Alt Hist Issue 8 – Pre-orders Available

Alt Hist Issue 8 - Provisional Cover copyOrder your copy of Alt Hist Issue 8 now before the official release date and benefit from special pre-order pricing!

I am very pleased to announce that Alt Hist Issue 8 is now available for pre-ordering in eBook format. Currently its available on Amazon and also Barnes & Noble. Details of pre-ordering via other retailers will follow soon – hopefully next week. The publication date is 31st October. The running order below may change as may the cover image.

The price for pre-orders is $2 cheaper than the price will be once published – so well worth placing your order now!

The eighth issue of the popular magazine of historical fiction and alternate history contains six great new short stories, including two new stories in the Battalion 202 series and tales featuring the American Civil War, the First World War, Second World War alternate history and the Middle Ages.

Stories include:

  • Demons and the Deep Blue Sea by Andrew Knighton
  • Dewey Defeats Truman by Mark Devane
  • His Last Day by Richard Buxton
  • The Retreat Proceeded Orderly, at Least    by Kenan Orhan
  • The Fullness and the Hollowness by Jonathan Doering
  • Small Miracles by Jonathan Doering

Pre-order now via | | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords

Others to follow.

Sidewise Winners Announced

The Sidewise Awards, which honour the best in Alternate History writing, were announced on the 17th August. The winners were:

Sidewise Award for Best Long Form Alternate History

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Enemy Within

(WMG Publishing)

Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History

Ken Liu, The Long Haul: From the Annals of Transportation,

The Pacific Monthly, May 2009 (Clarkesworld Magazine, 11/14)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has previously won the Sidewise Award for her story “Recovering Apollo 8” in 2007.  She has won two Hugo Awards and a World Fantasy Award.  Rusch was one of the founders and editors of Pulphouse Publishing and spent six years as the editor of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Ken Liu has won two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and a World Fantasy Award.  This is his second nomination for the Sidewise Award.  His first novel, Grace of Kings was published in 2015 and Liu has been working to translate science fiction by Chinese authors into English, including Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem.

For more information about the Sidewise Award, please see

Tales from the Vatican Vaults – New Secret History Published

Alt Hist readers might be interested in a new anthology containing 28 science fiction and fantasy stories based on an extraordinary secret history.

Vatican Vaults is a captivating collection of original science fiction and fantasy stories based on the same alternate world premise: a collection of documents that have been suppressed by the Vatican and hidden away for years, in some cases centuries, are revealed when the vaults are thrown open by a reforming pope.

In this alternate reality, Pope John Paul (I) does not die a month after his accession in 1978; instead he lives on for over 30 years to become the most reforming pope of all time. In addition to relaxing the rules on birth control and priestly celibacy he also opens up the most secret parts of the Vatican Library to scholars . . .

In the Vatican’s deepest vaults, documents are discovered which shed new light on world history, containing information which, if true, would cause many parts of accepted history to have to be rewritten. These include not just the undercover involvement of the Catholic Church in world affairs, but documented accounts of what really happened in historical conundrums, the real lives of saints and popes, miracles, magic, angels and even alien encounters.

For more information visit the publisher’s website.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Alt Hist short story becomes novel and audiobook

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetI thought Alt Hist readers might like to know that one of the stories featured in Alt Hist Issue 2 has become a full-blown novel and audiobook!

The Watchmaker of Filigree Streety by Natasha Pulley is available from all good booksellers and is now a 336 book published by Bloomsbury.

There’s an audio clip that you can listen to from the whole book.

And here’s a link to an excerpt from the original short story that appeared in Alt Hist:


Spartans at the Gate: Eight Questions for History Novelist Noble Smith Interview by Hunter Liguore

Sons of Zeus coverNoble Smith is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a video game writer, a documentary film producer and the media director of an international human rights foundation. His non-fiction book, The Wisdom of the Shire,” was called, “A definitive guide to Tolkien’s worldview,” by Wired Magazine, and has been translated into eight languages. His epic action-adventure novel, Sons of Zeus, was published by Thomas Dunne Books June 2013, and is the first in The Warrior Trilogy. The second book in the trilogy, Spartans at the Gate, was released in June 2014.

