Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 12, Number 2
Copyright © 2017
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Dara Passano
The meal had been heavy and late but the diplomat insisted we go
by his house for dessert. To see, he said, rubbing his palms, what you
get when you’re willing to buy on a flood plain.
We followed him across the Long Biên Bridge, Pascal driving and
me straddled behind, slouched out of the wind to keep my cigarette lit.
These new neighbourhoods, Pascal shouted, and I nodded, forgetting
he couldn't see me. No hawkers, no drilling, no music, no life. Like
we’d crossed over the Styx not the Red.
The houses sprawled wide, built out instead of up. We bumped
down a dark alley. Beside us, a canal eddied around clumps of waste.
Above us, electrical wires, messily snarled, sagged and dragged off the
The diplomat lived beside the alley’s one street lamp. Pascal put
his feet down and guided us in, past the guard, through the gate.
It was too new, this place, like a painting. Flat, matte, acrylic.
The courtyard paving stones fit together so tightly there were only
hairline cracks between them.
The diplomat’s girlfriend was waiting for us in the bright, open
doorway, her loose white trousers and tunic swelling her like a jellyfish,
the meat of her a dark outline within the silk. She smiled at us, then at
the diplomat, everyone squinting.
It is nothing to comment on when a man takes a lover twenty
years his junior, but of course one notices. The diplomat checked to
see that we had noticed. I gave nothing away but Pascal obliged. The
diplomat dropped his helmet and fluffed his hair.
The lover handed us slippers. They were flimsy and white, like
the ones you are given in a budget hotel and leave behind you, still in
their packaging, not worth the taking, presumably disposable.
Twelve rooms, the diplomat boasted as we toed the slippers on.
Plus balconies. Why, if she didn’t smell so good I might lose her.
Pascal laughed. The lover floated away.
It was an awful house. Deep, glossy red floor tiles like gouts of
blood. The furniture so black and heavy that should a flood float the
house away, the chairs would remain behind, stuck fast in the mud for
a thousand years.
Pascal pretended to admire a cabinet of empty vases. I
pretended to examine the paintings, cheap reproductions in lacquered
You see my shelves, said the diplomat. I’m a great reader.
We turned politely. The books were there, yes, and in the
hundreds, but they had pictures not words; they were the sort that one
bought in bulk or found, often and only, in souvenir shops. They were
piled and filed indiscriminately, their bindings unbroken.
Magnificent, said Pascal.
Next the diplomat led us into a great empty room that was done
up in three colours, just three. The pictures on the walls were
encyclopaedic, cheese and garlic and the wines of far away countries.
I thought of our own shabby, lived-in house, two rooms wide,
where the only spaces fit for visitors were the ones that we didn’t like
and didn’t use.
The lover wafted in with a tray of espresso and ice cream.
Affogato, said the diplomat, taking it from her and pouring the one
into the other. That means drowned. He pulled out her chair.
There was a plate of four chocolate biscuits, but he doesn’t eat
them, said Pascal, so the diplomat said well in that case, and took two.
In the centre of the table the lover set a bowl of whipped cream.
She waited. After Pascal and I had served ourselves she slid the bowl
back to herself, beneath her chin, and set to, lopping off one peak at a
time, swallowing it by the spoonful as if it were devotional. Her ice
At last the diplomat sat back, eyes closed, bowl empty. The
dénouement. Pascal put his hand on my knee.
Men, said the diplomat, getting to his feet and padding over the
gouts of blood to the record player. Listen. See what you think.
In English, I noted, you listen to see.
The spoon was between the lover’s lips but her bowl of cream
was empty and scraped. I noticed a hairline crack running down its
middle. One hard tap and it would have broken in two.
The diplomat flipped through his records, their worn and faded
jackets. He set one on the turntable. Gently, gently. Pascal leaned
I suppose if the ears can see then the body can listen.
I got up and paced the room, the hall, the kitchen. There was a
jug of iced tea in the door of their fridge. I drank directly from its
mouth. When I returned, Pascal was dancing with the lover, leading
her lightly with one finger. Her footfalls were soundless.
Many men like that feline way.
The diplomat was wiping freckles of mould off the record jackets.
Darling, he said.
Pascal dropped her finger and the lover turned, jellyfish limbs
billowing. She was lit on one side; I could see straight through her,
almost all the way through her to Pascal who was watching her, not
me, which was, in its way, complimentary.
She smiled at us, then smiled at the diplomat. Her back was
curved and her pelvis thrust forward. She blinked slowly, irregularly,
like a doll tipped in the arms of a child. The diplomat nodded and
returned her smile.
I couldn’t stand it. Those garish vases, all empty. No flowers,
no nothing, and through the windows, those perfect panes of glass, no
hawkers, no drilling, no music, no life, only armadas of mosquitos
coming up from the flood plain and the dirty canal, banging against the
walls and fizzing to death in the light of the one street lamp.
I went back to the kitchen, grabbed the box of chocolate biscuits,
kicked off the cheap slippers and left. The guard let me out through
the gate. Pascal would apologise on my behalf. As I walked away, I
heard the tinkle of a bowl breaking.