Paprika, a new short story by Frank McGuinness
A new book by Brandon Press, Surge, features 16 stories by a new wave of Irish writers and the established authors who have mentored them in creative-writing programmes across the country. This is Frank McGuinness’s contribution
Frank McGuinness in Pearse Street Library, Dublin last year. Photograph: Eric Luke
If you were to put a gun to my head and demand I tell you what I believe to be the loveliest aria in all opera, I think I would surprise you. You could not guess my answer in a million years. I can hear obvious choices being recited. Perhaps you would be able to show off and tell me it is some hidden piece buried in an obscure work you chanced upon hearing in some little village festival you stumbled across in the wilds of Ireland or in the reclaimed wetlands of some Dutch province. Maybe I too came upon this wonderful gem and am sent here to agree with you, to confirm your choice, to prove that as in my own art there is fate, a force of destiny intent on bringing us together, we who share such an esoteric taste in beauty.
You would be wrong to assume so. I take no pleasure in closing that gate to you. I do not allow you to enter, invited through to my room - make yourself comfortable, kick your shoes off, you know what we like to listen to in it. But you cannot be my welcome guest for you don’t have permission to come into my house, my company. I do not give you the key. I do not know who you might find prowling there, walking the feet off himself, tiring the day and night out of his limbs so that sleep might at least - a little sleep might even be possible. Who knows what exhausted breathing might follow your footsteps? Who might be on the very brink of expiring in your arms should you dare to cross my threshold? Better to be refused entry - to be denied any access. So, as I say, I do not give it to you and already I owe you an apology for misleading you.
This is how I madden my friends. I make a statement that I am about to reveal something about myself - then I stand back at the last minute and say nothing. It is an appalling habit. Perhaps it accounts for my coldness. For why I rarely married. Women’s flesh now bores me, and men’s has always disgusted me. I live apart. I am honest enough to admit that I prefer the sound of my own voice. Am I alone in making clear that preference? When it comes to my voice, am I flattering myself when I say it is in demand? I shall not bore with the names of leading companies where I have performed and continue to perform. There is a type of singer whose list of roles is their sole topic of conversation. You can hear their soprano sweetness even as I accuse. A little of that company is sufficient. Whatever else may be made of my arrogance, I can argue I learned my lesson well from these ladies. I avoid talk about opera when I can.
I admit this is because I find so few people capable of interesting me on the subject - they simply lack the verbal accuracy to speak with any degree of intelligence about music. It descends almost always into what I truly despise: gossip, which is all most criticism comes down to, if truth be told. The squalid daydreams of some silly queen longing to try on some diva’s frock, masquerading as the lush lyricism of a Puccini expert, dying to expire as Butterfly, pining onto death for his Pinkerton. Then there are the academics. The odour of pipes, the grey of their beards, the rot of their teeth and breath, the unreadable analysis, the technical mysticism, all of it hiding the deepest ignorance, all of it disguising the simple truth - they do not understand their subject. Inevitably, by their side, the not quite pretty girl or boy, accompanying the ageing master, ever ready for the ride, the kamikaze screw that will disfigure them for life, disfigure them sufficiently to take up the teaching profession.
That is why I make a point of never thanking my teachers. I have been known to race from funeral services rather than to shake the hand of any one of them. I once risked nearly jumping into the open grave to avoid these creatures. I would certainly never go to any of their farewells. I did hear of a Jamaican professor whose relatives insisted his mourners, family and friends, his former pupils, actually dig the earth he was to lie in - I do not fancy dirtying my soft hands in that way. Certainly not for anyone who wasted my time and energy. They all know this. I have never received even a word of congratulations from that jealous shower. It is not that I need nor have looked for such encouragement. I presume my quote, made in an interview, deeply offended. I dared to say I succeeded despite them. Yes, I know it is the kind of predictable joke a clever schoolboy might crack. I was never acknowledged to be clever as a boy. I was never considered special in any way. My instrument was judged to be merely promising, and not especially so. There were fellows in my class who were expected to surpass me. They are now teaching beginners. So, if it were a juvenile insult, I am the happier for that. Really, do they need to take it so seriously? I heard - believe me, I so frequently heard - that I had hurt them. Well, it was my intention to do so. They might have believed that as I aged I would mellow and recover the modesty they had so abused in my childhood and teenage years, suffering under their complacency, learning what took me too many years to discard as utterly worthless in my pursuit of my full voice, my full soul and self. They could whistle for all I cared. Not my way, I’m afraid. Not my style.
