Excerpt

Tell

Jonathan Buckley

March 7, 2024 
The following is from Jonathan Buckley's twelfth novelTell. Buckley is a writer and editor from the West Midlands, now living in Brighton. In 2015 he won the BBC National Short Story Award for “Briar Road,” and he is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.

Is this the place to talk about Lily? If you’re going to have flash-backs, Lily has to be the main one. More than the mother, I’d say. She was lovely. Lily, that is. Not a stunner, like Josefine, but lovely. The thing about Lily is that she had style. Her own style. Very simple, very subtle. You look at pictures of what women were wearing around the time she met Curtis. Women of Lily’s age and background, I mean. Smart women. Bear in mind she was older than Curtis. Five years. Not a lot, but still. She was thirty when they met, so that’s another thing to remember. Not many men go for an older woman. And a woman with a child in tow. The clothes at that time were horrible. Lapels out to here. Shoulders like you’ve left the coat-hanger in. But there was a photo of Lily in the piano room, taken when they’d just got together, and she looks terrific. It was the way she combined things. It was like she could sense what was going to look outdated in ten years’ time. I’m not saying you’d mistake the picture for something taken recently. It’s obviously not recent. But it’s not madly out of date. That’s my point. There were quite a few pictures of Lily around the place, and she looks good in all of them, but none of them really did her justice. Photos don’t see what the eye sees, do they? The whole person is what’s attractive. You need to see them moving, talking. Being in the world. But the camera takes the life out of you, unless you’re dealing with an expert. You know what I mean? And she was completely genuine. One of those people, they say Hello and you like them right away. First time I met her, I knew. It was all in the eyes. Windows of the soul and all that. A lot of women in her situation, the money would change them, and not for the better. Men and women, it’s the same. It can poison you. A risk I’d be willing to take, mind you. But seriously, having money like that, it cuts you off. You start thinking that the money is God’s way of telling you you’re special. One of the chosen ones. It’s what you deserve. And a kind of armour grows around you. You can’t touch people and they can’t touch you. But Lily wasn’t like that. She enjoyed the trappings, sure. The houses. The land. All that. Who wouldn’t? But for her it wasn’t the main thing. She stayed herself. And you have to remember that when she met Curtis, she was better off than he was. The husband, he had a very good job. She had a comfortable life, a life that a lot of people would have envied, and she left it for Curtis the shopboy. So it was never about the money. She had a big house, her own car, good clothes. All she had to do was stay at home and look after the kid. That was the deal, apparently. What I gathered. Stay at home, be provided for. I couldn’t quite fathom it, knowing Lily. Hard to imagine her accepting a situation like that. Maybe she’d thought that was the life she wanted. Presumably he was a nice man. I don’t know. Must have been. And why give it up for Curtis? He didn’t have a lot going for him at the time. A nice-looking young chap, he would have been, but nothing amazing in the looks department. Not a heart-stopper. Perhaps she could tell he was going places. He’d just done that sharp bit of business, with the place that went bust. He said it was meeting Lily that really got him going, but the rags to riches thing began before that. Lily wasn’t square one. He’d pulled his first trick before he met her. What it was, he’d heard about this shop that was about to go under. A mid-range place, like the one where Curtis was working. Not designer stuff, but not rubbish either. Anyway, the boss had bitten off more than he could chew and he needed cash in a hurry, so Curtis made him an offer. Not super-generous but better than bankruptcy, and beggars can’t be choosers. Somehow he got a loan to cover it. He could always talk the talk. Smooth but forceful. He was taking a risk, but he knew it was all about the presentation. In the other shop, the failing shop, the presentation was really drab. So Curtis freshened the stuff up, dry cleaning and pressing, and he put the clothes on fancy hangers and rented a space on a short lease. He fixed the lighting and the decor, so it was all looking better quality than it was. And he hired a couple of smart young women. Knightsbridge gals. Never hurts, does it? Next thing you know, it’s flying out the doors. It was all about the packaging. And making people think they were getting a bargain. Smart lad.

