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Ilona Jesnick
Ilona Jesnick

You'd think it would be easy to write a profile given I spent two years at Birkbeck learning how to conjure words and herd paragraphs. It was difficult, wonderful work. Started Autumn 2006, finished summer 2008, finally, eventually graduated Spring 2010. I used to be a painter, then I made sculptures then I taught Art History. I'm writing a novel and short stories - won a prize. I have my eye on a photography course.

The Decisive Moment

Bernard’s led me into a market in Barcelona by accident. We were heading for Las Ramblas. ‘It’s famous,’ he said, marching off in the wrong direction. I said, go left, but he accused me of holding the map upside down and strode on.

            The outside of the market didn’t look famous, but like a High Street Pound Shop. Inside, everyone’s Spanish, lugging shopping bags, elbowing us aside, so I’m sure it has what Joan, our office manager, calls ‘authenticity.’ She goes places no one’s heard of to get her hit of it. She said, Susan, everyone goes to Barcelona, you’ll think you haven’t budged an inch from Finchley, but watching the Spanish lady fishmongers doesn’t feel like home.  

            They’re waving cleavers too large for a woman’s hand, with half-moon blades sharpened to a hair’s breadth, glittering like rain. I’m watching one lady who’s gossiping so enthusiastically with her customers that she hardly attends to the dangerous fall of her knife. Quicker than lightening she’s grabbed three mackerel, laced them between her fingers by the tails and whack, whack, whack, beheaded three fish. The knife caresses the soft silver bellies; tenderly it cleaves the flesh. She levers out the spilling guts.  

            After what happened, we began eating a lot of fish. Fish is healthy and we thought it would make strong hearts that wouldn’t suddenly stop. Like Anthony’s when he collapsed on the playing field and lay there waiting for the other boys to notice.


Bernard’s happy here, clicking away on his new camera, which cost a fortune, I couldn’t believe how much he’d spent. He’s on his seventh now, each more expensive than the last.  

            ‘Nikon D90 Digital SLR,’ he announced on the plane, as if I was one of his pals from the photography class and could give a damn. He wrote it down for me on the airline snack-pack serviette so I wouldn’t forget. He has a way of leaning over onto my side of the arm rest, like he sticks a foot into my side of the bed, a spoon into my cooking, a knee into my bit of the settee.

            ‘Listen,’ he said, nudging me so I lost my page, ‘Mega-pixel format, zoom lens…’ I tried to concentrate on my novel. ‘…Image sensor …’ he droned on.

            I stared out of the tiny porthole at a field of cotton wool; we were in heaven.        

            ‘Bernard, look, we’re above the clouds,’ I called, but he was staring off into nowhere.

            ‘… scene recognition system…’ he muttered.


A SHARP ELBOW jabs my arm; there’ll be a bruise there tonight. It’s Bernard walking backwards doing that framing thing with his hands. ‘Bloody marvellous,’ he foghorns into my ear. The moment we stepped inside the Barcelona Pound Shop, Bernard’s face lit up and he gave a long whistle. ‘Amazing. Brilliant set-up. Now I’ll get the perfect shot.’

            But I know how his pictures come out: half a head, an elbow, knees, the Leaning Tower of Eiffel. That’s why he joined the evening class shortly after we lost Anthony, though I can’t see the difference it’s made.

            Bernard’s hoisting his camera bag over one shoulder and his extras bag over the other, so he’s ready for anything. He whirls round dramatically and down he goes on one knee for the arty shot - ‘No! Bernard - ’ into the slime, blood and fish scales on the floor. Up he comes, dirty and delighted. Now he’s standing stock still, focussing on customers at the sausage and cheese stall. 

            ‘Bernard…’ I tug his sleeve. 

            ‘Susan! Stoppit! This is it. Right place, right time.’

            OK, if that’s how he wants it. I’ve got my dinky camera in my handbag to snap a few views to remember by. Like, a quick one of Bernard in action. 

            ‘Take care!’ I call out to his fleeing back as he dives into the crowds. Perhaps he’ll find me again, perhaps not.