And what is that? I like perfection. And, to me, the perfect piece of music, the one I would most like to sing - it is in the very opera I came to deliver in the Big Apple. This is not my first Otello. I shall not reveal to you how many times I have sung it. It is obvious there are only so many performances one voice can despatch in that role. Suffice to say, I am not within spitting distance of that total. There is life in the old tar yet. It is imperative to let your Iago and Desdemona know this. You do so by allowing them to believe that for all your fame, your reputation, your stature, your size - you are a jolly fellow, you are a good sport. I tell them, truthfully, my favourite aria is the Willow Song, Desdemona’s pathetic cry before she is strangled, as she remembers a maid called Barbara, a girl martyred by a lover who has now deserted her and left her to go mad. I am naturally not alone in adoring Verdi’s genius as it caresses and disturbs me through that shattering lament. But there must be, I am sure, few celebrated tenors who for the amusement of their fellow troupers can sing it. It is quite extraordinary that now, in my hefty fifties, I can resort to a near parody of my boyhood’s beautiful voice - even the threatening break - the disfiguring - I can make an uncanny fist of it.
Piangea cantando nell’erma landa,
Piangea la meste.
O Salce! Salce! Salce!
Bravo, Iago praises. Brava, the conductor smiles to correct him. Desdemona throws back her golden hair and sings, ‘O willow, willow, willow!’ Does the silly bitch think I cannot translate salce? Then I speak, asking, as Desdemona does, who is knocking at the door? In ridiculous falsetto, Iago answers as Emilia does, ‘E il vento’, it is the wind. I resume my boyish brilliance.
Io per amarlo e per morire.
Salce! Salce! Salce!
I eye Desdemona. I wait for her to translate. ‘I love him and I will die. Let us sing, let us sing, willow! willow! willow!’ I wait in vain. She is strangely quiet. She joins in the generous applause, but she alone knows I am not joking. She will perform this exquisite hymn to female weakness. The house will listen to a woman abandoned, perfectly pathetic. Then I will arrive onstage, her ravager, her rope around the neck, the beautiful twist and chain of neck, the weeping face, the eyes darkening beneath the pillow. She will not fear that I might actually kill her. No, she will see in my own eyes, hear in my voice that I mock her. I have more regard for my mockery of the role than her sweet relish of its music. I would make a better Desdemona than she could ever sing, bound and big as I am, perfectly cast as Otello. It is my mission to destroy this woman, throttle her, leave her voice shattered, changed beyond recognition for the rest of her career. Desdemona is born to die, and I know how to do it, how to be her killer, sing her to death. That is my job. She knows it as well. That is why, when I finished my mimicking party piece, all through rehearsal, she never takes her eyes off me. So attentive is she to me, I am sure word must be spreading through the scandal-addicted orchestra and chorus, there is surely about our attentions all the signs that an affair is beginning.
There isn’t. Our soprano was considered to be a beautiful woman, but I had tired of beauty. I had even begun to dislike it. This was when I was friends with a photographer - in those days I was not choosy. He could wield a camera like a butcher’s knife, cutting girls into glamorous glory, and yet the man was effectively a eunuch. He hated the female of the species. I was most fascinated in his many affairs when they were ending. He would begin to remind these women incessantly that they were ageing. He was deeply in love with the speed of his vision. He would tell me in wonderful confidence when each love was on the point of collapse. He would start to profess to her that he had always confused love with sorrow. The women would begin to receive a rose that had started to wither. It would be delivered at exactly the right instant of her discontent with him. Then he would vanish from her life. Vanish completely, even though he’d tied the knot with a few.
