Anna Tambour presents 

The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted


an excerpt of TWO, a novel
by Teodor Reljic



Mum smiles through her red curls. The plane is white when I wake up and see her smiling, and I’m sure she’s still sleeping —I think I hear her snoring but when I wake up the grey-white of the plane is what’s taking over my eyes.

It smells of soap and air-conditioned air, and it’s making my spit taste sour. I move my tongue around to make it go away but no, I’m just rolling the same smell over and over in my mouth and it won’t change unless I spit.

After I blink a few times the colours begin to come back slowly and I look at mum. It’s the red hair that makes me feel awake first. That makes me feel good, excited. That reminds me that we’re going away somewhere that’s both new and not new.

I reach out to touch mum’s face. I don’t know why I want to do this but I do it anyway. There’s something nice about doing things when you’re only half-awake. It feels like I’m reaching into the world of her stories. The Vermillion stories.

When I touch her chin she shakes her head to say “No”, and I feel my dad’s fingers —not his hand—on my arm.

“Shh,” one of them says.

“And how old are you?”

The “you” is longer, thinner than when dad says it, or when anyone back in England says it. Sometimes mum says it like that when we’re in my room and one of us says something funny, and she speaks while she laughs. Or when they have other grownups over and they’re drinking wine and telling jokes that I don’t understand.

I notice the “you”, and I follow the noise and look up, past my dad’s long thin arms and sharp shoulders. The sounds wake me up. I feel the thin, round noise, I dream it before it happens; a curled ‘o’ through thick lipsticked lips.

She woke me up, the woman who said it woke me up, which must mean I had fallen asleep again. Does that mean we’ll be in Malta soon? It is a woman, yes: I see her in her uniform and I notice that she’s giving me something. Her skin isn’t like mum’s but her hips are, coming out as if they’re appearing out of nowhere, as if the fat suddenly starts under the bellybutton.

“It’s a cake,” my dad says. “Take it.”

He puts the paper he’s been reading on his lap and stretches out his hand to drop the little table in front of me. He takes the cake from the woman’s hand —even though he asked me to take it. Mum would never do that. Mum always means what she says. I wish we had woken up together, but she’s still asleep.

She looks big in the little seat. The thick curls of her hair look exploded, running free. Her eyes are closed shut, but they still look big, like old fruit behind a jungle bush. Her mouth is just a little bit open, a small crack. I wonder if the air coming out of it smells like the air-conditioner.

“Eat your cake,” dad says.

“I’m nine years old,” I tell the stewardess, but when I look up to meet her eyes again, I see that she’s gone.

I know we’re in Malta when we get out of the air-conditioned air. The plane opens to let us out and I feel my face becoming

hard; my nose and mouth are hit by something invisible and hard. It’s the Malta air. “Thick like milkshake,” mum said once and I remember this now —I remember it and everything else, so much more: I remember what Malta means.

Then we’re waiting in line at the airport as always and dad asks me, “So how many times have we been to Malta?”

“Twice,” I tell him. I remember the two summers —I can’t forget. Why would I forget? I close my eyes and think about them and count “one, two,” in a tiny whisper and with the fingers of my left hand. I don’t want dad to see this and I don’t think he does—he’s so tall that sometimes I can’t even see his face, just his chin.

“Good, good,” he taps me on the back. I turn around and I notice that he’s smiling.

It wasn’t that hard to remember.

Was dad ever a kid?

When we leave the queue to pick up our bags, my dad glides past. Sometimes he does that, so that we’ll just follow him. While we walk, mum puts her hand on my shoulder and leans down to whisper in my ear.

“We have to be careful about Vermillion stories now,” she says. At first I don’t pay attention that much because I really want to notice what the smell from her mouth is like. I’m still curious about it.

It’s bad breath, but I also catch her perfume — like the flowers of Hyde Park. Nothing about mum can be bad all the way.

“Look at me,” she says. I love it when she’s just woken up. When her eyes are still crinkly, when it feels like she could be a kid like me. It’s the eyes that stay up all night to tell stories.

“We have to be careful, and you have to pay attention. Dad will be listening.” She points a finger out into the darkened space where our luggage waits. At first I think she’s pointing at nothing because I can’t see him; there are lots of people milling about the conveyor belt, but then his shape comes out from one of the columns.

He’s that tall.

“In Malta, the walls are thin,” mum says, and nudges me to move ahead.

