The JRB presents an excerpt from New Swell, the short story collection by Byron Loker, which will be published in a new edition in January.
Karavan Press, 2024
Hemingway drank here
Some nights it wasn’t so wonderful to come home because I’d fall down the stairs and break my leg or maybe my arm, or both, or if I landed on my head I’d fall asleep and not wake up until the next morning and it would be raining.
Once I lay outside for five days. In the rain. It was very cold. It was the time of the year when the days are very cold and clear. When my wife opened the door I said, ‘Just leave me here, I want to die.’
‘OK,’ she said, and she stepped over me, carrying the little wicker basket we used when we went to have picnics in the mountains. ‘I’ve met someone else and I’m going away to have a picnic in the mountains with him.’
‘Do you love him?’
‘Do I know him?’
‘Yes, he’s your best friend.’
My wife walked up the stairs and turned left onto the Boulevard St Michel, where we rented a little room sometimes when the money came in if I had had a good day at the races. Our room was nice. There was a place opposite it called the Hanover Café where I sometimes stopped to have breakfast if I’d been out the night before and hadn’t fallen over. The Boulevard St Michel ran parallel to the Rue Saint Jacques, where there was another café where I would stop for a nice cool beer after I’d had breakfast and if I still hadn’t fallen over yet.
I watched my wife walk down the Boulevard St Michel and turn the corner and walk off to the mountains for the picnic she mentioned.
I was very hungry thinking about all those picnics. I tried to stand up and discovered that my leg and arm weren’t broken this time. I did have a pain from the time when my testicles had got blown up by the landmine, but that was usual when you’d been lying out in the rain on the cold concrete for days.
I was happy now to discover I could walk, so I walked up the stairs and went to the Hanover Café and ordered a café au lait and a carafe of cold white wine, dos cervezas, treize Pernods, a rum St James, two bottles of whisky, some cloudy stuff that tastes like liquorice and comes in a cow’s udder, a brandy and soda, a case of champagne and a dozen fresh oysters. The drinks tasted very nice. I drank them all slowly, savouring the different tastes and mixing them all together and swirling them around in my mouth and I began to feel very happy and the world seemed a grand place.
I didn’t feel sad any more from falling down the stairs. I began to feel like making love. A beautiful girl with blonde hair walked into the café and I looked at her because she was gorgeous and I wanted to make love to her and divorce my wife. I went over to the girl and sat down next to her and said, ‘You are a beauty, you must be my new wife and come home and make love to me and we will lie in bed and be warm and I promise I won’t fall down the stairs and not come home at night.’
‘Oh, wouldn’t that be fun!’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘But, oh dear, I already have six boyfriends and I’m meeting one here soon. I’m English, you see.’
‘That’s OK, we can run off before he gets here and go to the mountains and catch fish and no one will ever find us there.’
‘No, that just wouldn’t do, I’m afraid.’
‘I’m a famous writer, I do that all the time, I also write true sentences. We could have such fun and do secret things to each other and catch fish and row around at night on lakes.’
‘Could we? Oh, it does sound awfully nice.’
‘Oh it does sound so nice.’
‘Yes it does.’
‘OK then, let’s go!’ We got up from the table and I fell over and broke my knee.
‘Ouch,’ I said.
‘Oh my darling! My poor, poor darling!’
‘I’ll be OK,’ I said.
‘What are we to do!’
‘I’ll be OK, I’ll just lie here and I’ll be OK in a little while. But maybe I’ll die first.’
‘My poor darling!’ said the girl, cradling my head in her lap and I could smell the scent of her perfume.
A strong tall handsome Spanish boy came in and walked over to where I was lying on the floor and the girl was cradling my head in her lap.
‘Darling!’ she said and stood up and let go of my head and it banged on the floor. She threw her arms around the big tall Spanish boy and kissed him.
‘Oh darling, I’ve missed you! How I’ve missed you so!’ The Spanish boy looked at me. My knee was hurting where it had broken.
‘Who is this?’ he said in Spanish, so I didn’t understand him.
‘Oh, he’s nobody,’ said the girl, ‘Come, darling, let’s go to another café and have a case of champagne!’
I watched the pretty girl and her Spanish boy walk out into the sun and down the Boulevard St Michel, and my knee hurt and I was the only one left in the café then, except for the waiter.
- Byron Loker is the author of New Swell, first published in 2006, which will be out in a new edition from Karavan Press in January. His new collection of stories, Heavy Water, will be out in 2024.