Sunday 14th August
Jonatha was the second reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Sun 14th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A short bio
Her previous writing includes several short films and the comic book series The Wonderverse. She is currently completing her first novel and can be found on Twitter as @jonatha_kottler.
The story she read
A Stranger’s Four Seasons of Edinburgh
a short story by Jonatha Kottler
I walk down the little cobbled street away from where I sleep. I hesitate to call it where I live–it doesn’t feel like home to me, nor has it embraced me. I tried, at first, to spruce up the plainness of it, the strange old plates with chips in them that were made by who knows who, who knows when. I’ve added postcards of places I have visited, attached to the wall with a stretchy blue plastic putty meant to be easy to remove. Because tape would just tear the plaster right off when I move. I’m trying to be a good tenant, but I also realize that unlike the people who chipped the plates, my presence here will leave no trace. No matter how many responsibly attached postcards I put up it doesn’t matter, because it feels like a stranger’s home in which I borrow a small space.
My bedroom is like a novitiate’s cell–narrow bed, tiny desk with straight-backed wooden chair. Three ladders on it and I sometimes hang socks on it to dry. There! My trace–mild abrasion on the chair ladder from moist socks. I wanted, somehow, something more from this adventurous life. But the room, though plain, with its threadbare towel drying on the radiator, does feel safe. I added an extra blanket from a charity shop, and I’m warm there.
When I leave the little space behind and walk down the uneven street there are two main ways to look. If I choose to look down I see the paving stones, cut roughly the same but never machine perfect, and shifted over time, like the worn down teeth of an old, old man. And as brown. They are covered in the scattered leaves that have begun fluttering down in the last few days. At first they seemed a mistake–furtive in their dashing path to the ground. But now the early pioneers have forged the way and the others have followed suit. They are yellow and orange and red, broken or perfect or ground into leafy dust by people’s feet as they hurry to important places to do important things.
If I look up, the late arrivers–the leaves who would never think to join the party in the first hour–are like a gently undulating sunrise above. There are high walls separating the street from the stately homes. The walls themselves are stone–stone built upon stone with grey mortar in between. It is the same sort of wall you would imagine in Hobbiton–only those had some sweet intention to keep wee sheep from wandering, or something. Here they are the imposing walls of the fairy tale–meant to keep someone out rather than keep something in. And I can see exactly where the impulse for those stories comes from. Behind the wall, a tree, whose fruit is golden pears, bulbous, holding in their sweetness, a collection of all the sunshine and pure water they have taken in all the long summer and converted by means of alchemy, or at the very least of sorcery, to nourishing and tempting food. Yes, tempting. Looking up at these pears swinging off-kilter in a brisk breeze, uneven because of their splendid fat bottoms, so lovely in a pear, so dreaded in a woman, I think that Eve never had a chance. No way not to want to reach up, to climb over, to scrape knees, and tear at the palms of hands to get at that bounty. I know that even with poaching and canning and pear tarts and pear preserves and pear butter (if there even is such a thing), even with all of the possible ways that there could be to consume and save for future consumption; no matter how many high branches are left for the birds there is too much fruit there for whoever lives behind that wall. Be it unkind witch or jealous giant or family of four with busy schedules and swimming class every afternoon, no one could possibly use it all, and some of that fruit will go to waste.
I can see how it works on those poor characters, because it’s working on me. I see myself climbing up to that wall, stretching out for that pear and eating it right there, the juices running down my chin and stinging the cuts on my hands from the climbing. I turn the corner and walk past a shop that sets its produce out in slanted boxes by the windows, and the pears I pass by there don’t even catch my eye. They might as well be photographs in a magazine without form or dimension. And I am starving.
The nicest thing I saw today was a woman in a shop–she was busy, the whole shop full of people buying their wrapping paper and cards with well wishes, and next year’s calendars, and small things to go into Christmas stockings. Like a tiny tube of colored pencils printed all over with a cartoon fox. There were so many people in this merchandise-crammed and narrow little shop on Morningside Road that the windows were all fogged in from our collective breath. I’d walked over from my home, first to mail two parcels at Mailboxes, Etc. where a man who was trying to finish his lunch helped me and cheerfully lied to me that my package would make it to the U.S. by Christmas. I cheerfully accepted the lie, too, because it hardly matters–they are on their way and their fate is not mine to determine. It’s easier to let go with things like that so I try to make a practice of it, because I’m so rubbish about letting other things go. There was mist that didn’t commit to being rain and the packages had little specks on them. But I paid and then crossed over to the nice little shop I was talking about. Well, first I stopped at the bookshop, again a narrow alley filled with book scent and heater working too well. I bought a set of tiny notebooks to give at a gift exchange tomorrow. The shop reminds me of the old Corner Bookstore in Nob Hill, but mostly because of its shape. I don’t get the warm fuzzy feeling here that I did so long ago when the woman behind the counter knew me and would set aside books she thought I might like. Anyway I mostly read on my iPad now.
