A Novelby Monique Roffey
“A magical fable . . . Roffey handles this modern-day metamorphosis beautifully; her imagery is original, the story completely beguiling.” –Eithne Farry, The Daily Mail (London)
“A magical fable . . . Roffey handles this modern-day metamorphosis beautifully; her imagery is original, the story completely beguiling.” –Eithne Farry, The Daily Mail (London)
August Chalmin is a tall, pale, painfully shy young man with blood-orange hair and sun-shy eyes, who hides his awkwardness working behind the counter of the gourmet deli in London’s Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood. One winter day he finds a rash on his arm that resembles the crystalline frost on his windowpane. Later, snow begins to fall around his head and his fingers turn blue. Is it some rare disease that has triggered this strange reaction, or the appearance in the neighborhood of his mother’s old lover Cosmo? Could it even be an allergy to the deli’s new orange cheese, which seems to mock his own coloring?
As Cosmo taunts him with doubts about the identity of his father, August’s body changes with the seasons. Through a year’s wonderful metamorphosis–through snowstorm, heat wave, eclipse, and a search for the truth–August changes into himself.
August Frost is an enchanting book of extraordinary freshness and sensuality that recalls the unorthodox magical realism and beguiling earthiness of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. Mingling lyrical depth and subtle wisdom, it will resonate in readers’ hearts long after the last page is turned.
“Utterly delightful. . . . Roffey’s skillful execution combines with her inventiveness to make for a transporting experience.” –Elizabeth Manus, The Washington Post
“A whimsical and gentle tale about a young man’s rite of passage and eventual acceptance of himself.” –New York Irish Echo
“An imaginative fable grounded in realistic detail. . . . Vibrant language is one of the charms of the novel, along with its highly original premise. . . . Mournful, quietly suspenseful and gently surreal, August’s story is a haunting . . . whimsy that marks the arrival of a talented newcomer.” –Publishers Weekly
“Poignant. . . . [August Frost is] a strange and magical tale about a young London man’s metamorphosis–literally–into an adult.” –Kirkus Reviews
“An ambitious tale of growth and self-discovery. . . . Roffey is an evocative writer, and her book has all the best qualities of a fanciful work of invention. It is rich and layered and sophisticated in a way that not enough novels are.” –Kevin Canfield, Booklist
“It’s rare to read a novel with such a big heart.” –Guardian
“Enchanting.” –Elle (British edition)
“A magical fable . . . Roffey handles this modern-day metamorphosis beautifully; her imagery is original, the story completely beguiling.” –Eithne Farry, Daily Mail (London)
“Roffey’s debut is quite magical. . . . A brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.” –The Mirror (London)
There’d always been a problem with the light. Ever since August had first opened his eyes, he’d found it hard to look out through them.
It was a problem with pigment mainly, or lack of it. He’d been born with the palest of blue eyes. Eyes filled with a kaleidoscope of the most delicate shades of ice. They were the eyes of a veal calf. The eyes of a worm; of a hermit crab, with pinheads all nervous on stalks. Eyes that smarted constantly, or seeped water. Eyes that blinked or peered. Squinted. Eyes that were always about to collapse on him, or so it felt, his eyebrows sagging like paunchy roofs.
His eyes provided little protection from the sun.
The problem was one he harboured and often took out of a black velvet pocket in his mind to brood over when alone; one he assumed, in a sorrowful and private way, was a trick of nature, one which made him feel naturally confined. It was almost always in his thoughts, that he cringed at the sight of so many things. The light, mainly.
But other things too. Women. Children sometimes. Fish, clothes, car fenders. Knives. He was constantly blinking back these sights, searing the balls of his eyes.
Winter was the easiest time. Winter was kind. August could look at the world without too much difficulty, at the gun greys and milky skies of purples and lavenders and muted pearl blues. In winter the skies were also struggling; not to see, but to be seen. The floes of stars were fatter, more bloated with dust, moving heavily and sluggishly, as if drawing a screen of smoke between the sun and earth. In winter it was as if the sun itself was blind.
Often, sleep deceived him, soothed him, appearing to rearrange reality overnight. August frequently dreamed he was someone else and would wake up with this possibility faintly traced, as though with the juice of an onion, on his cool, white eggshell skin.
In the bathroom he’d avoid the mirror at first, absurdly half-playing a game with himself, half-believing a swap really might have taken place. He’d urinate. Blow his nose, stare at the wall – then turn round.
He didn’t see Adam Ant or GQ Man or a young Peter Frampton, all of whom he thought of as ideal replacements. He saw himself: six foot four in his skin, elbows sharp as corncobs, collarbones protruding like the jaws of a great fish. He saw his lumpy, set-to-one-side nose, his large, spaced-apart teeth. His upright blood-orange hair which limbo danced crazily from his head, as though a madman lived there, leaping from a burning attic. His eyebrows and lashes were the same colour and he knew it made his face look as if it was crawling with fire-ants or some other kind of insect. It was a face which had lain dormant in youth, unformed – even plump. As he’d grown older it had thinned and then elongated and found itself, as faces often do, long after adolescence. It had climbed out of a bag of tricks, punching its way into its present curves and lumps, its monstrous dimensions, presenting itself in his late twenties with the innocence and confidence of truth.
That morning was different.
