Someone new took Raúl up an elevator to a high floor and brought him out into a concrete hallway ringing with the sound of children’s voices. It sounded like a school before the first bell rang, high laughter and shouted jokes and cursing and the rush of a hundred simultaneous conversations. After a short stretch of hallway the interior of the building opened up and there were bars on both sides.
The teenagers were broken into two groups, boys on one side and girls on the other. There were a two hundred or more in each holding area and many of the tinfoil-looking blankets. Rubber sleeping mats lay haphazardly all over the floor, being trodden on by kids in sneakers and in white slip-ons like Raúl’s. The boys closest to the bars were yelling to the girls, trying to get their attention, and some of the girls were yelling back, not always friendly. Raúl tried to keep his eyes straight ahead.
He was turned toward a door and the door was opened with a heavy brass key. The man who escorted him said, “Look at me.”
Raúl looked at the man. He was tall and straight and heavy in the chest and shoulders like a man used to lifting weights. His hair was shot through with grey. “Yes, señor?” Raúl asked.
“No ‘señor.’ It’s mister. I am Mr. Martinez. I’m in charge of this floor. If you have questions, you ask to speak with me. If you have problems, you come to me. If you have a need, I’m the one you look for. Do you understand? Mister Martinez?”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
“Good. And don’t let any of these little bastards give you any shit. Later someone will bring you a mat for sleeping and a blanket. You’ll be all right until then.”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
Raúl went. He let Mr. Martinez lock the door behind him and he faced the pandemonium of the holding area. There were a few tables made of stainless steel and bolted to the floor, along with their seating, but they were overrun with boys. None of the boys he saw seemed younger than thirteen, but some were clearly close to eighteen or over it. There were angry looks and curious looks and looks of complete indifference.
All at once the looks turned into talking and Raúl was asked a dozen questions at once. Where he was from, what he was doing here, did they say anything about letting anyone out, would they bring extra food for dinner, how old was he, was he going to a family in the States, and on and on and on.
He tried to answer all the questions as well as he could, but there were too many to keep track of, and very soon the eager questions stopped, and he was back to being ignored. Raúl worked his way through the crowd along the bars, settling into a spot where the corner met the cage, and sat down. He put a hand on a bar and felt the cold metal under the mint-green paint. For the first time since he left home, he felt like crying. The voices pummeled him endlessly.
Every half an hour or so, a man in uniform came by to check on them. Raúl also noticed cameras in the ceiling, protected inside plastic bubbles, looking down on them all. He imagined Mr. Martinez keeping an eye on him in his corner, alone among a multitude, and telling the other men in uniform that this kid was all right. Decent and respectful. They taught them well in Honduras. Not like those Salvadoran kids.
His eyelids drooped despite himself and he drifted into a sort of half-sleep. The roar of the voices, echoing and re-echoing off the flat concrete, reduced to a background tumult and there were images of soft beds and his room and trays of food, each more delicious than the last.
Raúl wasn’t sure how long he drifted this way, but eventually he opened his eyes again and nothing had changed. He felt a pressure in his bowels and he stood up, looking for a place to go. He saw the word RESTROOM emblazoned above an open doorway, and under it the word BAÑO. Little by little, he worked his way through the crowd until he could get there.
With each step closer to the restroom he could smell the growing stench of urine and feces. By the time he was at the door, the odor was almost overwhelming. He stepped over the threshold, and his clean white shoe splashed in a shallow pool of water. He saw the whole interior of the restroom was flooded to the depth of a centimeter, and the water was not clean. Chunks of raw excrement lay on the floor, some swathed in toilet tissue that had soaked through.
He went to the stalls to find a toilet and discovered the first one was so full of waste that it had mounded up over the seat and begun to spill down the sides. The next one was the same and the next and the next. Some of the boys had even taken to moving their bowels into the urinals along one wall, so that half of them were clotted with stools.
The pressure was too much to ignore. The food from the hospital had worked through him rapidly. He stepped into one of the stalls and took down his pants and his underpants, only he could not let them fall to his ankles lest they soak in the filthy water. Nor could he sit on the seat because of the accumulated filth. Instead he half-bent and half-squatted over the clogged toilet and did what he had to do. When he was done, he used what little toilet tissue was left in the dispenser to clean himself.
He washed his hands in a sink and fled the restroom as soon as he was able. When he returned to his spot by the bars and sat down, he did cry, though he hid his face and made no sound.
Food time was a time of chaos, as the dozens pressed up against the one open door, trying to grab a meal before anyone else could. They were given small paper bags with a cold sandwich and a bag of chips inside and a small container of apple juice. Eventually, all the mob were sorted out, but for a long time Raúl thought he would not get any food at all.
He ate in his corner and ignored the sound of chewing and intermittent squabbling over who had rights to what bit of a meal exchange. The sandwich was tasteless, the bread soaked in something that was not mayonnaise. Raúl ate it anyway, because he knew without asking that to leave any food uneaten in this place was to lose it forever.
From time to time he looked out through the bars at the girls in the opposite holding area. They were much the same as the boys, sparking up into screaming matches that burned out as quickly as they started. He saw a girl sitting near the bars almost directly across from him, her back to the others, looking out at Raúl while she ate and he ate. She raised a hand to him in a half-wave and he waved back. They said nothing to each other.
