Twelve Ten is a first step
It’s a space to look at
write and talk about
the world we live in
in all its myriad forms.
Break’s over, it’s 2019
… and we’re in Season 3 of Whatever the F is Going On.
Also known as The Timeline Nobody Understands.
(Unless it’s Book 3 and, as you know, this is where the gloves come off and serious sorcery starts happening.*)
Either way, 2019 looks to be as boring as 2018, which means there are more Interesting Times ahead . . .
There is no quick fix for this, unfortunately, since we all live on the same planet and have to deal with everybody’s crazy all at the same time like one never-ending Christmas Eve where Grandpa just won’t shut up, Mum’s hiding in the pantry, Dad’s sulking in the attic, Grandma went to bed, Aunt and Uncle are having a domestic, the Kids are glued to their screens, and somebody forgot to buy enough rolls for everyone; Little Sis is stuck at the airport, Big Brother is doing something illegal on his Mac, and Big Sis is on a deadline while talking with Mum through the door. — Meanwhile, Next Door’s kitchen is ablaze because Mr Next Door said he knew what he was doing when he fixed the stove, and now he’s yelling at the firefighters to get lost, there was no smoke anywhere it was just very heavy fog; Mrs Next Door just rang the doorbell in tears, wanting to speak to Mum who’s still in the pantry and says she’ll stay there till New Year they could all go to hell, Grandpa especially. And Grandpa is still in the dining room, munching away at the dinner Mum and Grandma made, huffing to himself about how women were always so emotional and everyone’s always so sensitive these days, pah!, back in his day people could still take a joke, hnahnahna.
In light of the unchanging fact of continuous (inter)national tomfoolery vs. the forever-search for individual bliss, this first 2019 Twelve Ten edition is a mix of fact and fiction: from Der Spiegel‘s recent revelations to a BuzzFeedNews essay on the burnout of a whole generation. Articles from The Atlantic and The Paris Review are part of today’s picks, as well as original short fiction from in-house writers Elena Furlanetto and j. d. may, next to short videos of two visual artists who create unique worlds for children and adults with their brushes, papers and pens.
Since 2019 is probably going to be far too interesting in the way history tends to be, I hope for you, dear reader, and for us all, that for all the “excitement” it will be a good year after all.
*Apologies, alliterations are a thing round here…
“There is a military strategy to fall asleep in two minutes tops.” Lucas said with his mouth full of salad as they sat on the bench outside their office, Tupperwares on their knees.
For a few months now, she had had troubles sleeping. The bedroom was too bright – facing East, you know – the rising sun hits you at 6:00 in the morning. Or she minded having to share a bed, although she instantly regretted sharing that piece of information with Lucas, having never told her husband of five years.
“Two minutes? That’s impossible.”
“Yes, they go to their happy place. I read it somewhere.”
“What’s their happy place?”
“It’s the place where your mind goes when it wants to hide from bad thoughts, it’s where troubles can’t find you.”
“So what’s your happy place?”
Lucas answered with no hesitation, as if he had put some serious thought into this. “When I was a kid we had this house at the beach. It had its own private access to the sea. You had to walk down a trail across the wild grass, and there it was, the sea. Although the smell hit you first.”
She lingered on the smell. The white inside of shells drying in the sun smelled clean, like something dead but in a good way, passed beyond earthly concerns.
“Troubles can’t find you there?”
“They haven’t so far.”
“And do you fall asleep in two minutes?”
“I am not in the military,” Lucas replied, pensively. “Do you have a happy place?”
Did she? Something in the back of her brain, where collective truths are stored, told her that happy places had to be on islands, so she thought of her last island and of the finca in the middle of nowhere, drenched in sunlight and exposed to sunsets too good to be true. A transparent patch of a swimming pool among the darkest pines. And dancing, every night. She thought of how the music must have left their terrace, wondered off into the night, and gotten lost in the dark. There were messy winding roads that tortoises would cross from time to time: her friends would get out off the car and pick them up and place them on the other side, imagining that was what they wanted. Was that her happy place? If the sun hadn’t been that fierce and always in her eyes, perhaps. If she hadn’t been so thirsty all the time. In the pool, the water was always chilly, no matter what time of the day – it was late September after all – and she wondered at all the little black things afloat. Even there she had troubles sleeping: those otherworldly sunsets left behind a coda of unreal silence, as if a terror had gone to sleep in the room next to hers. And at dawn the hunter’s rifles would jolt her out of her morning sleep – the darkest and rarest – as the shower of bullets hit the trees below her window.
What was the quietest place she had ever been, the perfect place for sleeping? She had to go back to her student years, when she lived in a dorm, and her window faced a side alley at the foot of a basilica. When the ferryboat traffic stopped, you could hear the water of the spacious Giudecca canal sloshing on the stones, and if you listened closely and with the right measure of awe, you could also hear the silky seaweed fingers clasp the shore and hold on to it for a precious second after being pulled back by the next wave. And then her thoughts travelled to other shores and fisherman villages under very special stars, where her parents took her out to very special meals on very special days, when there still were things to celebrate and the sky was electric with possibilities.
And that’s when she saw it, her happy place. A mattress on the floor and a bamboo plant in a corner, a second-hand sofa, and a wardrobe someone had clumsily painted green. Notes scattered on all kinds of surfaces, along with post-its with poems on and other wondrous scribblings, books slumbering under a sheet of dusts. She had known her for years, they drifted in and out of each other’s lives as they moved on to new towns, schools, jobs, lovers, philosophies, selves. She had tried to stay awake after those hours of clandestine lovemaking. If she had stayed too long, someone at home would have wondered where she was, when she was coming home, was she sleeping around? Yes. And no, never sleeping. And how tempted she had been to drift off, just for a few moments, between her lover’s arms and the wardrobe, which someone had painted green with blissful unawareness of the consequences.
“Are you gonna finish that?”
“What?” She straightened up, wondering how long her eyes had been closed.