August woke from a dream with a start. In the dream someone was bending over his bed, peering at him, breathing into his face. He’d felt a light and tickling breath on his cheeks, his eyelids, across his throat. When he opened his eyes there was only his bedroom. Empty, yet still holding the essence and presence of a body. Something was etched in the air around him, the feel of someone – the heat, or perhaps just an imprint left from his imaginings. He lay under his covers, perturbed, focusing on a crack in the ceiling until the feeling disintegrated and the dream completely disappeared.
He looked at his bedside clock, saw it was 6 a.m. and groaned, annoyed he’d been jolted so prematurely from sleep.
He pulled back the covers and got out of bed.
In the bathroom August went straight to the mirror. He splashed hot water on his cheeks, picked up his shaving foam from the shelf above the sink and sprayed a ball of foam into one hand.
For five, maybe six years now, what he saw most mornings wasn’t just a face he didn’t like. It was a face which didn’t fit.
August glanced at the mirror’s edge.
An old photograph was wedged behind it. The photo, about three inches long and two inches wide, had curled with age and its colours had become a mixture of liverish browns and lurid over-processed inks: purples, greens. Framed in the middle, in a tank top and jeans stood Luke, a smallish, wiry man with long blond hair and fine, even features. Cheekbones. Thin lips. Dark eyes. Tanned skin. Luke was handsome and impish; a vibrancy in his smile which spoke of an innate ease with the world. In the picture Luke had his arms folded across his chest and a large tattoo bulged high up on his right arm – Lucky Luke, the cartoon cowboy with the lounge crooner’s eyes. Luke smiled out from the photograph with the sureness of that day’s sunshine. With the abundance of the harvest at the time. With the ripeness of an afternoon. With the ease of evening.
The photo was taken the day before he died.
Luke, August’s father, had died when he was two weeks old.
Small, sunny Luke.
August rubbed foam slowly, deliberately, across his cheeks making large smooth circles, his eyes picking over the photograph, Luke’s hair, his mouth, his nose.
As the years passed, as his face had gradually formed, August had grown more and more suspicious of the man in the photograph. The more he examined Luke’s face for clues: a curve of the brow, or even of the ear, moles, freckles, anything, the more he’d come to see their connection was plainly incongruous – he looked nothing like Luke. In fact, they were impossibly different. And this disturbing idea, now living with him for years, was made worse by the fact that Luke’s picture triggered no emotion. No filial response. When he looked at Luke he felt nothing.
Carefully, he rubbed foam along his top lip.
His mother, he’d come to realize, also behaved oddly. As he’d grown older he’d come to see her thinness. She was internally thin. Collapsed in on herself; thin-voiced, thin-nerved. As a child he hadn’t understood, hadn’t pieced together her mannerisms: her permanently clenched jaw, her habit of looking away when she spoke, of keeping conversations short, of being afraid of scrutiny of any sort. Her stories about Luke had always been kept to the minimum, the same few details repeated. She was on bad terms with Luke’s parents and had lost contact, never encouraged him to trace them. He’d added all this up.
Now he felt mocked.
His eyes like pools of fat, his golem’s skin. His teeth, his height. His colouring.
All taunted him.
That morning, as he smoothed foam along his jaw line, August felt a tingling in the backs of his forearms, a sheer blush of warmth. Peculiar, as though a battery had been switched on inside him; he could feel his blood cells multiplying in a dim frenzy.
He caught sight of one of his forearms in the mirror. It looked unusual. Something white, a pattern, was smattered along his arm, a rash of some sort. Perhaps he’d eaten something. Odd. He rarely got rashes, had no allergies that he knew of. The sensation spread up to his elbow, then his armpit, becoming warmer and more fluid. August peered closely at his arm. The pattern seemed to have risen up from under his skin, was part of it. In it, even. He rubbed it, pinching up the skin between his thumb and forefinger. It appeared to be made of fine particles which sparkled a little, like salt or sugar. Crystals.
The morning sky was low over London. Outside the darkness was just lifting and the air had the qualities of a lung; dense, absorbent. Muffling sound. August noticed tiny lilac globes, hailstones, scattered on the ground as he walked to work – the result of a clash between currents thirty miles up. The walk was short, all of three minutes, left out of his flat, up Lena Gardens and right on to Shepherd’s Bush Road. At Finlay’s Deli, he stopped and fumbled for keys in his trouser pockets. When he found them he let himself in, flicking on the lights as he walked through to the cafe” at the back.
In the kitchen alcove he switched on the coffee machine, letting it warm up before he made himself the first cup of many he drank throughout the day. He went back through to the deli, slipping behind the long display fridge. On the counter a coffee grinder stood upright, battered, shoulders back, its funnel bent somehow at a noble slant; rows of brown-dusty drawers of unground beans ran under it, jars of ground coffee crowded around it. Behind the grinder was a small, portable radio-cassette player and some tapes. He selected some Colombian ground coffee as well as some cumbia, slipping the tape into the machine and pressing play.
August closed his eyes – his way of making himself vanish. The cumbia was slow and rustic, snaking around his waist, settling on the soft, butterfly-shaped area around his kidneys. Trumpets and horns. An accordion. Sticks. And possibly an old washboard for percussion. It was a simple melody and he imagined it came from the mouths of five ancient men, sitting on chairs in a dance hall, singing to a wedding party. He envisaged couples gliding across a vast polished floor, mutely pressed together. He began to sway carefully, from side to side, feeling the music in his mind, a lazy, friendly tune.
