‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

Chosen by Carolina Alvarado Molk
‘The Balloon’ is as understated as a love story can get. A balloon appears one morning, covering miles of the Manhattan skyline, and remains without explanation for twenty-two days. The narrator talks us through the city’s varied reactions to the balloon, its speculation over its purpose, before revealing, in the last paragraph, that the balloon is “a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure,” a response to a lover’s brief absence. The subdued affect of the writing gives way, finally, to the enormity of feeling the balloon represents. I love the element of mystery in this story, the unassuming tone, both the relish and the fear of the balloon. There’s something almost claustrophobic about its descriptions – “There were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there” – that feels just right. Sometimes you miss someone, and the missing them clouds and shades everything.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1966 and available online here. Collected in Sixty Stories, Putnams, 1981
Carolina Alvarado Molk writes essays and short fiction, often about loneliness, motherhood, and immigration. She tweets at @caro_molk

‘Wild Berry Blue’ by Rivka Galchen

Chosen by JL Bogenschneider

He was my first love, my first love in the way that first loves are usually second or third or fourth loves.

‘Wild Berry Blue’ is not a love story, although it is a story about love, the nine-year old unnamed narrator’s first. And being her first, she is adrift; lost in a labyrinth. She is drawn to Roy, a recovering heroin addict employed by a fast-food franchise. He has impossibly blue eyes and an impossible blue vein. He calls the narrator sexy and it doesn’t seem wrong but it’s not exactly right. Maybe she knows this and maybe she doesn’t. There are only three encounters with Roy, who the narrator likens to a beautiful monster. The first time is discombobulating, like being knocked over by a wave you never saw coming. The second is voyeuristically distant. But the third encounter is like being swept off your feet by the undercurrent whose total existence you were ignorant of. Pulled under, she blurts out that she will be at the Medieval Fair and Roy – unaware, not-even caring Roy – casually mentions how much he likes the wooden puppets they sell there.

Thinking about that puppet for Roy eclipsed all other thoughts … that puppet was going to solve everything.

The puppet is attained, but it is ugly, and cracked. No way can it be given to him under any circumstances. The narrator takes herself off to the bathroom to cry, and to let her love slough, and we arrive at the hopeless and defiant gut-punching last line:

‘I never got over him. I never get over anyone’

First published in Open City 25: High Wire. Collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009 and in American Innovations, FSG, 2014

JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work published in a number of print and online journals, including Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Island Review, 404 Ink, minor literature[s], Hobart, PANK and Ambit.

‘That Colour’ by Jon McGregor

Chosen by Grahame Williams
I don’t want to write too much about this story because the story is so short itself (it will take you just about as long to read as it will to read this). A man does the dishes while his wife tries to describe the turning colour of the trees outside their house. It reminds me of the love my Dad showed my Mum when he used to reach out and squeeze her hand whilst he was driving: a reflection of deep, long-lived love. I have a copy of the story framed next to my front door. I don’t read it or even properly notice it every time I leave the house, but I really ought to. 

First published as a broadside by Jon McGregor, and in his story collection This Isn’t the Sort of Things That Happens to Someone Like You, Bloomsbury, 2012
Grahame Williams is a fiction writer from County Down and his work has appeared in the Stinging Fly, the Lonely Crowd and, most recently, on BBC Radio 4.

‘The Adventure of a Clerk’ by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver and Ann Goldstein

Chosen by Jane Roberts
(Dedicated to those of us who have loved for one night only, and equally to those of us who have never loved for one night only.) 
We meet our protagonist in the early hours of post-coital bliss: “It so happened that Enrico Gnei, a clerk, spent a night with a beautiful lady.” Bedroom antics are hinted at, allowing the reader to wander off the pages of the present and join Enrico in his imaginings of the sensual and tender “inheritance of that night”, whilst embedded in the converse mundanity of the morning’s necessities. The basic human urge to broadcast his nocturnal exploits, seems here something more than the braggadocio of a lad about town. This is the middle class, middle man, middle of the road, clerk who has undergone an abrupt metamorphosis from the constrains of his bourgeois humdrum. The moment merits marking; as we bask in revelation and comedy, Calvino, the descriptive master of both microcosm and macrocosm, ensures the world breathes into life with an intense – almost pixelated – ecstasy of “boundless Edens”.
From the exquisite idealisation of those early hours of the morning when he leaves the house at the top of the hill, Enrico the Adventurer descends back down to earth – or the office – “mad with love among the accountants” – with a bathetic crash. The unexpected illicit beauty and joy of the day is stripped away by thwarted communication of various kinds; and his fate is to wonder the “what if” of a one night stand. Often love can be realised when the moment passes – the orgasmic glory, a fleeting moment of tenderness never to be reclaimed, maybe never to be spoken of again once passed: all eventually fades into a “ secret pang of grief” and a closed account book of passion.

