Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Babele" A Short Story by Elizabeth MacDonald Author of House of Cards

March 1 to April 21
A Short Story by Elizabeth MacDonald

I first encountered the work of Elizabeth MacDonald in May of last year when I read and posted on her dazzling collection of short stories, The House of Cards.  (My post is here.)    It was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007.   It is a beautiful work set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy.      Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places in the world and a strong feeling for this comes through in the stories.    It is almost a Keatsian reflection on the nature of beauty, with Tuscany as  a deeply pervasive backdrop.  These stories do not just talk about the beauty of Tuscany, but rather they also create a beauty of their own worthy of their setting. They are also about being Irish and living in Italy. In closing out my post I said, "I really love this collection and I totally endorse it to all devotees of the art of the short story. The prose is of the highest quality.    There are fragments that stunned me with their beauty."  

Bio Data

Elizabeth MacDonald was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches English at the University of Pisa, where she lives with her husband and son. Her translations of the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty were the first in Italy. She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Derek Mahon, and Old Irish nature poetry. She has a special interest is the poetry of Mario Luzi. Her translations have appeared in  many journals, including Modern Poetry in TranslationPoetry Ireland ReviewThe Cork Liteary Review andSoglieA House of Cards was first published by Pillar Press in 2006 and a second edition will be published by Portia Publishing later this year.
“This is a tender, understated and beautiful collection of stories that will leave you longing for more. ” Emma Walsh, The Irish Book Review.  

Elizabeth MacDonald is a principal in a dynamic new  venture, Portia Communications which offers a diverse range of services to the book buying and producing community. 


