October 2005

Arts & Letters

Jet lag

By Catherine Ford

Martha Solburn, an American woman, plump and unaccustomed to vacations, eased herself out of a taxi into the late-August morning. Her companion, Stewart Winter, adjusted the seat of his jeans and followed, wheeling a new Samsonite suitcase.

“I’d forgotten about all this,” she said, eyeing the crowds on the way to the airline counters.

“The security measures?”

“No, the thrill of leaving New York.”

Frisson,” he corrected, creaking open their passports. “Like it or not, I think we ought to get practising.”

They had holidayed in Europe, separately, throughout their youth. Martha had spent entire childhood summers holed up in Parisian hotels with sybaritic parents, but this was their first visit as a couple. The prospect of travel now generated in her the same kind of dry-mouthed alarm as the news from her dentist six months ago that she needed major bridge work, but she rallied, planting her sunglasses, tiara-style, on her head. “It’s great, isn’t it,” she said, “that we’re still capable of impetuousness.”

Martha managed a small gardening business, conducted from a set of suites in a Manhattan office tower, and her busiest time was spring. She schlepped around the boroughs all year long investigating possibilities for green spaces wherever she was asked – dingy rear courtyards of cramped schools, the immaculate balconies of starchy widows on the East Side, sidewalk cafes needing buffers from traffic. By late-summer though, business usually fell off. People returning from vacations had neither the money nor the inclination to spend on trompe l’oeil or water features and it was during the height of the summer of 2004, while flicking through her tomes on foreign landscapes, that she was seized by the desire to buy a ticket to France, take Stewart, hire a car and meander through the hazy and salubrious countryside of Burgundy.

“Why France?” Stewart argued. “What about Ireland?”

Martha frowned. “What about it?”

A lean, twitchy man, Stewart was an out-of-towner who had lived the whole of his adult life in lower Manhattan. He was expert in the construction of complex models for large architectural practices but his hobby was food. He considered himself something of a gourmand, scouring Manhattan on weekends for exotic supermarkets selling outlandish foodstuffs and small out-of-the-way cafes serving authentic artisanal cuisine.

“OK,” he conceded, “France, then.”

“France will be free of patriotism,” Martha said, “at least this kind, with flags stuck on every damn thing and people going on and on with their moronic convictions.”

Recently her own bouts of hysteria, produced in the main she thought by unhealthy levels of exposure to George Bush Jnr and friends, were beginning to feel like a chronic incurable illness and she feared them. She yearned for France’s charms, its dense breads and jangly wines, its contrary people talking over each other in shops. She wanted to flee the streets of mid-town Manhattan, which she knew no amount of greening could ever cure of heartlessness.

So, after arranging for their work to be looked after for the first week of September, they found themselves at Newark, cooling their heels before a dawn flight to Paris, eating a breakfast snack of pancakes and syrup with side orders of papaya salad and abominable coffee. “Ireland would have depressed us,” she told Stewart as their plane angled into a cheerful sky and droned eastward, “I’m certain of it.” But he didn’t hear her. He gazed, enthralled, at a miniature Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance – he had once built one exactly that size for a client – and he was anticipating a glimpse of Ground Zero.

He twisted in his seat searching for Manhattan’s tip, wanting a new view of it, another perspective, a perspective he had found immensely difficult to conjure in his imagination. It came into sight and he pulled Martha towards the window and they stared in silence. The island slipped away beneath them and she closed her eyes and waited for the impressions to fade. Ever since the attacks she had practised an amateurish meditation – a sequence of loving declarations to herself – to escape from anguish as it loomed. It took some discipline to be blind, she discovered, to shield oneself from horror.

She wondered if it wasn’t the general depressive climate since the planes hit the towers that had brought about so much fresh perturbation in her, or whether it wasn’t something more personal, the onset of menopause perhaps, a too-small living space, thinning hair. At times it was impossible to know what the causes of anguish were now that there was so much of it around.

After they arrived at Roissy and found the hire-car depot, where a charming man who spoke good English gave them their keys and papers, they drove towards the city and along the périphérique in their new Citroën hatch-back Picasso, glimpsing the sugar-coated spires of Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.

“A crazy Meccano prop,” Martha suggested, and then, downplaying just how deeply the tower moved her, added, “the kind of thing your spoilt little nephew might try to screw together in his bedroom.”

“The little guy has class, you have to admit.”