After the meal there was a collection of the garbage, and once again the single door was mobbed. Once two teens broke out into the passageway and tried to run, but Mr. Martinez and the other uniformed men put them quickly back in place. Raúl did not try to escape. He did not know where he would go even if he were to slip out of the holding area, out of the building and onto the street. The entire plan had been to make the crossing and surrender to the first American in a uniform he could find. That was done, though this was not the result he had been led to expect.
Raúl held off using the restroom as long as he possibly could, but finally he was forced into the mire to urinate. He would rather have died than face the toilets again. He huddled up in his spot, gently rocking himself. The girl was still there, glancing up at him from time to time, but not staring.
He heard her voice for the first time a little while later on. “Oye,” he heard her say. “Hey. Hey, you!”
He looked. “What do you want?”
“What’s your name?”
“I am Beatriz.”
“How old are, Raúl?”
“How old are you?”
Raúl straightened a little. “I’m also fourteen.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Mexico. Do you know a place called Xalapa?”
Raúl thought about it, and shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a city. Do you come from the city or the country?”
“The city. San Pedro Sula.”
“Where is that?”
“I said it’s in Honduras.”
Beatriz made a sour face. “If you’re going to be rude, then I won’t talk to you.”
Footsteps sounded in the passageway, and Beatriz suddenly became very interested in her lap. Raúl strained to see farther down the hall, but he could not see who was coming until they were nearly upon him. He recognized Mr. Martinez, and saw that the man carried a rolled up foam mat and a folded blanket like all the tinfoil-looking blankets in the holding area.
Martinez spotted Raúl and pointed toward the door. “You,” he said, “meet me over there.”
Raúl hurried to get to the door, stepping over and around the densely packed crowd. Mr. Martinez opened the door, but there was no rush to escape this time. The other boys fell back instead, and Raúl stood alone at the threshold with the man.
“These are yours,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl, and he thrust the bedding into Raúl’s hands.
“I read through your documents and it says your brother was killed not long ago.”
“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”
“You have another brother, though.”
“Yes. He is eleven.”
“It’s good that he isn’t here. It’s almost Christmas. He should be with his family. Like you should. This is no place for a boy. Not for any of you. Why would you come here and put yourself through this?”
Raúl shook his head slowly. “In my country there is so much killing. The gangs control everything. What they can’t take, they destroy. The people who won’t follow them, they murder. Someone has to get out and tell Americans what is happening. So my mother and my brother can come here and be safe.”
Mr. Martinez looked down at him. “Your mother and your brother are never coming here.”
He closed the door and walked away. The level of conversation picked up around Raúl, and the circle closed. Soon it was as if the man had not been there at all. Raúl retreated to his spot.
Beatriz was watching him. “Your brother died?” she asked.
“That’s terrible. My uncle was killed by the narcos. It’s everywhere.”
“No,” Beatriz agreed. “Not here.”
They had nothing else to say to each other after that, and soon it was time for lights out. One of Mr. Martinez’s men came through yelling in Spanish for everyone to lie down and go to sleep. Half the overhead illumination was shut down so it was not truly dark. Raúl found he could not unroll his mat entirely in his place, nor could he unwind his body to lie full length. He was forced into a curled position, almost hugging his knees, with the papery blanket over him for warmth.
Despite himself, he drifted. In his dream-state he heard Beatriz whispering to him. Then he realized it was not a dream at all, but her urgent whisper through the bars and across the space that separated them. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, Raúl!”
“It’s time to sleep,” Raúl hissed back.
“In a week it will be Christmas. Good things happen at Christmas.”
Raúl only nodded, and then he went back to sleep.
Each day it was the same. Food came three times a day, sandwiches for lunch and dinner and a sticky roll and milk for breakfast. Every other day they were taken out in shifts to use showers. They were locked into the stalls alone and given five minutes to clean themselves. The toilets were mucked out once, but soon were clogged with filth, and the process started all over again.
Talk began to spread among the teenagers on this level, both on the girls’ side and the boys’, that something special was set to happen on Christmas Day. Beatriz was the one who first told Raúl this, and one of the boys near him overheard them talking. The rumor spread rapidly. Soon everyone demanded of the uniformed men and women who looked after the floor what was going to happen. They were told to sit and be quiet and mind their own business.
Some of the boys and girls were taken away and did not come back. This fueled the speculation even more. But then new boys and girls were brought in to take their places. The holding areas were jammed head to toe, and there was barely enough space to form a thought. Raúl held onto his station and refused to be budged.
Mr. Martinez came once a day to look in on them, and he took time to speak with Raúl at his place by the bars. He knew many of the other boys by name, but Raúl felt especially singled out whenever Mr. Martinez spoke to him. He did not like talking to the other boys, and Beatriz could not talk to him all the time, so Mr. Martinez was the best of all possible worlds.
“It’s Christmas tomorrow,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl one day.
“I know. There is a lot of talking about—”
“I know what they’re talking about. They’ve been on about it all week. Don’t listen to them.”
“But something must happen on Christmas,” Raúl insisted.
“Maybe something will,” Mr. Martinez said. “We’ll see.”
And that was the end of their conversation. The day before Christmas went on the way every other day had, with talk and jokes and fights and shouting and singing and chaos. Raúl kept himself to himself and didn’t speak even to Beatriz.
There was night and then it was Christmas day. The lights came on and the holding areas awoke with stretching and yawns. Raúl struggled to bring some life into his stiff limbs. Every night he spent curled up was harder than the night before. His joints ached. He felt old. Lines formed for the restroom and the reek of urine was everywhere.
