Hi, I’m Juneha Chowdhury, your Showcase editor for September. In the penultimate week of submissions on our ‘Worlds Apart’ theme, I have some stunning pieces of writing to showcase. But before I do this, I’d like to reflect on what has been another sombre week, with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II taking place. At a time of great uncertainty, the sense of solidarity between people and nations has been incredible. Our grief has been profound, but it’s been reassuring to see how people have sought comfort in each other, finding real solace in community. People have come together, travelling far and wide, to pay their respects outside the Queen’s various residences. Many businesses and organisations have postponed their schedules to accommodate their own commemorative events. My pieces this week are linked by their focus on change and growth, much like the times we are experiencing now. I have contributions from Janet Skeslien Charles, Palak Tewary and Jack Tattersall.
Nudged into a new and unfamiliar world, we’re forced to adapt and grow, to blend into the new scene, merging with the times to survive. But how easy is it to just accept the challenges thrust upon us, when the prospects are incredibly daunting?
My first piece is a stunning extract from the critically acclaimed and bestselling novel, The Paris Library, by the award-winning author, Janet Skeslien Charles.
In this intriguing extract, Janet builds the world of her protagonist so beautifully, illustrating to the reader how the scene she is experiencing now is worlds apart from the world she once knew.
Prologue from The Paris Library
Bastille Day, Paris 1989
Chapter 1- Lily
Standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, I savor my escape from wheat fields and church picnics. In daydreams during math class, I’d pictured myself alone here, the vast esplanade all mine, but there are thousands of people, more on this city block than in my entire hometown. Under the iron legs, some folks watch the silent poetry of a mime; others stare at pairs of soldiers on patrol, each carrying a Kalashnikov; but most peek up, like a boy sneaks a look under a girl’s skirt, as they wait in line to buy a ticket for the elevator to take them to the top. I didn’t know lines could be so long. My ears long for French, but this piece of Paris is like the United Nations, with representatives from every country. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but know the excitement they feel.
As I breathe in the buttery aroma of crêpes from le snack-bar, I realize that even the air is different here. It’s filled with energy, with the sound of taxis (taxis!) honking, tourists laughing as their cameras click, lovers murmuring to each other. And there’s a clarinetist, just like she said there’d be. Scrawny and pale, he closes his eyes and plays a song I don’t know with his whole heart.
Overwhelmed by the crowds, I sneak away, like I sometimes did at school, knowing no one would notice. I follow the directions she gave me, crossing through the park, where clumps of Parisians picnic. Near the trellis of jasmine, a group of girlfriends in bright bustiers clinks champagne glasses – maybe to celebrate Bastille Day, maybe just happy to have a day off work. Looking closer, I see their guillotine earrings, a playful, macabre commemoration of La Révolution. Everything is new to me – flowers, food, fashion. I don’t know which way to turn my head first.
On the boulevard, the buildings – blond-like women – beckon, and I can already see myself living in one. The pastry shop window display is as intricate as any painting in a museum. I mean to just stop in, but the cakes – small pieces of perfection – demand time and reflection. There are lines here, too. The woman in front of me can’t make up her mind. I can’t blame her. Long and slim like legs, eclairs come in chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio; the Paris-Brest is shaped like a bicycle wheel; and the réligieuses are plump, like the nuns who inspired them. When it’s my turn, I say, “Un éclair au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.” “Oui, mademoiselle,” the woman replies as she hands it to me. The words feel as good on my tongue as the chocolate, and hearing French is like listening to “Ode to Joy” or Van Halen’s “Jump” – I feel bliss at the sound of the familiar, euphoric tones. My éclair is half eaten before I walk out the door. In the neighboring souvenir shop, ruby red Moulin Rouge magnets and hot pink Arc de Triomphe keychains beckon. I buy both, bits of Paris to carry in my pocket.
Still in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, I turn onto a quiet side street. A little way down the block, a rack of paperbacks is enjoying the summer day. The books are a hint that I’m headed in the right direction. The plaque on the side of a building reads: The American Library in Paris. This is where she worked.
I’d dreamed of the City of Light, but had no idea how to get here on my own. When no one in your family has come so far, how do you learn? How do you get from here to there when you’re not sure there even exists, except in your hopes and dreams?
My neighbor, a French war bride, was living proof the journey could be made. Proof that it was all right to be different. You could picture me as a sad lump of clay that she picked up off her porch and warmed in her hands. But doesn’t art transform the artist? That’s what my best friend Mary Louise says. Certainly, the people in our lives mold us. They poke and prod, sometimes in the right direction, other times the wrong. They work us over, smoothing too many of our edges; or they neglect us, and we are left half complete. They shatter us, or help us become something beautiful. But we also mold them: we focus their attention, their reflection, and we change their purpose. Perhaps we – artists and art – are all evolving works. An extra brush stroke needed here, maybe more color there, but still wild, daring, breathtaking, heartbreaking, odd, unique.
