I have long held a love for London's Exhibition Road, and so I was delighted when I was approached to write a short story for Road Stories, an anthology of writing inspired by the road and its famous cultural institutions. The collection was published this month to coincide with the Exhibition Road Show, a nine day festival bringing together live music, art installations, science and acrobatics, which will take place from 28th July in Exhibition Road, London - a street renowned for the Science Museum, National History Museum and the V&A amongst many others.
My story, however, isn't inspired by any of these places. When I was first approached by Mary Morris, a fiction editor at Faber, I knew immediately I would set my story in the Polish Club. This imposing white Georgian town house in South Kensington was donated to the Polish resistance during the Second World War and became a cultural meeting place for the refugees and exiles who could not return to a Stalin-shaped Poland.
My fascination with the Polish Club is partly due to the fact that the elegant and distinguished elderly women who enjoy a bowl of borscht (or barszcz) in its dining room remind me of my formidable grandmother, who was originally from Eastern Europe.
To shift cultures completely - and cause them to collide in my short fiction - I have long been preoccupied by the character of Quasimodo of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Quasimodo is a foundling born with a hunchback; he becomes the bell ringer for the cathedral and is crowned the 'Pope of Fools'. I wanted to give him a modern spin, so in my story, titled Black Vodka, the main character, born in a small British seaside town, is a star copywriter for a leading advertising agency. He has a little hump on his back, which he conceals with designer suits. I wanted to give him some style and wit, as well as melancholy. What would happen, I wondered, if he were to have a date in the Polish Club with a woman who was very interested in his body - but for quite complicated reasons?
EXTRACT from BLACK VODKA by Deborah Levy
I first glimpsed Lisa at the presentation launch for the branding and naming of a new vodka. My agency had won the account for the advertising campaign and I was standing on a small raised stage pointing to a slide of a starry night sky. I adjusted my mic clip and began.
"Black Vodka", I said slightly sinisterly "...Vodka Noir", will appeal to those in need of stylish angst. As Victor Hugo put it so well, "We are alone, bereft and the night falls upon us"; to drink Black Vodka is to be in mourning for our lives."
I explained that if vodka was mostly associated with the communist countries of the former Eastern bloc, it was well known that the exploration of abstract, subjective and conceptual ideas in these regimes was the ultimate defiance of the individual against the state. Black Vodka had to hitch a nostalgic ride on all of this and be packaged as a dangerous choice for the cultured and discerning.
My colleagues sipped their lattes (the intern had just done the Starbucks run) and listened carefully to my angle. When I insisted that Vodka Noir had high cheekbones a few of the guys laughed uneasily. I am known in the office as The Crippled Poet. And then I noticed someone sitting in the audience - a woman with long brown hair (very blond at the ends) who was not from the agency. She had her arms folded across her grey cashmere sweater; an open notebook lay on her lap. Now and again she'd pick it up and doodle with her pencil. My sharp eyes (long sight) confirmed that this stranger in our small community was observing me rather clinically. From my position on the raised stage, I could see quite clearly that she had drawn a sketch of a naked, hunch backed man with every single organ of his body labelled in Latin. Underneath her rather too accurate portrait (should I be flattered that she imagined me naked?) she'd scribbled two words: Homo sapiens.
She called me. Lisa actually pressed the digits that connect her to my voice. I asked her straightaway if she'd like to join me for supper on Friday? No she couldn't make Friday. It is usual for people attracted to each other to pretend they have full and busy lives, but I have an incredible facility to wade through human shame with no shoes on. I told her if she couldn't make Friday I was free on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and that the weekend looked hopeful too.
We agreed to meet on Wednesday in South Kensington (she said she liked the big sky in that part of town) and I suggested we drink our way through the vast menu of flavoured vodkas at The Polish Club, not far from the Royal Albert Hall. This way we could conduct a bit of field research for my Vodka Noir concept - she said she was more than happy to be my assistant.
That night I dreamt (again) of Poland. In this recurring dream I am in Warsaw on a train to Southend-On-Sea. There is a soldier in my carriage. He kisses his mother's hand and then he kisses his girlfriend's lips. I am watching him in the old mirror attached to the wall of our carriage and I can see he has a humped back under his khaki uniform. When I wake up there are always tears on my cheeks, transparent as vodka but warm as rain.
Road Stories is published by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and features stories by Deborah Levy, Iain Sinclair, Russel Hoban, Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith, Clare Wigfall, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Hanan Al-Shayh and Eleanor Thom.