“The whole place,” she continued, staring absently over the city’s rooftops, “looks kind of pellucid.”

The view made her heart beat fast, but she shook herself down. No more cities, she told herself, not even this little baby. They needed peace and pinot noir. Onward.

Their first night was spent in a small chambre d’hôte hidden well away from the autoroute amongst acres of vineyards. They were shown a room on the second floor by a Madame Bernier who wore a calico apron around her large middle and her hair cropped close. Martha pondered her appearance, wondering if she was undergoing treatment for cancer or merely keeping things nice and simple, à la Gertrude Stein.

She practised saying “merci” two or three times for the benefit of the châtelaine as she left them, and then she hugged and kissed Stewart with a weariness shot through with the charge of novelty. It wasn’t every day she kissed someone under a chandelier the size of a mature pear tree.

When she said she was “totally crevée” and was climbing into bed for a nap, Stewart hesitated, thinking he should join her, but he crossed instead to the room’s high green shutters and opened them, sending obscene clanking and shrieking noises out into the yard. “For the love of God,” he muttered, “would a little oil be asking too much?”

He checked on the furniture in the room. A heavy brocade cloth draped over a table in a corner, three innocuous little Corot prints hanging crooked on a wall. He ran his fingers through the tasselled fringe of a lampshade. “I’m stepping out for a look around,” he told her. “Sleep it off, baby doll. I’ll be back in a while.”

It was nearly seven in the evening. Madame Bernier had told them they would need to drive into the nearest village for dinner, but before that he wanted to wander and he went down the stairs two at a time, crossed the gravel car park and headed into the cool woods.

He followed a path which led him towards a stream that gurgled sweetly. There were birds high up in the trees singing ecstatic melodies, looping phrases with complex time signatures, he noted, part Chopin nocturne, part Neil Diamond show tune, and amidst the tree trunks he saw liquid shafts of evening light shining pinkly on their pristine bark. He stopped in his tracks. The garden took his breath away.

The scene inexplicably brought to mind his and Martha’s fish tank at home, the way it looked so other-worldly and seductive in the hour of his return from work and which often prompted in him a longing to shrink, a loose anti-Darwinian fantasy, so that he too could practise floppy tumble-turns against the mush-green walls of a tank.

How like New York state’s wooded pastures, he thought, and yet different. He turned to look at the farmhouse, partially hidden by foliage now, and saw a light come on in a window on the upper floor. He was moved by the building’s pale stone and green shutters, the dreamy salutation it extended. He saw the yellow lamp-light drip its mournful wax down the farmhouse walls and mused that if there had been a painter who might have understood the luxuriant paranoia of jet lag it surely would have been Magritte.

Such a profound moment, the first evening in another country when the reality of change sank in. One minute he’d weighed a ton in New York, the next he was buoyant in Burgundy. He continued along the path sniffing the air, ripe with the unfamiliar mustiness of grapevines, he supposed, and dust.

And as he walked over the uneven ground, stumbling here and there, a struggle started up in his thoughts. His mind’s voice jabbered away as it often did when he was unsettled, it picked up on the details of his day and worried them, transforming them. Your apartment is now dark and empty, the peremptory voice said. You won’t really understand what French people say to you. You and Martha are all alone here. Martha is looking for someone to love.

A shiver ran down his arms. He kept on the path until he came to the property’s high iron gates that guarded the farmhouse entrance. He peered through their elegant grey grille-work at the deep and even rows of the grapevines on the other side of the road.

He felt self-conscious standing there, as if someone, perhaps Madame Bernier and her family or perhaps Martha, was watching him from behind the curtains of her room. With an effort he composed himself as an actor might on returning to a stage after a break in the wings.

Perhaps becoming a tourist, looking at things anew, peering at this and that, exaggerated a suspicion of someone spying on him from a distance. He tilted his head to one side, let a quizzical smile elasticise his lips.

As he turned to go back to their room he looked up at what he believed was their window and saw a figure pull away from it, as if the person inside had been caught spying. Was it Martha?

It dawned on him while crunching heavily over the gravel towards the building’s impressive oak doors that he didn’t understand, with any clarity, what was bothering Martha. She seemed to be the only one of their social circle who argued, at every opportunity, that she had little to lose by breaking free of New York, now more insular and ghetto-ised, she said, now even less relevant, than what she perceived to be the “real world” she read about in newspapers. Martha had taken to telling Stewart and anyone else who would listen that “if she could leave permanently she would” – it seemed to be her theme, post 9/11 – and Stewart was only just beginning to sense that she might be serious.