Breakfast did not come on time and there were rumblings. After an hour’s delay there was anger in the air.
Raúl heard the sleigh bells first, and then the jolly sound of someone booming, “Ho, ho, ho!” There were many footfalls in the passage. And then there he was: Mr. Martinez in a red suit with white trim, a floppy cap with a puffball on the point draped over his skull. He was followed by the morning crew with the breakfast carts.
A loud and rousing cheer rose from the boys’ side of the floor, and then a higher-pitched response from the girls. Soon the doors were open and food was dispensed. Mr. Martinez kept chortling away and the bags were all distributed. Inside, along with the usual milk and roll, was a piece of wrapped chocolate and an orange. Soon the smell of orange zest was in the air instead of the earthy stink of the restroom and the closely packed bodies.
Raúl ate and was happy and saw Beatriz smiling at him as she sectioned her orange. There was more laughter and less shouting now than there had been on days before. Raúl felt light.
It was close to lunchtime when Mr. Martinez returned without his Santa suit. He came with another uniformed man, and they opened the door to the boys’ holding area. “Raúl!” Mr. Martinez called. “Raul! Honduras! Come on! Bring everything!”
Raúl gathered up his things and hurried to the door. He hadn’t yet unwrapped and eaten his chocolate yet. “I am here,” he said.
Mr. Martinez smiled at him. “Come with us.”
They took him down from the high floor to another place with many rooms and offices. He was put in a new cell, much smaller, all alone. A little while later a woman brought him a large paper sack. In the sack were the clothes he’d worn the day he’d crossed the border. “Put those on,” the woman said. “They’ve been cleaned.”
He stripped off the orange suit, but he kept the socks and the underpants and the undershirt even though he was sure they wanted him to take those off, too. He changed into his old clothes and waited. After a long while someone else came to get him, and he was brought through to another holding area, still fairly small, where he was held with three boys who were very young.
Mr. Martinez came to them after a while. “This is the end of your time with us, Raúl,” he said.
“Is it time?” Raúl asked. “Have they decided to let me stay?”
“Your case was reviewed by a judge. His decision was to let you go. There’s a plane leaving the airport in three hours. You’ll be on it.”
Raúl’s vision blurred. He felt tears and wiped at them. “I can’t go back to Honduras! I can’t! I came so far!”
“I know,” Mr. Martinez said somberly. “I’m sorry.”
The other boys were crying, too. They had only a few things between them and soon they were all picked up by men in uniforms and put in a van and taken to the airport. They were given seats on the tightly packed planes, and a man with a badge, but no uniform, flew with them. The flight to Honduras took five hours. There was time to reach home for Christmas dinner.
On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula again, his cousin, Emilio, was killed in a clash over drug territory. Raúl packed his things in a pale green pillowcase with clouds printed on it, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother, and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had one hundred three dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything he had left from his sojourn north. He was fourteen years old.”
December 3, 2016
Blue and Unassuming Under the Christmas Star is a seasonal spin-off from Jackie Mallon’s book, Silk for the Feed Dogs. The story returns to the problems of the loveable but habitually disaster-prone Kat as she tries to find some Christmas spirit in the hearts of the famously grumpy New Yorkers.
Jackie Mallon manages to capture what it is that is so terrifying and exhilarating about the city. So for anyone longing for a proper winter and a proper Christmas, this is the perfect story to help you pretend that you’re in the city that can never be beaten for festive excess.
Blue and Unassuming under the Christmas Star
Kat, a farmer’s daughter from rural Ireland, and Edward, a preppy Economist-reading builder’s son from Birmingham, met five years ago in London at an illustrious school for fashion design. Forced to collaborate on a project, they became unlikely friends and upon graduation, embarked upon an exploration of the “Bella Vita” in Milan, Italy.
My debut novel, Silk for the Feed Dogs, follows the agreeable pair through the ruthless and hierarchical fashion system, as they design the course of their careers, talk Italian, and practice in the fine art of seduction, Italian-style.
In Blue and Unassuming under a Christmas Star, we find Kat a year later, landing in New York from Paris, where she and Edward have been living since leaving Milan. She is to meet Edward, who is arriving in town on the tail end of a work trip, at their hotel. Kat anticipates the kickoff of a glamorous holiday sojourn enjoying their friendship, the world-famous sights and revelling in the Big Apple’s gung-ho conjuring of the Christmas spirit. But one mishap threatens to throw a damper on it…
“She realizes she has left her phone on the AirTrain. A sign on the back of the cab driver’s seat informs her the airport is fifteen miles from Midtown Manhattan. Therefore she is about seven and a half miles away from her phone, and light years away from Edward. He’s stuck in Shanghai with no idea when he will board a flight. This she found out after landing at JFK. In a hurried voicemail message, he recounted a story about a lorry load of knit samples being stolen en route from the factory, leaving them with only thirty-five percent of the Spring collection. He would have to scramble to put everything into work again, and it was the night before he was supposed to leave, the night before he was supposed to join her for their glamorous Manhattan Christmas.
We couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery, thinks Kat, looking out at the light snow flurrying between one lane of traffic and the next.
