In June, Milan is a warm place. The ground near my apartment, more broken rock than road, was hot, the trees sticky. I had been sent to Milan by University of Warwick, as part of their MA in Writing exchange programme. There, a colleague of mine and I would work with Booker Prize Nominee Tim Parks on our novels. My friend Avrina and myself went.
I spent the time there exploring the Duromo, eating the food, drinking red wine, jumping on trains, visiting art galleries, walking across Piazzas, making Italian risotto, sitting in a wine bar at the canal, eating ice cream, meeting with Tim to discuss the novel, reading and, of course, writing. I was there to write. I had to write. I had to produce work, visit my characters each day. My characters and Avrina’s characters existed like old coats around the apartment. They banged into one another, sat down together; we had to control them.
The novel was about a married couple who were serial killers, and one day the wife decides she no longer wants to kill. I didn’t want to write a novel about murder. I didn’t want police. I didn’t want it to be crime. I wanted it to be about a relationship. I thought about it all the time, back at Warwick, in the workshops, in Milan, as I stood on the metro waiting to go to see Tim. I stood out on the metro. I wore shorts and a short sleeve shirt with flowers on it. Further out of the city people were more formal, suitable, the kind of thing you’d see or the other side, less formal, rough almost. When you got to the centre – where Prada and Louis Vitton are next door buddies – people are stylish. I was lucky. I was editing a lot of fashion articles and here I was, absorbing it.
I arrived at Tim’s office. When I entered he was trying to wedge open a door with one of his books. “Fucking air conditioning is broke,” he said. I sat down. He kicked a box next to his desk, saying, “My publishers keep sending me copies of my books. Why would I want them? I have them. Take some. Take them all if you want.” I took two. I liked his writing. I read a lot of his essays in the New York Book Review before I arrived, and whilst there I read his non-fiction Italian Ways, a memoir of a life on trains. Before I left he gave me a copy of three of his books and sitting on the plane en route home I read Cleaver. “Now, then,” he said, “the novel.”
Tim was passionate about my novel. He liked the story, he liked what I was doing. He had concerns, definitely. As did I. He leaned back in his chair and said, “you’ve just sort of said ‘fuck you’ to mobile phones and police, you’re not going to deal with that.” “That’s right,” I said. He laughed, “Great. Just justify it more in the text.” Tim always said that I should disagree with him when I thought I should, that he was a writer and a reader and we would disagree.
Tim suggested a lot of things in that meeting and the others. He read the entire novel in less than two months, offering me notes, feedback and what he would do to structure the novel – which it needs. I walked home from the metro that night; it was about 7pm. Evening. The sun was slowing slipping behind the houses, the sky a strong orange, the fields beside me a sullen green. I stopped in the nearest shop and bought myself some food to cook, some wine and some sweets – sweets always taste better in other countries.
It’s a strange feeling, being in a country where you don’t speak the language, communicating only through the waving of hands, nodding widely and trying to manipulate the languages. When you don’t speak, you become an odd form of yourself, not fully a ghost, not fully deserving as a ghost. A fragment of language, a missed chance, unknowing. The Italian language is beautiful. I wanted to learn the language and ran between reading letters off boxes, Googling Italian recipes and writing my British characters.
When I got home, Avrina’s door was open. I went in to find her writing on the bed. I edged in. Avrina was stricter about writing than I was; she had a writing face. If I ever knocked and came in when she was working, she would sit in the chair, glasses in hand, ready to go back. I envied it.
I told her about the meeting with Tim and we both went to the kitchen, opened some wine. Avrina preferred beer. The doors leading onto the balcony were open, the night was warm, a blue dark was over us. We stood on the balcony, sipping our drinks, looking out, watching the sun disappear for the night, discussing our meetings with Tim. We listened to Lord Huron, going over the problems with our novels, what we had read, what we would read. We stood there, two non-ghosts, two young people, two people in a city of dimming light bulbs, a slight rain falling off the glass, to the street, against the cars and down to the hot ground.
Thomas Stewart has an MA in Writing from Warwick and a BA in English from South Wales. His work has been featured in The Cadaverine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Metric, Erotic Review, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His first poetry pamphlet, ‘Creation’ is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. He is also a freelance writer and Assistant Editor of Mens Fashion Magazine. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, vintage watches, patterned jumpers, odd knick-knacks, scented candles and has a huge fear of the dark. He can be found on Twitter at ThomasStewart08.