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Owlish (excerpt)

By Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, March 2023

Read in Chinese here.


Love is blind, as the saying goes. Although, in the case of Professor Q, it would be more accurate to say that love had rearranged his vision.  

Which would explain why, on that gluey winter afternoon, with the air weighing heavily on his brain, when Professor Q gazed as usual through the stainless steel grille over his narrow little window, he didn’t see the ocean. Nor did he note the emergence of a razor-sharp sun, slicing the water into thousands of glassy splinters, or the continued existence of the bright, soldierly dredgers that were always working in the bay, their mechanical arms flexing up and down into the seabed. No, what Professor Q saw was the city he had lived in for many years swelling into a head, then slowly rotating to show him its other face.  

He didn’t notice this face at first. He was preoccupied by thoughts of a five-digit number, which was linked somehow to an old friend of his. The two of them had once been very close but now the friend seemed shadowy and small, like a cockroach hidden in a dark corner of his memory, feebly waving its antennae. He extended a finger and carefully tapped the number into the keypad of his new smartphone. His hand was tensed, as though opening a safe. No: as though setting the code on a bomb. It couldn’t be a phone number, he thought. If it ever had been, it would be disconnected by now; it was three digits shorter than the ones currently used in Nevers. And yet, when he pushed the button to dial, the call connected, making his heart thump wildly.  

‘So, you remember me at last!’ 

 A laugh sounded down the line. The voice was so distant and shady, so full of echoes, it could have been coming from inside a damp cave. After the laugh, the head outside the window finished its turn towards Professor Q. Then he saw a pair of long, slender, birdlike eyes, a mouth that was widening into a grin, and a pile of messy hair. Owlish! Could this really be Owlish? How could he have forgotten him for all this time? 

 ‘I’m in a spot of trouble.’ 

 As he spoke, Professor Q realized he sounded almost cheerful. He was reconnecting with an old friend and, already, he felt as though his situation was starting to improve. He was half-a-century old, embroiled in his very first extramarital affair, and everything suddenly seemed much less terrible than he’d been imagining. His bland, uneventful life finally contained something worth talking about. This was cause for celebration, surely? He poured the tale of his twilight romance into the phone, after which Owlish chuckled heartily, then suggested paths that had never before occurred to the professor.  

‘What you need is a love nest.’  

A love nest? Owlish’s words appeared in Professor Q’s mind as a map. The lines and contours of this map resembled the Nevers he knew, except many of the roads and districts had names he hadn’t heard before. When he thought of Nevers, it was all sunshine, dusty glass and the smell of banknotes, but the place Owlish described was heavy metals, damp cloth, the scent of plastic. He gripped his phone and looked out at the sea, partially hidden behind his dark green curtain. His old friend’s face was blurry again. The sunlight bouncing off the water turned vicious and stabbed at his eyes, forcing them into a squint.  

‘This is the place. All those secrets you’ve been storing up for all these years, now there’s a home for them. Not just for your lover; for anything you need to keep quiet. Cram it all in!’  

Professor Q mouthed the address Owlish gave him, feeling as though it was in a foreign language, the words just meaningless sounds. He pulled a pen without a cap from his pen pot and jotted the sounds on a home improvement magazine, in the corner of an advertisement for watches. After ending the call, he realized the dried-up ballpoint had failed to leave any ink on the paper, although the grooves of his handwriting were there, passing right through the glossy page and appearing as raised outlines on the other side. Running his callused fingers over the surface felt intensely erotic.