“A Friendship” by William Trevor, from the “After Rain” collection. | A Review

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.

Has anyone else read William Trevor? I love his short stories, much better than his novels, I think. And I would say the same for D H Lawrence and W Somerset Maugham.

A happy review of We All Die in the End.

Here is a 5 star review by Bluebell Hill on Amazon. You would think I would be really proud and happy to read this, and I am happy, but also I feel – strange as it might sound – humble and honoured. Did I really write such a book? Review is posted on Amazon.co.uk.

“I really enjoyed these stories. They were well crafted and beautifully written with a sparse, pared back style I thought worked well. Each of them was intense, realised with vivid detail, meaning they tended to linger once I’d put the book down. The great range of characters was the most compelling aspect of the collection. Each of them has a powerful and unique voice, they are clearly distinct from each other. Some suffer great tragedies, finding their lives intolerable; others reveal themselves through quiet, domestic detail. Overall, a collection of characters who will roar their soul at you.”

With many, many thanks to the reviewer.

An Excerpt from “Thelma” in We All Die in the End

“I wonder if I should wash . . . Thelma, do you think I should have a wash?”

            Thelma dithered beside the bed, moving from one wee foot to the other, waiting to heave Thomas to his feet. The top of his pyjamas hung open and his belly bulged over the bottoms. There was a line of sweat where the bulge began and another across the back of his neck when he bent to look at his feet.

            “Whatever you like, dear. The water’s hot.”

            “Well, I will then. I’ll have a nice wash and you can change the bed. I’m a bit sticky. One of the boys spilled beer . . .   “

            Thomas waved a hand near his pillow and then clutched Thelma’s arm. She braced herself and waited while he moved his heavy legs to the floor.

            “Up we go,” she said. “Upsy daisy.”

            Slowly, Thomas pushed his feet into his summer gutties and hauled himself up along Thelma’s, thin shoulder. She glanced at his jacket hung over the chair, pockets sagging a bit with change, good! Thomas’ hand was tight on her wrist and she fixed her eyes on the plump, pink fingers. She would prick him like a sausage . . . prick, prick, prick, all over, and his pink skin would burst open with wee pops and the yellow fat would ooze out, relieved and grateful.

            “I’ll have a piss first,” Thomas said.

            “Yes, and have a shower,” Thelma said. “You’ll feel the better of it.”

            Thomas nodded and shut the bathroom door. Thelma could hear him coughing, and then he was pissing and spitting and farting and coughing all at once – the whole bloody orchestra, as he said himself. When the toilet flushed she footered about with the socks in his drawer in case he changed his mind and came back but after a minute she heard the shower starting up.

            She shook his jacket and pushed her fingers quickly into the pockets. Heavy change – she left a couple of coins so he wouldn’t miss the jingle. In his trousers two fivers were stuck together. Thelma took one. She slid the money into one of her green boots with the fur and counted with a quick look. Fifty pounds all told – not bad. She ran her fingers and her eyes over it and then she carefully pulled up the zip. Now, she said to herself, Irene can’t say I’m not trying.

            A whole weekend away! Up the coast, that lovely, old hotel, and the lovely, soft, sandy beach, not covered in stones like ours! Oh, it’ll be great, it’ll be magic, magic! She leaned against the chest of drawers with her eyes shut tight and her arms folded, one wee ankle twisted around the other. She’d eat steak and chips and drink Prosecco . . .

            She opened her eyes. The bed! She tore the sheet off and pulled at the duvet cover. Crumbs, beer stains, the pillow-case grey from his head. She ran round and round the bed, smoothing and tugging and then she leapt when Thomas roared from the bathroom:

            “How long am I supposed to wait here?”

            He’d be dripping all over the place! Thelma left the pillow and skipped into the bathroom. Thomas was shivering; he dabbed at himself with a towel.

On putting together a book of interrelated stories.

Carey Harrison, novelist and playwright, said once, that if you get into the habit of writing novels, short stories, plays, or television scripts, then every idea you get turns itself into the appropriate length. And to avoid that, you should aim for different lengths, different structures. Although I have written two novels for children and a collection of poetry, that was a long time ago, and for many years now every idea turns itself into a short story. I don’t mind though; it seems to suit me best, and works best for me too.

So, I begin with a picture in my head; a woman shop-lifting; a man smoking a cigarette on a cold, stony beach; a boy reading in a window seat. Sometimes, strangely, this original picture disappears as the story takes shape and develops. I always write an outline, first with headings – Introduction, Development, Complication, Resolution. I write a page about each character as the story takes shape in my head. Then I take each of the four sections and write a couple of paragraphs about it. And when I can’t put it off any longer, I begin to actually write! I don’t like the first creative output; it exhausts me; I usually aim for 500 words a day, but when that part is finished, I could sit forever, editing, shaping and polishing.

I didn’t set out to write a book of interlinked stories – I was primarily writing short stories for competitions, magazines, or for broadcasting. So, it was only after I had written most of them that I realised, quite suddenly, that they were all set on the Co Down coast; the sea featured in every one. After that, a whole book fell into place where some of the characters lived on the same street; others knew each other from business dealings, or from just living, shopping and drinking in the same small town. And it developed then that a character with a small part in one story would become the main character in the next one. I’ll give a couple of examples:

From Scene 1.  Arthur

She leaned forward and her hand snaked out to pull me in. 