Was she, when she threatened with so much passion to leave, speaking metaphorically? Did she intend to walk away from something about an American identity, or from the place they lived in, or from him?

He parked the Picasso on the village edge and locked it with the magician’s gesture – pointing the key, casting a spell – that he loved, and, holding Martha’s hand, walked with her down the tiny town’s main street.

None of the shops – a newsagency, a bakery, a down-at-heel chemist – was open. The shops’ interiors were dimly lit and they peered in at each window anticipating something authentically French displayed there. Madame Bernier had instructed them to walk towards the main square in the town of St Gengoux-le-National and there, she told them, they would find a small cafe serving pizzas. In due course, they stumbled on a square that housed a bar which was still open and a building, outside which was a raised wooden platform where two couples sat rather stiffly at tables.

The village was still and calm except for the sound of men talking inside the bar. Martha and Stewart took a table, ordered a local wine and two pizzas.

“I was hoping for snails,” she told him, “or bourguignon.” She shrugged. “I guess this way we get Naples thrown in for free.”

“Were you asleep when I was out earlier?” Stewart asked.

“I think I dozed,” she said, “although I’m very excited.”

They sipped their wine, Martha gazing around her with rapturous respect.

“Isn’t it deliciously strange,” she said, “to feel that drag on the mind? We could be down on Mulberry Street, at Chez George or some place, but we’re actually in Europe, baby. We’re really here.”

“Maybe we should have caught the subway down town and pretended,” he joked, settling the strands of his errant fringe. “Would have saved ourselves a couple of thou’.”

She leaned in to him. “We can try and lose ourselves here. I need to, don’t you? I need to wash the last few years off me.”

“Better fermez la bouche then,” he said.

“My French is OK.” He wasn’t going to poke holes in that.

“We look American. They get us even before we open up.”

She frowned, pensive. “Is it the extra pounds?”

“I believe it’s the slob factor.”

“Speak for yourself, buster.”

“Well, let’s be real. We want people to love us no matter what the hell we do or look like. Usually they oblige.”

“How come they do look so good?” She sized up the other couples waiting for food, but they were Scandinavian campers, she felt, close relations in their synthetic subfusc jackets and wilderness sandals. “We look eccentric, which has its own charm, but we’re definitely amateurs at that come-hither-and-fuck-off mode the French do.” She considered this for a moment and felt desultory resentment stir.

“I like the French style,” he said. “Who doesn’t? But to attempt it ourselves?”

He knew these were trite sentiments and yet they sounded perfectly fresh and original waiting for pizza at dusk in a darkening square in France. It was also true that conversing with his beloved without the crutch of TV and newspapers at hand, without the easy escape to the kitchen for a drink or the toilet for complete solitude, produced tension in him. A holiday, minus gadgets, would force a whole new level of sociability, one he feared was beyond him now.

Martha leant forward with a thought. “Hey, OK, here’s an idea. Do I have your total and undivided attention?” She saw his eyes flicker and tighten. “Why don’t we attempt it while we’re here?”

“Attempt what?”

“To sex things up a little.”

“But I thought this was a holiday.”

“So? It couldn’t hurt us, could it?”

“What?” He lowered his voice, looked around to see if the other couples were comprehending. “We impress each other, or we go looking elsewhere?”

“You put your mind to pleasing me, and I, you.” She scowled at him.

“Oh, I see where this is headed. This involves boutique shopping, right?”

“Maybe we could shop around for a new lease on life.”

“That wasn’t on the itinerary.”

“True, but so?”

He was unsure whether they were still in a joky discourse or not.

“What will you do for me then? Short dresses?” He folded his arms. “High heels?”

She let out an ironic laugh. “Stilettoes? Are you kidding? Have you seen the amounts of gravel they have in this country?” Her eyes swept the periphery of the square. “Anyway, we have a lot of châteaux to get through.”

“The French handle gravel.”

“I didn’t bring heels.”

“We’ll get you some in the next town we come to. Touché, as they say in Marseille,” he said.

She shook her head, sniggering. “OK, sucker.” She lifted her wineglass with a pitying smirk. “You’re on.”