  1. Noble, how did you get started with writing? What was your early inspiration, a moment that you can point to as the starting point?

The first book that I started working on was an epic science fiction/fantasy novel that was a cross between Frank Herbert’s Dune and The Lord of the Rings. I was fourteen at the time, and it was quite an ambitious project for someone that age, but it was spectacularly derivative of those two books. But you know what? It got me into the habit of making a daily effort to write. At first I wrote in cursive, then printing, then I got an electric typewriter, and by the time I was in high school I had one of the first home computers. To me writing is physical labor just as much as a mental endeavor. The Medieval manuscript illuminators, hunched over their desks all day, used to call their efforts “plowing the page.” I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. You’re like a farmer standing behind an ox, holding tight to a plow, breaking furrows in the soil of your imagination. It’s a lot of effort, but cool things grow out of that labor.

  1. How did your upbringing/schooling/travel/mentors affect your writing path?

Travel had a huge impact on my path to becoming a writer. We went to the United Kingdom right before I started high school and I got to see all of the great museums in London and visit places like Oxford (where my favorite writer J.R.R. Tolkien lived for so many years). And every summer we would go to a town called Ashland, Oregon where the biggest Shakespeare Festival in the world is located. In one week we would see about a dozen plays, and by the time I went to college I had seen half of Shakespeare’s canon. I ended up graduating from theatre school in that town alongside actor Ty Burrell (the star of Modern Family).

  1. The first book in the Warrior Triology is Sons of Zeus, which tackles the ancient world of Greece, and follows a young Greek warrior, Nikias, who “dreams of glory in the Olympic games as he trains for the pankration—the no-holds-barred ultimate fighting of the era.” His training is cut short when the city is attacked, in a type of “Pearl Harbor” way, which sends Nikias and his neighbors to war. The book is quite an accomplishment in how it recreates the past in such a lively and innovative way, one that allows that contemporary readers can easily connect, with. How long did it take to write the book? What type of research did you do for the novel?

Sons of Zeus took me ten years to write. A lot of people wonder how a Tolkien-freak like me could have written this book. What’s interesting is that Tolkien inspired me to start reading the ancient Greeks. I read in one of his letters that his introduction to the classics was Homer. So I went from reading The Lord of the Rings to The Iliad and The Odyssey. In college we had these core classes. Mine was Great Books. In that class we read every extant play from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. I fell in love with the Greeks after that. So about ten years ago I was working as a documentary film producer, and we started a project about 5th B.C. Athens—the “Golden” age of Greece. During my research I came across the story of the sneak-attack on the democratic independent city-state of Plataea: a tale that I had glossed over the first time that I read Thucydides. I couldn’t believe that this epic story of courage and survival had never been the subject of a novel. The character of a young Olympic fighter-in-training who must save his city, family and beloved from genocidal invaders just came to me in a vision.

  1. Who were the real characters from the historical sequences in the book and who came from your imagination?

There are two historical personages in my story. The first was a magistrate of the city-state of Plataea named Nauklydes who betrayed his own people and opened the doors of the citadel to an attack force of Thebans. (The Thebans were the arch-enemies of the Plataeans, and their city-state was less than eight miles away.) The second personage is the Theban who led the attack against Plataea—a man named Eurymakus. My main characters—the ones that sprang from my imagination—are an old warrior and former Olympic fighting champion named Menesarkus, and his grandson and heir Nikias. At the start of Sons of Zeus they are farmers living on the outskirts of Plataea. They are featured throughout the trilogy.

  1. Spartans at the GateYou’ve recently published the second book in the trilogy, Spartans at the Gates, coming out in 2014, and had the chance to visit Greece. How much hands-on research or travel was involved in crafting the story? Did you visit the historical sites where the story takes place?

