MONDAY: The Lawn of Sleeping Soldiers


This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

New York Public Library. June 23, 2015

ON THE desk in front of me, weighted open with a special library ruler, is the lie of a book so precious, they won’t allow it to leave the building. It has to be returned and renewed at night until I’ve finished writing. Upon my laptop an endless, empty page waits for me to type, “Part One”, or, “The Beginning,”or even “An account of generations destroyed by war.” But it’s not only about that.

Instead, I type a header — “The New York Public Library. June 23, 2015, 10:25 am” — knowing this could change if newer evidence presents itself. Or until the story is again sealed in print. I scribble something onto an index card,

I suppose I could start with — “There was once the lie of a book somewhere . . .” but for me the story begins with a New York blizzard delaying my flight to London for four days. This is where my actual journey to the book began — in a snow dump, two weeks before The City was set to fit snow ploughs to the dump trucks and wipe the streets clean. It was a time to give in and give up.

It was early December 2002 and I’m supposed to be embarking on my annual Christmas trip back to Liverpool via London. I’ve bought mum’s whiskey but cracked it open in the delay. I’ll buy another somewhere on the journey back, but I knew she wouldn’t care, she just wanted me home. A journey of 10 hours door to door, I’ll arrive exhausted to the place that looked new and familiar at the same time. I’ll return back to my underpaid by-the-hour semester at a high-fee teaching institution in January recharged and begin saving for another Christmas in the English drizzle. A Magi-like whiskey pilgrimage stretching back 10 years. A line traced from my rented room of books and unpublishable novels in The Carlton Arms, a Gramercy punk hotel, to the silent shores of the River Mersey. Then to the table of a terraced house where I was once the youngest born and took it daily on the chin. A time to remember who I once was so I can return feeling less alone. This was not going to be one of those times.

Instead of a train up through England’s countryside, I’m staring at the sealed suitcase propped up against the corner sink in my room. Banksy will later paint the landing outside in exchange for a room. I have to find the monthly rent. Behind the corner window is a blur of the snow-silent Third Avenue. It’s about giving up control, slumping back onto my single bed to stretch my steerage-ready legs and rest my chin onto my chest to ghost-watch CNN from the corner of my eye at a new war on a TV image, like an early computer game, indistinct, snowy and somewhere miles away in a desert.

I know when I arrive home, I’ll sleep off the jetlag in her spare room, which she still callsmy room”and where she sleeps if she misses me too much. Our street is now gentrified as young neighbours buy-up around her. Their two-master bedroom “Town Terraces as if by magic replace the same 2½-bed slums I shared as the youngest of four kids. I’ll be seated around the same table for hours. We’ll drink her new whiskey and I’ll push for old stories she knows I’ve already heard. Not about my childhood but the glamour of the Blitz and her life as a lonely teenager during Churchill’s war; stories about pencil skirts and Betty Grable’s calves. Learning to read by herself whenever the schools were bombed, and Everton Library is shut down until the Messerschmitts cease. The lad she fell for who went off to be a pharmacist and she abandoned because she felt she wasn’t in his league.

Eventually she’ll repeat stories about her relatives who fought in earlier wars. More mispronunciations and stories changed every time she tells them, always listened to freshly by myself. Oral family biographies skimming across her sharp memory about bloodlines and distant relatives. And about her father, a pacifist and conscientious objector, who stuck it out with his children through the rubble of Hitler’s War — who would carry the dead upon broken doors. Or, how he planed the woodwork for the Philharmonic Hall and died old.

Later, when more snow is forecast and the line for flights grows longer, I brave the sidewalks to the University library on Washington Square. Since they don’t pay me in the holidays, I can keep warm all day and read on their dime. It’s a mutual exchange. Usually, I go to escape unannounced jack-hammers on 25th Street. Today will be about powerless gazing as the silent snow falls like a Japanese garden across Washington Square. One of those times you’re about to give up on New York and it replaces disaster with beauty. That, and the library windows don’t whistle and rattle the way they do at The Carlton Arms.

When the world becomes impossible, I write in libraries with a clear window view of this impossible world. Whether that’s my view up Fifth Avenue across Washington Square, or down Fifth Avenue over two stone lions standing sentry — I need to see the big outside. Leaves, people and life should be visible beyond the window of any library. Behind me, all the knowledge — the books and the pamphlets — ahead, my own past and a blank sheet of paper.

