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.

Cold Turkey

I wear your absence

Like a heavy coat

How pale the day

I never thought

That it would be so hard

To root you out

But I will not regret

The desolation

Of these desert days

The shock of separation

From where my spirit

Lay so easy

Life’s a bugger

But I will grab

it by the ears

And shake it till it screams

Ecstatic.

Time Out

Small windows, deep-set

In a whitewashed wall

Cobbled, dung-splashed

Yard, fiery red-topped

Roosters

Pecked unwary legs

Crusty, griddled bread

Thick with yellow butter

Our towny tongues unsure

Of still-warm milk

Cool, beaten earthen floor

Rough on shoe-soft feet

At night the whisper

Wheeze of bellows

Turf smoke burning eyes

Murmured prayers before

The lamps, blood-red and

Phosphorescent blue

My mother’s mother nodded

Black-robed in the corner

Her father sang us songs

Threaded laces in his boots

And shooed us, lit by candles

To the quilted, feather bed.

A Review: Guests of the Nation by Frank O’Connor

This story is at once warm and cold, sweet and brutal. It is about brotherhood and its opposite – war. The action takes place during the Irish war of Independence in 1916. Two English soldiers are being held hostage by a group of Irish volunteers. A swap is possible with the English, but if Irish captives are shot, these two unfortunates will also be shot. The bleakness of this scenario is lightened by Frank O’Connor’s humour.

The narrator of the story is one of the volunteers, known as “Bonaparte”,  for reasons untold, and his companion is called Noble. The two English soldiers are called Belcher and Hawkins. Belcher is a huge, quiet man, moving around the place – like a ghost – as Bonaparte thought. He follows the Woman of the House everywhere, carrying buckets and baskets and loads of turf for the fire. But Hawkins made up for it. He talked all the time, and argued about religion every night with Noble.

“Adam and Eve! Adam and Eve! Nothing better to do with their time than pick bleeding apples!”

Once he tackled the Woman of the House about the war in Europe but she gave him his answer:

” . . .  and think you’ll deceive me because I’m only a simple poor countrywoman, but I know what started the war. It was the Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple of Japan.”

And she blamed everything on “Jupiter Pluvius”, a deity no one had ever heard of!

Each evening the four men would play cards together and Bonaparte thinks to himself that he never saw two men take to the country as completely as they did. They knew all the locals and went to the dances and could dance “The Waves of Tory” as well as anyone. Bonaparte and Noble didn’t bother to keep a watch on them any more.

As Bonaparte says:

” . . . you could have planted that pair down anywhere from here to Claregalway and they’d have taken root there like a native weed.”

But the day arrives when Jeremiah Donovan, another volunteer, tells them that four of their own had been shot that morning and that Hawkins and Belchar had to be shot in reprisal.  Jeremiah tells this  news to the Englishmen but they refuse to believe him. Hawkins gets annoyed by his continuing with this “joke” and when he sees that they are in earnest he entreats them, asking why they want to shoot him; weren’t they all chums?

The prisoners are marched out to the bog and Bonaparte feels so sick he can’t speak.

“I had the Smith and Wesson in my pocket and I kept fingering it and wondering what I’d do if they put up a fight for it or ran, and wishing to God they’d do one or the other. I alone of the crowd saw Donovan raise his Webley to the back of Hawkin’s neck, and as he did so I shut my eyes and tried to pray . . . Hawkins had begun to say something when Donovan fired, and as I opened my eyes at the bang, I saw Hawkins stagger at the knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet, slowly and as quiet as a kid falling asleep . . . “

Belcher then, with great dignity, ties a handkerchief around his own eyes and says:

“I never could make out what duty was myself . . . I think you’re all good lads . . . I’m not complaining.”

One second later he was dead too. O’Connor writes these sentences simply, without drama or sensation. Simple, straightforward and brutal. And it makes me think of all the wars that ever were. All the young men, the boys, killed in their thousands and all for what? Make war to make peace?

I’m going to include a short poem of my own here.

LAMENT

My mouth is stretched – a soundless wail of anguish

For the sorrows of the world

An eye into hell in the corner of my room

Cry out your lamentations, prostrate yourselves

And weep, and weep, and weep.