All right, I was that man. In those days I did dabble with a camera. But I had no ambitions there. I shared the secrets of my love life to a sympathetic couple in their restaurant - Hungarian - where I would eat alone, scorning any company but that man and his wife. She was first to notice I’d put on a little weight. But my voice was improving as my girth was gaining. For a man who loathed cliché, this one of the fat tenor I actually enjoyed. Still, she advised me not to grow too heavy. She passed on to me an old Danube secret. Sprinkle paprika, as much paprika as you can tolerate, on everything you eat. That controls your diet. You will eat less. Again, it had the opposite effect on me. I had found my addiction, my potion, my elixir. I could not get enough of it. Smear a chicken with paprika. Inside and outside. The flesh cooks like the sun. I’d devour it. The spice seemed to break into my bones, my blood, my brain, into my singing, so that it burned with warmth, it loved the sound of itself, it healed the sick and the lame, it fed the multitude of five thousand after five thousand, and had plenty left to feed five thousand more. I had never tasted such a dish. Had never enjoyed such success. Place a plate of an entire bird, a feast of chicken paprika - its breasts, its legs, its wings - I will eat it in one sitting, and for my supper I will find notes of such fulfilment, music of such thanks, a voice you will drink like the reddest, purest wine, quench your thirst with the sweetest, most fragrant white. And I can do this with the lovely, natural means of paprika - doses of paprika - my spice, my drug, my magic. I could not do without it. The food, the weight suited me. Yes, I grew, so did my art. Music more and more marvellous. Offers more and more frequent. Roles increasing in demand. Paprika - it did me no harm whatsoever. I sang my soul - I do believe a singer must bare his soul. Blacks are right to call their music soul. Although they weren’t black, the boy and girl, lying on Fifth Avenue, making strange moan.
That is where I saw them, he lying against a yellow wall of an apartment building. She had her head on his stained lap. I was walking from the Waldorf - I know it has gone down, but I still love the old girl, gliding through that golden foyer, the bar’s strong, stinging martinis, the bad manners of the rude staff - none of that has changed, and, strangely enough, in New York, that city of constant crises, I like stability. That’s why I enjoy walking everywhere. And I adore its opera house. On my first engagement, the doorman confused me, asking if I were here with the construction company doing extensive renovations on the building. That was a joke grown soon stale, sorry was I to have cracked it only once, but never let forget it. Now in the bowels of the Met, grown so familiar I might as well have built its nooks and crannies, I love to trawl through the labyrinths of corridors, so marvellously easy to get lost in, its highways and byways, able to stroll for miles through the ghost city buried beneath the Lincoln Centre, giving what might be my best performances as I serenade the dust and the dead I sense are hiding in that haunted building. As I ramble there, I imagine I sing to my dying father, that enormous man grown thin, eaten by Alzheimer’s, endlessly trekking through the prison of his hospital, remembering what he alone could remember, starving to death, demanding he’d dine on nothing but long forgotten food and drink, wishing to give up his ghost, for life was now nothing. I hope he could listen to me pour my heart and soul out, knowing he is dead and hears nothing. He is only cinders and ash.
When I myself die I would like my ashes to be thrown into the Met’s great fountain. I would like its towering waters to be the only tears shed for me. I have found that mourning is a desperate waste of time. My parents would both have agreed with me on that. We’re born, we breathe, we die, we’re dirt. It is utter nonsense to feel the need to grieve. We should all be cut from tougher rock. Wailing is ridiculous. It is what theatre - what opera - was invented for, so we can dispense with such conduct. The stage is the best place for such behaviour. Weeping is written out for you. You perform, and the task of tears is done. Sorrow is finite here. It is efficient. It is clean. You make your song and dance, and that’s it over. That is why it would be so convenient if I were to pass away on stage in New York at the grand Metropolitan Opera. Of course that shall not happen. Life is never that lucky. And I have had my great share - my more than fair quota - of luck - my paprika - it has granted me, that sacred powder, all I can wish. Do not ask for more.
