The Small Dark Man – a poem

A rattle of keys at the back door

We waited – wary

His face shut tight against us

Like a fist

Toed-in, he crouched over furtive whiskeys

Fingers curled

Over chin and cigarette

And we ghosted from the room

With nervous grins

But once he showed me Dickens

And Maurice Walsh

And he was The Small Dark Man

Alone in a house of women

Cut off by his country voice

From the town

Squeezing memories

From an old melodeon

Sometimes – surprised

His face would lift with love

And fall again

Now I surprise myself

Toed-in, crouched over flagrant whiskeys

Fingers curled over chin and cigarette

And I have to leave the room.

From “Siblings”

The kitchen was too warm, and it was quiet except for Sarah’s occasional tobacco cough and the rustling of thin white pages. Sarah read quickly, stopping sometimes to laugh silently, her shoulders shaking. A bluebottle buzzed in the heat and flew to the pile of dirt in the corner. Tea-leaves, eggshells, bits of porridge – Sarah no longer noticed them, no more than she noticed the thick oily grime on the shelves and window-sills, or the matted clumps of dust on the floor. Her thin hand stretched from the sticky sleeve of a black cardigan as she read and her skirt, once a pale grey, was patterned with dribbles of tea and porridge.

            The sudden, small noise in the hall made her look up. She waited, listening for her brother’s key, frowning, her eyes searching the floor and the walls and then she rose from the chair. Barney’s pipe lay on the mantle-piece; she stuffed it with tobacco and lit it with the long matches he always used, and after puffing and coughing she opened the door and peered out into the hall.

            The postcard was bright against the dark linoleum. It looked new and neat and strange beside the pile of old newspapers. Sarah’s breathing filled the hall as she smoked faster. She bent awkwardly and picked it up, a picture of mountains and a lake. Her fingers trembled over the address. It was addressed to them all. To Barney and Martin and herself.

            Sarah kept her eye on the door, listening for Barney but the only sound was the bluebottle buzzing in the corner. She sighed deeply, looked to the door, and then read the card but the words made no sense to her. She read them out in a loud whisper.

            “Hello my dear cousins. Just a quick word to say I’ll be back from overseas in a few days and I`d like to call and see you all on the 20th – I`ll be bringing my new wife!! I`ll keep all the news until I see you. Love and hugs, Richard.”

            “Bringing new wife . . . Richard,” Sarah read again. “Oh, what does it mean?”

            And then the front door opened and closed and Sarah subsided into her chair. Barney came in rubbing his hands together, bringing with him a taste of salty air and a whiff of beer and whiskey from the pub.

            “Well then, Sarah,” he said. “Is the porridge ready? What a morning we had, a crowd from the city, you should have seen them, down for some party or other. I never saw people so nice about themselves, looking at the chairs before they sat down, looking at the tables. What do they expect in a public house – polish and perfume? I don’t know what the city pubs must be like. And Charlie hounding me to dry the glasses and bring up crates of beer, more beer every ten minutes.”

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A Review of “A Friendship” by William Trevor from the “After Rain” collection

William Trevor often makes me laugh. There are situations in his novel, “The Old Boys” that I remember at odd times and that make me laugh out loud no matter where I am. And this story does the same, but only at the beginning. It’s a thing that William Trevor does – you think the story is about one thing but it turns into something else entirely. The friendship in question is between Francesca, married to pompous Philip and with two sons, and Margy who livens up Francesca’s life with tales of her various love affairs. The two have been friends since childhood but have very little in common. As Trevor says:

“Their common ground was the friendship itself.”

Francesca seems an ethereal creature, tall and blonde, hardly aware of her surroundings, or of what her boys are up to. Margy, however, sees everything, She is small, dark, quick, with a touch of spite, especially where Francesca’s husband is concerned. And this spite is what eventually wrecks the friendship. Philip doesn’t help  himself however; he is known as “bad news” in their dinner circle:

” . . . he displayed little interest in the small-talk that was, increasingly desperately, levelled at him . . . he was not ill at ease; others laboured, never he.”