His hips began to swing in time to the languid song, moving effortlessly, as though his body and the music were one. He began to shift his feet. One step, then two. He shimmied forward, braver, the trumpets pushing him from behind. His hands floated upwards and began to knead the air in gentle, fluid movements.
August salsa-ed past the salami slicer, past the row of upright fridges which kept fine cakes and champagne, the quail’s eggs and the Ben & Jerry’s, past the entrance to the cafe”. He danced blindly into the middle of the deli, danced around the wrought iron tables pulled in from the pavement. Danced, suspended in time, his face relaxed, different, a small smile pressed into his cheeks, danced graciously, loose-limbed, on his own. In Spanish, the old men were crooning, something about tobacco. August hopped a little, overcome with the rise in emotion in their voices, the increase in tempo.
He opened his eyes by accident.
Sweet Banana Wax Peppers.
The jar pulsed on the shelf in front of him; the peppers were gnarled and an eerie yellow, pickles from another world. He cocked his head at them, trying to realize them, absorb their freakish nature. Something about their twisted form was strangely soothing.
The music was stronger than him now, picking him up and coursing through him. Near the peppers were rows of condiments. August ran his eyes along the jars: Jamaican Pepper Jelly, Spicy Sri Lankan Balti Paste, Green Olive P”t”. Their thick textures were somehow reassuring, he felt stirred at the thought of their locked secrets. He danced on, past the wall of pasta sauces, marvelling at their flavours, silently mouthing their long, onomatopoeic names: arrabiata, basilico, puttanesca, vodka, campagnola. He stared closely at a jar of tightly packed anchovies. Silverwhite fillets. Tiny fish darting through the water. Now naked and standing on their heads. He could taste them: gluey, vinegary. He danced past bags of lumaconi pasta. Like giant snails. He hadn’t ever tried them. He must, he told himself. With cream and porcini mushrooms.
He danced on. His body had warmed. His blood was loose and roamed freely over his back and shoulders. He twirled his hands and rotated his hips in graceful circles. It felt natural and he smiled. People did things like this all the time, he thought, without having to close their eyes. August snatched up two tubes of pretzels from a small table and shook them like maracas. He had rhythm and movement. Momentum. He salamandered backwards, towards the door, hands and hips in sync, feet like crabs darting from side to side. He was suddenly excited, thrilled he could move so fast. A flurry of strong feelings rushed around in him.
A sharp banging rang out above the music. August became instantly rigid.
The sound rang out again, unmistakable: knuckles rapping on the glass.
August remained frozen, cat-like, as though about to pounce, pretzel tins still in his hands.
Slowly, he turned to look outside.
A young woman was standing on the pavement, about three feet from him. She was pretty, her hair running down her shoulders in two silver rivers. Her face was lightly tanned and her neat, black eyes were narrowed. Her arms were folded across her chest. August dropped the pretzel tins and they clattered to the floor. He moved quickly across the deli towards the display fridge, slipping behind it to the small portable radio-cassette player and switched the music off. He could feel all the heat in him rushing up his neck, into his face. He glanced out the window again.
The young woman was still waiting, her eyes more like slits.
At the door his fingers trembled at the lock. Panic flooded him as he felt his hair, his nose, his teeth, his entire body re-emerge from wherever it had gone.
He opened the door.
“I’m s-sorry,” he stammered.
August’s eyes tried to meet hers but instead found her chest. He smiled apologetically.
The young woman pulled her head backwards. Her face hardened as she scanned his features. She gazed openly for a moment, as though she didn’t have to be polite.
“Your cheese,” she said curtly.
August was puzzled. ‘my . . .”
But the woman turned, cutting him off before he could
finish his response and stalked back towards a van parked nearby.
* * *
The storeroom sprawled like a catacomb beneath the deli. Its walls were pistachio green and lined with shelves crammed with tins and jars of overstocked goods. In one corner there was a kitchen with a large oven used for baking, fridges for the cakes and salads, also two cold rooms, one for cheese, the other for meat. In another corner there was a door which led to a small office.
August let the box of cheese fall to the floor with a thud. He shuddered as he thought of the woman who brought the delivery, remembering the way she wouldn’t look at him as he wrestled the box from the back of the van. With a Stanley knife he sliced the top flaps open. Shiny new hay protected the cheeses inside. He grasped a handful, put it to his nose and inhaled. It smelt of cows. Open pastures. Mountain streams. That morning, the cheeses had been flown in from Normandy.
As he scrabbled through the hay he imagined the affineur they’d come from, a middle-aged man with a grey tonsure and cheeks like ripe apples, his skin the colour of tea. His fingers were callused and he had haemorrhoids from eating too much cheese. His “caves d”affinage” were large dark rooms with fat dimes of cheese stacked high to the ceiling. Though August had never been to France, he’d seen pictures of French dairy cows with distended udders like hot pink torpedoes. Milked twice a day – they needed to be. An Emmental, he knew, was made with 900 litres. He imagined the affineur as a man of great natural balance, a virtuoso of alchemy who could make cheese from the milk of trees.
He found a large envelope resting on the first waxy package, a large wheel of Brie. In it there was a list in turquoise spidery writing.
