‘All the Pubs in Soho’ by Shena Mackay

* Picked by J.L. Bogenschneider

The pansies were in a blue glazed bowl on the kitchen table, purple and yellow, blue and copper velvety kitten’s faces freaked with black… There was not a trace of blood. Joe’s father’s words had conjured up a wreckage of broken flowers, spattered with red; the scene of a gory murder.

It’s summer 1956 in the village of Filston, Kent, and Mr Sharp has vituperated all over the breakfast table; something about “those bloody pansies”. Intrigued by his father’s florid outburst, eight-year-old Joe goes out looking for the offending plants.

His search takes him to Old Hollow Cottage, where Guido and Arthur have just moved in. Joe comes across them lounging like bohemians, shirtless and smoking. Guido grabs the intruder by the collar, but Joe explains he was “only looking for the bloody pansies”. It’s Arthur who resolves the mystery: “Here we are duckie. Allow us to introduce ourselves.” Joe introduces himself too. Arthur takes a look at him and asks if he’s sure his name’s not Josephine. Joe’s full-bodied blush prevents him from answering, but Guido steps in: ‘If he says it’s Joe, it’s Joe.’

And so the summer begins. The three of them sit in the garden, with no expectation of etiquette or manners. It’s red tea for Joe and whisky for Guido and Arthur. They sprawl in the long grass and in his new friends Joe finds unquestioned acceptance. He becomes a regular visitor to the cottage, where he’s always Joe, never Josephine, despite his mother’s insistence. He reads poetry, leafs through Guido’s art books – even though they’re foreign – and feels that “… if he could read them they would tell him everything that he wanted to know, although he did not know yet what that was.”

Later, a visit from Guido and Arthur’s London friends leads to a promise that they’ll soon take him to “all the pubs in Soho”. 

Soho shone over the horizon, a golden city of shimmering spires where he would go with Guido and Arthur and be happy.

What is Soho anyway? Joe asks his mother, who tells him “It’s not the sort of place people like us go to.”

The lazy haze of halcyonic summer days lingers throughout this story, which is a near-awakening for Joe, who finds more of a home with Guido and Arthur than he’s ever had with his own family. The idyll can’t last, of course – the best stories won’t allow it – and by the end, Joe’s friends are hounded out of Filston, and the promise of all the pubs in Soho – amongst other, more literal things – goes up in flames. All he has left is his vision of that mysterious, wonderful place…

…its name in letters of gold shining through the power and steam. It was exactly the sort of place people like him went to.

First published in Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags, Heinemann, 1987; collected in The Pneumatic Railway, 2008, Jonathan Cape

JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work in a number of print and online journals, including Cosmonauts AvenueThe Interpreter’s HouseVol. 1 Brooklyn404 InkPANK and Ambit. Their chapbook, Fears For The Near Future, is available from Neon Books. You can read their individual Personal Anthology here

‘The Most Beautiful Dress in the World’ by Shena Mackay

A frazzled, formerly alcoholic writer, frustrated by LIFE and her inability to work, tries to do a good deed, but in the process ruins a vintage dress, and. . . well, I don’t want to spoil the hilarious, horrifying final lines for you.

Anthologised in The Atmospheric Railway (Jonathan Cape, 2008). Also available via Vintage Digital, The Most Beautiful Dress in the World / Cardboard City (Storycuts), November 2011.