A bawdy tale about storytelling and desire.
First published in Hecate (2015) and more recently produced as an audio story by Radio National (2016). Read the full text below and/or listen along here.
The sock-seller is making me laugh as I stroll and he struts through Skopje city park. The sock-seller in his crocodile shoes, always a pointed toe's length in front, telling me his wise-fool, guest-worker stories from Germany – about the lies he had to tell to get the jobs.
'I told them: Yes, of course. My family and I are master cow-washers from generations. We shampoo and condition cows morning and night. Sheep. Goats. Roosters. Hens. I can shampoo anything you want. Believe me!'
Naturally, when we come to it, we sit ourselves on a bench, by a lake, in the park and lick the ice-creams the sock-seller has insisted he buy for me, for him, for us. Then, when the ice-creams are licked, had and done, the sock-seller, in a relaxed way, lifts one foot onto one thigh so that his pants pull up and expose one sock.
It is thin and patched and worn as you would expect. Just as the car-fixer's car is always in the garage; and the plumber's tap always has a drip; and the dog-catcher's dog is too-often lost; and the back-cracker’s back always has a crick. And the story-collector can never think of what to say next in a conversation. As it is with me now. I just listen, encourage and nod.
In this lull, predictably, the sock-seller is faking some kind of yawn. He is stretching his arms up behind his head, then out to the sides, then onto the back of the bench and around my shoulders, not touching, but almost.
Now, I know what he's doing. But does he know what I'm doing? Even more importantly, do I know? Do I know what I will be expected to do in return? I do. And I won't. But does he know that I won't? I don't think he does. He will go on and on until he is sure. It's just like a drug. I just want his stories. I want them now.
'After I was a cow-washer, I went to Berlin and became a lamb-cutter and a beef-shaver at a döner kebab's.'
He tells me what I would like to hear: about the kilos of meat he had to kick with the point of his crocodile shoe under the stainless steel as he learned his trade, while his boss, who thought he'd employed a professional, was looking the other way.
And then the conversation veers.
The sock-seller, leaning in close, would like me to know about the döner kebab shop owner's wife and how she fell in love with him at first sight. With a wink, he tells me about the passionate affair they had behind the doner kebab shop owner's back. But then the döner kebab shop owner found out and the sock-seller had to flee. He went to Munst where he became a master hedge-trimmer and bush-pruner for lonely, old, rich women and found out all about why they keep their little dogs.
'I can show you. Believe me! If we go to the hotel across the road.'
But just then, from behind us, there is a loud rustling and a sudden crack of wood.
The sock-seller says, 'Don't worry about that. That's just the plum-pickers. Now where were we? Where was I up to?'
But I have to turn to look.
And I see them: the women, ten or more in their apron dresses, their heads wrapped in colourful scarves. They are everywhere, dotted. Together, but working alone. Truly, not even a metre away, there is one such one, a fierce look of determination on her face. Her skirt hitched up, she is scaling a small tree. She is doing it. With one hand she is holding on to one branch, whilst with the other she is straining, stretching, reaching, sweating to get the thing she wants. She doesn't even appear to notice the sock-seller or me.
This is how it is. A plum-picker only has eyes for plums.