HE CAME HOME from his first class with an eager little-boy look on his face, shoving a photo and a fistful of handouts at me. ‘It’s what they call the Decisive Moment, Susan. You know, Cartier-Bresson?’ I did not know. It was a picture of a man jumping a puddle, suspended in midair over his own reflection. Another man watched him through the railings. ‘But what happens next,’ I said. ‘What’s the man watching him fall into the water going to do?’

            ‘Not the point,’ Bernard said. ‘The point is the moment, Susan, when the picture happens before your eyes, the crowning event of a photographer’s life. Once you miss it….’ He trailed off, spat on his hanky and polished his lens. Shame he didn’t see what happened to Anthony because he wasn’t looking the right way. 


IT SMELLS LIKE the sea in here, wet and salty. Cold. The colours of the grey and slate waves. The fishmonger weighs out sardines in glistening, jumping kilos, guts each one with a squeeze and a gouge till all the tiny fish are empty. She grabs half a dozen squid, white as solid ghosts, cleans and prepares each part of each body in turn with the precise weight of the moon-blade, scientifically. Like a post-mortem.

            I’ve found the perfect picture for Joan: a pack of fish, labelled Merluza, with thuggish heads, saucer eyes, piranha teeth, scales as dark as a wolf’s pelt. How does a fish taste when it looks like Death? One week Tesco displayed a plug-ugly gurnard, another week an uglier angler fish, then it was back to the usual floppy fillets. Barcelona fish is firm and still sparking. I know what a just dead body feels like.

            I must tell Joan about the offal stall. There are body parts here I can barely recognise even though I did biology GCSE. Feet I understand: galumphing calves feet with hooves; neat, cloven pigs trotters and teensy lambs feet ¾ you can imagine the darlings, prancing on grassy hillsides. They take them young here.

            Pigs’ ears, pigs’ tails; lolloping ox tongues; pink glands; brains in several sizes. Livers and kidneys are easy; then slabs of crinkled waxy tripe which I can’t believe taste any good. The customer, opening her string bag, is particular which bit she wants: the small crinkles, not the large. Here are intestines, in so many twists and turns and loops and spools; shapeless lumps of gristly, transparent stuff which might be sinews, cartilage, nerves. Pasty lungs which should be bright red, full of breath and circulation.

            Testicles I know. I wonder if human testicles, Bernard’s say, have the same intricate serpentine blue line traced all over beneath the shiny surface. And I wonder if these gory globs are wombs, bloodier than hearts.

            It’s beautiful, I’ll tell Joan, how they take the slaughtered beasts’ innards and arrange them with respect, as if they’re laying out lilies, russet chrysanthemum blooms and red roses.

            A sheep’s heart is small, an ox heart is large, a pig’s heart is medium, the closest to the human heart. Sometimes they transplant a pig’s heart into a person and I expect the rabbis have already debated the rights and wrongs of placing pig into a kosher Jewish body. They’ll say: it depends. I’d have torn open the live animal and seized it’s smoking heart with my bare hands to give Anthony a chance. But how could we know what was happening inside his fine, lithe, rosy body?

            Back it comes again, the vision: Anthony falling, lying on the grass, a crowd gathered, gawping. I didn’t see, I wasn’t there in time, but Bernard was. He didn’t see either, because he was faffing about in the car park finding the perfect spot. He called me at the office: ‘Anthony’s collapsed.’ I already had my coat on to leave; we’d shrunk the email backlog, with only a few bits and bobs left over for next day, so I could’ve got to the match as planned. Joan, stressing over nothing. ‘Drive safely, drive slowly,’ Bernard told me in an odd voice, because he knew it wasn’t worth rushing, risking my life with a mad dash and a screeching halt on any spare inch of the hospital car park and damn the Clampers. Which I did anyway.


THE SHELLFISH STALL reminds me of a Fortnum’s window display, with arty  pyramids of red and orange molluscs, so fresh I can smell the boats and nets in the harbour. There’s a pile of shelly fingers with shelly knuckles which must survive by clutching the cliff face, battered by every tide. An upside-down crab waves a slow, beckoning claw. Bernard needs to see how these creatures cling to life. 

            Digital cameras are so clever, showing you your snaps straight off. The one of Bernard is full of local colour, especially where it shows the man dipping his hand into Bernard’s back pocket. Perhaps I’ll show him, perhaps I won’t.


FIFFTEEN YEARS AGO we lost Anthony. Every year we have a Kaddish prayer said for him in shul on the nearest Saturday. But it gets to me after any shabbas service, when we gather in the hall for the blessing over the cholla bread with little glasses of sweet Palwins wine. I’m asking my friends how they are, chatting with the rabbi, watching the kiddies with their serious faces mouthing the words of the brocha then rushing around giggling, and I’m thinking: bread and wine; body and blood. Flesh of my flesh.

            This year Bernard said why go on tormenting ourselves? Let’s be somewhere else on the anniversary, so we booked Barcelona, which he’d always wanted to see. And it’s  good, it is good. Really.


I don’t think Anthony’s ‘up there watching,’ as the rabbi’s so keen to assure us. Bernard says: ‘He’s only in the next room.’ No, he’s dead and buried and so are my dreams. I expected to see Anthony go to university, make friends, find girlfriends; I’d meet the girl he’d bring home as ‘the one’ - subject to my scrutiny; then we’d have the wedding, career, babies. My life mapped out by his life.

            He’d be thirty now, with a BA, an MA and naturally a PhD, safe in some scientific institute, maybe in the States. He’d be teaching, experimenting, leading a team, making break-throughs, writing up his papers on chemical research.  I don’t know what exactly, I never got to sit and listen with a silly grin on my face as he explained it to me slowly and patiently, holding my hand, with me pretending to understand. I never got to introduce him as: ‘My son, the Professor of Chemistry.’ 

            We’d have had a future, if Bernard had only arrived a few minutes earlier, if he’d been standing at the edge of the playing field watching the boys kick the ball, with Anthony running along the touchline calling out, ‘To me, to me.’ Bernard would have seen him falter and fall. He could have done something. Saved him. If he’d been watching at that moment.

            Anthony is lying on the green field and nobody knows he won’t get up again, playing on around his prone body while his circulation slows to a trickle. His brain turning blue.            

            The doctor walks towards me with that hangdog face he assumes for dealing with parents. He says it’s sad, which I think crass of him. ‘SAD,’ he says and I say ‘Don’t shout,’ but in truth I can’t hear because the air is full of shattering noises. ‘SADS. Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome,’ he says slowly, pointing out the words on a piece of paper. ‘Or Long QT Syndrome… Nothing could be done.’ Sad. The secret ticking inside Anthony’s body, which one of us must have bequeathed him.

            Bernard is bent over, seismic shudders rolling though his shoulders and big wet drips falling from his cheeks onto his trousers, his podgy fingers trying to bat them away as if they’re flies.

            If I’d have been there cheering Anthony on, I’d have known the difference between a fall and a dying fall. I’d have rushed in, held his live body tight, given him the kiss of life. I knew the meaning of every movement Anthony made. I could always tell from a tiny baby what he wanted, how his rose bud mouth gaped like a chick when he wanted feeding, how his hand groped up towards his ear when he needed sleep. One body, one flesh. A mother knows.

            ‘What are you doing in that drawer, Anthony?’

            ‘Nothing Mum, honest.’

            ‘Not nothing, I can see you.’


            ‘Because  I have eyes in the back of my head.’

            He always believed me. I don’t have eyes in the back of my head any more. No need.


I DON’T KNOW where Bernard is now; lost perhaps. I know that I want to lay one of the half-moon knives on the pads of my fingers, letting its weight score a cut in each fingertip. I want to watch the skin unfold like the mackerel bellies and see the red tuna meat insides. There’s no pain, no sound, all as mute and cold as fish.


First published in Mslexia, Issue 45, April/May/June 2010.





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