Authors: Robert Minhinnick
Tags: #fiction, #short stories
Seren is the book imprint of
Poetry Wales Press Ltd
57 Nolton Street, Bridgend,
Wales, CF31 3AE
Â© Robert Minhinnick 2011
978-1-85411-564-5 (EPUB edition)
The right of
to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holder.
This book is a work of fiction. The characters and incidents portrayed are the work of the author's imagination. Any other resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Inner design and typesetting by littlefishpress.com
Ebook conversion by Caleb Woodbridge.
The publisher works with the financial assistance ofÂ
the Welsh Books Council.
Robert Minhinnick is glad to acknowledge a Creative Wales award that has enabled him to undertake the writing of
The Keys of Babylon
Mic remembered his father's hand tousling his hair, or pulling him across the road. A hard hand, cracks in the thumbs filled with dirt. He loved to examine his father's hands, to spread the fingers and trace all those roads worn in the skin, the whorls like the galaxies in the teacher's big book.
That atlas of stars was the only book in the classroom. There was no paper, no pencils. The windows held no glass, only sometimes the stars and maybe those galaxies like the calluses on his father's palms. On Friday afternoon, the teacher read from this single book. Mic could only remember that the sun was a yellow dwarf.
But his father was not a labourer. He worked in an office and his mother always said Dada had beautiful penmanship. His hands were hard because he had to break up the concrete gun emplacement behind their house, to grow vegetables on the
land. The concrete was four feet thick, his mother said, and father a thin man, if wiry. Smashing the huge concrete mush-room was illegal, but there was no one left who cared.
They would walk to the cemetery. Two miles Dada always said, but it felt longer. His father didn't talk much, but once, Mic remembered, he told him the name of a flower. It was growing in the grass at the side of the road.
Chicory, his father said. Remember chicory. Some people make their coffee with chicory.
Why do they do that?
Because they're poor. Because it gives a taste.
Coffeeweed, his father then called it. That's its other name.
Mic thought he would hate chicory, and scowled at the flower.
Usually they'd catch the bus back. A man used to sit at the stop chanting a poem. He never caught the bus. It was a great poem, he always said. Even the Greeks had forgotten it, the poem was so old. Dada would scrabble a few qindarka out of his trouser pocket for the fare but often the driver merely waved them aboard. On that bus journey back to the city Mic always hoped to meet Pjeter. Usually the bus was full of headscarved women with bundles of sticks and trussed chickens, and soldiers in their green uniforms winking at the girls. Sometimes Mic and Pjeter could sit together, whilst his father stood.
Pjeter wanted to be a priest. Mic made little of this. Pjeter was pale with big eyes. He was skinny and could climb trees and hang by his long legs, making faces.
Do priests play football? Mic asked.
Pjeter shrugged. Dunno.
I want to play for Roma, Mic said. Pjeter sneered. How many Albanians play in Serie A? he asked.
I will be the first. Anyway, what do priests do?
Pjeter shrugged again. Eat three meals a day, he said. Touch up the girls.
Once his father took Mic up the hill to the warehouse. A lorry had arrived, full of aid. It was Catholic aid, but the Muslims were getting some too. It must be equal, the lorry drivers said. No favourites. Everyone laughed at that.
They stayed in the warehouse all day, fetching, carrying. Mic had never seen such bounty. So many things. There was a mirror. He loved it at once, that cracked oval mirror with a rainbow at its edge. He stared at his face in its glass, scowled, smiled. He wished Pjeter was there to blow out his cheeks and look like a monkey.
Who gets the mirror, Dada? Mic called.
Not you, said a woman, flour on her hands from a burst bag.
Mic's grandada was buried in the cemetery. That's why they visited. One day, his father took him to another part of the graveyard. The plots here were edged with marble and there were low marble headstones.
Look, his father said. On one of the stones were two words in capitals: ENVER HOXHA. On the grave bed were vases with brown bouquets, and a jam jar with dandelions in the green water.
But the boy wasn't interested. He was looking across the cemetery to where two young men were teasing one of the mad people. All the mad people had been chased out of the asylum and now everyone was scared of them. They wandered the streets begging for food. The mad people slept in doorways or down at the bus station. They were lost.
This mad boy was big as a bull. He was making strange bellowing sounds. The young men were pretending to beat him with bunches of dead flowers. Earlier his father had picked ox-eye daisies and placed them on Grandada's unnamed plot. Now he was muttering to himself. Mic looked back to the three figures on the other side of the graveyard. They were pulling the mad boy's trousers off.
His father had sat down by the grave and taken out his bottle. Now he would drink a little arak and continue talking to himself. Arak tasted of the worst things in the world. It smelt of rotten potatoes. Mic had seen his father spit a mouthful over Hoxha's name.