What were they asking for, the boy and girl in the street? What was the crying boy asking? What was his girl listening to, as she sleeps by him, her dreams the stuff of the boy’s delirium? Could he be on something? I know nothing about drugs. I detest any lack of control. If I am to admit any addictive weakness, let it be solely paprika. Natural, nourishing, gentle as milk. I would feed it to these hungry children, but they would spit its goodness back at me and even might turn this goodness into something wickedly infected with the saliva of the damned. Is that what they are? Is it some demon who moves through them? I could not tell for sure. The boy’s voice was one long litany, a list of gibberish, unrelenting, pouring from his shaking head, her a bag of silent bones, still, always still, asleep on his knees. To my shock I started to believe that his voice was singing in Russian - could it be Russian? No, I could now decipher it was English. He was definitely speaking in English. For some reason I reckoned I should be afraid of his nonsense.
Die boy die stupid fuck
You father what will you do
No child screaming
Hard luck story
Do this favour
Bred into you
Be hard honest we are honest
He touched my throat
My father forgive
The bastard denied me
Me chapter and verse
Help me please
Do you know what the smell is
Shitty pissy smelly bastard
Being asked if children sure I do
It turns me
Your child turns
Why not ring
They answer things
Who is she on my lap
Red hair all short
She is who I am
We recognise you
Die boy die stupid fuck
You father what will you do
No child screaming
Hard luck story
I am walking to the New York branch of Fauchon, my first port of call in Paris, that shop where food is the rainbow, the pot of gold, myrrh and frankincense, all bright with tastes. Hell, I’d pay fifty bucks for a pint of its milk. So much do I adore its delicacies, I’d smear myself with its mustards, perfume myself with its oils - fuck it, since I gave up sex, the place is my porn site, there is where I get my hard-on, so I thread through its pleasure dens slowly, daily, all those classy French people, sitting in Manhattan, sipping coffee. Could I place something brown in the bottom of those fancy little cups, and make them drink paprika, then they would stand up and fill the air with good cheer, blasting into the neighbourhood the news that I am like them, well-fed, content, searching for - searching - looking for - what? I know what I look after. What I must look after. I am a sensible man, who must look after his throat. His precious jewel. His bread and honey. I must stock up on honey - superb for the voice. The jams, the matchless sweet nougats. Now that I more or less disdain drink, they are my reward after the opera. The reason I adore nougat is that I associate it with my childhood. It was cheap as tuppence then. I loved its white chew with the pink stripe through the white. As a child, I could put it between my teeth and pull - such pleasure. My teeth then were white and my tongue pink. I had to use my tongue and teeth to sing. The boy and girl I noticed on Fifth Avenue, were they turning into something pink and white? Turning into me? Into my father? My father, he used enter me in talent competitions. The boy and girl, to the best of my knowledge, they do not beg. If I did well in these competitions, my father would stay sober - that was how he rewarded me. I’ve convinced myself this young couple is harmless. My father knew how to make his son feel wanted. The cops do not move them on, despite their frequent noise. But if I failed - if the winner were to be decided by the audience - if the volume of their applause did not merit me the winner - some pretty tootsie won their fickle heart - then I would feel the tightening of my throat as I heard them decisively limit their appreciation of me, by far the best voice on that stage - and my father would side with them, angry at my desperation. I want to cross the wide avenue to avoid that pair. My father put it down to my lack of preparation, that’s why I lost, and he’d see to it I would not eat tonight. I do vow, tomorrow, when I take my daily exercise, I will pass them by on the other side until I reach the confectioner. Then I will feast on French sweets.
Their pleasure does not drown his disapproval. He will - I still hear him - voice his - voice - hear his voice. He tells me I am a fat, ugly boy. I take after my mother in my grossness. She too had a sweet voice, so-so, forgettable. When he looks at me, when I fail, I am her son. He tells me, I would disown you if you could not sing. Even your singing will disappoint me. We all know your voice will break. It will vanish. Like your fat, ugly mother, it will be no more. It will die. I start to laugh at him. I hear my mother in my laughter. We will continue laughing at this fool of a father. Sing.
Die boy die stupid fuck
Your father what will you do
No child screaming
Hard luck story
I stop. Why am I singing this in the middle of Fifth Avenue? Why are people looking? Where are the boy and girl who protect me in this savage town? I have come out without protection. Without paprika. I am at the mercy of my Magyar advisers. What should I do? They say, sing. Go to the opera - sing Otello. That’s what you’re paid to do. Do it. They talk sense. I do obey. I eat some paprika.
