by Catherine McNamara

He rose early when the morning felt fresh and uninvaded. He was stiff. His windows were high, cutting him across the chest, the sky lay scrolled upon the roofs, a helix over the city. He opened one of the sashes to hear its thrum. Just before dawn this thrum stopped and isolated sounds arose. To him these were the sounds of love, grief, regret.

Today his daughter Bethsabée was passing by after school. He felt this with a charged heaviness. It was not that he felt no responsibility, but the child was not a part of his life. He knew they shared traits. Though their skins were different shades he knew she was of him, as did she. After the child’s mother left he had entered a long period of incarceration that no love had entered. It had been shoved under the door on a brutal metal dish, it had pierced him in slices of light.

He felt that his young daughter knew all of this story. He thought he could see it in the way she looked at him with her wide eyes and her crimped hair pinned back, corded around the back of her skull.

He stretched in the tight room, looked at his work strewn on the wide table, an empty carafe of wine he had drunk with friends last night. His eyes moved over the image he was working on now. It was an insect drawn in charcoal on dense handmade paper. The shape was grievous and burrowing, fat with poison. For him it represented some sort of convicted genesis, or the very last notions of the world. The pure geometry of insects fascinated him, as did their petroleum colours and the articulation of limbs. Their apocalyptic societies. Two of the series had already been sold for handsome prices, if only Théodore would collect his cheque. He turned on Bach’s English Suites.

He brought his coffee cup from the kitchen and watched the dark brown colour travel into a sugar cube he popped into his mouth. He lit a cigarette. The music tore into him with its lofty contrapuntal urging. Relief! Relief! he thought as he began to sing.

When he worked the hours passed like flies he batted about his head. If there were sun, it advanced across his papers. But today the grey light had hardly ripened when he heard Bethsabée’s knocking at the back door, the staircase that coiled up from the courtyard like a woman’s sleeve. Thank God he had never given her keys. He ran his hands through his coarse curly hair, glanced down at his naked body. He saw the cigarette butts in the ashtray and the charcoal streaking his arms. Putain! Les gosses! He stood there heaving. Looked at the filthy cloud he had inscribed over the insect’s hard architecture, waves of gauze or disgust. It was an evil work. All softness was devised and would be unveiled.

He opened the door to his eleven-year-old daughter. He’d pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, lit a cigarette, in the space of minute. She followed him into the room as he tugged a couple of windows open, as the air was bruised. Now he turned around to watch her before his eyes back leapt to the work he had just divided himself from. It was spun around, his viewpoint. Was it as powerful as before? He sensed Bethsabée’s schoolbag drop and knew her eyes were doing a round of the room, travelling to the kitchen and along the hall leading to the mattress on the floor where she’d probably guessed she’d been conceived. She was checking they were alone, he knew. She always seemed so small, so infested by the pair of them. Every time she appeared he was sliced through to the guts. For she remained an exquisite version of her mother, she had acquired no other being. Rada was back in Tunisia working on a film for six months so Bethsabée was living at her grandmother’s near Couronnes.

T’as faim? Are you hungry?’ he said. ‘Let’s go to the traiteur downstairs.’

She nodded, looked away from his messy papers, an expanse of charcoal drifts. He went to the kitchen and grabbed some money, stubbed his fag and inhaled the grotty air nursed at the back of the building. He was a man entering the wilderness now; a man who’d hardly left this city in ten years.

He came out and Bethsabée was standing at the window, looking out over the rooftops, ever so slowly. He thought it was a translucent, expectant image, he might cull it later on. He called his daughter to the door, feeling something further. It was the quickening of kinship, so far from the degradation of the way he had loved women, a flat, proper feeling that was suggested to him at times. He watched Bethsabée’s plaits descend the stairs.

On the street they walked side by side, a cut-out of space between them. He glanced at her hairless arms, how sinuous they were, like the shafts of plants. She was still a little tubby around the middle though she was shedding it fast. Soon her waist would flourish upward and outward to her breasts and hips, and she would be round and complete. He thought of Rada’s heated body in his arms and twitched away.