Once Mic and Pjeter and Flutura and some friends were playing round the mushrooms in the park. The mushrooms were the concrete gun emplacements, and they were spread all over the city and countryside, over the hills and in the gardens. They were grey and round and looked like they had sprung up overnight, even though they had always been there.
Some people kept goats in the mushrooms. Some people even grew mushrooms in the mushrooms. He remembered Pjeter was on top, larking about, sliding down with his lanky legs, wearing out the seat of his pants. There were no socks in his shoes. And then a woman came out of the entrance. Get off, she said. Go away.
She was one of the mad people, she must have been. Or that's what Mic thought. She was wearing a soldier's overcoat tied up with string. Her hair was yellow as bonfire smoke and she had yellow eyes, like a goat's in the dark.
Flutura screamed. They all scarpered because they thought she might have been a witch. A mad witch. You never knew what you'd find in the mushrooms. Dead bodies, guilty lovers. There were millions of mushrooms everywhere.
Another time, a man showed the gang his card.
it said. They took him round to see the tank traps, and he filmed them with his camera. He filmed the children too and wrote their names down. Once he told them to gather round, and opened a bag. It was full of chewies and sweets in their coloured cellophane. He gave everyone a handful, plus a dollar each. A dollar!
Mic ran home and showed his father, who came in with his sleeves rolled up and concrete dust on his shoes. But it was mother who took the dollar. She folded it up small as a postage stamp.
But where did you spend a dollar? Mother had only leks for the market. Sometimes she let Mic count the notes. Mic thought they must be rich, but the money was torn and dirty and smelled of dirty people like the witch with yellow eyes. Witches killed babies, Mic knew that. They could suck the breath out of children's bodies. Pjeter had made one of his rubber faces at the witch as they ran away.
Mic preferred the tongs to the grabber. After an hour's use, the grabber grew slack and was difficult to control. So it would be the tongs for Mic tonight.
The concert was supposed to end before midnight. That was the rule. But there was Paul McCartney running on to the stage, and there was Neil Young welcoming him, Neil Young with his ancient face, Neil Young, not a young man now but as ravaged as the alkies and the homeless Mic was supposed to roust from the park benches in the dark.
Not that Mic rousted anyone. Too dangerous. Because where would they go, those dangerous homeless men, the big Nigerians, the skinny Roma, the thin and whiskery Irish? They were sleeping in Hyde Park because they had no homes. Yes, that was the problem with the homeless. They never went home. And then on the big screen Paul McCartney was singing, singing his part of the song, his part of
Day in the Life
. And Neil Young, fearsome as some Hyde Park vagabond, rolling his eyes like a horse, spittle on his lips, was also singing
Day in the Life
. Neil Young's drummer, looking ill and decrepit, an older man the drummer, surely another homeless man there tonight in Hyde Park, a broken-down man, was drumming and drumming, and the song, that
Day in the Life
, coming to a crescendo, its last chord building and building and taking so long to die away, and the crowd standing and cheering, none of them sitting now, everyone whooping and waving, and Neil Young playing the xylophone, no it was the vibraphone the crowd said, a mysterious sound, silvery and slinky, and then he was gone, Neil Young gone, Paul McCartney gone, the drummer with his broken-down face gone, all gone from the screen, the screen in Hyde Park, and they would be starting their party now somewhere in a fabled West End hotel, and the crowd was making its way home, the thousands, the tens of thousands, and only Mic to stay, Mic and Stanis and the others to stay and clean up after the crowd, after the party and the concert in Hyde Park, the last chord of
Day in the Life
still echoing over the grass, still vivid in the crowd's shining eyes.
Already Greendown's electric trolleys and vans were travelling the park roads, and Mic was filling bags with polystyrene cartons and plastic glasses, cartons that had held Thai green curry and Thai red curry, glasses drained of Tiger and Kingfisher and Old Speckled Hen.
Mic wiped his brow under the floodlights. He stepped around figures in sleeping bags, figures in plastic bin liners, figures sprawled half-naked on the grass. People were not supposed to sleep in Hyde Park but he understood why they had to lie down. It had been so hot all day, hot throughout a day of uppers and downers until the downers won and the mind gave in.
Take your pick, Mic thought. And the sleepers had chosen, pot and coke and speed and kefatine and the blissful pethidine, the white tablets, the blue pills, the capsules full of rainbow granules, the Red Bull and the Jagermeister. Yes, they had chosen. Some of it, all of it, and these were the victims, the blithely dreamless sleepers under the Hyde Park trees.
Look, here was a couple asleep in one another's arms, a couple who had collapsed against the mottled trunk of a plane tree, a tree Mic decided he could not like, a leper's tree the plane tree, a couple asleep amongst the plane leaves fallen out of that parched midnight, a pale and sacrificial couple amidst the thousands and thousands of plastic water bottles that waited for his tongs.