3 St Maures de Touraine
2 Camemberts de Normandie 3 Bries de Meaux Pont” L”Ev”que – 1 kilo 1 Roquefort
Comte – 3 kilos
12 Crottins de Chavignol 6 Pouligny Saint Pierre 1 Boule de Lille
Boule de Lille. This was a new order, one he’d avoided having in the deli but couldn’t any longer. Customers kept asking for it. Recipes often recommended it. It was a bold, rich cheese, fine for cooking and eating, good in salads and in canap’s. Excellent for crudit’s. Now, he found himself impatient to see it. Hastily, he began to unpack the box, gathering the three large Bries to his chest and stacking them on a shelf in the cold room, then the Camemberts and the Roquefort and the smaller goat’s cheeses. He left them wrapped, not interested in any of these. He wanted to hold the Boule de Lille.
When the other cheeses were stacked he looked down into the box. The way the Boule de Lille was nestling in one corner was deceptively timid. He picked it up and weighed it in his hands; it was heavy, he mused, almost three kilos.
‘mi-mou,” August said the words out loud as if to a small
face he was holding in his hands. Half-soft. Mimolette was its more common name. He carried it to the window, his pale eyes watering as he held it up to the light. The cheese was perfectly spherical, a compact, heavy ball. Its surface was peach coloured and pockmarked, lunar even. The cheese could be a small planet, he imagined, Mars or the moon. He saw the large vats of milk, the kind used in dairies, the curds rising, the whey falling away leaving the concentrate. This is what the cheese looks like, he decided, the earth’s concentrate. A planet’s core.
He knew he’d find it hard to look at the cheese once cut open, hard to look at its colour.
Unlike him, the cheese wore the colour easily, projecting it and flaunting it openly. He’d often seen the cheese in other delis, sitting composed in the fridge with its brilliant orange on display, rude as open legs, and as brazen. Attracting people. Charming strangers. Mimolette was always popular, it was vivacious and robust – a jester amongst cheeses.
Now he looked at the cheese half-wanting it to speak, to release the secret of its confidence, of dealing with its extreme colour, also half-fighting an urge to hurl it out the window.
Upstairs, the front door banged open and there was the sound of clumping feet and singing. Henry.
“o’ est mon beau haricot?” she shouted.
The French had been going on for weeks, since she’d met her new boyfriend Yves. She’d decided the language was spoken loudly and in the tones of the BBC.
“I’m here!” August replied from the catacomb.
He gripped the Mimolette in the crook of his arm and climbed the stairs to the caf”. Henry was in the front of the shop, dragging one of the wrought iron tables out on to the pavement. He was glad to see her, as usual, to take note secretly of her hair. Before working at the deli she used to be a hairdresser’s assistant and her hair was always different. Today she’d woven her long, black tresses into two side-plaits which had been carefully wound to make deck quoits above her ears.
“Fous le camp!” Henry snorted, her back to him. August grinned.
“That’s fuck off, not fuck me,” he corrected, joining her.
“I don’t care, help me out, ch”ri.”
He picked up the other side of the table and together
they carried it out on to the pavement.
‘merci,” she smiled when the table was on the ground. Outside, the cold air was like fire, burning the end of his
nose, stinging his cheeks.
“Is your boyfriend learning English?” he inquired, shivering. “No.”
“Because French is the language of love!” Henry winked.
Henry’s hairdo was both unflattering and endearing, both matronly and sleek, giving her an air of a young Eastern-bloc Olympian starlet. The dark down on the edges of her face, along her jaw line, had collected moisture. Her pear coloured eyes prickled from the cold. August found her utterly captivating, as usual.
He tried to smile at her but his lips wilted.
“And the language of cheese!” she laughed and began to unbutton her long quilted jacket. Underneath, her brown
cardigan was silky, as though knitted from the ears of an exotic goat. He saw that it clung to her body, rising with the swell of her breasts which seemed large and firm and delicate all at once, then fell into a wide waist which somehow seemed small. Her body was a gentle place, August thought. Gentle, like sleep.
There were morning rituals. Together, they went about them with a practised ease. The white tureens of olives needed to be brought up from the fridges downstairs and laid out on the large, black, wooden table opposite the till. There were half a dozen different types. Mauve Italian olives the size of quail’s eggs. To August they were sinister, a gutter full of decomposing bodies. French olives, black and swollen, the size of prunes. Bald, yellow, Spanish ones which tasted like old socks. Green olives, tiny rugby balls, marinated in basil and lemon. Oily, Boscailo olives with garlic and red peppers. The small, black Nic”oises fermenting in a claret coloured water could be cherries. There were also pestos and pickles, capers, woodland mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes. Fresh bread and pastries were delivered to the back door every morning and needed arranging in baskets. Quiches and pies and tartlets on little silver platters were placed in the window.
“Je vais faire le awning,” Henry informed him, carrying the long hooked pole like a lance as she walked outside. August watched as Henry lunged upwards and missed.
‘merde!” she laughed through gritted teeth.
She wasn’t tall enough to do this job, but she always tried. She smiled through the window at August to signal she was fine. He grinned and shook his head, walking out on to the pavement. Henry jumped again. August said nothing. Instead he grabbed the top half of the pole, his arms reaching up, way over her head. Henry held the bottom. Together they pulled as if on the rope of a church bell, their bodies close, facing each other. August felt a flutter inside his chest being so close to her, her smell. Pears soap. As Henry looked up through his arms, her eyes landed on the scoop at the base of his neck, the pale skin there, smooth as the skin of a seal. August blushed and grinned, showing his teeth. Henry’s eyes flickered and then glanced away again. They pulled and the awning slowly unfolded like the hood of an old jalopy, clicking into place.