My grandparents are waiting for us, and they kiss me and kiss me as soon as they see me, because nannu snatches me up from behind that metal frame we have to walk through. I hate being kissed like that, their lips smothering and wet. But I love that I can finally see them —that I can finally smell that old smell, a smell I’m not sure forms part of the house or comes from their own skin.

Because they will make everything about summer great. We’ll be staying at the big house and going to the beach and they’ll buy me sweets and ice-cream all the time, when dad isn’t looking.

Dad shakes hands with nannu and hugs nanna, and tells me to tell them how my trip was.

“It was good, a bit bumpy,” I said. For some reason, they laugh. I don’t want them to laugh so I keep talking.

“I missed everything,” I tell them. And they all laugh. All of them, like they hear it crisply and clearly, like they had been waiting for it. Nannu, almost as tall as dad but stooped, wears sunglasses indoors. Nanna, fat and with eyes like mum’s: big and round and green.

Dad, whose face I have to lift my head to see. Who doesn’t laugh much at what I have to say so when he actually does, I want it to go on forever.

And mum, who hugs me from behind when she laughs and says “awww”, and lifts me up into her arms, and we’re away.

We’re in Malta, and the sun in the evening is the best thing I’ve ever seen.

The first two days were nice and hot and they were wet, too. They reminded me of those first two summers, straight away. The beach. Nanna and nannu. How water tastes different in the sea. How scary the rocks are if you’re not careful; how I always look for the ladder on the rocky beaches and how dad always follows behind me.

That smell of barbeque. How I love to watch the sun set with the smoke of the barbeque flying up like a bird that keeps its wings open and then disappears in the half-dark.

Everything was already in those first two days, as it was two summers ago. How do we even know the difference between years? How can you tell what is memory, and what is real?

I am thinking this because now, on the third day, there is shouting in the house. It’s a rented house somewhere that’s called San ••wann, which is not at all close to the sea and is full of just buildings and cars. Even their church is boxy, like a building made quickly, like it’s made of toy blocks.

The flat looks just like our flat in London, more or less. I can’t decide whether it’s bigger or just darker. There are parts of it I haven’t seen yet, or maybe I have seen them and it all just feels like a dream because with the bright hot sun outside that enters even through the dark blue curtains, the shady parts of the house look even shadier. Like they could go on forever.

It’s also more yellow. The bits that aren’t painted over are yellow like the soft sun in the evening.

The noise is coming from one of the shady, hidden rooms. Maybe it’s their bedroom. When I imagine them fighting, shouting at each other in their room, I picture the words coming out of their mouths—hard, harsh words, some of them I think in Maltese—and it almost feels good to imagine their shady, cool bedroom.

Everything is clean and neat like a hotel. There are blue-patterned sheets and there’s purple wallpaper, and after a day at the beach all I want is to go in there, snuggle up next to mum and listen to Vermillion stories.

But now in the corridor, I am alone, and the sun is dividing it sharply down the middle and all that I hear of my mother’s voice are shouts. I can’t make out the full sentences, but what I notice is that the angrier mum gets, the more she uses Maltese.

“•aqq allec —”

“F’ghoxx —”

“Hallini — ”

There’s a lot between those words, but these are the words that stick to me. In the shady part of the corridor their shapes are in shadow under dark blue and black. Their voices are the same: quiet, hidden but behind the door I can only imagine that they’re shouting at each other, that even dad —who never moves when he speaks — is moving his arms up and down.

Mum’s Maltese words burst in the shadow and they’re almost like a picture in my head. I feel a pull inside me when I hear them, like a little sting, because all they remind me of is anger. Mum’s anger. Which is like when you slip. Which is like when somebody slaps you and you don’t know why. I don’t want to be dad right now because I know that when mum is angry, there is nothing that can stop her. When she’s angry she is the only person who’s right. When she’s angry, she wants to make you feel bad about everything that you did, or tried to do.

When she’s angry and when there are Maltese words coming out of her mouth there’s nothing that can help you.

They stop talking, and I see mum’s outline getting bigger through the door. I run to my room.

Dad goes to the living room, opens the fridge and takes a beer. I don’t see all this but I hear it from my room. Even though it’s far away down the corridor I hear everything. Mum was right, the walls are thin.