The snow falls thicker on the corner of 14th Street, so I break my journey to the university library at The Strand Bookstore to keep myself warm and see what’s in there. On the way I remember someone saying that writers shouldn’t really live anywhere. I’ve struggled for stories to write within the nomadic decade I’ve wandered around big America picking up paid work wherever I can. After Los Angeles, 29 Palms (Star-brights at night from across the base) and a hundred other small towns, I came to New York on a promise. A promise then forgotten by the only literary agent I’ve ever had, who took a wise career change to feed his young family instead of representing me. Two half-finished novels sit lonely on my laptop with a few off-Broadway(and off-colour) plays that have been rejected from the slush-pile of every agent ever since. And I still continue to field reasons not to tell mum how I live, what I do, or who I love other than teach a few classes here and there. The truth is that I never stay anywhere long enough for a partner or a house or a dog, I just pull a geographic whenever I see things not working out.

At The Strand I navigate my way around the recent publication tables as the snow hits dull against the windows. A hundred years before, Union Square was the epicentre of American book publishing and if you hang around long enough, you can still smell it. That same scent leads me to the basement pre-loved section where I’ll find myself leaning against the shelves, scanning random books for clues into a story. I’ll collect a few orphans to add to the swaying columns back at The Carlton Arms — books I never finish reading in full. I’ll park these on random shelves, search for something else and usually leave carrying nothing. Instead, I’ll collect notes that people have left inside and rearrange them when I get home to see if I can discover the essence of a character. Shopping lists and love notes scrawled on bookmarks always lead me somewhere new. I’ll sometimes stalk people to see what books they pick up and see whether I’ve guessed them right.

Yet, of all the times I choose to thumb a random old book — and I have done this a thousand times and will do a thousand more — I casually chose this one, or rather it choses me. It’s snot-green spine is weathered, beaten and faded along the edges. Half of the plastic cover falls away as I open it to smell the spine for the clue of a previous life or where the pages fall open where another reader stopped. The out-of-context pages from the middle of a book are the pages I investigate.

Inside its dust-cover, an ex-libris plate announces that the book has spent most of its hundred-year life in a house library in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I recall its title from my mother’s past —a title destined for a basement. In my head I hear mum’s voice repeating some words about boy-soldiers and pink flowers in the rubble and her childhood home on Amelia Street. I think of the layered family myths about great uncles and about the book I find myself clutching onto, and the tales surrounding it as they dwindle across our advancing years.

Thomas Kehoe.

Family stories become rumours; rumours become lies in an archaeology of disbelief. Disbelief that a book could begin with a young girl doubting an uncle, then myself doubting a mother through successive generations of lies and whispers. Now, everything I know is erased forever in a single moment within my hands. I abandon the pity-pile and sink down with my back against the shelves. I recall my badly hidden disbelief about a boy-soldier relative whose mystery book I turn over in my hands, as I might a precious edition of its contemporaries 100 years ago — Hemingway or Joyce. The only other accounts A Farewell to Arms and All quiet on the Western Front were published 10 years after WWI ended. Whereas this one was published October 1918 — one month before the war ended. It was all making less sense to me.

As I scan more pages (the book’s merit not in the prose or story but outside of everything, existing only in mine and my mother’s belief) I read random paragraphs and find myself lost, fanning the books pages against my face, hyperventilating it all in.

“My first made me silent, he said. The first, I will never forget. The silent aim. The realization that we were all watched. That we were always in aim. I’d seen a map someone drew but still no idea how close they were. I heard stories of football matches at Christmas. Then continue the fighting. And I knew how long a football pitch was. I wasn’t stupid. Stupid died. I’d seen a pitch somewhere in Everton. They could aim, shoot and hit us in the forehead from one side of the pitch to the other. This is how close (or how far) they were depending on how safe I felt. This is how close and how ready they were to get a red dot in the middle of a Tommy’s forehead. One man down. One man with stupid written on his death certificate. Give that to the kids, stupid. Stupid is close enough. Stupid never cried or moaned. Stupid fell on his back. Next to me. And I knew I would only ever remember Stupid from now on and not the thousands in between.”

The Carlton Arms Hotel, Manhattan, June 2015

My desk at The Carlton Arms was a silver-sprayed, wicker coffee table affair. It seemed fitting looking from the window that I’m in the line of many single men who have glanced out of it in this manner. The hotel began life in the 1900s as a Men’s Single Room Occupancy hostel for the down-and-outs who arrived in the city in search of food and work, as I myself once did. There’s still a single shower head on each floor and if you’re lucky, a bath. Food is eaten out and delivered in. Laundry too. It’s always been New York life in that respect. And it became the centre of my literary operations as I researched and rewrote my great uncle’s book.