a short story by

Elizabeth MacDonald

It’s that strange, static time of year again in Italy: the growing part of the year over, only
now does the heat peak. The swifts are heading back to Africa, their shrill cries fading
from the morning and evening skies. And in their wake has come the harsh spasmodic
grating of noon-time cicadas. The sound reverberates around the hotel room, intensified
by the siesta silence in which the world beyond the closed green shutters is suspended.
A world where heat and light circle each other, gathering momentum, until the day
spirals into a throbbing paroxysm of death-in-life. Outside, the molten glare of the
afternoon sun spills down against the shutters, blistering the paint. Inside, dust motes
hover in the muted brilliance.
A bed with an ornate wrought-iron headboard stands against the wall. It is covered
with a white cotton bedspread whose cool freshness is impossible to resist in the early
afternoon: the only thing to do is pull it back, lie down on the lavender-scented crisp
linen sheets, and let the heat wash over me in sleep-inducing waves.
From five o’clock onwards, the heat loosens its grip. A rustling breath of air
insinuates itself among the drooping leaves; shutters are opened and curtains on
casement windows begin to billow.
I’ve never managed to rid myself of the idea that there is something decadent about
sleeping in the afternoon. At home it would be a nonsense, but here in Tuscany the
summer imposes different rhythms. The heat plays havoc with my sluggish blood
pressure, draining me of what little energy I have. So the siesta, or pisolino
pomeridiano, is something I’ve found I just can’t do without.
My glasses are on the bedside table and I reach out an exploratory hand; the thin
metal of the frames meets my fingers. I place the glasses on my nose and things come
back into focus. My emaciated legs stretch out in front of me in the bed, poking up
through the white linen sheet like two knobbly sticks. The sheet seems more of a
shroud than anything else. So I turn it back and slide my legs out onto the blessedly
cool terracotta floor. A sip of water from the tumbler on the bedside table, and then I
reach for the real stick.
That walking stick is another thing I can’t get used to – even though I can’t get
around without it. It makes me feel doddery. I suppose, however, that that is exactly
what I am. How things change. How things decline.
Gingerly I heave myself up into a standing position and make my way over to the
window. I undo the catch of the shutters and push them outwards, blinking at the
brightness that bursts in on my watery eyes. A breath of air stirs and I raise my face
gratefully to it. My room is situated on the first floor, the piano nobile, of a casa torre
that dates back to the Duecento. Admirably old, yes, but even then Pisa’s Golden Age
was over: a brief moment of real splendour that was paid for by an inglorious and
lengthy decline. I could choose to go to other more flamboyant cities in Tuscany, but
I’ve been coming here for twenty odd years now and long ago concluded that its
vicissitudes strike a peculiar chord with me. Pisa and I companionably share the
satisfaction of remembered greatness and the burden of present decay.
Church bells peal out into the late afternoon air. I locate the steeple of Santo
Stefano and listen for a moment, reflecting that it must be the six o’clock Angelus. But
could it be that late? My watch confirms that it is – I’ve overslept. Well, it’s been a
particularly hot day.
The bells ring out their arcane message, evoking pleasing rituals from a distant past
in the midst of an even more distant present. I’ve given up trying to understand what
happens in the world – it’s all a tasteless mess. My world revolves around art history, it
has been my over-riding passion for as long as I can remember. A passion, however,
that is the source of something close to pain at this stage, for it has become increasingly
difficult to give myself up to the immutable beauty of my favourite sculptures and
paintings as I become more decrepit. There was a time, you see, when it was easier for
me to connect with Michaelangelo’s David than it was with life: its strength, beauty, and
heroic purpose were all that life wasn’t. Life was but a series of betrayals of these
ideals. And why would I want to connect with that?
I draw back from the window and pass by the bed. It’s time to get ready for my
evening stroll. My eyes fasten on the mirror straight ahead; the tattered rags on a stick
peering back out mock my youthful delusions of grandeur. These days I have to be very
careful not to adopt a cynical note when discussing the David.
By the time I have got changed and out onto the street, it is a quarter to seven. Strictly
speaking, I don’t need the panama hat I’m wearing – the evening sunlight is pleasant.
But I’m fond of this hat and always wear it. I make my careful way up the street leading
towards piazza Garibaldi, as the paving stones can be tricky to negotiate, especially
when it rains. That is hardly the case this evening, but the abundant presence of dog
excrement renders things problematical in any event, and as an added bonus, the
evening breeze brings a very disagreeable odour of urine from the side streets. Not the
best for working up an appetite, really.
Piazza Garibaldi is thronged with people, above all young people. Young parents
proudly wheeling the next generation of proud parents around in expensive prams;
elegantly dressed professional men with brief cases; voices ringing out; friends being
greeted with a kiss on each cheek; scooters revving up, filling the air with petrol fumes;
students. It’s easy to spot the students, dressed in the regulation scruffy jeans, t-shirt