He’d left his cigarettes at the house. He stepped into a tabac and bought another blue box. He saw the cashier glance at his daughter through the window.

They entered the Vietnamese traiteur not thirty metres from where his cul de sac opened onto the street. The window frames and frets were painted red and it was run by a man and his wife. Bethsabée pored over the glass but always ordered the same thing. Rouleau de printemps, deux. Plateau de crevettes au curry. Riz simple. He ordered his food and had his beer uncapped. They sat down by the window. He liked to watch the people walk by. It had been his neighbourhood for thirty years. He was proud, in a way, that he and Bethsabée were like this. That they did not enjoy a false camaraderie. That he did not ask her things about her mother which would be rebuffed. He knew nothing of her and wished this to continue. He watched the top of her head as she ate, the hair driven aside by a comb and swift hands. Another image to hold. He had never painted her, thought of painting her. Thought of her naked. He had not dressed and undressed her as a child. Over these last years he had waited to feel something incremental but he was no aware of this occurring, except in short eddies like the one at his house on the stairs. There was no reason for this to occur. They were part of a genetic pattern, a wiring. He wanted her to conceive of him like this. His plate pushed away, he went outside to smoke a cigarette. Through the window she watched him light up then turned back to her food.

After lunch, if the weather were fine, they might go for long walks. Today he wanted to stretch his legs after the hours of work this morning, arching over the table with his arms flailing. He was still astounded by the amount of energy he could summon for his work. He thought of his insects captured within their charcoal clouds. Pinned there, some flinching, the layers of cellular construction. How he loved this project. He had loved every project more than he could bear.

On marche un peu? Shall we walk to the river?’

Bethsabée nodded. At five o’clock one of her uncles would come to collect her.    

They progressed towards République, crossed the grand boulevards, headed south in the afternoon. It was a while since he had come this far from his neighbourhood. Bethsabée paced on at his side. He guessed she didn’t walk much. A few times she looked in shop windows at summery, glittery clothing. Or at girls passing by who looked much like herself. She made eye contact with a young man once, their eyes rubbed over each other. He was blond, prissy, a mop of curls on his head, the very opposite of her world. He saw the catch in his daughter’s eyes and the way the boy’s neck braced.

He felt an age-old ache now and stood still after a crossing. He did not wish to smoke. Though the air was impure he sensed it moving into his lungs, he could feel the trembling filigree within him with its pulsing wetness like a dying sea creature on warm wood. It was wrong to have such sensibilities. It was useless. There was no one to whom he could speak of such things.  

He told Bethsabée that they had come too far and it was time to turn back. 

When they reached his cul de sac he saw one of her uncles sitting in a bar across the road reading a sports newspaper. He flicked ash onto the footpath, knees cocked apart. He and Bethsabée glanced at each other without speaking. He had never spoken to this uncle, it had always been like this.

Bethsabée went upstairs to collect her schoolbag. At the back door she kissed him on both cheeks and he let her return downstairs by herself. He stood there watching her cross the courtyard and walk down the cobbles to the street. He almost thought she looked happier now; there was relief in her spine.

He snuffed his cigarette, poured a glass of wine and removed his shoes, glad to feel the splintered wood beneath his feet. He turned back to view his drawings and this was the only thing that mattered now. Whether they were risible concoctions or true flights, true reconnoitring over the vast lands below. He went through them, calmly enough. The soaring began some moments afterwards, a delayed reaction perhaps, a stalling of belief. He stood there thrumming, breathing, wondering what it was that had brought him here, grateful to the gods that he could live off this charge.


Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write and ended up in West Africa co-running a bar. Love Stories for Hectic People (flash fiction) won Best Short Story Collection in the Saboteur Awards 2021 (UK). The Cartography of Others (short stories) was finalist in the People’s Book Prize (UK), and won the Eyelands Fiction Award (Greece). Catherine is Flash Fiction Editor for Litro Magazine UK and lives in Italy.

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