“Your sandwich, are you gonna eat that?”
“No, you can have it.”
* * *
Imagine you are a well-respected German weekly news magazine, secure in your knowledge that you are known for picking apart the apparatus of power that makes this world we live in what it is. Your glory days may lie in the past, back when your investigations toppled powerful Bavarian Bismarcks and eviscerated rivaling papers so in love with Germany’s terrifying past they never saw the epic fail coming (they even made a movie about it: Schtonk!) — however, those groundbreaking feats of great journalism set the tone for all your later articles and essays and your utter respectability: when your journalists showed up, the right people got mad. When you published something, those in power took their time to read it because God knows what you found out this time. Powerful international papers quoted you as an equal. Every week you published and people read and listened because they genuinely trusted you knew exactly what you were doing.
And you were doing great. One of your cub reporters had grown to a juggernaut of success: awards just piled up because the man was an investigative genius. The stories he found – incredible. Probably because he was such a nice guy, honestly, you couldn’t meet anyone nicer. No wonder all kinds of people who usually ran away from journos – or started to lock and load once they saw any type of accreditation – just opened up to this young well-mannered German and spilled all those intimate beans readers devour with relish (and, at times, glee). From the German journalistic elites to CNN, this young journalist was the cat’s pyjamas, the bees knees. He was the genuine article and you, righteous slayer of petty sun kings, antidote to dangerous nostalgianitis, you hired him, nurtured him, helped him rise to all this greatness, to the awe and envy of all.
And then it happened. Someone who knew his stuff asked the right question: “Really?” And, unbeknownst to you, your own excellence worked away at your Wunderkind, because it was one of the normal, non-celebrated writers in your midst who commenced the underdog’s hero’s journey with a Russel-Crowe-esque “That’s not true.” Even worse: “That did not happen.” Disastrously: “I know that person. They never met. And I can prove it.”
And prove it he could, despite your collective denial and disbelief. It took a while, but you finally came round to seeing the truth and nothing but the truth in all its stark, terrible colours: you were lied to, horrendously. All those perfect articles, those heartbreaking investigations, those award-winning forays into several hearts of darkness – all a messy mix of fact and fiction, truth and lies, and at times altogether fabricated.
As mirrors go, this one just got a huge crack in it, right through the middle (Der Spiegel is German for The Mirror). How did it happen? How could everyone have fallen for this huge con, save the one genuine journalist who asked all the right questions: Who? When? How? Why them, now? And where’s your verification? By the way, have you been there? Did you meet them?
And the walls came tumbling down.
It’s hard to imagine the Weltuntergangsstimmung that followed when the writers and editors at Der Spiegel realized what happened. It is highly commendable – though in this age of data leaks also necessary – that Der Spiegel came out with it themselves, because now they really do control most of the story in the best of PR practice. The disaster is still unfolding, the ramifications hovering in the wings. It’s a shock, yes, but considering Shocking News is our current status quo anyway, the Der Spiegel crisis is actually not such a shock after all. At least it’s just one journalist in one news weekly and not an entire news corporation-cum-political machine…
While the following is the English version of a step-by-step run down of the events by one Der Spiegel’s editors, if you’ve brushed up your German recently, do read the original right below. Quietly furious and deeply dismayed, the piece shows that Claas Relotius’ fictions are so much more than a betrayal of his colleagues and the paper he worked for. However, there is some hope: this disaster will force people within the news magazine to finally fully adopt to this our digital reality. And, hopefully establish high-quality verification tools that will help serious journalism out of the quagmire of malicious lies, destructive bots, and dog-whistle “Fake news!”.
English translation:International & Zeitgeist
German original:Kultur & Gesellschaft
This short piece reads like a writer who finally found the perfect time and space to air some grievances against an incarnation of You People (as in “You people always…”) In this case You People are uppity Germans who had the audacity to not hide in hole 24/7, pouring ashes on their heads, wailing Mea Culpa. Some may cheer James Kirchick on in their sense of righteous “How dare you!”, but many will be wryly amused by this educated rant against a not wholly unwarranted perspective bias.
The reasons are sadly ample: from all the US politicians & citizens who “misspoke” their racisms and sexisms to the regularity of school shootings and active shooters at concerts and bar&grills, from videos of law enforcement using deadly force on unarmed non-whites to a government administration that seems to have little to no interest in actually governing, not to mention a 24hour news cycle that seems to find it all shockingly entertaining and a diamond mine for ratings…. hearing about extreme (racial) violence in and by the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave seems quite reasonable. “Fake News” aside, USAmerican real news is dystopian enough to warrant all kinds of madness, fictional or no.
Relotius’ fabrications are a hard blow to news journalism, that is indisputable. After all, we currently live in a time where preposterous lies are bullying truth in broad daylight, beating up integrity at the school steps, and robbing everybody’s lunch money. What is frightening though, is that one of the reasons why Relotius got away with his fictions for so long is that the margin between dystopian fiction and journalistic fact has become far too slim. I mean, remember when the whole planet started agreeing with Kim Jong-Un? That’s the timeline we’re in.
James Kirchick: Perspective Bias
Stuck In A Book
Books are a unique kind of magic: start one and you just might come out the other end all different. In larger and smaller ways, books can be life-altering, changing minds and personalities via words printed in ink on paper (both the analog or digital kind).
“Novel Gazing” is Electric Literature‘s collection of essays about exactly that: novels that changed hearts and minds in unexpected ways. Well worth a read or three.
Electric Literature: Novel Gazing
Burn Out / Fade Away
Check if this sounds familiar:
It’s 2 a.m. and there’s a quick bumblebee buzz on your bedside table. The urge to check is immediate: WhatsApp? Outlook? Gmail? Instagram? Depending on the gadgetry you own, there are ways to sift through this initial conundrum, but the easiest way is to just check.