I hear dad sigh after his first sip. It’s a long sigh, and I hope he’s really relaxing. I try to listen to mum but then I regret it, because I hear her crying, and it’s not the quiet crying.

I’m bored and worried. And there’s nothing to do except remember where mum had left off. Where she had left Vermillion …

The forests were made of shadows and rustling. Vermillion always thought the woods would be green: green, the lush green of home; that they’d remind him of home.

But as he ran through the forest to save his life — which was still so little — he could neither see nor feel anything except the dark, the moving dark, the squeeze of the black soil and the wet impact of the leaves and branches on his face.

Vermillion wished he had never hidden from the truth. He wished he was still home, and that nothing had changed. With each step he took deeper into the forest, the boy began to resent the stories he had read, again and again, in the basement. They made adventure and escape seem like it was the most freedom you could ever have.

But the forest is swallowing me, he thought as he gasped for breath and summoned as much courage as he could.

And still he heard the footsteps. And still they approached, closer and closer …

It’s mum’s voice that makes the stories true. Without her, when I try to imagine what happens it all just feels smoky, like thoughts made out of air, forgotten as soon as dreams are forgotten after you wake up.

I wait for my mum to stop crying but then I think: why isn’t dad doing anything either? I move to the living room, just brushing the floor with my feet. There’s a beer can on the floor. It feels like a whole hour has passed when I finally get to dad.

In that hour, in that strange time, I can imagine another Vermillion story …

He’s asleep in the chair. People often sleep during the day in Malta, but I wonder if they only do this in summer.

Dad is wearing a white shirt. The top part of his chest is flat, then there’s a bump, and he has a little belly but not a big one, not like nannu’s, which I remember from the beach. His little hairs look like trapped flies in a spider-web. They’re sticking to his shirt—he must be feeling hot, he must be sweating. The fan is on but we have no air-conditioning here: that’s one of the things mum said was good about going to her parents’ place but still, my dad didn’t want to move from here.

He isn’t snoring yet, but his breathing sounds like he’s about to sneeze.

I really want to play with his camera. I really want to see what he keeps in his big folder of drawings. One day when he came back from work he told me he’d show me his ‘storyboards’ and the word excited me so much that I couldn’t wait. Were they like board games made of stories that you had to tell each other again and again, and the winner would be the one to tell the most stories, and faster? Or were they blocks with stories on them that you exchanged like cards? But that night — it was a bit before Christmas, maybe closer to summer —he forgot about them before I went to bed, and I was so excited about what would happen to Vermillion that I forgot about it too.

I think that folder has to be in his little suitcase: he puts all his work stuff into that one, and he’s always going on at mum for carrying too many suitcases with her when we travel.

Dad starts to snore, and I think about the ‘storyboards’ some more. And when I walk down the corridor again, afraid that he’ll wake up but wanting that folder so bad, mum calls me from the bedroom.

“William, let’s talk.”

I don’t like mum telling me Vermillion stories during the day, and I’m glad she doesn’t, now. She tells me about how I shouldn’t be too worried about her and dad, that they’re fighting because it is just so hot and that they’re tired from the trip.

Mum doesn’t look like she’s been crying. Her face is clean, though she hasn’t been to the bathroom to clean it for sure, and she smiles at me when we talk, like nothing’s happened. Mum is always like this: after she cries, nothing happens. Dad sometimes spends days frowning after a fight.

“I just hate stewing around here, William, that’s all, you know— ”

“What does stewing mean?”

“Oh, well … it means you’re really hot, because it’s like you’re being put in a stew, that thick soup, you know?”

All of us in one big soup. Boiling under the starlight in a cauldron. Where did I first see that? Where did I first think that? Sometimes when mum speaks to me, and not just when she’s telling stories, these pictures immediately appear in my mind and I don’t even know where I get them from.

But I think I understand what mum means. This is one of my favourite things. When I see how words are connected to the real world. The thick air is like soup, and the sun is warm everywhere unless you’re in deep shade.

“Summer is long, isn’t it?” I say.

“Depends what you mean, Will — ”

“I mean, it’s like one long day.”

“Well, it is to you. You’re lucky. You don’t have to worry about anything yet. But when you’re as old as I am —”

“How old are you?”

“I’m thirty-seven. Can you imagine that?”