Margy, on the pretense that it was time she thought about settling down, proposes that they contact their old college friend, Sebastian. But Sebastian had always fancied Francesca, and shortly after they all meet up for lunch, he and Francesca begin an affair. Margy facilitates this by lending them her apartment from time to time.  Philip finds out by accident, a slip in conversation:

“Oh heavens, I’ve said the wrong thing!”

Philip pretends that he and Francesca often meet up with Sebastian. He confronts Francesca, who is contrite and says it wasn’t much. They have a row, clear the air, and decide to continue as before, with one difference:

“‘Drop me?’, Margy said, and Francesca nodded . . . ‘It’s how Philip feels.'”

“On the pavement . . . they stood for a moment in a chill November wind, then moved away in their two different directions.”

This is the body of the story, but it begins with Francesca’s two sons, aged six and eight, pouring wet cement into their father’s new golf bag, complete with new clubs. Even thinking about this makes me laugh. Trevor writes it down in such a matter of fact way, without as much as an exclamation mark.

“Sharing the handle of the bucket, they found they could manage to convey their load . . . they had practised; they knew what they were doing.”

“‘We know nothing about it,’ Jason instructed his brother. ‘Nothing about it,’ Ben obediently repeated.”

Francesca is oblivious; Margy sees it straight away but says nothing and the four sit down to lunch. Ben decides to break the monotonous silence and mentions his teacher:

“‘Miss Martindale’s mother died . . . a man interfered with her.'”

His mother is shocked but Margy is amused.

“Ben said all the girls had cried, that Miss Martindale herself had cried, that her face was creased and funny because actually she’d been crying all night. Margy watched Jason worrying in case his brother went too far.”

And that’s all there is about the boys, except for a sentence to say that when tackled by their angry father they said it was just a joke. But for me, they make the story memorable. I loved the pair of them. Very often children are interesting and exciting and you wonder what will become of them. But generally very little does; they grow up and stop pouring cement into new golf bags.

The writing, as always, is delicious.

“In a Yellow Dress”

If I could put you

In a frame

And freeze forever

Those wanton curls

Burnt honey round

Your peachy, freckled face

And emerald eyes

I would

But you are eager

To be gone

And my frame won’t

Hold you now

As once it did

The room retains

Your image – twirling in a yellow dress.

Twitter @elizabethmerry1

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A Nod to the Master: from Great Expectations.

“Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt, besides keeping this Educational Institution, kept in the same room – a little general shop. She had no idea what stock she had, or what the price of anything in it was; but there was a little greasy memorandum-book kept in a drawer, which served as a Catalogue of Prices, and by this oracle Biddy arranged all the shop transactions. Biddy was Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt’s granddaughter; I confess myself quite unequal to the working out of the problem, what relation she was to Mr Wopsle. She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This description must be received with a week-day limitation. On Sundays she went to church elaborated.”

Isn’t that mighty? Thank you Mr Dickens!

A review of “Blood in the Valley” by Jean M Roberts

I was sorry to come to the end of this book. Although it finished in exactly the right place I was loathe to leave behind all the characters I had come to know. This is a story about the birth of the United States, and although I briefly studied the American War of Independence at school (a long time ago), it was so interesting to read about it in a novel, and to see what it must have been like for the families who lived through it.

When we first meet Catherine, the main character, she is minding her baby brother, so we see her first as a loving, caring and kindly girl and as she grows to womanhood her personality doesn’t change – although during the war she taps into parts of herself she didn’t know existed! Her husband, Samuel, is a decent, hard-working man who loves his family, and when the war begins he proves himself to be brave, steadfast and intelligent and plays an important part in the outcome of the war. The other characters, their family and friends, are people anyone would like to spend time with.

The narrative drive in this book is very strong and I was drawn into it straight away. The writing is clear and precise – there is no padding here. You can see the families and hear them talking and you understand how they feel. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the countryside:

“The falling water sparkled like gems reflecting the early morning sunshine. The river flung itself over the falls, cascading seventy-five feet or more into a boiling cauldron before rushing away in swirling eddies toward the Hudson.”