When you write about a real place for a long time, and then you go to that actual spot, the experience is mind-altering. It’s like stepping into a dream. Imagine if Tolkien could have taken a stroll into Middle-earth? That was what it was like for me the first time I went to the actual site of the ruins of Plataea. You see things that you don’t read about in books: the flora and fauna, the smells, the color of the dirt. These are all really important for creating verisimilitude. That said, one of my favorite writers is Patrick O’Brian (author of the epic Aubrey/Maturin series); and I know that he didn’t sail around the world on a Napoleonic War-era fighting ship. But his series is one of the most realistic ever written. But that was because he was a first-rate researcher who spent countless hours poring over letters and documents in the Public Records Office.

  1. What is one of the trickiest part of writing a trilogy?

The hardest part is trying to make the deadlines set by my publisher. I have about a year in between books. That’s a lot of writing to get done while also doing other work. You can’t really make a living as an author unless you’ve got a smash hit. Plus I like to spend a lot of time with my kids. So it’s carving out that time to write. I don’t give myself the luxury of having writer’s block. Ever. I treat writing like driving a truck. Truck drivers never get to say, “I’ve got driving block today. I can’t make that delivery.”

  1. Do your ideas just “come” to you, or is it a matter of finding a nugget of research that launches further discovery? Example?

So many ideas just come to me as if the characters are speaking to me in voices. I know that sounds esoteric, but it’s true. I also have ideas in dreams or waking visions. But sometimes I’ll see something at a museum or at an archaeological site that will give me a great idea that I can play on. Some of the crazier things that people think I made up in Sons of Zeus actually came from research, especially about the Spartans and their strange lifestyle. My favorite saying is “God is in the details.” I don’t even know who said that, but it’s so true when you’re writing historical fiction. And it’s what makes people fall in love with Tolkien and Middle-earth.

You asked me earlier about travel and what kind of influence that had on me as an author. When I was a kid we went to Virginia (I grew up on the West Coast) to visit the family farm—a place that was a stone’s throw from the Manassas Battlefield. I was amazed that this war had come so close to the home of my ancestors. One of my farmer/soldier forefathers had fought in a skirmish right before the battle of Bull Run (as Manassas was called in the South) in familiar woods nearby, and then he’d stood in his regiment waiting to be called into the great battle. I suppose that image stuck in my head and later became the farmer/warriors who inhabit the world of Sons of Zeus and who must go to war—first against the Persian invaders, and then against their own kind—in battles that were waged virtually right outside their front door. So that’s a case where family history has filtered into my brain and manifested as characters in a historical fiction epic.

  1. Word to live by?

Play nice. And don’t squander your precious time.

Alt Hist – Free Online Fiction Poll

Sidewise Award Nominees Announced

Here’s the details of this year’s Sidewise Award Nominees – straight from the organizers:

We are pleased to announce this year’s nominees for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.  The winners will be announced at Sasquan, this year’s Worldcon, in Spokane, WA at 2:00 pm Pacific Time on August 21.  The Sidewise Awards have been presented annually since 1995 to recognize excellence in alternate historical fiction. This year’s panel of judges was made up of Stephen Baxter, Evelyn Leeper, Jim Rittenhouse, Kurt Sidaway, and Steven H Silver.