Was I not in such good voice tonight? I question myself because the inevitable compliments from my Desdemona and my Iago are particularly sincere this evening. I know of one ancient lady, now long dead, who had a sure way of unsettling anyone, and letting them know how she would do it. If you were good, the bitch would find some way of upstaging you - a slight cough, a ruffle of a dress, even, if things were going seriously well, a sneeze. If you were bad, she would be still and listen. This night, the pair of them were still as still can be. Perhaps I flatter myself. It was not at me both were looking, nor were they listening to my good self, for in true theatrical fashion, they have surprised everyone. She is an item, with him, and I rejoice for both, particularly her, as I have now had time to study her mournful beauty. Shakespeare described his Desdemona as a white ewe, and myself as a black ram tupping her. With her lengthy face that could be measured in feet if not furlongs, she does have the features of a hungry sheep. Tonight in the Willow Song her voice soared into the tiered echelon of the opera house - the yellow from its gold reflecting like a thousand wedding rings, all threatening to distort me from what I am. Her rendering is greeted with some applause, sympathetic in its way, although I am sure many are willing the strangulation swiftly on its way - a tough shower of bastards at the Met. Ask that of a certain celebrated couple - if you can endure the breath of one. Which, I cannot say, but the Atkins diet does not entirely agree with everyone. All denials have their consequences.
I am scraping Otello’s black from my face when temptation struck. What if I did not wash the colour from my body? What if I were to walk out of this dressing room into the silver light of Columbus Circle, my darkness still intact? What if I were to shuffle back to my hotel, a black man in his native city of New York? No, that does not make sense - why would a New Yorker be staying in a hotel when he has a home to go to? What if I were to pretend I was instead a visitor but I come from - where? Make it Washington. I’ll hail a cab and ask my bro to show me from the back of his taxi the sights of this magnificent city. I tell him I too drive a cab. This is only the beginning of a serious bond between us, sharing our liking for ladies, knowing what we both mean when we say we like our queers to keep their distance. This leads to tales of failed marriages out of which spring clever children who will someday, God willing, do their daddies proud, and the mamas who reared them - we are big enough to acknowledge that. We also acknowledge our flings with white girls we betrayed because we could not help doing so. We wonder what happens to them, wishing them only luck. We end the night shaking hands, palm against palm. We say we’re good guys. The best. By the time I have fully planned this escapade, I am white again. The make-up is removed. I am safe to face the world.
It is a mild night in New York. How rarely that occurs. It is a sure sign something is to happen, something that I cannot control. I give myself to the mercy of events. I cannot stop what comes my way in this perfect weather. Relieved, I will walk the shiny streets of Broadway. Who was ever fool enough to believe they were paved with gold? Well, me for one. And I still do. Beneath the rotten, broken pavements, there are rivers of precious metal, a liquid mine of every mineral, some never yet seen before, and that river of Hades rather than the Hudson is what has truly made New York what it is today, the city where we can be what we want to be. I suppose I should be grateful for the dreams it allows me to possess. Millions of others would be, but I have no thanks, for now all the city does is remind me that dreams are my duty, wishes are my work, and my art is hard slog until my voice breaks again into the crackle of old age and I am forgotten. Then everything starts to fade all about me. I stop recognising where I am. The streets’ neon signs turn to blue water and wash them away. The revels, the carnivals of Times Square do not sound in my deafened ears. I may as well be in the Australian desert as here, so parched and cold is the night. I see the great glitter and glamour turn to rack and ruin. The buildings, once so handsome, so virile, have been flattened into dead men. But I know how to walk about this apocalypse. I know where to find food, drink and shelter. It is now very, very late, but in this wilderness many shops open for twenty-four hours. I will soon come across one. I must have been walking miles, but in this town it is always squares and circles, so I have not strayed too far from my hotel. Indeed, at a distance, who can I see?