The reason why you check is because you are not in bed yet. Sure: you are lying in bed, snuggled up in pjs, adequately prepped for a long night’s rest. Except there’s all the rest: emails that need answering, messages that can’t be kept on ‘read’ much longer, feeds that need following, pics and tweets and posts that need liking, CVs that need updating and so much more.
You got into bed just past 10:30pm, a fairly decent grownup bedtime.
But after the last-minute work-emails you just wanted to get out of the way, the .pptx tenth draft for your team-meeting presentation next week, the excel spreadsheet edit you just remembered, and that Netflix episode you just had to watch (ok, two), it’s way past midnight and suddenly, at 2am, Craig, who’s in charge of your latest team-project, sends a memo to the whole team about the meeting tomorrow. It’s an email you’re glad you saw early – yes, early – because that means you won’t have to modify the Excel sheet again before the conference call at 10 a.m., since your morning is already packed with 20 other things next to the usual workday “stuff” that just piles up.
If it does, then you also know one thing with a kind of dreary certainty: There is no off-switch to this.
Also: the above story is actually harmless in comparison to what happens way too often. It’s after all very likely that poor Craig never even thought of sleep and will probably only get 3 hours in that night, 4 max. Not as a one-off but s a general way of life.
There is no off-switch to this.
Of course there is, but much like salarymen in 1980s Japan: far too many people in today’s workforce hardly ever use it. Everything is always happening all at once, work never actually stops, there is no such thing as “genuine down time” unless you insist on it, put your mind to really make it happen — and even then, for many, there lingers a sense of guilt, of “not doing anything”, of “not being productive” — befitting the “lean, mean production machines” Petersen sees as an accurate description of what William Deresiewicz once smugly dubbed Generation Sell. Though Deresiewicz has a point about millennials’ business savviness, if you can call it that: nobody’s fooled by the “social” in the media used, it’s an integral part of millennial work life. It’s not fun, it’s business that just happens to be a bit of fun, and way too often not even that.
It’s a state of affairs Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeedNews looks into in the following essay that once published promptly went viral. Since sending her piece out into the world there have been several thoughtful and very insightful responses, a few summarized and linked in the Slate article by Shannon Palus. One thing stands out though: both articles and the research, books and essays they cite show that, from every intersectional vantage point currently in existence, one thing is certain: something serious is happening and it is not good at all.
Anne Helen Petersen: Burnout Generation
Shannon Palus: Join the Club
j. d. may
The wind sliced around the corner, youch. Sam huddled into herself, deep into her shawl, and hurried towards her favourite place, Beanie’s Beanery. She pushed the door open, hastily, there. Inside Beanie’s there was one table left, right across the panorama windows, snug between the bamboo shelf and the gum-tree, a perfect hotspot, yes. Sam rushed over, and sat down, relief sighing out of her, finally. Just then a couple walked in, all stamping feet and red faces, rubbing their hands to warm. They scanned the full room once, twice, then decided to park themselves near the ceiling-heigh slab of slate with Only Good Vibes swung in chalk on it. Beanie’s lovely old-wood counter-top often functioned as an impromptu bar for those who really just wanted some hot coffee.
After de-onioning herself and watching with satisfaction as her phone picked up a full cone of Wi-Fi, Sam answered a WhatsApp from Tony – Haha yeah ttlly – liked two memes and three Insta posts, one of them that new one from RyoRyo:
almost black, broiling
racing across an endless sky
RyoRyo was this guy in Tokyo who liked to write in English. They DM’d sometimes, Sam had gotten curious and one evening just sent That was beautiful. How do you do it? And RyoRyo answered. Ever since, they DM’d every now and then, mostly emojis and memes, but it was nice. The last one RyoRyo sent was a cat someone soaked in the kitchen sink. The poor thing looked positively murderous and Sam couldn’t stop laughing for five minutes, genuine laughter that broke through the dreary day she was having.
Sam ordered tea, English Breakfast, when Sonia walked over with an easy, ‘Hey, Sam!’ Sonia with her thigh gap and her really pretty eyes, Sonia with her hazelnut curls she loved and hated, Sonia who got a B.A. in Business because it was sensible, Sonia who found out she was one of millions who were that kind of sensible, Sonia who once said, ‘It’s like we’re all Made in China. Cheap and disposable.’ Sonia who was always sending out CVs and rewriting Cover Letters, Sonia who was trying to escape her gulag of a temp-job, Sonia who helped out in Beanie’s on Wednesdays and Saturdays so she could afford Bobbie Brown and vacations, Sonia who had that boyfriend, The Jerk, Sonia who sometimes crashed at Sam’s because of The Jerk, Sonia who was actually a great friend.
‘Big, small, drowning?’
‘Drowning,’ Sam smiled. ‘And hot, please, really hot, like, boiling.’
‘Girl, I need to warm up. Just – make sure Darren doesn’t ruin it. And add a TSG to that.’
A TSG was Beanie’s famed ‘Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese’, an enormous bowl of thick, fire-engine red, spicy tomato soup and a virtual slab of a grilled cheese sandwich made with whatever cheese Beanie’s cook Masood felt like melting that day. A TSG was a full meal for less than a tenner, and everyone loved it, students, graduates, and The Working Dead as Sonia called everyone who could no longer hide out in dorm-rooms.
Sam small-talked with Sonia for a bit, the usual, The Jerk, gulag, The Jerk, yoga, The Jerk, how awful the weather was, The Jerk, and some Staff Room gossip about Greg and Darren. Greg was House & Country and very gay, Darren was straight-from-Texas American and forever baffled by Greg. Just watching them was entertainment, but Sonia couldn’t stay long, people were looking over, trying to catch her eye, ‘Catch ya lata, sweets.’