After tiptoeing, slightly drunk, up the stairs to their room, Martha and Stewart lay under the velvet canopy of their enormous bed and touched each other as they hadn’t done in months. Martha grasped Stewart’s cock and tugged on it lightly until it swelled and then, in a shuddering spasm of erotic tension, seized it as

if she’d mistaken it for an arm in the dark.

“For Christ’s sake, you’ll break it in two,” he yelped. “Then you’ll really be sorry.”

She felt utterly discombobulated with wine and jet lag. “You mean they don’t grow back?” Her voice sounded younger and less fretful in a room heavy with velvet.

“Shh, turn around.” He brushed her breasts as she did. “Lie back,” he murmured. “Think of England.”

“That’s almost funny,” she said, “but, really, tell me ...” She had lost her bearings. She had drunk too much. “Where in hell are we again?”

After breakfast at Madame Bernier’s table, they packed their car and drove towards Cormatin through a landscape that made Martha’s eyes strain with wonder and envy. Did the locals she spied hopping in and out of their lord-of-the-manor SUVs appreciate their dumb luck? Did they look up every day and give thanks for the inexplicable randomness of fortune and fate?

“I’m sorry you have to drive,” she said, “that you can’t be a passenger through this heavenly countryside.”

Stewart checked for pushy drivers in his side mirror. “Make it up to me later. You’ll have to wear three-inch heels for a week to break even!”

“Oh, that whole thing.” She hoped it had slipped his mind. Waking up in the douceur of the morning she knew she had left America to cleanse her soul, to ease an amorphous grief that threatened to break from its hiding place in her heart. The idea of trumped-up bedroom athletics wearied her in the extreme.

“I think ...” she started, but he interrupted.

“I agree with you,” he said. “I was thinking about it in the shower this morning. You are so right. We’re taking each other for granted. Let’s go all out while we’re here, draw on the French savoir-vivre, re-energise things a little.”

He threw the car down a gear and swung out to overtake a tractor trailing hay. “Let’s liberate ourselves. You be that gorgeous femme fatale, Jeanne Moreau, I’ll be that guy ... you know, swathed in cashmere, dark brow, libidinous. What’s his name? In all the Truffaut films.”

“Depardieu?” It was the only name that came to her.

“No! My God. Better looking than that.”

For years she had wanted Stewart to take a mature approach to their relationship, put aside the jocularity he used on the subject of their related-ness, but the stresses and strains of their relationship had passed through him as though his core were a filter of lightly-packed sand. Dissuading him from this new earnestness would be foolish, counterproductive.

“I thought you would have forgotten.”

“No way. It stayed with me all night.” His profile, when she looked over, seemed newly etched. “I dreamt we were the happiest pair, radiant! And we flew along, wearing these sensational outfits, delirious, barely touching the ground beneath our winged feet.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “Really?”

“Speaking of feet,” he said. “Let’s call into the next town and look for clothes and shoes.” She stared non-committally out the window at a distant château.

“Winged feet?” she said. “I’m going to be a fucking cripple by the time we get home.”

“Hell, we’re cripples already,” he said. “The worst has already happened. It’s all up from here.” He lowered his foot on the pedal and made the car roar. He grinned through the windscreen, seized by a freakish optimism. “Let’s just hope they stock American sizes.”

They parked in the centre of Mâcon and wandered until they came to the clothing boutiques clumped together on a busy street. With an anxiety she couldn’t quite name, Martha hesitated. “I guess if we’re going to do this,” she told Stewart, “we should do it properly.”

They slowed down outside Christian Dior, Martha peering in at the candy-cane opulence of the place. She shook her head. “Désolée. No can do.”

They wandered on and fronted the Prada boutique, the lonely province, it seemed, of just one person, a beautiful young woman behind the counter who was so absorbed in a heated phone conversation, a series of spiky exclamations curtailed into whispers, that she seemed not to notice them when they entered.

Martha pricked her ears and listened in as she walked along the racks of clothing with Stewart who parted the pieces here and there.

Lui? Mais non!” the girl hissed, her tone seriously aggrieved. “Tu es folle, ou quoi?

“You know, 20 years ago I might have handled this garb,” Martha mumbled to Stewart, “but I’m too earnest, not to mention too fat, for this, this ... iconoclasm or whatever it is these taupe shifts are meant to mean.”

Stewart looked around bewildered. “My God, is this stuff couture? Since when have women been dressing like adjutants for the Third Reich?”

“Shhh. She probably speaks English.”

