The Restaurant and
North & South

by Paul Blaney


The Restaurant

The thing is they poison one of the diners from time to time. No one can remember when it started but apparently it's all done numerically, nothing personal. Some say it's one in five thousand, others say one in ten. There's never any fuss; you sign a disclaimer before checking your coat.

With fashionable visitors it's always high on the list — it's in one or two of the better guidebooks. As for the service, you get the feeling the staff really care. I've seen artists in there, writers. You can see how it would add a certain piquancy to your meal. I hear they even pay for the funerals, and they don't skimp either.

North & South

A certain city is bisected by a river. The river is broad, its banks are high and its currents fierce. There are no bridges over the river and no tunnels beneath it. No ferry criss-crosses the mud-brown water and no commerce is carried on between the two shores. There aren't even any phone lines. More like two cities than one the city seems, though it has a single name.

From the southern half of the city highways lead off to the south. Railways, too, and airport runways. From the northern half, of course, it's the same story. Look along the river and you'll see no traffic whatsoever. Anyone would think they'd never heard of a boat. And that isn't all. Not a soul in the city knows how to swim; they live in mortal fear of the water. They don't even like to stand or stroll along those high banks, gazing across the river to the other side. It gives them a rather queasy feeling. It upsets them.

Were there ever bridges, ferry boats, trade? It seems there must have been but nobody recalls that time. Or only perhaps when the river freezes over. This happens once in ten or twenty years. When the river freezes all business in the city is suspended and its citizens, moved by a single will, take to the ice. Everyone, from toddler to crone, has their own pair of skates, packed in shoeboxes against this day. They may not swim but they can certainly skate.

Only when it freezes does the city come together. At first you can make out a rough line of division in mid-river, but soon this is blurred. The skaters etch intricate patterns, following the ice as it opens before them, and before you know it, skaters from north and south are mingling willy-nilly. You'd be hard put, then, to tell a Northey from a Souther. As people, to be honest, they look much the same.

Towards dusk the melt sets in. The freeze never lasts beyond a single day. At the first crack every skater on the river comes to a sharp halt, flushed, out of breath. Startled as sheep they dart glances about them. It's actually rather comical to watch. To see them look first one way and then the other, wondering for a moment which side they've come from, to which they belong.

 


Paul Blaney is a British short story writer and teacher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. In between times he co-organises Tales of the DeCongested, a monthly live reading event held in London, and is an editor for Apis Books. By the time you read this he'll have moved house, to Allentown PA, with his lovely wife Karen.