   “Where have you been?” she cried.

   “Can’t stop, Jennifer,” I said, leaning back. “Just called to say hello.”

   There was no way I was going inside that house. People have been known to go in there and never come out again. Well, I’m exaggerating but you know what I mean.

From Scene 2. Carmel

Jennifer stood there smiling at me, waiting for me to go on about the picnic. She was wearing a sleeveless pink blouse and a short skirt and her arms and legs were nearly green they were that pale. Her hair was the colour of redbrick that week – it was always some peculiar shade of red . . . she was always hanging around, her and her dogs. She smelled of them and there were long hairs on her clothes. Every time we met her she invited me to tea in her house but I never went – my allergies would kill me, and how could you eat anything?

From Scene 3. Wee Sadie

Sadie said nothing. She trimmed the fat of the kidneys and the liver, her fingers curling away from the soft, red slither and she held her breath against the faint smell of blood. Madge lifted her walking-stick and rattled it against the leg of the table.

From Scene 11. Brigit

And there was wee Sadie Hughes at the till, showing off her engagement ring, an emerald it was. I’d rather diamonds, she thought, smiling to herself.

   Her next-door neighbour, Myrtle, was before her in the queue, staring round with her black eyes, moving so slowly like she was in a dream.

And then Myrtle, Scene 12, is the star of her own strange story.

She had every flavour – Chicken, Rabbit, Veal, Beef, Veal and Beef, Chicken and Rabbit, Salmon with Crab. The tins covered the worktops; there were rows of them on the floor. She balanced the Trout and Tuna near the front because they were new. She stared at them until the kettle boiled.

It isn’t always exactly one leading to the other – any character could turn up in any story, where appropriate of course. I worked very hard over several months making sure that it all seemed as natural as possible until I felt really at home in the town. I don’t give it a name in the book but in my head it was called Ballyfarr. I knew all the street names, where the shops and pubs were and where all the characters lived.

“We All Die in the End” is the title of the book (subtitled “Scenes From a Small Town”). That’s the last line of the first “scene” and I got it from my sister who always proclaimed it when anyone was giving out or when she felt moved to be gloomily philosophical.

The book is available on Amazon Kindle as an ebook and will be available in print at the end of August – date to be announced soon.

A Review: The Woman who Rode Away by D.H.Lawrence

This is quite a long, short story but it should be read at one sitting; it is strongly rhythmic, repetitive, bearing you along in a trance that Lawrence has made for you. It tells of a woman, married with two children, who lives in a remote area of Mexico.

I don’t love this story; I’m not even sure I like it but I couldn’t forget about it. Right from the beginning it is about death and the desire for death. In the fourth paragraph:

” . . . she saw a dead dog lying between the meat stalls and the vegetable array . . . Deadness within deadness.”

The lady in question is:

” . . . not thirty-three, a large, blue-eyed, dazed woman, beginning to grow stout.”

After ten years of living in isolation near a worn-out silver mine the woman wakes from her daze; she becomes aware and restless and when she overhears two men speak of the Indians who live in the far-off mountains, she feels in her heart that she has to find these secret places and the strange people who live in them. A day comes when she packs food and water and rides off alone. The journey takes a long, weary time, plodding on and on, following a narrow trail up into the mountains, making camp where she can, trying to sleep:

“She was not sure that she had not heard, during the night, a great crash at the centre of herself, which was the crash of her own death.”

She gradually becomes aware that the Indians are near, watching her. They come closer, strongly-built dark men in dark clothes with “glittering” black eyes and “rivers” of long, black hair. They take her on another, longer journey yet. The night passes:

“A long, long night, icy and eternal, and she was aware that she had died.”

They arrive in a village, deep in a hidden valley where the woman is unceremoniously stripped and given a new tunic to wear. She is given a soporific drink which makes her vomit, then leaves her with a drugged feeling. For many months she is kept apart from village life, fed and drugged until:

” . . . the languor filled her heavy limbs, her senses seemed to float in the air, listening, hearing . . .  as if she were diffusing out deliciously into the harmony of things.”

She sees that the men are not aware of her as a woman:

“Only that intense, yet remote, inhuman glitter which was terrible to her.”

Counterpoint all the time between the large, dazed, white, blue-eyed woman and the strong, dark men; the words death and drugged and river and glitter repeated throughout.

A young Indian who speaks English, explains to her that the white man has stolen the sun and the white woman has stolen the moon. And that she, the white woman, must be given to the sun so that the Indians will be full of power again.

One day then, she is taken from her chamber, drugged afresh and given new clothes; she is taken up in a litter and to the sound of drums, the villagers form two lines to dance:

“And across the flat cradle of snow-bed wound the long thread of the dance, shaking slowly and sumptuously . . . their black  eyes watching her with a glittering eagerness, awe and craving.”

It is impossible to convey in a short review, the way this story lulls you until you are almost as dazed as the woman herself, ready to lie down and accept your own fate!

The last line of the story says:

“The mastery that man must hold, and that passes from race to race.”

It almost seems as if it was tacked on. And it’s ambiguous. Does Lawrence mean that urge which permeates all cultures that ever were, the urge to control an uncontrollable world by placating the Gods, by touching wood or saluting magpies? Or does he mean man’s need to control women?