Short Form

  • Ken Liu, “The Long Haul” (Clarkesworld, 11/14)
  • Igor Ljubuncic, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” (Wars to End All Wars: Alternate Tales from the Trenches, Amazon Digital Services)

  • Robert Reed, “The Principles” (Asimov’s, 4-5/14)

  • Aaron Rosenberg, “Let No Man Put Asunder” (Europa Universalis IV: What If?, Paradox Interactive)

  • Lewis Shiner, “The Black Sun” (Subterranean, Summer 2014)

  • Harry Turtledove, “The More It Changes” (Europa Universalis IV: What If?, Paradox Interactive)

Long Form

  • Alexander M. Grace, Sr., Second Front: The Allied Invasion of France, 1942-1943 (Casemate)
  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Enemy Within (WMG Publishing)

  • Tony Schumacher, The Darkest Hour (William Morrow)

  • Allen Steele, V-S Day (Ace)

  • Jo Walton, My Real Children (Tor)

The Sidewise Awards for Alternate History were conceived in late 1995 to honor the best allohistorical genre publications of the year. The first awards were announced in summer 1996 and honored works from 1995. The award takes its name from Murray Leinster’s 1934 short story “Sidewise in Time,” in which a strange storm causes portions of Earth to swap places with their analogs from other timelines.

Congratulations to all the nominees.

For more informationgo to

Alt Hist Back Issues Now On Sale!

Until the end of May 2015 all the eBook back issues for Alt Hist will be on sale – only $3.99 rather than the normal $6.99 price!

Alt Hist Issue 1 is currently a free eBook at most online retailers, so don’t forget to go and grab that for free.

To find links for each issue of Alt Hist simply visit the How to Get Your Alt Hist page or go to Amazon, Kobo, iBooks etc and do a quick search on Alt Hist!

Now is a great time to fill up your collection of Alt Hist back issues – just in time for some Summer reading!

The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival in Edinburgh – Review by Paul F Cockburn

Lucy Ribchester speaking with Lee Randall
Lucy Ribchester speaking with Lee Randall

The third Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival began with a simple question: why history? Amiable old trooper Allan Massie – author of rather a lot of good historical fiction – launched this year’s three day festival hosted by Edinburgh’s Summerhall arts centre, with an appreciation of the historical novel’s hybrid nature. Not only is it both fiction and history, he said, it’s also – paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson – both “dramatic” (focusing on people’s conduct) and “romantic” (concentrating on the circumstances which affect them).

Some critics see this as an inherent weakness, but for Massie (relaxed, as if delivering a fireside talk – though the venue was sadly lacking the warmth of a real fire) the greatest historical novels simply remind us how events in the past were once the unknowable future, and that the people involved were living beings “of flesh and blood” with desires, beliefs and dreams just as real and valid as our own.

Massie pointed out that writers of historical fiction enjoy one comfort denied most other authors; they don’t have to worry about “what happens next”. Yes, they still have to work hard to create on the printed page the semblance of living, breathing people within what feels an authentic world. They still have to fill in the details, to actually get people from point A to point B. But knowing what the plot has to be can be a relief.

However, Massie also insisted that writers of historical fiction – unlike historians – must necessarily conceal that knowledge as much as possible, if only to help persuade their readers that the characters they’re reading about are just like ourselves, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring and how events will turn out. Almost immediately, however, Robert Fabbri – currently seven published novels into his life of the largely overlooked Roman emperor Vespasian – pointed out that his central character was allegedly aware of certain omens made at his birth. While a cynical historian might suggest that many “omens” were later ad-hoc biographical additions made for propaganda purposes, Fabbri insisted that he had to take into account how his character’s belief in his assured destiny would genuinely influence many of the decisions he would make throughout his lifetime.

Both authors agreed, however, that it was important for historical fiction writers to stick, as much as possible, with the known facts – unless they were quite deliberately writing “counter-factual” narratives. “If a fact doesn’t fit the plot, it’s the wrong plot,” Fabbri insisted. Yet he also conceded that, if he was sure from all his research that there was nothing to suggest something didn’t occur, then all bets were off. For example, with no evidence to the contrary, he just couldn’t resist putting his soldier hero in Roman Britain during the Boudicean Revolt.

Research is important for any writer, but especially that of historical fiction. Douglas Jackson, author of the Hero of Rome novels, explained on Sunday how each new book had been inspired by some fact or idea he’d unearthed while researching its predecessor. But how much research should a writer do? Speaking on Friday, Catherine Czerkawska, currently writing a novel about Joan Armour (the wife of Robert Burns), insisted that an author must eventually stop researching in order to write the fiction, after which they then realise what research they still need to do!