Their arms dropped and they stood for a moment on the pavement. Next to them, on Shepherd’s Bush Road, the morning’s traffic was grim and stationary. Like baby elephants each car stood patiently still, holding on to the tail of the car in front. Metres from them, the road was lined with hulking, flaking, long-faced, Victorian terraced houses. Around, above and beyond, the sky was resentfully nurturing a pastel yellow bruise.
“In December everything becomes ugly,” Henry grumbled.
He looked up, admiring the plane tree above them. Its slim belly had turned a silver khaki and it rose from the pavement, a great cobra with combat fatigue skin, leaning into the road, above the traffic with its ten arms stretched out above it as if to dance a salsa. One arm was shorter and stumpy. August decided this was its head, a mossy Afro, thrown back in a laugh. The laugh rustled high above them, rattling him, making him feel suddenly, unaccountably watched.
“Il fait froid,” Henry said, thinly.
“Oui,” August replied. “Il fait tr’s froid.”
The first customers were usually mothers with toddlers dropping their older children to school. Or builders, or people coming off a night shift. People stopped for a takeout coffee on the way to either Hammersmith or Shepherd’s Bush tube.
Finlay’s Deli was owned by Rose Finlay. Painted tomato red, and sheltering two nests of tables and chairs under its awning, it was a homely and welcoming landmark on the long and mostly featureless Shepherd’s Bush Road, part of a small stretch of shops a little east of Brook Green. On one side of the deli was a Chinese takeaway, on the other a newsagent run by a Muslim family. Across the road and along, next to Pollen, the flower shop, there was a tapas bar. Further towards Shepherd’s Bush Green the terraced houses were mostly dingy hostels, most full of asylum seekers, who, when bored, hung around on doorsteps, or patrolled up and down in groups. To August these surroundings were fascinating, glamorous even; a mix of customs and cultures from countries he’d only ever read about or seen on TV. Most days it was possible to overhear a dozen languages spoken in the street.
First thing in the morning the shop and the caf” were full, but easy to deal with. People weren’t themselves in the morning. It was like attending to a swarm of smoked bees. People were stingless. Quiet, vague. Happy to wait in line. People were still dreaming. It wasn’t until later, when the day had slapped them in the face, that customers could get demanding. By lunch time things were different. Rose came at midday to help.
As August served the sleepy, he fantasized about having sex with Henry.
The fantasy was always more or less the same.
There wasn’t much space behind the display fridge and often their bodies grazed each other during the course of the day. In his fantasy the deli was empty. It was late afternoon. They bumped into each other. A coffee cup dropped. It shattered and they both knelt to retrieve the pieces. On the way down their noses clashed, foreheads bumped. Lips met. They kissed deeply. Passion had been brewing between them for almost a year. Henry’s voice was thick as she began to tell him what she would like to do to him, how long she’d thought about doing these things. She bit his ear. They rose, joined at the hips. He slipped his hands under her shirt, felt her smooth, warm skin. He pushed her back gently, her buttocks sliding effortlessly across the marble counter in front of the fridge full of cheese. He saw her thighs open towards him, felt her mouth on his throat. His fingers found her underwear, fine black lace. They twisted in them. As he pressed her neck with kisses he slid his fingers inside her. It was wet and warm at her centre and he felt happy and relieved. They laughed and stayed like this for a brief moment.
Then she fell into the cheese.
Sometimes, when they were on the olive table, she fell, heavily, off the table. Or if they were on the sink in the cafe”, she fell into the sink. When they were on the stairs which led to the storeroom, she fell down the stairs. Other times they were attacked by a swarm of locusts. Once they fell into a hole, a deep black hole. It just appeared. They were having sex on a ladder and they fell in. Another time they were attacked by a whale.
Henry had just fallen into the cheese when a man walked into the shop. August was mildly aroused; under his apron he was semi-erect. He was staring at his shoes. When he looked up, he saw the battered cowboy hat and the long square face. Instantly recognizable, but also a blur in his memory. The same face but different. August was suddenly faint, crowded in. The man smiled and pointed at a blueberry muffin.
“One of those and a double espresso.” The voice.
He remembered the voice, the garbled monologues; he used to talk fast and nervously, sucking air up, catching wind in him. August walked from the deli to the coffee machine in the cafe”. The hat. Could it be the same hat? On the same head? Would a man wear the same hat for over twenty years? He scooped coffee into the espresso filter, slotted the filter into the groove in the machine, pressed the switch. It lit up. Blood-orange. Two feet away, Henry was making peppermint tea. She smiled at him. He stared at the delicate black hair on her bare forearms; he could see under her trousers she was wearing a G-string.
“”a va, ma pomme frite?”
August’s face was grey.
No, he wanted to say. No, I’m not all right. I want to lie down, go to the toilet. A feeling of dread ran through him, liquid, as though ink was being poured into his head. Thick, strong coffee flowed in a stream into a demitasse. When it stopped August unlatched the scoop from the machine and placed the little cup on a little saucer. He slipped back behind the fridge, walked to the counter where the man was still standing, already eating the blueberry muffin.
“That’s two pounds fifty, please,” August said stiffly.
The man dug in his jeans pocket. His flowery shirt was open to the chest, exposing grizzled hair underneath. Over it he wore a large, sheepskin jacket which was stained with what could have been fox blood or battery acid, or children’s hand prints. The man smiled broadly, handsomely, as he’d always done. He handed him the coins.
“Thanks,” August mumbled.
The man picked up the muffin and coffee and walked out of the deli on to the street. He sat at one of the tables, looking around expectantly, as if he was waiting for someone, his breath like steam.