The railway track my ancestor walked underneath toward the Seaman’s Mission has become a garden in the air. I walked it’s length to get inspiration. And when inspiration abandoned me, I took a job. The track runs parallel to what was once Hell’s Kitchen — a place Latinx immigrants were once able to afford. You’ve seen the place in the musicals. In my living memory of the city you could see families buying fresh daily produce from the street vendors to take home to cook their immigrant family meals. Bryant Park was a no-go and 42nd Street was the place for $5 steaks and hookers, if you were inclined to either. Ronald Regan closed down all the mental health facilities and the streets became more dangerous. Tomkins Square Park, where I witnessed my first Wigstock through a hangover on a wet Sunday, was boarded up after the ‘mental homeless’ took up residence there. Then the hoardings were torn down when house prices began to soar as people from 80’s Wall Street moved in. Today it’s frozen yogurt, up-market bars and little else.

I arrived this time to re-write a book and do a teaching gig and I found Hell’s Kitchen ghetto-rich, so I b&b’d around until I found something more real. I landed in Astoria, Queens at the last stop of the ‘N’ train. It had no money and the best view of a once affordable, immigrant skyline. It was Greek and Italian and Arabic at the same time. But I wound up being part of the same white problem posted onto more impoverished diasporas. People like me, desperate to escape normativity flee together and create another white ghetto somewhere else. Whether I like it or not, I remain the white colonial poor. Another good enough reason why writers shouldn’t live anywhere.

South of Union Square, on the corner of what was once the centre of American Book publishing, my then agent met me at the swanky hotel on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 12th Street, a city block away from The Strand Bookstore. I’d spent the morning in its pre-loved basement where I’d once discovered my great uncle’s book all those years ago. I carried a few orphans under my arm as a result. Over cold cappuccino the agent attempted to instill in me the need to try and think as an American writer. It didn’t work. What he really wanted me to do was think like an American agent.

“Look what Max Perkins at Scribner’s did in the 1920s,” I said.

“Perkins died,” he interrupted, ‘next question?”

“Why did Hemingway and the rest hot-foot it to Europe?”

“And starved and drank themselves to death. Or killed themselves. Yes.”

“And changed the world.”

“And didn’t make any money while they were alive. Next question?”

“They made somebody lots of money, dead or alive.”

“. . . and thank god they never came back to claim any of it . . .”

It went on like this throughout the coffee lunch. 

His ill-informed lesson about best-sellers and commerce was aimed to make me become aware of “gender marketing” amongst other things. According to him, male customers typically shopped “downstairs” in their pre-loved bunkers, sniffing out old combat manuals and the like. While thewomenfolk” were upstairs buying up the latest fiction at cover price.

“Notice I stress the word buying,” he said, “It’s only women, united in their spending habits, who keep the book industry going.

Pre-caffeine, he’d met me at a bookstore chain on the northern edge of Union Square and pointed at the new releases on the front tables: “The girl in the . . . somewhere”, “The boy on the . . . whatever . . .”,  “The last Princess of . . . someplace”,  “The Woman in the . . . loft” — that kind of thing.

He told me that women wouldn’t buy anything with “war” or “soldiers” in the title and, since they were the market, I should therefore do the math and change my book title.

“Or, just put ‘children’ or ‘royalty’ or some ‘human’ in there,” he added, “women pick up that kind of stuff.”

“I know men who read fiction” I said.

“Don’t fool yourself, kid — it only gets bought for them by women.”

He chose to tell me this information before taking up the career change which excluded him from representing myself or my book.

I remembered a Forster quote from a book a hundred years before where someone stated that, when all the mothers of the world united there would be no more war. Perhaps, then men would stop buying books on the subject of fighting and death. No doubt a Suffragette stance at the time.

The agent’s parting words were that I should probably find myself a British publisher.

Perhaps writers shouldn’t live anywhere.


Black and white image of Carl Oprey.

Carl Oprey is a writer living between Liverpool, England and New York where he produces prose and scripts and directs off-Broadway theatre. He received his MA in Creative Writing from UEA. Carl recently completed, The Lawn of Sleeping Soldiers (The Loss), a work of creative nonfiction based around real events in Liverpool and New York in 1918. Two Plays by Carl Oprey was published in 2022 by Beir Bua Press (Ireland). His novel The Man Who…, about a reunited donor family, is published in weekly chapters on Substack