From the hotel she will call him. What if it’s night-time there? She’ll write him an email briefly explaining the loss of her phone and describe a hastily composed itinerary for the day. Then she’ll make her way back to the hotel and call him again around lunchtime. Otherwise she’ll just see him whenever he checks in. Whatever day he arrives. She looks down at her lap. She has been picking the skin on her thumb which she does when she is anxious. The distant Manhattan skyline stretches out alongside the cab like a misty hedgerow.
“Do you know the cross street, Miss?”
“Um, no, just the address, 204 West 29th?” The driver doesn’t look too impressed with her organizational skills either.
Why isn’t the street address enough here? And why isn’t the price advertised the price you end up paying? She is already fretting about what tip to give him.
The hotel lobby is medieval dark, dotted with untreated wood and hunks of dulled metal slabs edged with rivets posing as furniture. The soft lighting is mostly provided by the rows of laptops on low tables. She waits for a well-shaven man in a narrow cut suit to finish with another guest. He approaches beaming a wide, white-toothed welcome.
“Hello. My name’s Kat Connelly. I’m checking in.”
He studies the computer screen. “I don’t seem to have anything by that name.”
“Oh, of course not! It’ll be under Edward Brandreth. He made the reservation. Two single rooms.”
Wide, white-toothed understanding. He hits several keys. “No, I’m sorry, we have nothing under that name either. Are you sure you’re in the right hotel?”
The piece of paper in her right hand shows the name and address of this hotel, her handwriting. “It is––I mean, it should be. It was booked weeks ago. Are you sure? Can you just check again?”
No white teeth this time. “Do you have a confirmation or booking number?”
She hadn’t thought to print it out. “My friend Edward booked.”
He taps repeatedly the same key. “Wait up. I have a Brandreth for tomorrow night. Two single rooms. Ten days.”
“Oh, thank God! You had me there! I knew he couldn’t be that dizzy—I mean, dizzy enough, obviously, as the booking should include tonight, but at least all’s not lost. Phew!” With no effort she matches the width of his smile. “That’s a relief. Can I have a room for tonight, please?”
His smile goes again and the lobby darkens. She watches him shake his head. “I’m sorry, miss, it’s the week before Christmas, we’re full up.”
“I’ll take a double, whatever you’ve got. I don’t mind paying more.”
His demeanour softens and he leans in, his elbows on the counter. “Girl, you’re going to have trouble getting in anywhere no matter how much money you got.” His accent had eased down-home. “I mean, maybe a Holiday Inn in the boroughs but, seriously, come on, a room tonight? New York is busier than a one-legged dog with fleas.”
There it is: the calamity she feels has been looming since leaving the airport. Alone in New York City with nowhere to sleep. She and Edward should have figured out alternative arrangements in case something went wrong, because with their track record something always goes wrong. It seems inconceivable she didn’t get a copy of the confirmation email. Instead of discussing the details of the booking, they had spent most of their last phone conversation giddily quoting Christmas movies:
“If it’s Serendipity, I’ll get in two hours after you. I’ll meet you just left of Miracle on 34th Street.”
“Can you believe it, Jack Skellington? Next stop, shopping in Christmastown!”
“‘What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.’”
“‘I’ll take it. Then what?’”
“‘Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair!’”
Weighing the pointlessness of sitting in a hotel where she is not a guest versus the aimlessness of wandering the city alone, Kat chooses the latter. She’ll be able to think as she walks; neurons will wake up, band together, and storm her cranium to arrive a solution. She curses the people of Shanghai as a bunch of Scrooges trying to spoil their holiday merriment, all over a few sweaters.
If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!
The desk clerk agrees to hold her luggage until the evening. “It’s against hotel policy if you’re not a guest but, geez, far be it from me to contribute to your troubles, child. Quick, leave it there, I’ll pretend I don’t see.” Theatrically he turns away. “I see nothing!”
Taking a deep breath, she steps out into the circular currents of snow and asks someone directions for Fifth Avenue. Considering herself well-travelled, she is surprised how much New York intimidates her with its size and noise and brashness. What becomes immediately clear is she’s not wearing the right shoes. Her toes are clenching in retreat from the damp that’s seeping through the seams of her vintage leather. She studies the feet that pass; even the lower legs of the women wearing dainty pencil skirts culminate in one of two ways: a quilted nylon blob, somewhere in the vicinity of a ski boot gathered by drawstring at the calf, or a garishly patterned rubber boot resembling children’s footwear that waggles about the leg. Both serve to annihilate the line of calf to ankle. Parisians would opt for being born with a cloven hoof rather than have that happen, regardless of the weather, she thinks, then reminds herself that this is the land where chic lags behind comfort. In every company she has ever worked, jersey knit, the ultimate leisure fabric, sold best in the US market. In her line of business, she can’t help but compare how people dress from place to place and what they tote, forming opinions, reaching conclusions.
She catches a glimpse of herself in a window. Hands clasped before her, she looks like she’s praying. She resolves to be less of a blip moving erratically across a grid and more attuned to her surroundings.
She wonders how she ever found her way about or did anything before smartphones, and then gives a grunt. Smartphones render their owners idiots.
Even as her thinking desperately turns to public pay phones, she notices how many people are bearing down on her at speed, heads bent over their own personal screens and keypads. Pate first, they charge; a herd of headlong bovines branded with Apple or Samsung. A telephone booth, there has to be one or two left. The words telephone booth sound so cozy as she trudges on, the prospect of curling up in intimate seclusion for a chat with a friend so appealing. It suddenly sounds as archaic a term as hat box, penny farthing, and powder puff. Still, there just has to be one or two left.