August watched the man as he looked up into the plane tree. Drink your coffee, he thought. Drink your coffee and leave.
When the man left, August ran downstairs and locked himself in the bathroom. He stared in the mirror for a full minute only seeing past himself – to a room with red walls, to something he’d seen a long time ago and a sound like panic. Years, a lifetime it’d been. An age had passed since he’d last seen Cosmo. A hotness rose in him, flooding his face. He caught a single tear with his finger and wiped it away. He turned his head, one way, then the next, scrutinizing his mug-shot.
When he was a child he’d feared asking his mother questions. Feared, superstitiously, in the way of children, the effect they might have. They could cause her to do unexpected, undesirable things. As a child, questions were potentially disastrous. And that fear still persisted. He was still unwilling to upset the carefully arranged order of things between them, what little they had, even though it was all on her terms. The prospect of questioning her was too enormous, the risk of losing her too big.
And so he’d never quizzed her about Luke, never held the photo up to his own face and drawn attention to his fears. But now Cosmo had appeared, from nowhere. A different cowboy. August’s eyes filled with an opaque hatred, his mouth turned downwards.
August stared at his face, inspecting its shape, his nose, turned his head from left to right, sniffed. He was deserted by ideas, by any reliable information and the result was a thickheadedness. A frustrating emptiness.
August spent the rest of the day bumping into things, feeling vulnerable behind the glass battlement of the display fridge. At three his shift ended and he walked home, noticing on his way that the winter sky was unsettlingly bleak and low and that he still felt watched.
©2002 by Monique Roffey. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
August Frost is a dazzlingly sensual tale of metamorphosis and discovery. August Chalmin is a tall, pale, painfully shy young man with blood-orange hair and sun-shy eyes who hides his ugly-duckling awkwardness working behind the counter of a gourmet deli in London’s Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood. Much of his youth is a cipher, and his mother refuses to enlighten him, but he leads a peaceful life, fantasizing silently about his beautiful and spirited coworker and going home to prepare ornate meals for one.
Then, one winter day, he finds a rash on his arm that resembles the crystalline frost on his windowpane. Later, snow begins to fall around his head, and his fingers turn blue. Is it some rare disease that has triggered this strange reaction, or the appearance in the neighborhood of his mother’s old lover Cosmo? Could it even be an allergy to the deli’s new orange cheese, which seems to mock his own coloring? As Cosmo taunts him with doubts about the identity of his father, August’s body continues its riotous, unsettling echoing of the outside world’s climate.
Through a year’s wonderful metamorphosis–through snowstorm, heat wave, eclipse, and a search for the truth – August changes into himself.
1) August Frost objectifies what it is to be different. When August starts developing weird changes in his body, we are not spared the horror and isolation he feels, like Kafka’s Gregor in The Metamorphosis who awakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle. One can debate, for exercise, whether the bodily freakishness is, in fact, a projection of internal malaise. In both works; however, there is ample evidence of other characters’ reactions. What do you think? Is there a case to be made for the whole book’s being a nightmare of sorts?
2) Roffey makes us care about the person August even as we are repelled by his physical abnormalities. Why do we like August? When do we see qualities we respond to and admire? Consider his enormous empathy, for instance, with Henry about Yves even though August harbors fantasies about her himself. Recall Cedric: August “found himself rooting for the old man. About Cedric’s purple poem to Flora: “I like it,” he said. “It has swagger” (p. 41). August even feels compassion, sometimes, for people he dislikes and has reason to distrust: Olivia, and Cosmo (to his peril, with the tea chests.) Can you think of other instances of August’s magnanimity? Do you agree that the reader has an accumulating view of an August with a grace he does not know he has?
3) Roffey makes us see and feel (recall, perhaps) how differences marginalize human beings. Her characters in Roses’s deli might be judged by some conventional arbiter as odd ducks, misfits, slightly unhinged, like figures in the movie “King of Hearts.” How would mainstream people regard Rose? Cedric? A cross between Touchstone, with his pompoms, and Falstaff with his exuberant expletives. Edward?
The author also creates characters who can see beyond surfaces . . . Leola, for one, who empathizes with August’s physical strangeness and his awkwardness around her that mirrors her own clumsiness. Roffey celebrates difference in characters like Rose. How does she demonstrate her big heart, good sense and courage? How does Gabriel rise, seemingly with ease, above his deafness?
4) How are places used symbolically in the novel? August’s recollection of Stonegate that, like a Bronte place, conjures memories in its very name is a perversion of the Utopia it is meant to be. We see wasted lives in this commune, like some circle of Dante’s Inferno, where August is forced to witness orgies of seedy libertines.
What did Stonegate mean to Olivia? Cosmo? Edward? August?
What places do we see as strong alternatives to Stonegate? Where August and others feel nurtured and valued?
5) In a novel that honors tolerance and diversity, there are two characters who are beyond the pale–proper villains. How are Cosmo and Yves delineated? Yes, something in Henry needs Yves, as something in August needs Cosmo, to a point. But the rotters are rotten. Cosmo is “ignorant and base. Malodorous. Oleaginous. Illiterate. A liar and a thief” (p. 112). Cosmo and Yves (a thug, with his abusive sex and pornography) both try to crack the code of decency that makes the world of the deli. What are examples of their heinous behavior and how does it affect other characters?