First published in Difficult Loves and Other Stories, 1953. Available in Vintage Classics, 2018
Jane Roberts is a freelance writer living in South Shropshire. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in anthologies and journals including: Litro, Bare Fiction Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review.

‘A Love Match’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Chosen by Stuart Heath
While on leave in London, having survived the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, Justin finds solace in the arms of Celia, a young widow. Justin and Celia, however, are brother and sister. Living in a society that would be shocked by their love for each other, the couple go on to establish an outwardly conventional life together in a Northern English town. Included by Sylvia Townsend Warner in her 1966 collection A Stranger with a Bag (published in the US under the title Swans on an Autumn River), ‘A Love Match’ is a tale that permitted its author to comment indirectly on her own position as a lesbian in a long-term relationship in mid-20th Century England. Her prose here is, as nearly always, sharp & precise, yielding ample evidence of her wit and intelligence. Straightforwardly happy endings are as hard to come by in Warner’s fiction as they are in life, but this story of lovers never parted, and of a secret kept safe, comes closer to having one than most.

First published in A Stranger With a Bag and Other Stories, Chatto & Windus, 1966. Available to read online here, with a short introduction by Edith Pearlman
Stuart Heath is a middle-aged IT Consultant based in South Wales with no literary ambitions.

‘And Back Again’ by Eley Williams

Chosen by Susanna Crossman

‘And Back Again’ by Eley Williams is a DIY of how I’d like to declare my love this year, not in ”units, deeds, quests, behests” but through an imagined trip to Timbuktu staying in a cheap hotel with a blue painted face, because, as the 1960 Oliver West End musical song goes, “I’ll do anything. For you dear anything.”  As the narrator’s romantic daydream unfolds, mesmerizing details lure us to a Mali hotel where a fan “slices the air into swallowable rashers.” A lorry draws up outside, advertising La Vache Qui Rit, driven by a guy wearing Chelsea away strip smoking cloves-scented cigarettes. 

In ‘And Back Again’, language is dissected, turned inside out and upside down. Song lyrics thread through the story, and words are examined from all angles, metaphorically and visually: the word Timbuktu “has just the right mix of spiked and undulating letters…the verticals of boat masts riding easy waves…” Yet the conceptual nature of ‘And Back Again’ doesn’t override the vivid narrative and delicate poetry, as love will be declared on a morning “woken by the starlings…shouldering the dawn.” 

Following my reading, for Valentine’s Day, I have booked my flight to Timbuktu, and for the blue face paint am contemplating a Klein bleu. Thanks Eley!

First published in Attrib, Influx Press, 2017

Susanna Crossman is an Anglo-French prize-winning essayist and fiction writer. Her debut novel Dark Island is currently under submission. More here.

‘Flor’ by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Julia Sanches

Chosen by Joanna Harker-Shaw
There are words that perplex and fascinate us when we are children, words adults will not explain, but hush us when we echo them. This beautiful short story from Natalia Borges Polesso tells of a young narrator’s search for understanding, her innocence starkly contrasted by adult prejudice (a prejudice quickly learned as twelve year old Celoi explains with exasperation – do you like pink or blue, dolls or tag, boys or girls).

Flor herself is iconic, captivating, an indisputable denial to the adults claims that machorra is a kind of sickness.

Collected in Amora, Editora Dublinense, 2016. Translation from Amazon Crossing, 2020
Joanna Harker-Shaw is a poet, illustrator and writer. She is working towards a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

‘A Rose for Emily’ by William Faulkner

Chosen by Hazel Boyle

She carried her head high enough–even when we believed that she was fallen. Miss Emily Grierson lives with her father in Jefferson, a town known for The Battle of Jefferson in the War of Northern Aggression. The mood is such that you can smell magnolias and trepidation below the surface. Miss Emily puts a foot wrong, so the townspeople believe, when, after her father’s death, she takes up with Homer Barron, a manual labourer and a Yankee! [pass me the sal volatile!] Not only that but she refuses to acknowledge that property taxes are required of a woman of her status, nor does she need to provide a reason for purchasing arsenic. Various cousins arrive to provide companionship/spying for the family, but Miss Emily is going to do what she is going to do. Spoiler: Miss Emily and Mr. Barron do not live happily ever after but they do stay in close contact.

This is a twisted tale that I first read in 8th grade when I thought I was a genius and invincible and that I would still never have a boyfriend. This spoke to my inner awkwardness and anger, but also gave me a creepy forbidden thrill that Emily just did it. “Don’t you know how amazing I am! Why aren’t you willing to stay.”

First published in The Forum, April 1930. Collected in the Collected Stories, Vintage, 2009

Hazel Boyle has a lifelong obsession with books and writing and works as an office manager to pay her husband’s library fines.