They wandered about making to leave, yet Martha, curious about the girl’s phone call, hesitated, pretending to be interested in a coat.

“To be totally frank?” Stewart announced loudly. “I don’t think I’m excited by this. And have you seen the prices? Who buys this stuff now that the Japanese are out of the picture?”

Martha hushed him. “I’m trying to listen in. Someone’s pressuring that girl on the phone, trying to make her commit to something she wants nothing of.”

Stewart looked over at the tiny woman with the creamy brow. They watched her turn to a mirror behind her and stare hard at her reflection.

Bon, OK, on s’est bien amusé à Ibiza, mais ça ne suffit pas.” She bent towards the mirror and ruffled her fringe. “Peut-être bien qu’il m’aime mais je ne vais pas me marier à quelqu’un qui ne me comprend pas.”

“What’s she saying?” he asked.

Martha began to translate and as she did the girl’s words stirred something in her.

“The man she’s seeing loves her. They had a nice little holiday together in Spain over the summer, and she likes him, maybe even fancies him. He’ll do anything for her. But the problem is she doesn’t really give a damn. She’s unhappy, generally and perhaps even very, very specifically, because the man really doesn’t understand her.”

Stewart’s stomach rumbled loudly. He cast a look at the young woman. “What’s to understand?” he said. “She doesn’t look so complicated.”

Martha went on in an absent tone, but she was involved and provoked. “Maybe he’s just too simple for her. Maybe he’s just right and a great guy. But she’s deluding herself if she thinks a man’s going to get her, deep down. Maybe he’ll love her in his own sweet uncomplicated way. Sex, sex, sex. A comfortable home. Shared nights of televised sport. But what she’s asking for is intimacy with him. She doesn’t know it now, of course, but she’s never going to get that with a man.”

“Fuck you,” he said, casually.

“Well, yeah, but isn’t that the truth?”

“I think I understand you,” he said. “Christ, the time I’ve spent listening I should’ve got you by now.”

“Well, then, why are we so lonely? All of us?” she asked, her tongue lobbing safely on the collective pronoun.

“We. You and me?” He turned to face her. “Or women in general?” But he didn’t wait for an answer, he sped on. “Because you cultivate your ‘loneliness’, that’s why, like some precious goddamn house-plant that needs bouts of misery and deprivation to sprout. You thrive on being lonely and disappointed. It’s your staple. A way of existing,” he said, finding, to his surprise, that he had theories on the subject. “You may be lonely, Martha, but not necessarily because of me.”

They stared at each other for a moment and then with the friction generated between them they propelled themselves quickly from the boutique onto the pavement where they stood about awkwardly, facing into a breeze which blew fragrant with warm brioches and coffee.

“I do not think we’re going to find what we need here,” Martha said, and she briskly moved on.

Stewart walked after her, hotly contemplating how open-ended amounts of time spent with Martha always complicated rather than crystallised his feelings for her.

He caught up with her under a plane tree and announced he was hungry. Unnerved by what had passed between them, they glanced around, hoping a restaurant might materialise in their sights. Instead an oversize photograph of Uma Thurman, immaculate in a white fur, eyes the shade of summer icebergs, challenged them from the windows of a Louis Vuitton boutique.

“You think I’m chronically self-involved and disaffected?” Martha shot at Stewart. “Take a look at that.”

He looked at Thurman. “Uma?” He suddenly found something very funny. “Good ol’ Uma, bristling with her weapons of mass seduction. If only we’d had the brains to hit old Saddam with that!”

Martha turned her back on Stewart. “I need to eat,” she said, huffily. “I need a three-course meal and a glass of burgundy as a matter of urgency.”

“We were asking for trouble back there.” Stewart settled himself across from Martha on an old leather banquette in the Brasserie Saint Pierre. They peered at menus. “All we needed was a nice pair of heels.”

“Heels aren’t going to fix a thing!” She glared at him with a glittering contempt. Her beautiful plans for their peaceful little sojourn were unravelling, and all over some psycho-politico-sexual crisis she herself had triggered.

“But,” he said, “I thought we were just having some fun, tweaking at things between us, playing some games.” He stared down at the tabletop.

“You think a pair of shoes is going to solve this? Our great grief, our sorrow?”

“Well, no, I was just thinking you were right when you implied we should be having more fun with each other.”

“That girl in the shop,” she said. “Daring to say what every woman fears and never mentions.”