A massive stone building, beautiful, opens up on her left with sculptures of robed men lining the ledges against the sky, four sets of twin columns flanking tall arched entrances, and two stone lions on podiums. The brave pair wear wreathes around their necks and matching jaunty red satin bows tied at the throat. Carved into the stone in large capitals are the words New York Public Library. A library is for the people, she reasons, a bricks and mortar font of information left over from the pre-Information Age, immobile, uninvolved with satellite signals, and from what she can see, open. Hurrah for the old world! She climbs the steps, past the lions surely guarding the last of the city’s public telephones, heartened by the sight of the gold and red Christmas tree twinkling warmly just inside the central archway. A security guard steps forward, asks to search her bag. He peeks inside and taps the leather reassuringly to move her on.
“Can you tell me where the public telephones are, please?”
“Payphones, you mean?” He smiles. “Huh, now, there’s a question. Do we still have them even?” He looks around, purses his lips. Without warning he calls out, his voice echoing through archways, up stairways and crashing off ceilings “Hey… Hey Curtis! Yo, we got any payphones up in here?”
When those echoes subside, new ones ripple in from a hidden Curtis. “Yeah, bro. Saw them the other day. By the children’s section.”
The security guard points over his shoulder to the right. “Just through there, the second room.”
Her eyes glisten with unspoken thanks as Curtis’s voice soars in again. “They all broken though. Somebody needs to make it their business to call a repair guy.”
The sight of her downcast face touches the security guard, compels him to offer what he thinks is a serviceable solution. “Miss, we have Wi-Fi though. On every floor, in every reading room and even in the grounds outside.” With a nod and smile, his duty done, he beckons the next visitor forward. Kat heads back down the steps to be reclaimed by the Fifth Avenue throng.
The ground is laced with white now. As she walks she imagines herself at the centre of a Christmas movie scene, the city’s noises, already dulled by snowfall, overtaken by some soaring Henry Mancini soundtrack with added jingle bells, the cameras panning out to focus on her lone black figure growing smaller on the city’s grand grid, progressing uptown, yes, uptown because now she is at 49th Street. She finds the architecture miniaturizing, yet when she manages to forget for a second her predicament, it’s uplifting too. She could be protagonist or extra in any story here, feel like a star or be extra anonymous. On impulse she reaches out and touches the expensive plaid sleeve of a passing woman’s coat.
“I’m terribly sorry, would I be able to use your cell phone briefly to make a call? I’m alone in the city and––” The woman flicks Kat’s fingers from the plaid without stopping. Kat tries this with three more strangers. An older woman steps back alarmed which makes Kat fade embarrassed into the crowd, her heart pounding. A teenager tells her to get lost. Finally a man pauses and listens to her tale with his head cocked to one side. At first it might be a business pitch he’s hearing but presently Kat detects in his eyes a glimmer of compassion. Then at the mention of Shanghai, he splutters “Yeah, right!” and bolts with a flap of his topcoat. Bolstered, however, Kat fishes ten dollars from her purse and holds it in both hands as she approaches another man in a suit, tie and topcoat. These corporate types seem to be the most amenable to her intrusion, and she ignores her uneasiness when she thinks how it must look: young female approaching older businessman leading to a sidewalk exchange of money.
“Listen, I’ll help you out, but if my wife calls, I need to answer it, you got that? She’s been chasing me all day and I’ve sent her to voicemail four times.” He looks down the street, both ways, turns his lapel up. “She is not happy.” He waves away her money and hands her earbuds. “Use these. I’ll keep hold of the phone.” Glancing up gratefully and with clumsy fingers, she inserts them in her ears, pulls the same piece of paper that contains the hotel address from her pocket and punches in Edward’s cell phone number. Her forefinger picks a shard of skin from around her thumbnail and she barely registers the sting of it as she listens to the dial tone. Curse him to Almighty for not answering. She can picture him squinting at the screen, lifting it up to study the number, pursing his contrary little lips, then replacing it on a desk with a sniff and turning back to what he was doing. It goes to voicemail and she feels like hurling the stranger’s phone into the traffic.
“Hey, it’s Edward. Why are you disturbing me with a phone call? Nowadays it’s much less invasive to text. Oh, while you’re here, go on then, leave a message. If you must.”
BEEP. Barely managing to keep from shrieking, she launches breathlessly into her message, “Bloody hell, Edward! You booked the hotel for tomorrow night, not tonight. I’m stranded in New York with no place to sleep! I’ve lost my phone and––” There is a noise, not a promising one. The phone gulps and she realizes the man has shot off in the other direction with the phone to his ear, the chord of his earbuds dangling between her fingers. “Hey! Wait, please! I was in the middle of talking! WAIT please, I’m begging you!” She runs after him and pulls at his coat, his sleeve, his flapping scarf; he jerks away. “No it’s no one, honey. I promise. Don’t be silly, it’s just some crazy person on Fifth Avenue. Tis the season, after all. Look, I’ll be home early; we’ll go to our place.” He turns, mouths sorry and hurries off.