Once alone again, Sam took her book out and started reading, scribbling notes in the margins. She slowly sank back into herself, wrapped herself up in the busy quiet of Beanie’s and disappeared into a different world with words like
They are taking apart the cardinal’s house. Room by room, the king’s men are stripping York Place of its owner. They are bundling up parchments and scrolls, missals and memoranda and the volumes of his personal accounts; they are taking even the ink and the quills. They are praising from the walls the boards on which the cardinal’s coat of arms is painted.*
only breaking her reading due to the relentless blue-dot flashes beaming from her phone – oh, another tweet from @thejoycehater who was her colleague and friend Kingsley ‘Mac’ Macmillan (yes, his parents were that pretentious):
@padmesam @wathefek @jujuice79
it’s only Wednesday.
#humpday #ugh #shittyweek
Replying to @thejoycehater
I CAN’T EVEN!!
OH MY GOD I HATE THIS PLACE!!!!
and a couple more Insta-likes of her last skyline snapshot, ah, Jason and Lou-Anne, nice. Sam dutifully answered all,
Replying to @thejoycehater
I hear ya boo. That’s why
I ran off to the B
TSG 4 life ❤️❤️❤️
Sweetie, I know
But it’s only 2more weeks
Make it your mantra:
#sing I love Lisbon in the Springtime
By the time she had finished answering Julianna, Sam’s notification bar was full of mentions, like @jujuice79’s RT
P R E A C H!
quickly followed by
Omigod TSG would be fucking
HEAVEN now!!! 😍😍😍
from @tullytullytoo and
TSG!!! YAS!!! Goddammit Sam,
why do you torture me so?😭😭#ineedfood #hangry #tsg4life
from @whatthefek who was in Francisco for a month due to work, which was why @dropitnow91 replied
wtf you have fab sushi & dim sum
just down the block. Get. Out.
which was immediately liked by @madmommy77b @jujuice79 and 12 others, but the count was still running. Her count was currently at 15 likes, no 16, nice, 11 of them actual friends and 5 of them people she probably met at some party once. And again Sam felt that warm glow of satisfaction: she had read the mood right, everyone just wanted some TSG and a time-out. The shitty week and the weather had dragged everyone down, no wonder Mac tweeted that, his count was at 35 at the moment, and it was probably still rolling.
In moments like these Sam felt they really were all connected, all at the same place, at one with each other, all their minds synced to one. No wonder Dunya called them The Hive, Dunya who’d been part of more than one mad night full of cocktails in The Shak back in the day, Dunya who hooked up with richboy Sergio nobody ever took seriously he was such an insufferable twat, Dunya who got pregnant with Angelo and cried all night, Dunya who accepted Sergio’s pretty sweet proposal, somehow he’d managed to grow up when no one was looking, Dunya who became Mrs DeLuca three years after graduation, Dunya who became a full-time Mom. Dunya who did her best to get a babysitter in time, Dunya who really did call herself Mad Mommy, Dunya who never exempted herself from The Hive.
Sam put away her phone, ignored the blue blinking dot yelling a silent CHECK ME off the screen, and continued reading, refusing to look at her phone until she got her tea. Sam sank back into Renaissance England and tried to remember which Thomas was who, finally took out her notepad from her olive-green Henschel with the tan tags – the one Sonia bought the day after she saw Sam come in with it – and jotted down words, thoughts, questions, and memories of lectures past, she’d had more than one Shakespeare course in her uni life. Sam watched the ink seep sweetly into the smooth paper, swoops and swirls, simple curlicues that were just so satisfying to see. These were her words, this was her writing. This was her notebook, full of brainstorms for the next review she would post on that place that was all hers, her blog: The Orsay at padmeorsay.co.uk None of her friends knew it existed, no one in her life was to know. The Orsay was hers and hers alone, which was part of why she liked writing her posts out first. It added to the privacy, almost as if she was really writing a journal of her life. There was something about seeing her own words in ink on paper that made it more real. So Sam wrote down: Imagine you’re in 15-Whatever and get robbed of your ink and quills. No chill.
Sam was on page 52 when Greg turned up with the tea. ‘Don’t you look gorgeous today,’ he faux-gasped, a be-ringed hand on his chest, the other splayed neatly against his hip. Tall, model-slim Greg with the bright blue sleeves flashing underneath the cuffs of his black-striped shirt, Greg who looked far too cute in everything he wore.
‘Greg, you know I look awful right now,’ Sam rolled her eyes.
‘Awful shmawful, you know you’re always lovely, darling. Fab earrings you got there. They new?’
‘Yeah, got them last week,’ Sam smiled, somehow proud of having über-fashionista Greg acknowledge them at all.
‘Look at you, treatin’ yourself like a grown up,’ Greg smiled, and he meant that smile. ‘By the way, El Gringo thinks my pantaloons are too cute.’
‘Really?’ Sam asked, eyeing the super-tight purple fake leather Greg was sporting.
‘Nearly shit himself, the sod,’ Greg grinned nastily. ‘Probably thought I was about to infect him with some sex-lurgy. Next time I’ll throw some glitter at him just to see what happens.’
‘Greg, you’re too much,’ Sam laughed.
‘What? That phobic phobe of the phobes deserves everything he gets,’ Greg sniffed, looking like the poshboy he really was. ‘Anyway, just wanted to warn you if something epic happens.
‘You think it might?’
‘My goal is to make the boy cry,’ Greg sighed dreamily. Greg flashed a devious grin, twirled a perfect 90° that showed just how professional his dancing once had been, and catwalked back to the counter like a prima donna, making those new to Beanie’s stare and the old crowd smile into their drinks.
Sam shook her head, smiling, Greg really was one of a kind, Greg who was actually Agregán, ‘cos mother was shagging some post-cubist madman or something. Nah, don’t ask me, Mater and Pater’re just mental,’ Greg who’s Dad was some double-named City banker, his Mum a minor ’80s socialite, and Greg their ‘super-duper-gay’ third son who co-owned Beanie’s. Only Sam knew about that, though, because Greg told her once when they were fabulously drunk at his brother’s birthday bash somewhere ridiculously expensive in Mayfair. Sam had been Greg’s date since ‘the family’ didn’t like witnessing Greg’s ‘habits and ways’, so he needed ‘a legit woman who looks good in a sparkly dress.’ So Sam it was, though Sam knew Sonia would have loved to come.