Lucy Ribchester, whose debut novel The Hourglass Factory linked the suffragette movement with the world of circus and music hall, went even further on Sunday afternoon: she said that an author almost had to forget all the research they’d just done in order to “create something else”. That said, she accepted it was “gutting” not be able to get all the facts and information she’d unearthed into her novel – some writing could just be “too history heavy” for its own good, while other ideas would, if lucky, turn up in some of her short stories.

In any case, “there are more important things about historical fiction than getting every single fact and detail right,” Ribchester insisted. Iain Gale, who has written fiction, history and “faction” books about the Battle of Waterloo, would certainly agree: on Saturday he pointed out that factual inaccuracies don’t automatically spoil the effectiveness of a book or film. Yet he does remain concerned when certain deliberate falsehoods – which first appeared in somewhat biased historical fiction – essentially become the most publicly recognised history through their unconsidered repetition.

200 years on, according to Gale, Waterloo remains the most written about battle in history, proof that there are plenty of approaches to any historical subject, whether it’s the Roman Empire or the world of the Tudors. Yet for author and stand-up Robert Newman (whose latest novel, The Trade Secret, is described as “a rollicking Elizabethan yarn”), the main attraction of writing historical fiction remains the opportunities it offers to undermine common assumptions that we all might have about not just the past but also the present day. Yes, the past may be like a foreign country (to paraphrase L. P. Hartley) where people do things differently; it can show us that other lives, and ways of living, were – are – possible.

This might also help explain what the journalist and writer Kaite Welsh described, in a panel with authors Ronald Frame and Laura Macdougall on Saturday morning, as “the recent rise of queer history fiction in the mainstream”; that is, an increased focus by writers of historical fiction on characters who are not white, heterosexual and male. In part, this is simply down to changing social attitudes during the last 50-odd years; authors of all stripes, but especially those who identify either as queer or LGBT, simply feel more confident writing about such aspects of people’s lives, and also have publishers (albeit, not necessarily the biggest publishers in the world) who are willing to get such work out there.

Altogether, this festival proved to be a hive of ideas and experience. It’s just a shame that, for reasons as yet not clear, it failed to attract large crowds.

Paul F Cockburn
Paul is Freelance magazine journalist specialising in arts & culture, equality issues, and popular science. Recent clients include The Herald, BBC Sky at Night, and The Scots Magazine.

The Red Vortex by Priya Sharma – Free Extract

The last story in Alt Hist Issue 7 is the wonderful “The Red Vortex” by Priya Sharma. Priya Sharma has contributed a number of stories to Alt Hist in the past. Her last story, “After Mary” from Alt Hist Issue 5, was recently recognized by Ellen Datlow as one of the most notable horror stories of 2013. Her latest piece for Alt Hist, “Red Vortex”, is my favourite of Priya Sharma’s stories so far. “Red Vortex” is a compelling exploration into the psychology of a great figure in history. Priya paints a picture of an early life that is completely believable and fearsome. The “Red Vortex” lifts the lid on the psyche of a monster.

The Red Vortex

by Priya Sharma

There is only red in the vortex. It’s an abyss. A whirlwind. It sucks me in, roaring in my ears, pouring out again from my nose and mouth. Through my fingers. My scribbling is furious, making my fingers bleed. The pencil lead snaps, the pressure tears the paper.

It is a catharsis in crimson. I am in the vortex.

I am the vortex.


I waited for the man who didn’t know he was my father. I’d followed him often, trying to glimpse myself in his face. I’d watch from the café across the street when I had money, sitting there while a skin formed on my milky coffee.