Olivia is a mommy-dearest mother for the most part. August hates many aspects of his mother: she is selfish, devious, harsh, cold, unpredictable. But he can also feel unbearably sad for her. What are moments that enlarge her character, however briefly? Does she ever have a moment of redemption?
6) Comedy, tragi-comedy, maybe, is a strong element of the novel . . . Can you recall moments in the book that were really funny? Often, August’s afflictions are too painful and perplexing to amuse. But in his rapprochement with Leola, their individual idiosyncrasies, shyness, awkwardness, come together in a way that is almost operatic. (Think of Papageno and Papagena in “The Magic Flute.”) Their breakfast together has the bawdy pleasures of the dinner in Tom Jones, the movie and the Fielding novel. August and Leola tackle egg-eyes and rashers of bacon. “As they ate with slurpy noises their eye contact was furtive and self-knowing, comically apologetic” (p. 287). “He was full, elated at being with her.” Another scene that knits strands of the story together in humorous, dramatic twist is Rose’s vanquishing Yves from her deli with her fists, as he cradles his head, calling her a crazy lesbian. The ironies redouble here. What other scenes make us smile or even laugh in this human comedy? August makes us think of Confederacy of Dunces and even Don Quixote at times.
7) If Cosmo is a dark, ominous figure, (attractive in a Satanic way that August even envies), is Flora perhaps a more benevolent spirit–almost a fairy godmother for August? How? She seems to appear and vanish mysteriously. Flora in myth is a rural deity who provided a magic flower to Juno to enable her to conceive Mars. She is the goddess of flowering of grain and the vine, the consort of Zephyrus, the West Wind. Does she spur August to memory and even action? What do the indigo petals in her “kissing bread” connote?
Leola, like Flora, gives August a feeling of being known and understood; they are balms to his soul. (Rose, too, nurtures him like a surrogate mother.) Leoa’s “mother was a gardener, her name was a place. She was intuitive, beautiful, clumsy, dreamy” (p. 287). In other words, not unlike himself . . . August notes “the sweep of her, as though she’d caught a web of sunshine on her way in, pulling it in with her. . . . Incredibly he wasn’t afraid of her: not now he was someone else . . . [He has the revelation about his parentage] . . . August gazed at her, eye to eye. A first, a miracle”(p. 191-3). How else does Leola expand August’s sense of confidence and belonging?
8) The eclipse serves as an aide-memoir, almost like a Madeleine in Proust. August, who for all his life has squinted in the sun, now gazes at a big black spot that covers the sun. “The moon-dream was sad and cool as it slid across the face of the sun” (p.302). What is it that August finally recalls and what is he led to do as a result?
9) August Frost is many things at once. It is a detective story, an earthy comedy (kitchen-farce, say, rather than bedroom), a psychological study, a reworking of various myths, and several satisfactory love stories. Which of these descriptions best fits the book you read? Has Roffey successfully kept her balls in the air? It is a narrative method of accumulating resonances. With both Rose and August, we feel portents before we fully understand them. Were you able to fit the pieces together as you read or did it take the late denouements to clear the puzzle for you?
10) Sex, real and imagined, is written with imagination, warmth, and evocative, organic imagery. “In each of their mouths was the end of a rainbow” (p. 373). There are some dark versions too, nightmares of what sex should not be about. How do these scenes portray the participants–or victims–and how does August react?
How does August grow toward being a fuller human being in his observations, fantasies and ultimately experience in “good sex”? Recall Flora who said, “You feel whole when you find your other half” (p. 375).
11) Dreams, visions, epiphanies have as much value as actual events, perhaps more. How is this true for August? What other characters seem to operate in dimensions other than the day-to-day?
12) After a childhood impoverished in many ways, an education that for years was disjointed, spasmodic and ineffectual, August attended remedial classes until he was sixteen. But outside class he was voracious for anything he could read–history, witchcraft, winemaking, culinary arts. Despite his awkward demeanor, how does August reveal his lively mind?
13) The story of August is about his search for truth. His whole life has been predicated on lies his mother told him. The truth, or part of it, will come paradoxically from a liar and a cheat. How does this come about? What other lies come to the surface (think of Rose) and how does August deal with them? Isn’t his whole search one for the chance to live authentically? To be who he is openly, without apology?
14) A myth can be seen as the interpenetration of human beings, nature and the past. Myths are stories told to explain natural phenomena. If we think of ancient Greek and Roman myths, August’s tale is expanded for us. For instance, August is transformed by seeing a woman naked, but in his case it is no Diana, but his own mother in flagrant, hissing at him to get out! The Metamorphosis myths are relevant because he becomes not a stag but a tree-like creature, a green man like his father (himself godlike, in size, powers with the earth, mysterious comings and goings.) What other transformations affect characters in the book?
Mythology is often a generous, inclusive view of life. Can it be said that the greatest metamorphoses in the novel are the recognitions of love, both romance and friendship? What examples come to mind?
15) The sun is a force August has feared all his thirty-three years. The reasons are partly physical: his pale eyes squint and his skin burns, but there is another reason springing from his childhood. What is it?
During the novel the sun is a physical presence often described with great beauty “the pure silk of the sun dropping imperceptibly from the sky” (p. 269). What other descriptions of the sun did you remark? Do they have symbolic meaning? How is the sun, or mock-sun, a sign for Rose in Antartica? And later for August in the summer eclipse? When does it occur?