Back in Montana, I longed to stand on a city street with the world zooming by. I can’t explain why I wanted to escape, any more than you can explain a sudden need to sneeze. A desire built up in my body, with nowhere to go but out.
The War Bride saw this desire in me. As she taught me French, she taught other lessons, too, as much what to do as what not to – she was blunt about her mistakes. My relationship with her began with a necessary lie. Our friendship contained silences and some omissions, but laughter and understanding, too.
Now, I want to look for the answers she was afraid to find. Read the manuscript that was left behind. Ready to enter the Library, I touch the door handle. I want to go in, but I’m afraid.
© Janet Skeslien Charles, 2021
Learn more about Janet’s research, in particular, the case of the missing librarian on our page:
You can connect with Janet on Twitter: @skesliencharles, Instagram: @jskesliencharles and through her Facebook author page: Janet Skeslien Charles.
My next piece is a beautiful poem by poet and Write On! regular, Palak Tewary, Out Of Season Flower. I like how there’s a message there about letting nature take its due course and how to allow something to thrive and bloom. You have to give it the time and space it needs. Not only for growth, but also for survival. The difference in outcomes for doing so is indeed a world apart.
The perfect temperature it must be
for the out-of-season flower to survive
the water must be just right
and so, must the sunlight
Govern it carefully, lest you let it die
a chance mistake, an inadvertent detraction
giving way to a careless greed
and offering a bit less than is the need
Watch it! don’t layer it so tight
that the ozone becomes harmful
and you lose the striven race
to bloom the blossom, you tried to place
Mayhap if you had let nature take its course
and let me flourish at my own pace
perhaps, today, I wouldn’t be like that
out-of-season flower, in an unnatural habitat
© Palak Tewary, 2022
Connect with Palak Tewary on: palaktewary.com or through Twitter and Instagram: @palaktewary
My final Showcase piece is a lovely piece of prose by Jack Tattersall. Whether it’s the feeling of freezing in the winter, or the dynamics when you’re working from home compared to when you’re working in the office, we can all relate to this piece in one way or another.
I took from it what’s on everyone’s mind in the current climate (pun intended!): the rising energy prices and how the ‘bleep’ do we keep our houses warm and our books in the black, during winter?
In Hats So Cold
I heard Beanie exclaim, “I went and put mine to 60.”
“Ohhhaa!” Pom gasps, straightening her posture drawing her breath in and causing Beanie to laugh. “…hhh, that’s un-be-lie-vable.” The words hidden in the force of the breath, finishing, “I don’t know how you do it?”
Beanie continued, stuttering, “And like we, we ’cause I I I pay, I pay enough electric bill. It’s not like, it’s not like a money thing. It’s like my nose gets weird, my skin gets weird, I don’t feel good. So. Yeah.”
Pom picked up the trailing thoughts, teeth chattering. “No way, man. I was, I was shivering all day and I was trying to, I was like, rubbing my fingers to get the blood back in them and I was, like, no.”
Beanie watched. “That’s not good now. You gotta you gotta be warm enough.”
“I cracked at, like, 5:00 o’clock. Ha!” Pom confessed.
Beannie shared the humour in it, laughing with her. “Hehe Hehe.”
“Finally I was – got to crack!”
“First time this year. Sixty is incredible.”
Pom leaned forward on her desk, once more reading the temperature. “Oh, 68, no way, man. If it’s not 73 to 75 I can’t. I can’t survive.”
Beanie reflected too. “Yeah, I really like it cooler, I think. I think that’s part of it. I’m used to it.”
Pom looked up. “I think you’re used to it, yeah.”
Beanie leaned in. “I lived in Thailand. So I used to really be afraid of winter and, um, you know I got here and it was like, I would just, I would worry. Starting in August, I’d be frantic about how the cold was coming.”
“Ohh.” Pom inserted a chuckle.
“So, I I I really changed my tune.”
“Incredible.” Pom shifted forward to read. “Incredible, and Heather says 68 too.”
“Ohh. Man, that’s like,” Pom paused. “So, where I work. I haven’t been in the office. You know, I haven’t worked in the office for nearly 20 months. They keep the temperature at 60 for the books, ’cause the, the books need cooler temperatures. And the humans, the humans have to adapt. So, when I cleaned out my office, I was in a sweatshirt. I had a a poncho. Basically, I had, you know, those gloves that you, you plug into a USB thing. I had fingerless gloves. I mean, I had like the whole, because it’s freezing in there. It’s always freezing, so that’s why I’ve been so grateful working from home, ’cause I keep control of my thermostat and the facilities guys pretend like they don’t know where the thermostats are.”
“And they don’t,” said Beanie.
“Know how to open them,” Pom inserted, “and they don’t, and it’s because they don’t want to change them, so we all, like, suffer because of the books.”
© Jack Tattersall, 2021
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