and rucksack. With three third level institutions in the city, they never disappear, even
in July and August. A group of them has gathered around the statue to enjoy enormous
cones of ice-cream. The conversation is animated – they’re probably philosophising
about the state of the country, or the deleterious effects of capitalism. Or the meaning of
life. But, to get to the bottom of that, I suspect you have to have lived it.
Now there’s a thing to discuss over an ice-cream: the living of life.
If I had an ice-cream, it would ruin my appetite, so I keep going and make for the
Ponte di Mezzo, the main bridge in Pisa. The warm air shimmers in the slanting golden
sunlight, blending hazily with the suffused radiance of the sky to the west. I position
myself right in the middle and follow the wide sweeping curve of the quays along which
centuries-old buildings stand sentinel – an austere guard of honour for a fleeting
presence that will all too soon melt into the sea.
I am jostled by a young lady, so intent on talking into her mobile phone that she
doesn’t see me. Then her eyes flick over me, and I see myself for a moment as she must
see me: an old man held up by a walking stick. I had got in her way. This is irritating –
worse, it is ignorant. I rub my arm and straighten my hat; it is not good for my appetite
At that moment, another couple stop beside me at the railings and look down into
the slow-moving river. They are both middle-aged, overweight, dressed in shorts and
sleeveless t-shirts, and sunburnt. The man’s shorts are of the tight white variety
favoured at Wimbledon in the Seventies, and he has a pair of white socks on under his
open-toed sandals. They speak in English.
“All I want is a decent meal,” the man grumbles, “Something that doesn’t stink you
out with garlic.”
“That car- car- carwhatsit we had last night,” says his wife, “It didn’t have any
garlic. But it was still revolting. I mean, when you think of it – raw meat, swimming in
oil, with weeds on it!”
I observe them as they move off, and wish them joy in their search for a garlic-less
restaurant. They are, of course, in the wrong country. Sometimes I wonder whether
mass tourism isn’t just another expensive way people have found to be discontented.
The internationalisation of provincialism. But that’s neither here nor there – above all
it’s none of my business. I’m beginning to feel gratifyingly peckish; it’s time to return
to the Torre di Babele for the pre-dinner aperitifs.
“Buona sera, professore!”
“Buona sera, Mario.” I greet the head waiter affably. He’s been here since I started
coming. We have grown old together, and yet I don’t really know anything about him
except that his service is always impeccable. But this hotel, the incongruously named
Torre di Babele, is the closest I have wanted to come to having a home. I return to it for
the comfort of an unfamiliar routine, and the absence of – the absence of what? Well,
think of the familiar imponderables of a home: the soured relationships; the
oppressiveness; the silent rancours; the strangled hopes.
I think I can say that I’m fond of Mario. Nevertheless, without indulging myself in
any undue optimism, I’d like to think that my life is equally opaque for him. But there’s
bound to have been talk – it’s the price you pay for returning to the same place year
after year. By some mysterious process of osmosis, Mario will have absorbed the fact
that I am one of the privileged few who can live on the substantial proceeds of an
indulgent aunt’s will. Il professore vive di rendita, sa? It’s not that I have a problem
with them knowing this; it’s not a crime, after all, is it? Nor do I object to them
knowing that my interest in art history is at this stage purely amateurish. Even though I
retired long ago from the faction-fighting of academia, my contribution to the body of
work on Giovanni Pisano continues to have its admirers.
It’s just that my sole wish is to be left in peace. I appreciate all the polite discretion
I come in contact with: it’s not something you can take for granted. You see, the less
contact you have with people, the less chance there is that unpleasantness will seep into
your life.
I have a real fear of unpleasantness.
“Il solito, professore?” Mario calls out from behind the bar.
I nod, and he takes out the usual bottle of first-rate prosecco. The comfort of an
unfamiliar routine, as I said. You can’t get that prosecco back home.
The dining area is much fuller than last night. Of course, it’s Saturday evening, and
high season at that. I move across to my usual table-for-one by an open window and
take my seat as Mario places my glass of prosecco in front of me; it is beautifully
chilled. A promising selection of canapés then materialises; my mood improves.
“Well! Even for an Italian man, that was just a bit too naughty for my liking!”
“Yeah, right. Pity I didn’t see it happening though – I’d’ve given him what for.”
The sound of English cuts through the snatches of French, German and Spanish I
have desultorily been listening to. I look up: a party of four has just come into the
dining-room, a man and three women. My eyes focus on the woman and man who have
just spoken. “I wouldn’t mind giving him what for myself,” says the woman in the
Cockney tones that have overrun England. She laughs loudly and pokes the man in the
“Uh – right…” The man smiles nervously and then throws a conciliatory glance at
one of the other women in the group. “Uh – excuse me,” he catches Mario’s eye, “could
we have a table for four?” His accent is American.
Mario shows them to a table very near my own and gives them their menus. They
scan them in silence.
“Well!” says the Englishwoman, “I don’t know about you lot, but first things first.
What are we having to drink?”