16) August’s body is the battleground of his self-administered deep analysis. Yet extra-bodily experiences abound for him from the beginning: inspirations/breathings in, spells, auras, winds, galaxies, mandalas. How do you react to these events in the novel? Do you think any or all can be dismissed or explained as anxiety attacks (‘stress’ says the doctor)? How is your experience as a reader changed if you insist on clinical, psychosomatic explanations?
17) August is a paradox, a conundrum to himself as well as to the reader. At times he longs for companionship, for dovetailing in the human scene. Like Kafka’s Gregor (and protagonists in “The Castle” and “The Trial”) August feels a vague menace, displacement, not belonging, as well as betrayal by his family. Is this the human condition? Existential angst?
Other times he seeks solitude, revels in being alone. Is this dichotomy a sign of a split personality? The heart of August’s problem? Or is this ambivalence endemic to the human condition? Perhaps particularly to the creative personality? August imagined that a writer was part-man, part-beetle, scuttling out at night for absinthe and bites of Brussels sprouts (p. 61). Again we think of Kafka’s beetle-man, Gregor. What happens to the imaginative person when he conforms? Do you see that as what happens to August? Or do you see a hope, rather, a fusion, of his own selves and perhaps with a complementary person?
18) In what ways is August an artistic temperament? What are his gifts? Consider his talents with food, music, dancing and his delight in the enormous diversity, the whole canvas of the city of London: the nearby Chinese takeaway, the Muslim newsagent, the tapas bar, the Palestinian street stall run by August’s friend. How does August live and interpret events as a creative person?
19) Part of the myth is August’s search for his father and for himself in the process. Think of Telemachus’ coming of age in The Odyssey as he engages in the same quest. Do you see any other analogies with mythic journeys, particularly those in Homer? For instance, in his seeking, August descends into his own Hades, partly in memory, partly in the renewed encounter with the monster Cosmos who holds the keys to his past. August has to confront his mother, Olivia, as Telemachus does Penelope. And Rose presides like Arete over her bastion of civility and hospitality. What further clues indicate that Roffey is enjoying playing with the epic tradition?
20) The reader is asked to enter into a world of wild imaginings, one of surreal encounters and magic realism. The fantastic co-exists with the mundane, everyday. The physical excrescences that horrify August and the reader he comes to regard as gifts–with help from Flora and Leola. Were you able to accept these reason-defying events? It is as though a Rousseau or Magritte painting had come to life. At one point August gives up rational inquiry. “Whatever was happening had its own methods, its own logic. . . . He never went back to the doctor” (p. 107). Have there been times in your own experience or observation when logic had to give sway to something mysterious or uncomprehended? Religions ask for leaps of faith. How about science? Art? Love?
21) The seasons provide one structure for the novel: winter, spring, summer, autumn–subdivided into sections named by dates. The weather, the plane tree, menus, August’s body are all governed by these seasons. The sun and moon are frequent images, as are planets and the eclipse. How does Roffey explore meaning in nature?
At the spring solstice, August senses ‘so many things now pressing at him from behind, prodding him, phantom figures at his back” (p. 154). Do we in our own lives feel a momentum related to the seasons? Is there any truth in the notion that seasonless climates contribute to lotus-eating or manana-land?
22) Plants–flowers, trees–assume central importance. What are some examples? How many characters are somehow linked to growing things? Who are they? August says he has never been able to keep a plant alive . . . until the cheese plant. What is the significance of that gift and its timing? Consider Leola’s job at Pollen. What meaning can be deduced from the name as it relates to August’s own fertile body?
What is the significance of the copse and the trees that haunt him? The bluebells? The plane tree? The pub sign that turns into a larger symbol for August: the bearded green man, covered in plants, a form that emerges from a pattern of lilies and green plants. And August feels peace: “He began to breathe slowly, evenly” (p. 277). What is the final artifact relating to the earth that gives August his past?
23) Roffey’s imagery is so vivid and original that every page works on a metaphoric level as well as literal. Since the narrative point of view is firmly that of August, we enter into his own perceptions, those of a poet who sees things on at least two levels at once, a kind of double vision that offers clarity rather than fuzziness. Would you consider Roffey a poetic writer, not that she prettifies, but that she expands our imagination? For instance, recall the image for a long withheld story: “It had all come out. Uncoiled itself from her like a snake uncoiling after a long gestation in a cupboard” (p. 359). The image is figurative here but has an echo, a variation, as a creature is sprung from a cupboard, revealing another long hidden story. What is it?
In a picture of Mrs. Chalmin, “her fuchsia mouth twisted itself strangely into a bunched worm” (p. 222). One grows to depend on the odd, fresh, true analogies. In preparing a goose-bumped, hairy chicken carcass for a stew, August is reminded “of a decomposing roadkill” (p. 233). The recipe, on p. 231, sounds sublime, however!
As August cooks, he tries to jumpstart his own thoughts. ‘since visiting Mrs. Chalmin two days ago he’d gone blank He had no thoughts–about his mother, about Cosmo or Edward. The effect was like trying to start a car with an empty tank. His mind…had collapsed on the job, given up on trying to pick through the mixed evidence. In its place was a kind of fear, like vertigo, as though someone had opened him up and filled him with sky and he was about to free-fall, into himself. YOUR MOTHER KILLED MY SON. The words had hit him like a loose and uncapped electric cable, their power throwing him, sending him sprawling backwards with shame and remorse” (p. 232). What are some of your favorite striking images?
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:
Chocolat by Joanne Harris; The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka