“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

Houses Borders Ghosts

Charles Lambert is one of two authors to have featured stories in both of our first two anthologies. I asked him to tell us a little more about the second story, ‘Pretty Vacant’.

When I was in my twenties I spent five consecutive summers teaching English to teenagers on summer courses. The schools I worked for were expensive and this was reflected in the kind of kids they attracted, if that’s the word – few of them would have chosen to be there if they’d been given that choice. It’s hard to talk about the students without falling into facile racial stereotypes, but there was definitely an abundance of willingness to learn English among the German and Greek students, and a corresponding scarcity among those from Italy and Spain, who preferred to exchange their own languages at the cost of mine. The French tended to be, well, superbe, the Swiss slightly geeky, the Italians louder than all the others put together. Among the kids themselves, racial bonding was fierce. Nations would war against nations. During my first year, Greece and Italy were at each other’s throats from the first day. I remember one evening a Greek boy bursting into the staff room, where my colleagues and I were enjoying a joint after a visit to the pub, and wailing, ‘Someone has shit in my pantofolos’. It was hard not to laugh. The Greeks and Germans ate everything they were given, the Italians nothing but slices of factory-baked white bread, spending their money on Cadbury’s chocolate in the local shops. Still, apart from endemic shoplifting – a school trip rarely ended far from a police station – most of the children behaved themselves and may even have learnt some English. I know my badminton improved dramatically while I was there.

One year, though, was different. A girl arrived from Milan who was trouble from the start. She was gauntly beautiful, sullen in a sort of Kate Mossy way and utterly uncooperative. Her parents had provided her with more pocket money than I was earning that whole summer and then, as we found out later, disappeared to some exotic paradise. On the first school outing the girl wandered off and was eventually found in a pub; she vomited during the coach-ride home. On the second she was caught scoring coke in a café and had to be dragged out. There wouldn’t have been a third trip, but all the school’s efforts to track down a home she could be returned to came to nothing, and we spent the rest of the three weeks policing her as she became increasingly ratchety and wild-eyed. Months after the course had finished we were told by her family doctor that she had syphilis and had named half a dozen other students as contacts. It fell to the course director to write to their parents. Summer schools depend for much of their custom on parents’ networking and it took the school some years to recover from the blow to its reputation.

I wanted to use this experience more than twenty years later in the context of a novel I was writing about the effects the wave of terrorism that swept over Italy in the late 1970s had had on present-day Italy, with so many people now in power the children – and ideological product – of that wave. My protagonist was an English woman who’d taught in a summer school in England while living in Turin and would later meet up with a girl who’d fascinated her almost thirty years before. The first version of ‘Pretty Vacant’ came from this. But novels grow and change and it soon became apparent that Francesca had no real part to play in the world that was being made there. I came back some time later to the piece I’d written and, when I looked at what I had, I saw that Francesca’s story was less about politics in a localized sense and more about loneliness. I also saw that I cared about her and wanted that to be evident in what I wrote. The story – as it stands now – came from that.

— Charles Lambert

You can read ‘Pretty Vacant’ for yourself in our second anthology, All These Little Worlds (available here).

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