by Victoria Manifold
Victoria Manifold is a writer from County Durham. Her short fiction has been published by The White Review, Five Dials, Hotel, The Lifted Brow, and Splice, among others. She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize in 2016 and 2018. In 2019 she was a runner-up in the Berlin Writing Prize.
At first we were people who had never lived on a houseboat, and then we were people living on a houseboat, and finally we were people who used to live on a houseboat.
Sometimes, on the houseboat, the water tasted of milk. Sometimes, on the houseboat, the fried potatoes tasted of egg yolk. Sometimes, on the houseboat, the ketchup tasted of a poor merlot, corked and spoiled.
We became the sort of people who had to move to Bremen because of what we’d done on the houseboat, to the houseboat, in and around the houseboat, over and above the houseboat, all about the houseboat.
We travelled to Bremen by air because we were no longer permitted to travel by sea, river or canal. We travelled to Bremen because waterways were no longer our demesne and we had to be punished. We travelled to Bremen and became undone by the jetlag, by the inadequate little meals in their foil trays, by the tiny cup of wine over Russia. It made us nostalgic to be squeezed in so tight, so we sighed and rubbed our hands over the small windows. “Ah, ah, ah,” we said.
We arrived in Bremen ragged and sweating at border control, grinding our teeth through lack, cracking our knuckles because we were nervous, afraid and bored.
We were given a tiny maisonette edged by a small regular fence, painted white, as most fences are. We had hardly any space to stretch out our legs or feel the sun. “Bremen is the pits,” we said. “Bremen sucks ass,” we said. “Bremen, Bremen, Bremen,” we said.
In the last days of our elongated youths we had eaten hydrocooled carrots by an unkempt riverbank but now, in Bremen, for lunch and for dinner, for breakfast and supper too, we ate diluted taramasolata and soft cheese, watery hummus and tzatziki, fish paste and pureed corn. We knew the food was past its best because it fizzed on our tongues and burnt our soft palates.
Eventually, though, we lost our sense of taste in the Bremen weather, dismal as it was, so extremely gloomy by international standards as it was, so bleak and uninviting as it was. And with all our tastebuds gone we gulped down all the pale slop in its tiny little tubs, its darling little bowls, we sucked it up with straws and rubbed our round bellies, farting out demonic toxins well into the night.
In Bremen we began to tear at our cuticles until they bled. In Bremen we crossed our legs tight and shredded tissues violently. In Bremen we railed against the mothers with whom we’d always had difficult relationships. In Bremen we reluctantly settled down and tucked each other into bed.
We worked in a chocolate factory, we worked for an arms dealer, we worked to collect as many fallen leaves as we could find. We patched up the cracks in our faces as best as we could and pushed onwards. Of course we’d always been snobs and now we were paying for it, paying for it in seconds measured out in Bremen, paying for it by throwing our lives away in Bremen. “Fucking Bremen,” we said.
In the evening we wept at those round Bremen windows, hoping we’d be given the chance to whisper into the darkness “come into the garden Maud, you utter cunt. In the black bat night we would like you to play an important part in our lives.” But Maud had left Bremen many years prior to our arrival and besides, our garden was far too small for her to come in, the white fence insurmountable.
Maud telegrammed an elegant STOP LIVING IN FEAR AND RAISE YOUR VIBRATIONS and we felt like fools. “Bremen has done this to us,” we cried. “Bremen has emptied us out, Bremen has wrung us dry, Bremen has rent us asunder.”
Against our better judgement we became entangled in the petty lives of Bremen folk, we listened at doors and watched at windows, despite ourselves. We went to middle of the road rock performances at the Weserstadion and ignored all the salacious gossip that clicking Bremen tongues whispered to us. And then, during the encore, we looked away as all of Bremen waved their flags in weld, mader, and woad. Our eyelids fell and we shook our bottom lips.
“Please,” we begged, “get us out of Bremen. Smuggle us over the border in a third-class carriage, point with your long fingers to the road out of here, shoot us in the head if you must!” But we were ignored, we were invisible, no Bremen hand would touch us.
We were unaccustomed to being friendless in this way and so we punched at their Bremen faces and pulled at their Bremen hair. We dripped poison into their Bremen ears and we challenged them to fights, to basketball tournaments, to elaborate card games with dense and opaque rules. But they refused at every turn.
“Okay,” we said, “we will raze the ground, we will salt the earth, we will take each of your marriage-aged daughters and squeeze them into our tiny maisonette. You will never again see these daughters of yours! You will never again grow a successful crop!”
But none of it did any good, when we opened our eyes each morning we were still in Bremen, our maisonette was still tiny, our fence still white. We still felt queasy at the black woods, the freshly minted coins, the small amounts of trampled hay on the pavements. We had come to regret ever living on a houseboat.
“Shall we accept this?” we asked ourselves. “Shall we go to our jobs at the chocolate factory and the arms dealer? Shall we spend our weekends punting on the Weser? Shall we admire statues and walk hand in hand during cold autumns?”
“Flughafen, flughafen, flughafen,” we answered ourselves. “Flughafen, flughafen, flughafen,” we chanted some more. “Flughafen, flughafen, flughafen.”
And so now it is that we cannot live on houseboats but we cannot live in Bremen either.
We cannot sustain ourselves on sleep alone. We cannot survive on all these flavoured liquids. We need something solid to sink our sharpened teeth into. The lore, the gantelope, the promise of a better life. After all we only love in specific ways, we only love following agreed criteria, we only love to receive love. It’s a means of egress.
We can feel our lips, we can feel our lips again.
They build a special extension to the airport to hold us all, to carry us all away. We fly high above the city, we go far away from there, far away from Bremen. We are in captivity and no longer dead.