It was in that niche with the comfy cushions, sipping champagne from the Champagne while Dre’s samples thumped through the walls, it was there that Greg gave her the 411: he’d given Marion the money. He didn’t want it back, at all, ‘I wasn’t joking. Look, I have way too much of it already, so, y’know, if it helped sweet Mareyon, pourquois pas?’ So Marion got the money she needed to start her dream, all Greg wanted was for her to get Beanie’s up and running, but Marion refused to take it without giving something back, so Greg got some shares. ‘Thirty percent, that’s what. Marion said I can’t be trusted with more, and she’s right. Imagine me as a bossman.’ Greg burst out laughing before squishing a kiss against Sam’s cheek and sighing, ‘I love you, Sam-I-am, I love you so much,’ with tears in his eyes.
That was during the god-awful Weston time. Everyone in Beanie’s hated Weston, from the staff to the regulars to Aboyemi who brought the blends from St John Roast once a week. Weston was evil, Weston was wrong, Weston broke Greg’s heart really bad and it took way too long until Greg got away from him. Thank God Marion threw Weston out that time he attacked Greg in the middle of Beanie’s, punching Greg because Greg refused to give him more money, Greg who looked terrified and unable to flee beautiful, salty Greg who suddenly looked so helpless. Marion raced around the counter, yelling, looking like a mother bear who just saw her cub get mauled, Marion who hit Weston over and over, shoving him across Beanie’s, yelling, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’ Weston who didn’t know what hit him, he looked just as shocked as everyone else.
It happened so fast, suddenly Weston was just gone, Marion yelling down the street, ‘You lay a hand on him one more time and I’ll fuckin’ kill you, you piece o’ shit! Yeah, run, you pathetic sod! And don’t you dare come back!’ When she came back into Beanie’s, she looked furious, embarrassed, and defiant, gave their shocked faces one look and said, ‘What? Greg’s my baby, you know that.’ And that somehow broke the spell. They all smiled with relief, the emergency was over and Weston, who scared everybody, was finally gone.
It was Marion who threatened Weston with the police when he tried to come back a week later, because everyone knew Weston always had some coke on him. It was Marion who basically locked Greg into her flat down near Shepherd’s Bush to save him from himself, Greg had started saying things like, ‘He didn’t really mean it that way, he was just upset’, Marion who finally talked some sense into Greg after they all had an intervention with muffins, coffee, and very many hugs, and about three weeks later the mess was finally over: Marion had called the police on Weston who somehow knew exactly where his stash was and that was the end of the evil bastard.
It still took about a year until Greg was back on track again, a year until Greg really started laughing again, a year until Greg stopped with the lines and started getting healthy again, though the vegan thing only lasted six weeks, probably because Marion’s pancakes and waffles were to die for. Now he was smiling again, Greg who loved bamboozling Darren, Greg who flirted shamelessly with women, Greg who was currently seeing a Colin, fresh out of Oxbridge and working for some Attaché or something and so was part of Greg’s posh crowd – except that Colin was surprisingly the sweetest, shyest, and prettiest sweetheart Sam had ever seen. Everyone liked Colin. Everyone told Greg this was the best one yet, everyone agreed with Marion who spelled it out, ‘He’s cute. Don’t fuck it up. Y’know, just enjoy it for once.’ And by the look of it Greg was really trying to do just that.
First milk, billowing white into the deep caramel, then some sugar, a bit more than she wanted to admit actually, a short taste… yep, just right. Leaning back against the dark-chocolate leather, Sam warmed her hands on the cotton-white porcelain of her cup, sipping her hot beverage carefully. Hot beverage. It sounded so much fancier than ‘cuppa tea’. The door opened right then and another set of undergrads piled in. The velvet curtain, suspended high and wide to keep out the draughts, fell sumptuously back into place in thick Cabernet folds, that deep dark wine they once had with that perfect steak, where was that, ah, yes, that time… A week only, ok, ten days. Hot late-summer days, swimming, laughing, teasing, kissing, kissing, kissing, oh those lips… and warm nights that glowed way past midnight, wide awake, city lights all over, the shadows slashing black against faded street-light-tangerine… That had been a really nice bed actually, her body still remembered its comfort, luxurious.
Sam roused herself and drank another sip. That was then. Now, the three girls next to her who looked like versions of the Courtneys, Britneys, and Lindseys Sam had met so far, all three were talking in the familiar dialect of ‘like’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘ohmagawd’ with the over-enthusiasm of transatlantic twenty-somethings. Their blonde and brunette heads bobbed, their manicured hands rose and fell like their high-pitched voices, their white smiles showing their parents must have had excellant dental coverage. Then there was the man across of her, typing gravely, ashblack Bose sealing off his ears to the world, his fruit-stamped screen sleekly silver, ultrathin. Late twenties, neatly unkempt, maybe a graduate writing another CV – no, another fellow blogger, typing up the latest draft to his novel. He had that look on him, the one Sam recognised, that look that said a lot of thinking was going on, serious thinking, because the words had to be right, perfect, exceptional, breathtaking, the words had to be ‘ohmagawd’, the good kind, cos all those other authors and interviews, all those great and terrible reviews, loomed large, like an icy sword of Damocles, ready to strike down and annihilate those delicate dreams of – what? A good book? No, a great book. The kind that generated tweet-threads and hashtags and followers. Of the right kind, of course.
Sam wondered if this man, with his half-eaten muffin and tall extra blend, Beanie’s only used those cups for extra blend, Sam wondered if he worried about that kind of stuff, or if he actively chose not to care, like switching off a flat-screen, turning down a radio, or rather, x-ing an app, all apps, actually shutting down the whole thing? And suddenly Sam wanted to speak to him, this man who typed so seriously and looked like he could be someone interesting. She wanted to ask him what he was working on, talk about these things that were her things too, things that she wanted to share and not share at the same time. She wondered what playlist he was listening to, she was 99% certain it was Spotify, probably even Premium, he looked the type. Unless it was all iTunes.