I can’t. Not really. I’m not sure I even understand how years work. There aren’t any pictures in my mind to fit the word ‘years’ yet. I know that there’s spring, summer and then Christmas and the New Year and a year has then passed, but I don’t understand what all that time passing means. Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven New Years passing by. In a second I imagine one New Year’s Eve, two, three … but after a while I can’t imagine them anymore.

“And how old is dad?” I say. It slips out of my mouth. I didn’t even know I had the question in my mind.

“Oh, dad is younger, much younger. He’s a baby!” She’s smiling when she says this, the same way she smiled when she told me how old she was. It’s a strange smile … a smile that says she might be joking, that she might be making fun of me. She never smiles like this when she’s telling me Vermillion stories.

“He’s thirty-one.” She whispers the number to me like it’s a secret.

And then, I feel like everything is the way it should be. That mum and I exist somewhere alone, together, and that nobody else can hear what we say.

Then we talk some more about the heat and the food, and when we wake dad up from the chair, we all go to the supermarket and buy things to make a salad, and I tell them that I want orange juice, and we get that too.

“You know, I really feel like Valletta,” dad says.

“Oh but it’s summer, we should go to the beach first,” mum says.

“You’re right, you’re right,” dad says. He scoops a bit of salad into his plate, and looks at me. There’s a smile on his face. It’s small, but I can see it clearly because his skin is pale and his lips are bright red, like a lobster. Soon, his skin will be just as red too.

“Another beer?” I ask, and they both burst out laughing, and dad says, “No thanks, Will, beer is not good for you. Anyway, where do you want to go tomorrow?”

I want to go to nanna and nannu’s because there I could play in the old house, that’s big and full of shady corners I’m not supposed to go into. I want to then go to the beach, like mum said, because then it would get really hot so I could swim in the sea, which would make me feel good not just because it’s nice and cold but also because I only learnt how to swim last year, and want to make sure I remember. Then I want to go get an ice-cream in Sliema, and look at videogames with dad while mum goes around looking for clothes. I don’t want to go to Valletta —it’s old and boring, and all you can do is walk, walk next to other sweaty people.

“I wanna go anywhere,” I say, because I know we won’t go to Valletta. Because mum said we shouldn’t.

Mum has a glass of white wine with the salad and when she’s done, she tells dad, “So we’ve reached a compromise, then?” She smiles. I’m not sure what she means, I was distracted thinking about where we were going. Later mum tells me that we’ll be going to nanna and nannu’s in the evenings, and that we’ll spend the days here.

“Is that ok with you?” mum says, tucking me in with a thin sheet, the window open but covered with a ‘mosquito mesh’.

“Yes it’s ok … mum, where do we live?”

“We live in England, hanini … you were born there, remember?”

“No,” I say. “I mean, where’s this, now, what’s this called?”

“Oh,” she smiles. “This is San Gwann. It’s a … suburb,” she says. When she realises that I don’t know what this means, she winks and says, “Look it up.”

This is when I realise that she won’t be sleeping in the same bed as me while we’re here, and I feel something inside me. Maybe it’s a sting, or something is pulling me. She isn’t moving around in the same way that she moves around before she sits next to me in bed to tell me a story. She’s moving around in the same way as when she’s making lunch or dinner. Her red hair is bouncing. Her hips fill the room when she moves from one place to another. She fiddles with the mesh over the window after she tucks me in. She opens and closes drawers, checking for I don’t know what.

She’s getting ready to leave the room and go back to the world with dad.

“No Vermillion tonight, Will, it’s late and we have to be up for the beach early tomorrow. Promise to tell you one on the way, and dad will just have to deal with it.”

The stories will have to be dreams tonight. And I never liked dreams.



Born in Serbia but raised in Malta, Teodor Reljic is a culture editor and film critic at MaltaToday , and co-editor of Schlock Magazine He blogs at Soft Disturbances





Two, published by Merlin, 2014

Wherever you live, it is quite easy to buy from their elegant site.

Two reads as if it is very personal. In some respects it reminds me of another novel I love, Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year. In both novels, parents – especially mothers –with problems loom large, and the children must cope by living in worlds of their making.
Two is also outstandingly sensual, in a wholly idiosyncratic way. I discuss this aspect and others of this excellent first novel, with Teodor in a Schlock Talks Addendum.
This is one first novel I highly recommend.


The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

Two is
copyright © 2014 by Teodor Reljic,
This short story appears here with thanks to Teodor Reljic, and the kind permission of Merlin Publishers.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 – 2014