On the day I’d chosen to approach him I did my best to look presentable. I rose early so that I could shave, there being a queue at the shelter for hot water. I put on my only suit. Despite this attempt at respectability the mirror revealed a starving, lice ridden creature with sore feet from walking the streets all day in search of work. My hand trembled as I combed this wretch’s hair.

“Mr Bloch?”

I hurried after him. We passed girls selling violets from baskets. The smell of charred chestnuts rose from a brazier. Bills posted on a wall proclaimed Wagner at the opera house. Only the year before, when I’d been in better circumstances, I’d buy the best seats for myself and August, my roommate. That was before I’d gone home to care for my mother. Before she told me everything.

“Mr Bloch.”

He turned abruptly.

“How do you know my name?”

He smelt like an artist, all turps, oil and creation.

“I …”


I’d imagined him as a frail intellectual but I could tell, even at a distance, he was muscular and athletic. I hadn’t expected him to be powerful. I hadn’t expected to admire him. I dithered before him like an idiot. The only thing that galvanised me was the thought of Papa before he died, barking at me to stand up straight. I wanted Ernest Bloch’s first impression of me to be a good one.

“I have a letter of introduction from your brother.”

He took it, examining the handwriting before ripping it open with a snort and pulling out the note with carelessness, not caring if it creased.


He read as he walked. I tried to keep up.

“My dear brother.” Bloch curled his lip. “I don’t hear from him in years and then he sends along some stray for me to take in. Do you know Samuel well?”

“He’s our family doctor.”

He gave me a half look, half smile that was all about his brother and nothing about me. We’d reached the door to his building.

“You’ve five minutes to convince me.”


I lay down red paint in thick, concentric rings. The watercolour paints wash together, the paper’s periphery pale and muted, its centre rich and dense. This duality pleases me. It reflects my own genesis. I am the product of two fathers.


“So, you paint.”

“Art is in my blood.”

No other comment could have earned me more derision. When Ernest finished pasting me with his tongue, he flicked through my portfolio. The sound of paint scarred sheets being sifted was excruciating.

A charcoal nude watched me from his easel. I recognised his style. The flow of her limbs. Her narrowed eyes regarding me with suspicion. Small, high breasts. A coil of hair slid over her delicate shoulder.

The furniture in his apartment was dark and dusty. Books were heaped on the sideboard in untidy heaps. I didn’t like this disorder. My mother was a consummate housekeeper. There were never untidy piles or dust in our home. No portraits of unclothed woman. Even with a maid, my mother still insisted on doing chores. She’d been a maid herself once, a distant cousin of my father, who’d come to work for him. She became his wife when he became a widower. In fact, she still called him Uncle, as she had when she had first arrived to help nurse his first wife. Uncle will be upset if you make too much noise at supper. Uncle is very tired tonight, play quietly.

Ernest picked out two pieces of my work for further scrutiny. One was my most accomplished still life, flowers spilling from an urn in sprays of colour. The other was of the red vortex. I hadn’t meant for him to see that. I should have removed it. I was making a mess of everything.

“This shows all the ability of a proficient schoolboy,” he pointed to the flowers, “it lacks courage.”

He went to the vortex, casting a long shadow over the bright rectangles of afternoon sunshine that marked the wooden floor. “This one is much more interesting.”

I was surprised.

“You daub like a madman. Your passion controls the brush, not you. What is it you want from me?”

I wanted to tell him how the paint clings to the brush, how its smell persuades me to greater daring. How it spreads on the canvas in peaks and valleys. Streaks and stains. Its purity. It is my heart. My stomach. The cancer in Mamma’s breast, boring into her ribcage. My blood spilling on the floor, Papa’s fist still raised.

Instead: “I want to be better.”

“You’ve come all the way to Vienna for that?”

“For excellence. Show me how to be successful like you.”

“I can’t give you that. You have to take it for yourself.”

“You said I’m proficient. That I have passion. Show me how to use them.”

“No one can show you. You have to learn for yourself. Try and the process will show you. You’re in Vienna, surrounded by every type of art. Go and see the Klimt paintings. Look and learn.”