“You think I don’t understand you?”

“How can you understand when you never listen?”

“But I listen!” he objected. “How I listen.”

“Well, you listen perhaps, but you don’t hear me.”

“What is it I must hear?”

“Deep interior things,” she started hesitantly.


“Fear. A well of sorrow.”

“But we live a good life, in a decent rent-controlled apartment, in a prosperous city. We want for nothing. OK, we’ve taken a hit, and we live in a confused and fucked-up country. Our president is a retard. But it’s not all bad.”

“It’s all these things, and more. Don’t you see?”

He smiled. “You’re a nut-case,” he said with affection.

“No,” she said. “I just need to be as candid with you and with the world as that courageous young woman in the boutique.”

He ignored this. “Let’s have some late-summer fun,” he pleaded. He bent forward over the table, his eyes moist and entreating. “Mart, je t’aime, baby. I’d do anything for you. Isn’t this something?”

She reddened. “I don’t know,” she confessed. How he turned it on when the crunch came. She didn’t want episodic backflips, she wanted, well, what, what, what? “The truth is,” she confessed to him, “I’m not sure what I want from you.”

He was lost with her moods, her pitches and slides into melancholia and something else, something hysterical.

He ordered a bottle of Pommard without even looking at the wine list. “Nous avons besoin de manger, aussi,” he told the waiter.

“I thought we were just having some fun together,” he said to her quietly. He wondered if she wasn’t working around to a confession. He wondered if she wasn’t going to tell him their life together was over and that he would have to move out.

They watched the waiter uncork the bottle and pour. Stewart knew this much for certain: they would not be drinking a wine as good as this every day of their lives. They would not even be drinking one every day of their vacation.

They ordered food and Stewart raised his glass. “Well, here goes,” he said. “I propose, with this magnificent glass of wine, we drink to mutual understanding,” he ventured, “that overlooked yet critical little matter. What do you say? Let’s drink to tolerance and wisdom, to fun.”

Martha’s mouth quivered.

“You’re tired,” he told her. “What you’re feeling is jet lag. I feel a little crazy with it myself. The shoes, the dressing up, let’s forget it until we can get a handle on the time difference.”

“I confess I am feeling a little unhinged. I didn’t expect to feel so alien here.”

“It’s all new,” he admitted. “We are aliens here.”

A holiday, once you actually left home, was a significantly different experience to the one planned for; another reason he usually avoided taking them.

They drank some wine. He watched Martha’s tongue run over her empurpled lips.

“Here’s to our goldfish,” Stewart said, “waiting patiently in the dark for our triumphal return!”

Sometimes it took all his generosity to muster compassion and wit where Martha was concerned.

“We’ll eat and drink,” he told her, as though recalling an itinerary for an excursion, “and then we’ll visit the château at Cormatin. What do you say?”

His voice sounded a little over-emphatic, but their equilibrium as a couple depended, he felt, on the execution of the afternoon’s plan. “We’ll drive slowly back to Cormatin and buy tickets for the tour. We’ll gape at the faded elaborateness of the place, and contemplate how depleted life has become.” He gazed outside at the lunchtime traffic.

He would try to keep apace with her when she needed him, keep her company.

“They make a good cheese at Cormatin,” she offered quietly. “I read about it in the guide. They sell it to tourists wrapped up in vine leaves.” She began to brighten.

“Apparently they’ve set up this neat little crèmerie in the grounds of the château. Hey, let’s buy some. I adore a good goat’s cheese, don’t you? We’ll take it on a picnic tomorrow.”

Goats. Cheese. Château merchandise. A picnic. She was back again, returned from the brink, and so was the waiter with their food.

Alors …,” he said, looking down at them with impatience, Stewart thought, and a humorous thought forming in his head. He placed the plates of food before them. “I hope you enjoy your lunch,” he said, his English pronunciation so good they were startled. He poured a little more wine into their glasses and stepped back from their table with a small bow and a smile.

“Have a nice day!”

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

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Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The glass abattoir

A new story from Nobel Prize–winning author J.M. Coetzee, in its first English publication, for Summer Reading

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The couples therapist

A new story from Abigail Ulman, author of ‘Hot Little Hands’, for Summer Reading

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

A Christmas Carol coda

TV host, comedian and writer Shaun Micallef revisits Dickens’ seasonal classic, for Summer Reading

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Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality