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The Fiction Issue 2008

The Putti

Will Self’s books are about stuff like a woman growing a penis and raping her abusive husband (Cock and Bull). I mean, he’s Will Self. It’s a pretty big deal.
December 2, 2008, 12:00am

Anyone who was fired from the

Observer

for shooting dope on the prime minister’s private jet just screams “good guy.” His books are about stuff like a woman growing a penis and raping her abusive husband (

Cock and Bull

) and an insane cab driver who writes a book of mad diatribes that is revered as religious scripture 500 years in the future (

The Book of Dave

). I mean, he’s Will Self. It’s a pretty big deal.

Story read by: Gary Fairfall, a man from Scotland.

To consider a mustache, or even a goatee, was, at his age, he knew, absurd—especially as his face lacked all the resolution needed to carry it off. Weak-chinned and horsey of top lip, Tom stood in the gloomy presbytery of Santa Caterina and let the Baroque interior riot in his eyes. Outside the November day was drawing in—the threads of the coming night drawing tight the narrow alleys of the old city. In the church it was darker still, a tangible darkness that hung in the nave, beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling. However, high above, there were swirls of semi-naked angels being sucked up into the cupolas, their pastel robes and bold flesh illumined by the aging sunlight that welled from the topmost circlet of windows.

The cold walls, the stern arches of the side chapels, the hefty pillars that supported them—all were covered with frenzied decoration. Saints wrestled with demons on the marble entablatures, Madonnas suckled Christ children in bas-relief, putti bore aloft shields carved with heraldic lions. In fresco, gilded stucco, and terrazzo, the basic geometric figures promiscuously replicated themselves, captioned in Latin, shone upon by candles—there wasn’t a square inch of surface that hadn’t been tortured with chisels.

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In this, the lowest of the seasons, there were barely any worshippers, religious or aesthetic. Only Tom, his son, Jeremy, and a way off a single guide with fluffy black hair, who was twittering to a couple of hefty and well-wrapped tourists propped beneath the altar. Tom’s own trip had not being going well—he was finding the ancient city of fabled beauty to be minatory; there were sallow hoodlums here, and well-respected old men, who sat beside boxes of contraband cigarettes, their septums pinched by oxygen lines. They were waiting for death—but whose?

Halfway down the nave Jeremy was slumped in a pew. With all this frantic elaboration to feast his eyes on, the 15-year-old was absorbed in contemplation of his own training shoes, their uppers a banal succession of blue and white plastic ridges. They had not been getting on—or, rather, there had been insufficient communication between them for Tom to even be able to tell. His son, one half of nonidentical twins, seemed more of a mystery to Tom now than he had been when he slithered from between his mother’s slathered thighs, beaten by his brother to the obstetrician’s punch. Jeremy’s flat pale face was more inscrutable—his pale eyes were emptier. If he spoke at all it was only to murmur assents that sounded, always, like denials. Mindful of his own agonies when, at the same age, he had to spend any protracted period with his own father, Tom tried to be understanding; an empathy that took the form of his own murmured assents, which, to his own ears, also sounded like denials.

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Now, unwilling to commune with his son, Tom walked toward the altar, then turned into the right-hand transept, where the patron saint herself stood vigil, swathed in rock-hard linen, an outsize golden quill held at port arms; a nearby electric chandelier gave her petulant features a bordello glaze. At once the church, which had so recently entranced Tom, repelled him: all this petrified flesh! The necrophilia of ages! The carved faces erupted from the walls

like warts

, their rictuses eternal.

He turned back toward Jeremy’s pew, then in the shadows alongside the altar a movement caught his eye, an almost imperceptible shift in the dispensation of gloom—Tom stepped up to the communion rail, then straddled it. The movement had come from yet another escutcheon, its curved front surmounted by another self-satisfied heraldic lion. One putto held this by its top edge, a second, hovering, grasped it from below, his giant-moth wings agitating the stale air, wafting candle smell, the foxing of moldy old books. The putto’s face was rosy with exertion—his fat little feet struggled to gain purchase on a cornice. “Hey,” Tom moved forward. “There’s no need…” The putto’s black eyes widened to include Tom and he mewled an entreaty. Tom took the putto in his arms; took him with the confidence of a father, thrusting his left arm between the thrashing legs so he could support the small of the back. The putto helpfully folded his wings, so that Tom could encompass them with his other arm. The naked baby was, Tom guessed, perhaps one-and-a-half human scale, because he was the size of a three-year-old yet still had a toddler’s chubby figure.

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As he had been about to point out, relieved of its support the shield didn’t fall—the putto’s nonidentical twin clamped it fast. Tom held the outsize child firmly against his chest, and smelled the sweet breath that warmed his exposed neck: It unlocked in him a great and gushing reservoir of lovelorn feelings. The putto snuffled, then cooed up at him. Tom clambered back over the rail, his eyes casting about for Jeremy’s slouching form. “Look at this cute little guy…”—the words were already on his lips, but of the teenager there was no sign, the belly of the church gaped before Tom, a musty cavity.

He must’ve gone back to the hotel

.

There had been thin despairing rain that morning and Tom was wearing a trench coat. As he strode up the aisle he slipped his arm from one sleeve and reorganized the putto so that he could button the coat up. He was reasoning that the air outside was chill, while also suspecting that the earnest and bespectacled professional virgin, who sat on a bentwood chair in the vestibule doling out

biglietti

, might object to the removal of one of Santa Caterina’s little helpers. It was only a few hundred yards along the via Maqueda to the hotel. Tom walked there with the ginger confidence of a man carrying a young child: empowered by his ability to protect, yet acutely conscious of the random movements of vehicles, the sudden zigs and zags of pedestrians.

The hotel occupied the second floor of an old palazzo. Tom made his way across the courtyard, then mounted the wide stairs, their treads as softly eroded and gleaming as the lips of senile old women. He snatched his key from behind the reception desk, then made his way along narrow corridors to his room. Once inside and with the door locked Tom unbuttoned his coat. The putto was asleep in his cradling arm. The big little boy’s hair was otherworldly, ineffably beautiful: raven-black at the roots then changing to a golden auburn at the tips of its curls, so that the whole adorable head seemed gilded. Tom couldn’t forbear from tilting the unconscious child in his lap—and awkward maneuver—so he could examine the join between his wings and his back. There was no jibe: The straight white feathers grew smaller and smaller as they reached the base of each wing, more and more closely packed, until their dense weave became the pink-brown moiré of the putto’s skin.

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As Tom was stroking this silky patch with the tips of his fingers, the putto’s long lashes twitched and he awoke. It was a heavenly transition—no awkward surfacing into petulance; right away the putto stretched out stiff across Tom’s lap, then sprang upright, with one chubby foot on each of Tom’s knees. The putto’s wings arched up and back, his round belly thrust forward, honey-gold in the light from the high balcony windows. He held his arms open wide, gurgled, giggled, then leaped into the air. He hovered there for a few moments then dropped back into Tom’s arms.

They did this over and over: the standing, the leaping, the hovering, the collapsing back into cuddle. It was a game, Tom thought, that he would never tire of—although he ought, really, to check on Jeremy, make sure that his son had got back all right. But not yet,

not quite yet

.

© Will Self, 2008