[Inaudible]

. . . husband wasn’t there. Not physically. And nothing happened with Lily, not for some time. Well, it did. Very much so, but they didn’t—you know. Not until they were absolutely sure. She had her daughter with her. And her sister. That would have been an obstacle. This was in Morocco. They met in Morocco. Curtis had gone there with a couple of pals. Lily was there with Katia and her sister. Lily’s sister, I mean. The husband didn’t fancy it. Couldn’t cope with beggars on every doorstep. Food poisoning. And he couldn’t spare the time anyway. He worked for one of the top banks. One of those jobs where you don’t really know what it’s about if you don’t work there. You read the job title and you’re none the wiser. Like I said, it’s hard to understand Lily being married to someone like that. But she was, so we have to assume he had something going for him, apart from the bonuses. Then again, the marriage couldn’t have been in great shape. Otherwise what happened wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps Curtis changed her. You’re not the same person with everybody, are you? Talking to you, I’m not exactly the same as what I’d be if I were talking to Harry, say. And Katia stayed with her father when it all blew up. Given what she was like, there must have been more to him than just the income. Must have been. Couldn’t have been a grey man through and through. But maybe Katia stayed with him to punish her mother. And her father stayed in the family home. There’s that to consider. Lily didn’t come away with much after the divorce. The bare minimum. She didn’t ask for anything. Anyway, Curtis was there with these two lads he’d known since they were at school together. They played in a band. One of them was a drummer, and he was looking to buy some drums in Morocco, small ones, like bongos. Don’t know the right name for them. The other lad was there mainly for the dope. Curtis just fancied a break. Somewhere different. The drugs weren’t his thing. Funny how things turn out. The one who wasn’t looking for anything is the one who hit the jackpot. So they were all in Morocco. I forget where. Casablanca would have been cute, but it wasn’t Casablanca. One afternoon he goes to this market, without his pals. There’s a section with all these sheaves of wool hanging up. Is that the right word? Do you have sheaves of wool? Whatever. There’s every colour you could imagine. That’s why Lily wanted to go there. One of the reasons. The colours you see in Morocco, it makes other countries look dowdy, apparently. That was something she was interested in. Clothes, fabrics and that. So that’s where they bumped into each other. Literally. They bumped into each other. Lily told me that herself. They were watching a man at work on a piece of cloth, dyeing it. It’s all natural dyes. Indigo and saffron and what have you. And not just cloth. Leather as well. If it can take a dye, they can dye it. So there’s this workshop or stall or whatever it was, with these huge tubs of dye. Big vats, all different colours. This man is stirring the cloth round and round. And it doesn’t smell too wonderful. It’s a stinky business. Lily and the others have wrapped their faces with scarves, with perfume sprinkled on them. And she’s wearing a hat as well, because of the sunlight. All you can see is Lily’s eyes peeping out. Her eyes were the outstanding feature. Greeny-grey and huge. Someone I knew, years ago, in London, he used to go to these demonstrations in Hyde Park. Iraqis, I think they were. He used to go along just to look at the women. All you could see was their eyes. Sexy as hell, he said. Ironic, yes? Covering everything up, but leaving the eyes on show. Focuses the attention. So Curtis was eavesdropping while Lily was talking to her sister and explaining things to Katia. Katia’s not yet four at the time. I think that’s right. It was clear to Curtis that this woman knew a thing or two. Then she was talking to the man who ran the workshop. Because they speak French, a lot of them, and Lily could speak French. Not fluently, but enough to ask questions and understand the answers. So Lily is chatting to the man, and Curtis waits for a suitable moment to ask her something. Not making a move. Katia was there, and clearly Lily was her mother. Lily wasn’t available. I know some men will make a move, whatever the circumstances, but Curtis told Lara he was interested in what was going on, more than anything. The processes involved. He wanted to learn. Lara’s right about that—everything seemed to interest him. Almost everything. Not sport. He wasn’t interested in sport. Not at all. A waste of time, to his way of thinking. Told Lara he could never sit through an entire football match. Odd, because he was a very competitive person. When you’re in that world, everything’s competition, isn’t it? So maybe sport wasn’t serious enough for him. Not enough at stake.

[Pause] Where was I?

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From Tell by Jonathan Buckley. Used with permission of the publisher, New Directions. Copyright © 2024 by Jonathan Buckley.




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