“Ah, fair play to you, Pauline,” cuts in the third woman, “you have your priorities
right anyway.” Her accent is Irish. “White or red?”
“What do you mean, Nora? Surely that should be white and red?”
The women called Nora and Pauline laugh at length, while the other woman glances
uneasily at the man.
“Um – ” She pauses and Pauline and Nora look up from their menus. She clears her
throat and continues, nodding slowly as she speaks. “Um, I think I’ll just stick with
mineral water.” She smiles demurely. “But you go right ahead and have whatever you
want. Don’t pay any attention to little old me!”
“You sure, Cassie?” enquires the man.
“Absolutely, Jeff.”
Now here’s an interesting scenario: three different nationalities gathered for a meal,
maybe even on holiday together. In reluctant fascination, I place my nearly-empty glass
back down on the table.
Pauline is the first to show signs of uncharitable impatience. “Yes, well, whatever,”
she raps out, one eyebrow arching. “Each to his own, I always say. Shall we get on with
it then, and order?”
“I’m with you on that one,” says Nora, “I could be doing with a glass of wine after
all that tramping around museums in the heat. Tiring, wasn’t it?” She looks around at
the others.
“Definitely,” replies Pauline. “I’m whacked. There’s only so much culture a body
can take in a day. Even if it was the – what was the name of the museum again?”
“The Uffizi,” Cassie promptly informs her. “And I find that in the heat, the best
thing for thirst is water.”
Nora’s eyes glaze over; she nods silently and looks away. Pauline’s eyebrows
practically disappear into her hairline. “Thanks for the pearl of wisdom dear,” she says,
“No doubt it will be of some use after we’ve got through the wine.”
I try to concentrate on the canapés in front of me. I’m not at all sure I want to have
to listen to this for the rest of the evening. As I select one, Jeff’s voice intrudes.
“I wonder what the tour guide has lined up for us tomorrow?” he asks. “Will it be
more museums?” His expression is less than enthusiastic. “I wouldn’t mind crashing
out on a beach somewhere.”
“No.” The other three stop to look at Cassie; she had uttered the monosyllable with
a certain forcefulness. “No,” she continues, shaking her head slowly, “I don’t think that
would be a good idea.”
“Why not, honey?” Jeff enquires mildly.
“I read about the beaches here. There are topless women all over the place, and I
wouldn’t feel at all comfortable with that. European women may feel okay about it –
they’re a lot more free and easy with their bodies than we are – but where I come from,
it’s just not the done thing. Actually, it’s quite shocking. Right, Jeff?”
“Uh – right, honey,” confirms Jeff, with more regret than conviction.
“To say nothing about the men on the beaches!” Pauline laughs, a rumbling wheeze
suggesting a long-standing attachment to the gin bottle and industrial quantities of
cigarettes. “Oooh, but they are naughty!” she takes up. “Too dark for my liking though.
I mean, you find yourself wondering just how clean they really are… Everything in this
part of the world seems to be either dirty or corrupt.”
“Or even both,” says Nora.
“But so wonderfully exotic!” says Jeff.
“That’s true,” says Cassie. “Three weeks of it, though, is more than enough. I’ll be
glad to get back to civilization.”
“Oh, me too dear!” says Pauline. “I’ll be glad to get back to a place where you can
take efficient service for granted. I mean – they’re just so lazy here.” She looks over
towards the bar and, failing to catch Mario’s eye, clicks her fingers loudly until he nods
and begins to head towards their table. “Right, then,” she says, “everyone ready to get
their order in?”
Mario stops at my table as well and takes my order. “Sono delle parti sue, quelli lì,
no?” His question has the tone of a confirmation: these individuals must all be my
compatriots. In one fell swoop he has eliminated national boundaries and racial
differences and come up with an anglophone über-state that is decidedly unappealing. I
feel put out, but before I have time to reply, he continues with an expressive grimace,
“Dio bono – tre bottiglie hanno preso.” He’s shocked at the number of bottles of wine
they have ordered. Then he adds, “Ci date dentro con l’alcool voi altri stranieri, eh
professore?” The gist, of course, is that all foreigners are a collection of boozers.
He moves off and I look down at my staid little glass of prosecco. I have never
known him to be so outspoken and am more than a little irritated that I had to be on the
receiving end of it. It’s not as if I have spent the last twenty years single-handedly
depleting the hotel’s wine cellars. Neither have I spent them clicking my fingers at him.
I glance over at the next table and feel a surge of dislike. Why did they have to come
and disturb the agreeable equilibrium we had here? Why can’t they rise above the
pettiness that leads to these deplorable reactions? Why not try instead to move beyond
the predictable confines of their prejudice? I find myself wishing that I didn’t
understand English – I wouldn’t have had to hear all that nonsense. So much for me
doing my bit to contribute to the jollification of nations. My hand hovers over the last
canapé, but I push it away.
Then once again the conversation at the next table obtrudes upon my attention.
“We’re pretty well surrounded in England,” says Pauline, pulling tetchily on a
cigarette. “I mean, look at the Irish – they’re a lot darker than us as well. That’s what
makes us so different.”
Nora looks fazed. Here, evidently, is something she feels it incumbent upon herself
to agree with – at least in theory. But the facts are, unfortunately, against her.
Puzzled, Jeff looks from one to the other. “But,” he says, “you have the same
“Right,” agrees Cassie. “And anyway, you’re pretty much the same in most other
ways too. No big differences that we can see.” The Americans look at each other and
It is hard to say whether Pauline or Nora is more horrified at this unexpected turn of
“But – but – ” splutters Pauline.
“God almighty!” expostulates Nora. “There are differences between us that you
can’t even begin to understand. Differences that go back hundreds of years. For
instance – ”
She is cut short by Jeff, who says, “So let’s not even try, okay? We’re not that
bothered anyway.”
A tense silence falls.
Then a man enters the dining-room. He is Italian, very dark, and well-dressed in a
showy sort of way. His eyes dart around the room until they come to rest on Pauline.
He smiles slightly and heads towards her. She has stopped talking and is looking at him
mesmerised as he approaches the table.
“I need talk with you,” he says. “Alone.” He extends a hand.
“So naughty…” she murmurs, taking the hand and immediately getting to her feet.
He whispers something to her as they disappear out the door together, and her burst
of laughter once again fills the dining-room.
“Persistent, isn’t he?” says Nora. Her eye lingers on the empty door.
Mario arrives over with the dinner plates and begins to place them in front of the
English-speaking contingent. He pauses at the empty seat. I know that he has seen
Pauline disappear out the door in the company of that man. “Back in keetchen?” he
asks, pointing to the extra dinner.
“Sorry?” Uncomprehending shrugs greet Mario’s attempt at English. He scratches
his forehead. Then he turns to me. “Professore, per cortesia,” An expressive shrug.
“Trraanslate!” He glances at the group and shakes his head. “Che io ’un ce la fo’ con
quest’ inglese.”
I do not doubt that Mario feels no inclination to get to grips with English; it falls to
me to act as linguistic intermediary.
“So,” says Cassie, nodding slowly all the while, “you speak English.”
“I do,” I reply.
“And isn’t it just as well you’re fluent at the old Italian too!” adds Nora. “Why
don’t you join us?”
Offhand, I can think of at least a dozen good reasons for not joining them, frankly.
But one cannot overly indulge these reactions. I smile politely and begin to shake my
head. “Thank you, but – ”
“Ah , go on!” says Nora, “you might as well.”
“Yeah – come over and join us!” adds Jeff expansively. Cassie nods in agreement.
I have no choice but to give in; anything else would be ungracious.
It proves to be an infelicitous move. Conversation, such as it is, is predictably
“Are you here on holiday too?” enquires Jeff.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Are you enjoying it?” asks Cassie.
“Yes, it’s a very beautiful country,” says Nora. “Even the weather is great. It makes
such a change from the drizzle and fog back home.”
“I’m sure.”
“You know, I’d live here just for the weather,” continues Nora, “it must be great to
be able to count on sunshine.”
“Indeed. That’s why I live here for most of the year.”
“You live here for most of the year?” echoes Nora, taken aback.
So far, so innocuous. But I can feel it coming. The sniping will start.
“Yes,” I reply, and then add for good measure, “It must be at least twenty years now.”
“Gee!” exclaims Cassie.
“Well how about that!” says Jeff.
“Although, I don’t know…” Nora sits back from the table and folds her arms. Here
we go, I think. “I couldn’t live here,” she informs me, “not even for a certain period of
the year. It’s grand for a once-off holiday, but that’s it.” She takes a sip of her wine,
and continues, warming to her theme. “Do you not find that it’s too dirty, and too
corrupt?” Without waiting for an answer, she ploughs on. “All the buildings are so
unkempt. And there’s nothing special about Pisa. I mean, why would you choose to
stay in such a backwater?”
“I could ask the same thing of any Irish person who chooses to stay on in Ireland.” I
smile perfunctorily.
Jeff guffaws. Cassie titters. Nora is not amused.
“All the violence here, as well.” Nora taps the table with her finger. “It’s a
disgrace. I know somebody who was mugged at gun-point here last summer.”
“Shocking,” I concur, “and they’re not even keeping up with the latest
developments. Dublin, I believe, is in the vanguard there. Muggings at syringe-point, if
I’m not wrong?”
Nora blinks rapidly, and then sniffs. “I wouldn’t know – it’s never happened to
We survey each other with mutual hostility until Nora looks away. My patience is
wearing very thin. I should have known better and avoided all contact: their kind of
provincialism has always been abhorrent to me.
Nora takes another sip of her wine and then turns back to Jeff and Cassie. “I wonder
if that’s the last we’ll see of Pauline this evening?”
“Who knows,” replies Cassie. “She’s something else though, isn’t she Jeff?”
“Uh – right, yeah, she’s something else.”
“Picking up a man like that, and going off with him. That takes some nerve.”
“Or just bloody good luck,” mutters Nora.
“All I know is that I couldn’t,” Cassie states flatly. “I’d heard things were different
in Europe.” She smiles her demure smile. “Pauline seems to have those free and easy
European ways, all right.”
“No – just plebeian ways.”
There is an audible intake of breath. Oh dear, I think, now how did that slip out? I
confess that I’m shocked – almost as shocked as those sitting around me. In effect, it’s
not the type of thing one likes to hear anyone coming out with, still less oneself. So
I look around at the raised eyebrows and the lowered eyes.


This story is protected by international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.  I am very grateful that I have been allowed to share this wonderful story with my readers.

Mel u

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