The brim-full card shop (I say shop now instead of store, but I think I would revert quickly if I moved back home) had this sweet old man. He was wearing what we call an “old man hat”–Harris tweed to keep the rain off and cover the tender bald and freckled head. I’m sure it has another name, but I’m happy calling it what we do (we started calling it that when we were students studying for the summer in Aberdeen in 1993). He moved slowly and was buying something that was a gift for the evening (you know me, the lurking voyeur, always trying to see the story play out while looking like I’m choosing a Valentine card really carefully). He’d wanted a particular wall calendar which they’d looked for downstairs in stock but no longer had. They had told him they could order it for him for next year (meaning 2017) and I thought, uncharitably, I’m not sure he’s going to be needing that. To my delight he looked at the woman (looked up at her because he’d melted down to his ancient size like a marshmallow left outside at home in the desert) and he said, “I’m not sure that would be a smart investment.”
Anyway he was checking out at the till (till, you see, not register) and having trouble with his bankcard. Here cards slide in and are held, instead of swiping through. Although I understand chip cards are becoming popular, at home, too, so it may all be different than how I remember. The busy woman put her glasses down off her head and came around to the customer side and gently steadied his hand to help him put the card into the machine. And it was nice. Nothing spectacular or heroic, just a nice moment, out of many that she had, and that he had, and really, that I had. It was sweet, so I bought the tube of pencils and some silly printed Kleenex in a pocket pack (that the woman called handkerchiefs and I think that was strange even for here) just to support this business who paid this woman who was kind.
In the spring I sneeze blusterous old man sneezes, where spit and who knows what flies out of the open places on my face quite outside of my control. With some warning I am sometimes able to bring my elbow up and sneeze into that. I usually sneeze three times and when I pull my face away I’ve left a rorschach image behind. My desert nasal system was not prepared for pollen of this magnitude or variety and so as soon as the light begins to grow and the day to lengthen I start to sneeze and don’t stop until the pears start to ripen in the autumn.
But the distress is worth it. The flat we rent has magnificent gardens and it’s a part of of lease that we are not allowed to garden in them. Which is fine with me as I do not get on well with plants–I need at least a “meow” or higher to remind me that something needs taking care of. The gardens have their own gardener, whom I first encountered as an unexpected shirtless man in a tam o’shanter wandering outside my windows, but who is actually a poet, and a deep thinker, a wide reader, and the friendliest person. If I offer him a cup of tea when he is working he asks instead for a cup of hot water and then picks sprigs and leaves from all around and creates a fresh brew. He is the conductor and the garden is his symphony. And since it is not my garden at all I feel like someone who won tickets off the radio, or sneaked in the back door when someone was taking a smoke. I get to go for free.
The winter was some cold rehearsal period where things were happening at a remote rehearsal hall beneath the ground. Under his smiling eyes the first snow drops began–an overture–not a whole piece of music to sing your heart to, but just a reedy thread; a promise that spring will come. Snow drops–crocus–daffodil–I’ve managed to learn these as they rise up slowly enough for me to recognize. Blue bells. But then, as if on cue and at the prompting of his baton, a wave of flowers, blue-orange-yellow-purple-tiny-huge-multifaceted. Rhododendron? I have to photograph them and look them up in books; fruits blushing on the vine, looking like dollhouse versions of what they will be in July, in August. And like the symphony, when the music of the garden swells I am too overcome by the whole to consider whether this sound is an oboe or that is a cello; this fruit is a red currant and that flower is a hyacinth. It’s just a harmony of color and smell and taste and bees and it’s rolling in and on, longer than I could possibly imagine. This same season where I am from lasts from a bright day in the end of February until the fierce winds that would blow your mailbox off its post and grit up your teeth with sand off the mesa pass and then it was dry, hot summer.
So I will take the sneezes and the doses of loratadine and creaking of my eyelids in the morning to hear the sweet music of the garden, which is itself only one song on a street filled with songs in a city filled with music of the green and lively ceilidh that is Edinburgh in the spring. Even when it rains.
In the summer in Edinburgh when the sun is our constant companion I sometimes forget to make dinner and I look up and it’s ten o’clock–it feels like the six o’clock and looks like the six o’clock I expect–the start of the evening in the desert. In the summer when the sun comes out the people peel off their layers and expose their fragile skins to the ultraviolet rays they cannot see and the sun smiles down with toothy rays and takes large bites out of them because they are a delicacy. In the summer where I am from we know better, we cover ourselves with armour that comes from a bottle and we buy clothes that are marked SPF 50+ and we hydrate and make sure there is bottled water in the trunk in the back of the car in case of a breakdown. And our skins still become like lovely lovely brown leather that’s been distressed by a production assistant for the episode where the hero wears his long coat and fights crime. Women with bright brown eyes like shiny coffee beans stare out from the crossed webs of their own wrinkles as they sit in the shade on the plaza with their wares spread out on blankets. And you know that if you could pick up the wrinkles that the spaces between them would be lighter–maybe as white as they soft skin of the Scots sitting out in the Meadows or Princes Street Gardens soaking in the warmth and being devoured. In the summer when the sun is full, from all the delicate flesh which is rich, like gorging on foie gras, it fades away, back into the clouds again. It’s had too much of us even though we haven’t had too much of it. But the light filters through still, past the veils of the clouds and into the gardens making cabbages tempting for tiny creatures that I only know from storybooks. In the summer when the cabbages are fat and the artichokes are the size of footballs and the hedgehogs trundle out for a bite and they have all night to enjoy it–they dine late, too.
(c) Jonatha Kottler, 2016
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Watch & read stories by
City of Literature TV
Jonatha Kottler reads A Stranger’s Four Seasons of Edinburgh on 14 August 2016 at Story Shop during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Who is behind the project?