Sam took another sip of her tea. If his smile was good he would be handsome. His eyes were dark from where she sat, as dark as his hair, his face cold-weather pale underneath the neatly trimmed beard because these days every single man below forty had a beard, it was frustrating. To Sam, beards were the hairy equivalent to push-up bras, they just hid what was really there. His was short and neat and didn’t look itchy, though, which was a plus. Right then Sam realised what she was doing, ‘tindering’ as Sonia called it, mental swipes, left, right, IRL. For that second, the casual cruelty of it was clear – she knew absolutely nothing about him, save what she could see – and Sam looked away, mildly embarrassed, hoping she hadn’t been staring.
Outside, beyond the panorama panes, strangers rushed past in their coats and scarves, hiding from the weather. No one talked out there, everyone passed each other in silence, sunk deep in their clothes, fighting the wind. They look lonely. It was in their eyes, their faces, that were somehow more absent than absent-minded, ear-buds stark white in their ears. Sam took up her pen and wrote:
Bodies moving, hurrying from A to B, wishing they were in C.
She looked at the words. She added:
that space between that nothing can cross and left everyone with these three words:
Sam wanted to add free, but decided against it. She looked across the table. The Writer, as she called him now, was still typing earnestly, frowning gently, fingers hitting black keys precisely. Really, if his smile was good he would be handsome. She should stop this.
Woman stares at man: a history
Her phone was still screaming blue murder: CHECK ME CHECK ME CHECK ME. Oh all right. Sam woke up her phone, typed in the code, and checked. RTs from all kinds of people and a DM from Mac.
Mind if I join you?
Just for 5, not much
Srsly need some downtime
b4 heading home
Sam typed quickly
Omg sorry Mac!
Just checked my phone
Sure come over
Greg’s terrifying Darren again 😂😂😂
7:12 pm ✔️
be there in 5 x
7:13 pm ✔
Sam looked at the words she typed and the words she wrote down. She kept herself from looking at The Writer. Courtney, Britney, and Lindsey next to her were very animated about some party they went to last week, apparently a whole rom-com happened there. Sam closed her notes. For a split second, she was back in that hot summer night, at the beach, kissing, kissing, just kissing, snogging for days and centuries, like she hadn’t since her teens. Those lips. She would not find them again, she knew it. This was disappointment. Not heartache. Disappointment. She had her one taste, and that was it. Sam looked a her notebook, a smooth red Moleskine, lined. She had at least ten of them already, filled to the brim with thoughts and memories, questions, good brainstorms and silly ideas. They were her life, like grapes turned into wine, really it was that red, a deep, dark, thick red that had become the taste of summer to Sam. Just then, the door opened and Mac fell in, looking rushed, hot and harried. Obvs. this Wednesday was way worse than expected.
Mac dumped his bag on the chair across of Sam and grumbled, ‘Be right back,’ before hurrying off to the loo. Sam watched him go, wondering what new disaster struck this time. So she waited, sipping her tea, trying not to look across of her to that slanted silver screen with the black keys. What was he writing about though? He looked so serious. Maybe something like David Foster Wallace. He’d be the kind to drag his way through that thing. Or was he more a Franzen type? Safran Foer maybe? Amis or McEwan? If he read women then either Woolf or someone super-edgy and obscure. Or maybe he wrote poetry? Then maybe more women. Sam decided no, definitely a novel. Or a blog entry, something about movies like Inception. Sam wondered what The Writer’s verdict would be as he scratched his neatly-clipped beard absentmindedly, suddenly looking so normal and every-day, Sam was thrown out of her day-dream. Definitely a novel. He was probably mulling over what adjective to throw out next. Mac popped up suddenly, pulled off his bag and slumped down into the chair across of Sam, looking beat.
‘Hi,’ Sam said, kindly.
‘Hi,’ Mac sighed, looking suddenly exhausted beyond general fatigue.
There was no point in asking ‘How are you?’ These past few days must have been especially gruelling for upbeat Mac to look like he’d just come back from a full shift at the docks. They sat in silence for a while, Mac soaking up the warmth and busy quiet by the look of him, sinking blissfully into the peace around him and Sam let him be, watching him easily. She’d known Mac since Freshers’ Week, but they hadn’t really become friends, real friends, until after uni. Now they were colleagues too, it was Mac, actually, who helped her get the temp-slash-internship that at least paid some bills. Not all of them, that was utopian, Sam knew Sonia was right, she too belonged to the Made in China/disposable slot. But at least it was better than nothing, she could actually afford tea and TSG when she needed some. Mac had an actual job, full pay, but the salary was just a smidgen higher than what Sonia was able to put together with the gulag and Beanie’s and way more stressful too. Mac always called his office ‘The 8th’, short for Dante’s 8th Circle of Hell (Fraud), and his supervisor Tim ‘SPA’ which was short for Satan’s PA. Needless to say, Mac loathed his menial deskjob with every fibre of his thoroughly educated being.
Mac inhaled deeply and exhaled a long sigh of relief before opening his tired eyes, a bright hazel, his shaggy brown hair sticking out damply from underneath his scull-cap, his black-rimmed Ray Ban slipping down the ridge of his nose like the PhD student he once was, (something with linguistics and anthropology if she remembered correctly), before he fled uni just like everyone else, as fast and far as his student loans would let him.
