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The Source

Mike Smith drifts into nostalgia about mid-twentieth century while exploring a box of old postcards. What are the stories they tell?

In the days when I used to give live readings of short stories I was often asked where they came from. It’s a question writing buddies know better than to ask. Obviously, they already know that stories come from wherever you have found them. But to the non-writing reader it seems to be a mystery.

V.S.Pritchett said that they came from a ‘poetic impulse’, and life can and will prompt that impulse without warning. Even something as simple as looking at postcard can do the job. I was recently shown one such card, sent in the mid nineteen-thirties from Algiers. On the back it’s titled as number 12: Alger. Rue Bab-Azoun, and on the front of it carries a black and white photograph of a street scene. I’ve never been to Algiers, but the image evokes memories and associations with travellers’ tales, articles, TV shows and movies, and by no means all of them directly related to that city.

The image is full of life, locating itself at a precise moment in place and time by its buildings, its street furniture, its traffic, its advertising posters and its people, more than a dozen of them in several distinct groups. Each of those groups might imply a tale, and in combination a more complex one. That dead centre café with its two arches, ‘La Vieux Grenadier’ makes me think of Rick’s place in the film Casablanca. And could the ‘Au Grand Bon Marche’* up above it on the wall be an ironic comment? On the dapper man in the dark jacket and tie, his straw boater subtly tilted, his thumb stuck in his belt, say, as he strides towards us. Is he known to them, rejoining them perhaps after an assignation? And what about those two characters in white suits whom he has just passed? One of them is glancing across. Is it at him, and if so, why? Could be somebody’s brother, and the start of something. Or is his line of sight slightly ahead of the man, towards a couple partially obscured by the little knot of tourists nearer the foreground? Has something been done, or said? And who is the man standing on the back of the tram vanishing into the shadows? Has he just boarded at the stop? It is a stop, I’m sure, just close by that nearer group, because we can see the tracks reverting to single from double lines, that would form a passing loop for crossing vehicles. Further to the left there’s a mixed group: a man in robes reaching out, for what? Two men in solar topees: are they the police? Off duty soldiers? What sort of vehicle is it? Are they demanding to see papers? Is that luggage on the roof?

And on the far right, a couple, casually dressed. She is just visible behind him. They are heading towards the ‘Parfumerie’, if I have read the lettering on the wall above them correctly. They are moving quickly, I think, and with no eyes for the others in the scene.

Every still photograph catches a moment in time and place and holds it motionless, which, almost word for word, is what the writer Arthur Miller told us short stories do. Each picture is a segment of the arc of some imagined or remembered story, and for the would-be writer the trick might be – I offer no certainties – to know which segment: beginning, middle or end? So that the whole arc might be created.

And every momentary image brought to our eyes, upon the street or in a building, or from a vehicle, every sight and every sound, each whiff of wind off the sea, or waft of coffee from a café, each faint smell of smoke or blood from an alleyway or open door, offers us the same potential. And so, the answer to that question, asked or unasked, must always be: stories? They come from everywhere!

12: Alger. Rue Bab-Azoun. Snapshot of the postcard by Mike Smith

Where to start?

For I know only the ending of the story. That lies in the box of old postcards and photographs, of dinner menus and an itinerary of the liner, The Laconia. It was a Cunard Line ship and came to an unwanted fame a few years later when, in 1942 it was sunk by a German U-boat. A flotilla of German and Italian submarines attempted to rescue survivors, but were later bombed and strafed by American warplanes, forcing them to dive, sweeping those survivors into the sea.

The Mediterranean cruise recorded in those old postcards took place in the mid-nineteen thirties and was a honeymoon trip. The postcards show Algiers, Jerusalem, Valetta, and unknown views. Petra, city of the rock is in there. Photographs show bustling streets. Western tourists in period costume to us now, smile, raise glasses, chin-chin, gaze from balconies and terraces. The menus show us what they dined on, the itinerary, where and when they made landfall. They are printed on a stiff card, Art Deco in design and near to what we might think of as A5 in size, but which in those days would have carried what seems now a more Imperial label: crown quarto, small demy octavo.

There’s even a folding diagram of the ship: printed on flimsy paper but still good, even along the eighty-year-old folds. It shows the steel hull, the cabin walls (Not walls, an old naval friend mine would have corrected. Those are bulwarks, matey!).

The young bride was my mother in law’s mother. Her husband was an English farmer, a cut above her in class. She was a Londoner, a nurse, he a Norfolk country landowner. But tragedy struck. Before even the Laconia sank, he had died.

And through the twists and turns of life she’d kept the box of postcards and old photographs, and the dinner menus, the itinerary of their trip, the folded diagram of the ship, their cabin black-inked and arrowed in someone’s hand; perhaps hers, perhaps his.

I never met the lady. She died the year I met my wife, but I could weep for her now, knowing the ending of their story.      

Glossary

Au Grand Bon Marche: Literal translation, a great bargain, French. Could also refer to a French Department store Le Bon Marche.      

Parfumerie: A place where perfumes are sold. French.

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Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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