God, religion and the community is of extreme importance and the base of all social life for these pioneers and settlers. It’s where Catherine met Samuel, and there are some romantic occasions, which I loved, and which make you aware of how different life and language was then. Samuel says to Catherine:

“Miss Wasson, I have had a delightful day . . . I hope you will allow me the pleasure to call on you.”

At the advice of Catherine’s uncle, three related families decide to move to New York where land is “plentiful and cheap“. These are big families with a lot of children, many of whom bear the same names. I could easily imagine the family gatherings with all ages present; the feeling of belonging to a clan; everyone with the same objective – to live and love and farm and bring up their children in peace and safety.

The journey to New York is long, dangerous and arduous, by land and sea. But they make it, and eventually Samuel builds a wonderful house in Cherry Valley where they settle down and run their farm. But there is now the threat of war and I’m aware that some of these familiar and well-known characters are going to die. I read on with trepidation . . .

The families are separated by the war but for me this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book – so many letters going forwards and back, so full of love and hope and encouragement. There is a fantastic occasion (referred to above) when Catherine takes to the ramparts of the fort where they are staying, with a rifle, an unheard of thing for a woman to do, and she earns herself a place in history.

And so, to a perfect ending when the war is over: The United States comes into being and American citizens can rebuild their houses and their lives and their families again.

I  would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical novels and family sagas, and a book with a strong narrative drive. The pace and shape of the book is so good; there is no slump in the middle, no part is too long or too short.

I give this book 5 Stars.  

Elizabeth Merry

09/06/20

An Excerpt from “We All Die in the End” now with a 5 star review!

Lily stood at the door with Grace on her hip. She was very pale and she was patting her face with a towel. She looked at him, at the poster still pinned to the floor with Grace’s bricks and she pressed her lips tight together.

            “There’s a job,” Andy started again. “Stevie was saying there’s a job . . . “

            He sat back on the bed, his hands smoothing the bedspread.

            “Don’t mention that eejit to me!”

            Lily marched straight across the poster and leaned over him, Grace clutching at her neck.

            “Get yourself a fuckin’ job! Nobody’s going to hand you one, Stevie or nobody else.”

            “Fuck sake, Lily!” Andy tried to stand up. “I’m going out now. I only came in to – “

            “You only came in to lie down. That’s all you do. You lie down and sleep and dream about fucking bikes, and your own child – your daughter . . . “

            She thrust Grace onto his lap. The baby’s eyes were red from the cold and she stared up into his face.

            “We’ve no dinner,” Lily said. “I was in the shop and I opened my purse – but there was nothing, there was – “

            She began to cry; loud, angry wails.

            “Ah, for fuck sake, Lily. Don’t cry. Would you not ask your mother – “

            Lily let out a louder wail. She hit the wall with her fist. Oh, Jesus, Andy thought, trying to breathe calmly. He pressed his feet against the floor and hugged Grace tight, trying to stop himself from jumping up and running out of the room.

            His eyes fell on the poster; Lily was standing on a corner of it, wrinkling the smooth, shiny surface. He wanted to move her off it.

            “I’ll get a job today, Lily. Honest to God I will. I won’t come home without one.”

            “Chrissake! What are you like?”

            Lily blew her nose and slapped away the baby’s reaching hands.

Read the rest of this story and eighteen other interlinked stories in “We All Die in the End”. Please have a look at the 5 star review on http://www.thebookdelight.com. Thank you.

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“SISTER”

Here I will rest

My ashes falling

Into swirls of bog-brown water

In Spring perhaps

The river quiet and the birds gone mad

My ghost will hover –

A shape in powdered white

Casting chills on my attendants

Willows hang their leaves

Across the rush of water

Such an airy, fragile green

And I think of you –

Your airy, fragile spirit

Gone out of turn before me

Our childhood memories

All lop-sided now

A pulse of anger yet –

Why aren’t you here!

You should be here!

The mystery of your absence

Plagues me

I kneel beside your grave

Bend low to sense your soul

Breathe in the smell of earth.

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