Like witnessing a refugee from a war-zone cross a mountain pass, they had watched Mac extract himself from ‘that place’ as he now called it. He’d had a hellish time there. Not, as Sam found out, because he was bad at it. It was the exact opposite: Mac was brilliant, he did everything right, and he knew how to write in the way professors and journals wanted. He couldn’t stop and nobody stopped him, even though it was clear he was running himself into the ground. There was a breakdown, a very bad one, there had been some dark rumours. Sam had heard about them, remembered all the fun they’d had in their first two years, they’d had the same circle of friends back then, all of them single, all of them unfettered undergrads. There were pictures of parties and laughter and pizza nights on some website somewhere. Then life made them drift apart, Mac had found a girlfriend and slowly faded out of their lives, he’d been so in love, so none of them were surprised. Emma, that was her name, elfin, elegant, Emma. There had been envy, but it was short-lived, there were other distractions.
Anyway, when Sam heard what happened, she asked around, found out where Mac was and visited him when she felt it was right. Mac was very surprised, but in the best way: he actually smiled, ‘Sam. Sam-I-am,’ like seeing her there was a small miracle. She had brought him some Costa, he’d always railed against Starbucks, they sat for two hours and just talked. Somehow that first conversation meandered into them meeting regularly for coffee and then Sam’s friends became Mac’s friends, and Mac’s friends Sam’s and soon they were The Hive, always talking, texting and tagging each other, their group-chat was a constant live-feed of comments, memes, movie quotes, and endless negotiations about when and where to see the next Marvel. Sam still remembered what Mac said that first day though, ‘You’re so nice to talk to,’ and Sam really cherished that.
Now, older and far too grown-up, they were part of the real The Real World. They were all in the business of paying off things. Not for things. Off things, like repeatedly jumping off tiny cliffs into an abyss that just yawned black and wide, swallowing light, twisting gravity. When they said, ‘You can do anything you want, you just have to believe in yourself and work hard,’ did they factor in this fiscal bungee jumping, where you never knew if the rope really was knotted tight? Did they factor in this blackness that swallowed money, energy, light? But, there was no way around it, and between crashing and burning and hanging on, Sonia, Sam, Mac and everyone else, they all chose to keep on. Though none of them knew if what they were doing was really living, if what they had was actually a life.
‘You all right?’ Sam finally dared.
Mac was notoriously impatient with questions about his well-being.
‘I’m ok,’ Mac frowned, suppressing a yawn. ‘How are you? How’s the whatsitcalled -’
‘I’m good, but forget about me. What happened?’
Mac rolled his eyes, stretched a little, joints popping here and there, before he collapsed into a heap of warm sweater and suit trousers again, the blue-white of his checkered shirt peeking at the hems.
‘SPA scheduled some last-minute bullshit that has to be out by eight.’
‘And you could escape?’
‘Terry let me off. Said it was just last edits, so…’ Mac inhaled deeply and exhaled again, slowly, before pinching the ridge of his nose. ‘Fuck, I really have to quit that job.’
‘You know you really should,’ Sam said gently, because for all his talk, Mac never actually pulled it through. And how do it? Compared to others in The Hive, Mac had landed the jackpot, he’d hardly had to look: six weeks after he was back on track again he had a signed contract, Sam had watched it all happen. What she did notice was that Mac’s eyes were bleary and his skin unhealthily pale, not just cold-weather white, but ashen. She didn’t know how to point that out without sounding alarmist. She did wonder when he’d last eaten something. Before she could ask though, Sonia sailed by with a tray full of cups and muffins, smiling a bright, ‘Hi!’ at Mac, and Sam saw how Mac’s cheeks turned fiery red for a few long seconds.
Yes, there was that. Sonia acted oblivious, hoping Mac would finally get over it, but after three years of that, her strategy didn’t seem to bear any visible fruit. As it was though, Mac was too much of a gentleman to do anything anyway. And he really thought The Jerk was Sonia’s boyfriend. The Jerk didn’t know what a boyfriend was, but Sonia couldn’t get herself to quit. The Jerk lived in this great place in Spitalfields, renting it for a pittance from his uncle who bought it back in the ‘70s on a whim. Back then, the rundown redbrick was hardly worth its paint. Now it was worth millions and The Jerk reaped the benefits of it, which meant Sonia never had to worry about utility bills. Sam understood Sonia though, she’d seen their digs: beautiful was just the first word to begin with.
The smell of English breakfast wafted over and one look showed two tables across, three people were digging in. Next to the wonderful TSG, English Breakfast (served hot all day, any day) was an absolute must on rainy days. It cost a bit though, yet it was absolutely worth it, and Sam watched the three eat with delight for three seconds before glancing over to Mac who was watching as well. That was when she saw what was wrong. It was in the way he was watching those three chew and swallow every bite, as if the very sight of bacon and eggs, baked beans and toast and everything else in that voluminous heap of country cooking was just too much on top of the week and the weather and SPA.
‘Here ya go, luv,’ Greg crashed into their solemn quiet. He’d brought Sam’s TSG, placing it smoothly in front of her before smiling, ‘Hello, darling,’ at Mac.
Greg barely got a response and usually Mac and Greg sparred with glee, but Mac was too distracted by those three. Greg wouldn’t have been Greg if he didn’t catch on. He gave Sam a meaningful look and then smiled, widely, ‘The usual, Mackie, dear?’ like some matron from Horse and Hound. Startled, Mac stared up at Greg, and Sam saw the moment of panic freeze Mac’s face, that heartbeat of shock when you realise you have to explain out loud why your bank account was currently barking Nyet! But Greg, darling Greg, saved Mac from the humiliation of lying to his face. He patted Mac’s shoulder gently, kindly, and without condescension, ‘It’s on the house, darling, don’t worry. English Break and some tea like Ms Bennet here?’ Greg added, nodding at Sam. Sam who blushed at the relief that bloomed on Mac’s face, never mind the whiff of shame right underneath, Sam who drank her tea to hide how she witnessed Mac mumble a, ‘Thanks, Greg, but that’s not really -’
‘Oh, shut up and accept it,’ Greg said in his own sweet way, smiled, ‘Bon appétit,’ at Sam and sashayed back to the counter, yelling, ‘Oi, Gringo! Another EB, please!’ just to piss off Darren again. An awkward silence followed at their table. Mac sat up straighter, leaned forward, his elbows on the table-top, his hands covering his face. Sam felt he was hiding from her, she could positively feel his embarrassment laced with shame. She wanted to tell him, ‘Don’t worry, this is Greg, you know it’s ok. Don’t worry, I understand. Don’t worry, Mac, this is London. Everyone needs some help.’ But she didn’t say that. What she said was, ‘Do you mind if I start?’ and Mac nodded hastily, ‘Oh God, of course! Go ahead,’ his face still pink, his look still shamefaced, but what could she say? She reacted the same way when this thing happened, this thing that etched failure just a little deeper into your hand like some magic invisi-quill.