I refrained from spitting on the floor. Gustav Klimt and his ilk were infecting the splendour of Vienna with their gruesome modernism. What critics called sensual was merely corruption.

“No. I am for the traditionalists,” I replied.

“But your heart is not traditional.” He tipped the vortex on its side and stared into it again. “There is nothing traditional here.”

“I want to go to the Royal Academy.”


“Excellence. You went there yourself.”

“Excellence. You like that word. Yes, I was a student there, but I’d still be a painter without it. The Academy can’t teach you desire. Or discipline. And there are important things it can unteach you.”

I had no time for his word play.

“I want them to accept me.”

There was a shift that cast clouds across his eyes.

“You’ve already been rejected?”

“The rector said I’m more architect than artist.”

“Go and be an architect then,” was his retort, understanding my deceit completely.

“That’s not what I want.”

I was losing him. I followed him into the kitchen. He took a loaf of dark rye bread and cut slices with decisive strokes. Then the cheese, dense and yellow, leaving grease marks on the blade. I coveted his little snack.

“I want to be great,” I said, feet blistered, collar frayed and stomach rumbling.

He chewed, considering this.

“I have certain expectations.”

“Anything.” I was relieved that I hadn’t had to play my hand after all.

“You work. You work. You work. You follow orders. You suffer. Greatness requires sacrifice. You struggle.”

“My struggle,” I smiled, enamoured of the idea.


I throw myself in pigments upon the page. Scarlet burns the paper and warms me when I’m cold.


After Papa died there was only Mamma, Paula and Aunt Johanna. Paula was an adoring sister, Aunt Johanna stern but doting. Mamma was the only one who understood me though. She knew I’d be important. She encouraged me in everything.

I watched her ebb away upon the chaise. She called me close, putting a cachexic arm around me.

“My darling boy,” she sighed away another precious breath. “You didn’t want me to know about Vienna, did you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Such a good son. Always thinking of me. I know about the Royal Academy rejecting your application.”

I spluttered mock denials, wondering who’d denounced me.

“How can a mother not know?” Her smile was slight and sweet. “Listen to me. I can help you.”

“Not now. Sleep a while.”

“Listen to me! Dr Bloch has a brother in Vienna, an artist, who went to the Academy himself. I asked Dr Bloch to write a letter of introduction.”

“Don’t talk of Vienna.” I couldn’t think of leaving home again. When that time came it would mean that the unthinkable, inevitable had happened. She would be dead.

“Ernest Bloch can help you.”

“Why should he?” I was nothing to him.

“Because he’s your real father.”



I honoured my father but I loved my mother. I keep her photograph close. I’m no insipid, cowering boy though. I stood my ground, even when Papa flew at me for defying him. Mamma always tried to get between us. His belt buckle cut her. Then he’d kick me until I pissed blood.

When I lifted Mamma up to rearrange her cushions, she weighed less than a child in my arms.

“Please don’t judge me harshly. When baby Otto died I was heartbroken. Ernest was kind to me.”

I set my mouth in a line. I didn’t like the way she said his name. Ernest. I wanted to punish her. She’d been an obedient wife, but not a devoted one. She’d betrayed us.

“It was wicked of me but I have no regrets. Without Ernest there wouldn’t have been you.”

The thin line of my mouth contorted as she kissed my forehead.

“You cured me of all the pain of losing Otto.” She’d had too many of her children die. “You have it in you to be great, my son. One day the whole world will know your name.”


I spent three months with my real father. His insistence that I begin my education again made me impatient. I suffered the indignity of childish exercises and lectures. Sometimes he’d slap the desk, too angry to notice that I didn’t flinch.

“No! Your grasp of form is clumsy. How can you hope to excel without mastering the basics?”

He made me go with him to exhibitions. I despised the squat white building at the top of Naschmarkt, with its ridiculous golden dome that looked like a cabbage. A modern monstrosity. I tapped my feet while he admired it. The art exhibited within was equally ridiculous.