She drops onto the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Mentally exhausted and with nowhere to sleep, she now recognizes the lumbering juggernaut of jetlag encroaching from the peripheries. The dusting of snow on the step turns to water under her rear, no doubt marking her best coat in an unfortunate, truly homeless-looking way. Over her shoulder a long queue snakes from the door of the neo-Gothic cathedral around the block, a mixture of prayer book and guidebook believers anticipating the exalted stained glass, the Tiffany-designed altar, the lofty marble columns fanning out like palm leaves to the ceiling, and the pietà that’s three times the size of Michelangelo’s Pietà. She thinks about joining them and curling up just inside under the holy water fountain till morning. She could light a candle and leave it to the heavens to seal her fate. If Edward were here he would say, “You don’t come to New York to go to church, Kat, you can do that anytime. I personally don’t do religion unless I have drink in me. See? I’m more Irish than you think.”
She picks herself up and crosses the street alongside a trio of singing Santas bearing a Salvation Army donation bucket. Their accelerated harmonies of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” make shoppers dance and sway.
She fights to extract herself from behind a group of Italians who have halted smack dab in the middle of the pavement. They are all dressed in the same quilted jacket but in different colours and resemble a little barricade of activated airbags. She attempts unsuccessfully to go around them and the old irritation arises in her even though it has been over a year since she left. Loitering with lack of intent she called it. You can take the Italian out of the piazza but you can’t take the piazza out of the Italian.
“Permesso?” She sighs dramatically. “Mi fate passare?”
Looks of surprise. The airbags are deactivated. “Prego, Signorina!” Just like that, she has removed the look of the tourist from each of their faces by generously placing them on familiar territory. Sure enough, she feels their eyes work their way down the length of her and make the return journey.
“Mille grazie,” she says haughtily, passing through their centre. A few steps later, she, like them, stops short, infuriating those behind her.
Of course, there is its stature, but she is already used to the bigness of big here. That isn’t what makes it special. It is the inch-by-inch attention to detail on such a scale. The Rockefeller Christmas tree. There isn’t a pine needle that doesn’t sparkle against the fuchsia-lit facade of the skyscraper behind it. It is the Taylor-Burton diamond of Christmas trees. It symbolizes ambition, hope, confidence.
Kat has to believe this energizing trio must surge through the city all year round but at Christmas they really come into their own, accompanied by French horns, gussied up with flashing lights and tied with bows. Quiet confidence is an oxymoron here, quiet hope akin to hopelessness, quiet ambition no ambition at all. That must be the New York way from what she has observed. Just four hours since landing and she marvels at the unapologetic volume of people’s voices. Everyone’s an announcer. Italians yell at each other in the street, a barrage of obscenities or the same predictable Ciao Bellissima, but New Yorkers make you privy to the full-throated details of divorce settlements, bank accounts, therapy sessions, troubled childhoods, this verbal release ushering them on to greater things. All the neuroses of a Woody Allen film seem to sputter from the city’s orifices like natural waste, better out than in. Beside her, with the Rockefeller spectacle as his backdrop, a man on his cell phone describes being audited by the tax authorities, having his screenplay rejected by a famous director and getting hit by a yellow cab––and no health insurance!––all in the same week. Then he turns and offers her a toothpaste commercial grin. Built on the smoldering remains of trauma and dysfunction rises the city of eternal hope; white teeth in the face of adversity.
She decides she would do well to learn a thing or two from them and quit being such a defeatist. All she needs is a room for the night. There are infinite possibilities that could yet unfold. A brass band bursts buoyantly into “Good King Wenceslas” and she feels grateful she didn’t leave her wallet behind instead of the phone. She drinks in one last view of the tree and adjusts her thinking. I am in control of my own destiny. Look around! Here I am in the heart of Manhattan despite less than ideal circumstances but how can I complain if I am at the centre of the world? This isn’t called the Empire State for nothing.
The corner of Fifty-Fourth and Fifth offers prime people-watching opportunities. New Yorkers have a possessiveness to their stride; every purpose-filled step is a flag planted in the patch of cement they have landed on. Even though their foot abandons it immediately in search of pastures new, for that fleeting moment, that square meter of the city is all theirs, a successful mini takeover bid. Kat tries to mimic this and with renewed resolve, enters two nearby hotels and requests a room. Both times the hotel staff wear the same looks of worried confusion that the previous hotel clerk wore.
Then Kat sees it, blue and unassuming under a Christmas star of neon fixed to a lamp post: a public telephone. It’s clear it’s working because a man is talking into it, and quite animatedly at that. The brass band plays on and Kat blesses their merry souls. She almost tingles with the certainty that this time she will get through, that Edward will have listened to her truncated message and will be on alert for her to call again. Dare she hope it?
As she draws near, there is a new noise discernible above all the rest, a sound like the animalistic grunt boxers make when they suffer repeated blows to the head. The telephone user’s voice. “Look behind me, he says. Behind me, motherfucker? I ain’t no fool. Put your head back in your Facebook. Tell me, does this train run express? Huh, does it? Holy shit, this carriage stinks.” His head, wrapped in a purple bandanna that’s tucked under an orange baseball cap embellished with badges, jerks back with the delivery of every short sentence as if with the force of a punch. He pokes the air for emphasis. “It’s the Uptown train I need, motherfucker. Get out my way!”
He removes the phone from his ear and stares the mouthpiece down. With his lips pulled into two taut slivers, he mutters between clenched teeth and strikes the corner of the payphone with the receiver, a gut-wrenching noise, simultaneously slamming his fist against the numbers, once, twice, three times. Kat is beside him. “No-no, please, no don’t do that, no…” She seizes the receiver, prizing his fingers off it one by one. His hand falls limp. Puzzlement knits his features. He frees the telephone receiver and runs off, turning to look back at her as he cuts through the crowd.