They all hated this, working and working and working and working and then paying everything and then some, until your account said curtly you could only eat yoghurt and almonds for the next three days because food-shopping was something that happened to other people. Sonia said it did wonders for her figure, that thigh gap didn’t come from nowhere, but it was still only yoghurt and almonds for three days. It was just before her birthday when that happened, and Sam saw the regularity of it, how over the past five years nothing had really changed. Or those times she only mentioned to herself where all she ate was a bowl of ramen all day, her stomach growling garrulously when she went to bed. It did wonders for her figure, yes, but Sam hated being that hungry. It didn’t feel right, or healthy. She didn’t like feeling her stomach was one empty plate from digesting itself. It was used to full meals. And three days to her birthday Sam realised she might never escape her three-days-yoghurt and one-day-ramen dilemma if she didn’t fundamentally change things.
The applications she kept on sending out weren’t amounting to much more than polite Thank yous or just nothing at all, so nobody could say she wasn’t trying: she linked and networked and forwarded and cc’d, she called back and wrote back and did everything necessary and needed. Still: nothing. She was Made in China, there were millions just like her, she was not in the least special, just another name in an email, just another CV. And then there was the heartbreak of that one interview she actually had, the one that made her body glow and her face smile, that interview that only happened because the guy had found her Instagram. An utter sleezebag, as Dunya said, Dunya who had coached her as prep so that Sam walked into that office feeling genuinely prepared. Only to realise all that guy wanted was T&A, her ‘great tits’ and her ‘fantastic arse’. Sam had cried in the ladies’ after those horrible fifteen minutes, hot furious tears spilling as she stood there looking professional, feeling so hurt and hopeless, and proving Sonia’s mascara really was waterproof. Not long after, that afternoon happened, three days before her twenty-eighth birthday, that afternoon when Sam looked at her pot of Greek yoghurt and something just caved, or rather, caved in.
It was last year, a Tuesday. Under tears and more tears, and silent, quiet rage, she called up her Mum and took her parents’ offer to move back in, resenting the gentleness in her mother’s voice when she said, ‘There’s no need for you to struggle like this, sweetheart, you know we have the space.’ Sam’s pride broke under the pressure of her stomach and blood-sugar and the need to sleep well and concentrate, the need to stop feeling she was this runt in a rat-race, so she called and accepted because she just couldn’t afford the rent, even with the co-hab she shared with Perce and Electra (yes, her mom had an O’Neill phase). This was London, everyone needed some help. Even her parents only got their house because their parents signed the down-payment. Sam tried to console herself with that.
There were people who said, ‘Why don’t you move somewhere else? I hear it’s really good in Sheffield,’ and maybe it was, except they’d die first before they moved outside city limits, unless it was the Cotswolds or Kent. Those were the same people who said, ‘Why aren’t you married yet?’ and ‘I thought you liked men?’ Those were the people with cars and husbands and a cottage somewhere, those were the people who said she had to find ‘someone sensible’, those were the people who sutured revenue, bonuses, and quarterly reports to this thing everyone called marriage. Unless someone got pregnant and didn’t want to admit it was an accident, right Frances. Those were the people Sam finally stopped calling her friends. Sonia, Sam, and Dunya who was after all a Mad Mommy, they called them Smug Maries, because they were unilaterally female, they were spectacularly smug, they’d all seen the movie and were convinced they were Bridget and no one else. Unless they started quoting Carrie Bradshaw and the less said about that, the better, Sam got annoyed just thinking about it, so she concentrated on being nice to Mac and eating her TSG that was just perfect anyway.
* * *
*Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall. 4th Estate, 2000, p. 47.
A Quiet Skill
Mateusz Urbanowicz and Ira Sluyterman van Langeweyde are visual artists who use Instagram and YouTube to show and share their skill and expertise. Watching the slow steady creation of a piece of original art is quietly fascinating and often soothing to overworked minds. Much like the So Satisfying videos all over Instagram, it’s probably bearing witness to genuine skill, original art, and seeing something completed that makes these videos so popular. Both Urbanowicz and van Langeweyde belong to an army of artists online who have successfully built bridges between the digital and analogue worlds, so while singular, their sharing is not unique. If you have the time, do make the time to simply watch them do their thing.
Tokyo Storefront by Mateusz Urbanowicz
Seals by Iraville
Politics of the (Un)Real
Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is a political fantasy about an USAmerican President and his White House staff that has resiliently refused to be shoved off into 1990s nostalgia. Rather, a rising number of old and new fans, occasional viewers included, rather wished the fantasy were real, especially considering current events.
Barrett Swanson at The Paris Review takes a look at the more eccentric side of this overlap of fact and fiction, mercurially pleased and aghast by the fervor of the people he’s observing, while equally aware of the multiple layerings of real and unreal at play. It’s an intriguing snapshot of our times and how the slippage between truth and storytelling keeps on changing right before our eyes.
Barrett Swanson: Oh, good grief.
We hope you enjoyed our fourteenth edition. Twelve Ten, No. 15 will be published on
12 April 2019.
We are sad to say that submissions are currently closed. We are unfortunately unable to take on any new manuscripts at present.
Even so: Don’t give up. Keep on writing!
Once submissions are open again, we will be very glad to hear from you.
Your von reuth Team