“I’ve no interest in architecture.”

“You mean you have no interest in this.”

He was correct. By contrast, I’d often eulogised about the glorious proportions of the opera house, a building I adored. It was graceful and proper. I didn’t want us to start a debate that ended in an argument today. I was hungry. If he found me tolerable, he’d buy me lunch.

The café had fashionable heavy drapes and marble counters. Cream and chocolate creations flourished under glass domes. The air was full of cigarette smoke and conversation. A waiter brought a tray of coffee and cakes, overlooking my shabby clothes.

A crowd was on the street outside, bodies jostling against the café window. There were chants and banners. They were Mayor Lueger’s men, drumming up support for his manifesto on crime. I commented that I admired his ability to make decisions that were unpopular but necessary.

“So you agree with Lueger’s policies?” Ernest raised his chin, his way when questioning me.

“If he is to reduce unemployment, he must consider the Viennese first, not immigrants.”

“You’re an immigrant.”

“One day our countries will be reunited.” My home was on the border.

“And not all immigrants are useless layabouts,” he looked at me pointedly. “Many are physicians, surgeons, tailors, carpenters …”

“Money lenders,” I said without thinking.

“So, we are at the nub of it. The Jewish problem.”

I squirmed in my seat.

“All I’m saying is that the native Austrian should get priority …”

“So it’s not possible to be Austrian and Jewish?”

“Most Jews are Jewish first and Austrian second …”

“And all of them hard working taxpayers. So you agree with Lueger that I should be stripped of all assets and sent packing, along with every other Jew in Vienna?”

My cup rattled on the saucer. I’d gone too far. I muttered something about him being a good sort.

“Less orthodox?” Ernest sneered. “More palatable?”

Had this gone on our relationship might have ended there but Ernest turned to see who’d tapped his shoulder. I recognised my saviour as the girl in charcoal sketch. A slight creature, she slid into the empty chair beside us.

“You’ve cut your hair.” Ernest sounded petulant.

“You’re crabby today.” She kissed his cheek. At first I thought her no more than seventeen, but when she spoke I realised she was older.

“I’m in the middle of a painting. I need your hair long.”

“I shall have to get a wig then, shan’t I?”

“And I shall have to get a new model.”

Unruffled, she dismissed him and I felt her full attention. After a long look she tipped her head at Ernest as if to say, Well?

Ernest flicked the end of his cigarette into the ashtray. She’d diffused his anger, leaving exasperation.

“This is Liselle,” he said with a flick of the hand in her direction.

“Does he have a name?” Liselle asked.

“Nothing he’s earned yet,” he replied.

I told her my name. My cheeks burned as she laid a hand on Ernest’s arm. “He’s charming. He sounds like he’s reporting for duty. Why have you kept him hidden?”

Her boldness made me uncomfortable.

“He’s my new pupil.”

“A protégé! How exciting!”

“Liselle talks far too much for a model.” As Ernest spoke, she leant over and took his earlobe between her teeth. “Unusually she does see more than most prattling women. What do you make of my friend here?”

He jerked his head away from her. Liselle sighed and looked at me, sliding her hand up his thigh. Ernest’s charcoal sketch didn’t convey her colour. Skin like a pale apricot. Dark blonde curls. Yellow flecks around her pupil that made the blue of her eyes look stitched on. Clear eyes, like Mamma’s.

The appraisal was mutual.

“He has his destination fixed so firmly in his mind that he ignores all the possibilities of the journey,” she said. “He’s not open. He doesn’t understand that’s the only way to feel alive.”

I felt put down. She imagined herself the more sophisticated of us two because she was sleeping with Ernest.

“Shall we go?” Liselle asked. She clung to Ernest as he found his feet. Thankfully he’d thrown down money for the bill.

All that remained on the plates were crumbs and cream. I finished them after they’d gone.



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