It is them - there they are - my little twosome. Both on their feet now. Him this time the quiet one, her gorging her thirst from a bottle of whatever is her choice of poison, as they say in London. And she is loud, screaming some snatch of a pop tune, letting the neighbourhood - no, the whole world - know, you’ll never get to heaven if you break my heart. Her voice hideous. Her face a mess of freckles. Her red hair dirty as he is dirty, they sway, and he laughs as she screams, look, look who it is - look, I told you I saw him. You didn’t believe me. You didn’t believe he would come to us, but I saw him, he did come, look. She points me out to the boy, the fat man, the fat man with the beard. Santa Claus. It’s him, she runs to me. The boy is now roaring with laughter. Santa - Santa, she calls out. She puts her arms around me. I hurl her aside as if her arms lanced me. I open my throat. I give her my voice at full, terrifying blast. Fuck you don’t touch me. Fuck you never touch me. Do not dare touch me.
She is silent for a second. She looks at me as if I’ve ransacked the breath from her body. As if I’ve sliced her face in two. As if I’ve taken her favourite doll and smashed its plastic head in. Then her wail breaks. Filth bursts from her lips. You fat dick. You ugly queer. You piece of pervert shit. I know you - I know what you are. Cocksucker - cocksucker. I know what you do. Fat fucking dickhead. I know where you live. I can tell the cops. I’m going to tell the cops.
She now resumes crying. He joins in, and in duet they label me, in so far as I can decipher, cocksucker, dick and, many, many times, motherfucker. But then, in a voice, clear, strong as my own, the boy warns me again: I’ll get the cops, you’ll see. You’ll be sorry, I’ll get the cops. If my career has taught me anything, it is to avoid hysteria everywhere but on the stage. It is unseemly as . . . as hunger. It is my mission to quell its pangs, and I know how to do so. I carry about my person always a small, plastic portion of my charm, my protector. Paprika. It is what I pour on that red skull, that freckled face, staining it even more orange, telling her, be calm, my child. I christen you Paprika - henceforth your luck shall change, you and your charming lover. The demon who possesses you, I would free you entirely of his powers, but that cannot be, for mankind is bound to suffer. We are born to suffer. Let me bless you with the shadow of my dust. Become my little helper. Protect your sacred self with most holy spice. Here for you is gold, frankincense, myrrh, call them paprika, devour it. Anoint all your senses. Cease your lamentation. She yells. The fat fucker’s blinded me. What has he put into my eyes? It’s burning the sockets out. What has he done to my eyes? I look into her ugly face. She is now pleading to her boyfriend, has he blinded me? If he has, don’t let me live. Why did you let him do that to my eyes? If I can’t see, end my lousy life. Fucking end it. Just put me down - please, put me down.
I am now well ahead of them. I sneak a look back. She is sobbing in his arms, the sobs mingling with the chant of fat fucker. He reassures her about getting the cops. Their faith in the New York Police Department is not infectious. I feel more than safe enough. I leave them to their revenge. No one could connect me with that pair of tramps. I am a respectable gentleman in an expensive overcoat, his silk blue scarf wrapped wisely around the exquisite instrument of his throat, walking to my suite in the Waldorf hotel, having done a good night’s work playing more than a little proficiently one of the most demanding roles in opera. I look for no more credit nor recognition than that. If I had reacted - if I had engaged in any way with those dangerous children I glimpsed - if I had allowed that vermin infest me - who knows what trouble would have followed? And yet I still hear her cry. Put me down - please, put me down. I do believe she moves me to tears. I am sore tempted to sing back.
Io per amarlo e per morire.
Salce! Salce! Salce!
To interrupt would be bad manners. Let the little one have her moment of glory. I am not a vengeful old woman. I keep my silence and stillness even if she is good at this outburst. I will not mock nor push myself centre stage. I will let her weep her heart out. I will console her. I will do as certain tribes in Africa do for women wronged beyond remedy. They are led in scarlet procession to a tree that weeps. Then she may die nobly by her own hand using her red tresses as a rope to break her unfortunate neck. Neither man nor beast shall lay a claw on her corpse. Left to the exposure of the benevolent sun, its light shall turn her flesh to gold. But this gold does not last. And it turns, not to rust, but to paprika. In smearing her thus, in telling this, I forgive her. Perhaps I save her. So I let her weep. Salce, willow, salce. Willow, salce, willow.
Paprika is part of Surge: New Writing From Ireland, published by Brandon, an imprint of The O’Brien Press, 2014