Close to tears, Kat hangs up the receiver. She can feel the pulse at her wrist stampeding. She lifts the phone again, her body slack with pessimism, and holds it to her ear. Not a sound. Probably wasn’t even working in the first place.
The bobbing and curtsying sound of the brass band can be heard from several blocks away, mocking her.
And the Grinch said, “Blast this Christmas music… it’s joyful AND triumphant.”
Up ahead, a sign propped against a homeless man’s knees catches her eye, and its gallows humour manages to draw from her the vaguest smile: “I always wanted to be someone but I see now I should have been more specific.”
“I love your sign,” she tells him, yearning for conversation. “Profound.”
“Could you spare some change please, Miss?”
She can’t resist asking his name. Sean. Sean Donnelly. He is a down-on-his-luck corn-fed All-American boy with an all-round good Irish name. His sign informs her he needs bus fare back to Kansas. She empties her purse.
Sean counts the different sized coins she has poured into his hand and looks up at her. “Sixty-four cents? You’re giving me sixty-four cents?”
“Is that all that’s there?” Back in her purse, nothing; she fishes in her pockets, nothing. “I’m sorry, that’s all I have. I haven’t been to an ATM machine yet.”
“Man, I cannot believe it. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?”
In Sean Kat recognizes not a point of conversation anymore but the repository for all her frustrations. “Give that money back, you little shit. Go on, hand it over.” She holds out her hand and several shoppers gasp. “Come on, it’s Christmas, let it go,” says one, “you won’t miss it.” “You mind your own business,” she hisses, bracing herself menacingly at the passers-by who walk on, shaking their heads and muttering, “Some people have no sense of charity, and at this time of year…” When Kat turns back to Sean, he wears a look somewhere between amusement and challenge.
“You’re disrespecting me. You don’t deserve my money. I didn’t have to give you anything, I could have walked on by like everyone else. This is not a place for pennies, I can see that. Well, fair enough, give it back, come on. Hold out for some of those great big dollar bills you’re waiting for. And good luck to you!” She looks at the yoghurt pot he uses to collect money, gives it a light kick. It contains silver and copper but only two notes. “It looks like they’re harder to come by than you think.”
“You’re a feisty wee one, aren’t ye?” His accent evokes less of the Kansas cornfields and more of the Wicklow Mountains. “If you want your money back you’ll have to come in here and take it.” He puts the hand holding the coins down deep into his sleeping bag.
“You’re not even American. You and your transatlantic false accent.”
“Who broke your train set? Don’t you have no Christmas spirit? You’re in the wrongest place on earth then, aren’t you?”
She hunkers down and leaning against the wall of a men’s luxury tie store, she breathes in deep, falls silent. She secretly enjoyed that outburst, probably because Sean is the first company she’s had since she left Charles de Gaulle. She eases up and finds him to be a decent listener as she confides in him her run of poor luck.
“There’s a YMCA on Forty-Seventh that might have vacancies if you don’t mind the bedbugs, cockroaches and constant smell of marijuana, as well as the long walk down The Shining corridor to get to the shared bathroom. It’s where I go when I’m feeling flush after a win on the horses, it being a smidgen closer than the Waldorf Astoria.” He smiles wryly and produces from his sleeping bag the latest iPhone which with a swipe of his finger casts a festive glow onto his features. He hands it over. “Call them.”
“You got the newest one. How? There’s even a waiting list.”
“I took my sleeping bag and camped outside the Apple store overnight. I got the second last one.”
The Hispanic lady who answers the phone tells Kat there are no vacancies but sometimes there are no-shows and she should stop by that evening around seven when they give out unused beds on a first come, first serve basis. It’s the most encouraging news she’s had since she landed. She visits an ATM machine and drops twenty dollars into Sean’s yoghurt pot. Then adds another ten in exchange for making a second call to Edward.
This time she expects no response and isn’t disappointed. She leaves a message stating that she will be at the YMCA Vanderbilt at seven and will hopefully stay there that night. “Otherwise I’ll be temporarily residing in a cardboard box on Fifth Avenue––cross street?––Fifty-Sixth beside a nice Irishman called Sean whose phone I’m using to make this call that you can’t be bothered to answer. But the cardboard box will be Bergdorf Goodman’s largest because this was supposed to be a glamorous holiday after all, and it will have oodles of tinsel draped over it because, God forbid, I lose the Christmas spirit. Hope you’re warm and cosy toasty with a dirty martini at arm’s length. Ciao.”
“Ah, sarcasm. I do miss me ma.”
While Sean slides his iPhone into the depths of his sleeping bag, Kat rises and hops about to warm up. “I can only imagine what else you’ve got down there.”
He flashes a crooked smile. “It’s not the most subtle of advances I’ve heard but what the hell, cease imagining immediately, woman, and hop on in.” He lowers the zipper and holds open the mouth of the sleeping bag. “I’ll show you mine if––”
“Oh, God, I didn’t mean that! I mean, I wasn’t, God, total embarrassment.”
“Ach, I’m only messin’ with ye.”
She smiles. “Right. Well, I’m going to have to keep moving or I’ll catch pneumonia. Although of sturdy stock, today I’m being sorely tested. Care for a walk?”
