Vehicle: a verse novel [excerpt] — Jen Calleja



In Paris everyone used to joke that I was an ugly little gnome called Thierry and that I waddled around with my big ears and big nose at shows looking lost. They said that I always had drool at the corner of my mouth, and bad skin. They would put me on their shoulders and buy me drinks. I was a mascot, and they would fake cry that I would always be alone because no one would want me, while ruffling my hair or holding my head against their chests. There were some very beautiful women who used to go to the bar we always went to. I quite liked playing that character, I always had attention on me. We spend the afternoon cycling in the sunshine. We walk around the 18th arrondissement. There’s now a Café Amainlandian where the Launderette Rose used to be, making the place a bit … livelier. I once spent the night in the launderette with a girl I met at a show. I remember the hum of tumbling laundry keeping us company while we talked seriously nose-to-nose. Eleanora? Nina? Polly? Those long goodbyes after meeting a soulmate at a show and going off on an adventure with them all night, for one night only, never getting back in touch with them even when you’re back in town. Nothing could mean more to me than being here in Paris with you now echoes around the Café Amainlandian. In the morning: eyebrows crispy from beer, black snot, raw throat, coarse exhaust fumes from the hard shoulder on the motorway, pissing in bushes or squatting against the van. Passing round obscure snacks with funny names. Starting to feel claustrophobic. Getting back in the van is like entering a musty cupboard full of bodies. Coffee dregs in the footwells. Bottled water, crisps, cans of beer, painkillers, breath mints, a stretching mat, a road map, packs of tablets, novels, magazines, manuals for synths not yet bought, a Turkish phrasebook. There’s a poster in the window of the café with a picture of that green-orange-white book on it I’ve seen before. I read the title: My Isletese Affair by Roman Grechian. Reading HERE tomorrow night! We’ll be gone. A mural shows the migration of birds; in the national park, there’s a museum housing stuffed animals, including a creature I’ve seen in The Islets book. They give a different place of origin. It’s the star attraction. The rotation of the world with trees and leaves whose names I don’t know. Birds’ names I’ll never know. All rushing away from me. The shiny wave of distant cottages and car parks. To want to live so far away from the city, is it right? So many fields and so much wood, so dense and never touched, not once disturbed, or even come across, but it makes such an impact, particularly the way it clouds up, partitions, greenifies these little homes, so much woodland, so many uncultivated fields, so much space. But there’s no room. No means, no. Houses big enough for a dozen people, thirty people, a hundred people, spare rooms filled with junk and furniture. Football pitches, football pitch-sized car showrooms, multi-storey car parks, disused transport hangars, utility rooms, conservatories, writing sheds, community centres, school halls, school playgrounds, holiday homes, luxurious houses. Garden ‘access to residents only’. French press reporting that the French are currently taking a ‘no help’ policy as they need to help their official and present territories. Football transfers, football commentary about getting over the lines, managers choosing who gets to cross the border I learn from the newspaper I’m trying to read while we drive through French countryside in dappled light. A courier comes by and we roll down the window for her. A few telegrams from Eevi’s daughters. And fan mail for Connolly. I’m uneasy about the power dynamic of fandom, I say. And an invite for Thomasina to perform at an exhibition in Oslo when we arrive. To read her ‘real’ lyrics and to dance. Word – her words – have got out. Someone must have translated the German ones. The National ones are pretty garbled. Roadblock, farmers are protesting. There are bales of hay on fire, diggers and harvesters plonked on the motorway, we pass by at snail speed. Why are they protesting? I roll down my window and turn French for a while. A well-liked farmer is in a lot of trouble because he’s stopped harvesting to turn his barns into homes for the Isletese people when they make it to France. He’s being threatened with fines, being removed from the agriculture collectives, list of suppliers, and will have to go to court faced with terrorism offences. There is at least one farmer in the collective who is of Isletese heritage, and so they chant I AM ISLETESE I AM FRENCH I AM ISLETESE I AM FRENCH. There are sheep and cows wearing farmer’s outfits carrying signs in their mouths that say I AM ISLETESE I AM FRENCH I AM ISLETESE I AM FRENCH. We pass through and it’s like it never happened. Did that camera flash? Patrick, when are you going to drive? Stuck in traffic for two hours not moving. Can you see anything? Can you wind the window down, someone’s broken their borders again. Open the window for my apple core. Banana skin. Phlegmy spit. Cold coffee. Peach stone. Plum stone. Grape stalk. I should prepare for my next rendezvous […]

Vehicle: a verse novel is available from Prototype now.

A launch, including a reading by the author and a performance by Monotony, will take place in London on February 24th. For more information, and to reserve a ticket, click here.

Jen Calleja is a poet, short story writer, essayist and translator who has been widely published, including in The White Review, The London Magazine, and Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her translations have been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize. She is also co-founding editor of Praspar Press, an independent publisher of Maltese literature translated into English and originally written in English. Twitter: @niewview