“Can’t, doll. Guy’s gotta make a living.” Sean’s American accent is back. He spirits the bills from the yoghurt pot, shakes the coins up and looks expectantly into the faces that pass. She wishes him merry Christmas and melds with the crowd.
Soon she is in the thick of Manhattan’s fanciest shops, passing Prada, Henri Bendel, Gucci, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana. Street carts sell roasted chestnuts and hotdogs but she can’t account for the smell of cinnamon everywhere. It hangs under her running nose. Eartha Kitt purrs from every doorway, “Santa cutie, fill my stocking with a duplex and checks. Sign your X on the line…” She should feel right at home; it’s the New York equivalent of strolling along Via Montenapoleone or rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré as she and Edward had done so often in the past. She wishes he was beside her, the sight of luxury goods making her feel surprisingly melancholy. The window displays are like spreads from her favourite fashion magazines, opulent optical feasts curated with an eye for theatre, and yet, she can reduce them to towers of expensive white-frosted clutter in a second.
She joins the little assembly of fashion devotees paying homage outside the first window of Bergdorf Goodman. The window is as large as a room, with all the pomp and ceremony of a Broadway stage. Kat’s eyes gorge on human-sized marionettes brandishing trumpets, frilled candy-striped lampshades resembling the petticoat skirts of Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, crystal-flecked Venetian masks and studded pink suede shoes, little caped drummer girls, bunches of swollen grapes tumbling from goblets and confetti-flecked doughnuts as big as wreathes suspended above vintage cars; velvet purses under icicles and whipped cream pies arranged in a still-life with jellyfish, tapestries and reptiles; Audrey Hepburn’s pearls are strewn across the leather and chrome of a Harley Davison parked in a glacially lit grotto next to a stuffed peacock; giant slices of cake with chocolate dipped strawberries may have been made of papier-mâché, but Kat would eat them all anyway. This glorious lack of cohesion makes her want to lick every window. She craves all of it, her nose to the glass in the hope of at least smelling it. She hadn’t known this ravenous consumer was rushing about inside her, clamouring to get out.
A liveried horseman in a frosted, duck-egg blue carriage pulled by a horse sprouting feathers from his forehead and a lei around his neck passes close to the sidewalk. Kat turns around just as the lascivious clap of manure hitting Manhattan’s tarmac rings out. A voice at her shoulder says, “Kat, how is it possible that livestock still know just where to find you, all these years after leaving the farm?”
“Edward!” The heads of the Bergdorf Goodman pilgrims swivel in unison. She squeezes him so tightly he yelps.
“You’re throttling me, you daft apeth! It hasn’t been that long. I just saw you a couple of weeks ago!”
“Are you joking? Did you get my messages? I’ve been worrying all day. How did you know where to find me?”
He winks. “As Cary Grant says to Deborah Kerr, “‘If you can paint, I can walk––’” She joins in, “‘––anything can happen!’ An Affair to Remember!” She squeezes his arm. “Yep, you’re real.”
“As real as Christmas, and twice as camp.”
“But still, how did you know in all of New York I’d be here?”
“It required no great calculation. I know you too well. I knew you’d stare moony-eyed for hours at these windows. Of course I did. What else would you do on your first day, the zoo? I’m not saying you’re predictable or anything. So I sat in the Plaza Hotel by the window and waited with a piping hot toddy for my trouble. I was getting worried. Would I be able to see you when it got dark? Lo and behold, I stepped outside to smoke a ciggie and saw you turn the corner right at the window that has the perfume bottles sliding down the mini ski slope. What a relief. I’ve picked up the cargo, crisis averted, now, let’s go. I’ve wangled a night at the Plaza for us from a rather charming gentleman I met. You’ll meet him too. Incidentally, do you know how much those suites cost? Cripes, try our whole holiday budget and then some! See, turns out I made a little mistakeroo with our hotel booking but don’t worry about it. They serve the best sidecars in the upstairs bar here and we can dine on truffle-flavoured popcorn––what are you looking at me like that for?”
“But I was planning on staying with the cockroaches at the YMCA, dining on the lingering smell of marijuana?”
“Suit yourself but it’s really rather nice over here. Aren’t you cold? You look a wreck. Why is the arse of your coat all black? You look like you’ve slept on a park bench. This is the Plaza we’re talking about!”
“Did you see the Valentino shoes in that third window?”
The bar upstairs at the Plaza is doused in crimson light. Everything dances and flickers, down below the magnificent chandeliers sparkle in the art deco foyer, its domed ceiling of sepia stained glass florals trellised with black shedding a benign serenity over the heads below. The Christmas tree is trimmed with ropes of crystals and shimmering glass balls and at the heart of all these lights, beams, sparkles and glimmers, Kat and Edward’s eyes dance as their conversation meanders.
Outside, the white-gloved doormen welcome guests from town cars. The horse drawn carriages have bottlenecked at the entrance to Central Park. Yellow cabs circle the Pulitzer fountain arriving and departing the hotel’s red carpeted front steps in steady numbers. At the centre of it, Pomona, the goddess of abundance, with her basket of fruit raised, looks off contentedly, to the right of Kat and Edward, beyond the trees into Central Park, past the ice rink and the Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir and to the dark empty grassless greens of Strawberry Fields and Sheep Meadow, now completely white.”