I will leave the last word, and the last

sentences of the story, to Bonaparte:

” . . . and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

“Loose Threads” from The Red Petticoat

Two loose threads in the sheet

Separate and come together again

Like lovers in the wind of her breath

She makes a story for them

And they bend and dance and spin

At her command

But she must bend and dance herself

To a rhythm not her own

Blown by the stormy breath of others

The lovers are cast aside

Their story slides away

As she is born again

From the warm sheets

Sans mental teeth anyway.

We All Die in the End – an excerpt:

Jim nodded and said goodnight and waited for Connie to button up her new brown duffle-coat. It is a man’s coat, he thought again, looking at the long sleeves of it and the breadth across the shoulders. Whatever she says, it is a man’s coat. I’ll say it to her later, get her going. His own grey tweed was threadbare but he was attached to it. Connie wouldn’t let him have a new one anyway. She belted the door open and Jim ducked as it swung towards his face. Barney winked at him and locked the door behind them. They wriggled deeper into their coats, turning their faces from the wind, and then Jim pointed:

            “Oh, look!”

            The fair-haired boy was crouching at the corner, his arms hugged over his thin chest, and him bare as a baby. He turned when Jim and Connie came out and moved towards them with his knees close together.

            “The b-b-b-bastards left me.”

            He sniffed hugely and wiped his face.

            “I thought they were going to throw me in the sea! I’m fuckin’ freezin’ . . . give us a jacket for God’s sake, will you?”

            Jim looked at Connie. She was laughing, her eyes going up and down the pale, shivering figure.

            “Is it your birthday?” she asked. “Where did they go, your friends? God you’re a hoot, isn’t he Jim?”

            “I’ll get my fuckin’ death out of this, an’ me ma’ll be waiting and I’ve no phone.”

            The boy’s voice went up and up.

            “Oh Jesus God I’ll kill the poxy bastards. Give us something to put on for fuck sake!”

            He began to dance around like a boxer, swinging his arms, and then he remembered to cover himself. Connie turned to Jim and he backed away from her, shaking his head. His chest hurt in the cold air and he coughed. She can’t make me, he thought. I’m not going to. For a moment the three of them stood there, until bolts were shot in the door behind them.

            “Quick,” Connie said. “Charlie’s still around, cleaning and that. Go on, knock the door.”

            And then she turned and knocked it herself.

            “What’s your name, boy?” she said.

            “Frank.”

            “Frankie Pankie,” Connie laughed. “Isn’t that right, Jim? Frankie Pankie! God, he’s a hoot . . . Charlie!” she roared, banging on the door.   

            “There’s a bare-assed bird out here. Let him in. Come on, we know you’re there, we know you’re not gone yet.”

            There was no sound from behind the door and then the lights went out. The wind rose with a cruel nip; the sea rolled black and oily beyond the wall and the first drops of rain were blown over Frank. He ran against the stout door of the pub and shouted for somebody to fucking well open up, and then he ran up and down the street listening for a car, for his friends to come back. Connie watched him and Jim stood well behind her, his coat clutched tight.

            “Poxy bastards! Frank screamed into the wind.

            “Make your man let me in,” he said to Jim and Connie. “Yous know him better than me. He must have heard us knocking – they’ll have put him up to it, the fuckers. How am I to get home? Lend us the taxi-fare will yous?”

            Jim felt the rain on the back of his neck and turned up his collar. Poor bugger, he thought. He looked at the boy’s thin legs, white as milk in the dark night, and his arms like strings wrapped around his chest. Jim was cold himself; he wanted to go home to his quiet bed and lie against the warm bulk of Connie’s back.

            And then he saw Connie taking off her own coat and his breath puffed out in a snigger. What was she at now? She threw it around Frank’s shoulders and he seemed to sink under it, bending his knees, trying to get his feet into it too.

            “Come on now.” Connie marched him quickly away.

            “You come home with us, boy. We’ll mind you, won’t we, Jim? Sure you’re only a little chicken. Are you sure you’re eighteen?”

            She belted Jim’s ear and he staggered.

            “Some husband you are,” she said.

            “Letting your wife give up her coat and you walking there wrapped up like a teddy-bear, much good it’ll do you, I’ll deal with you later.”

            Jim knew Frank was looking at him, expecting him to say something, to fight back, but he stared at the ground and coughed his hard, tight cough.

            Frank turned after Connie. She walked fast with her face up to the rain and the pleats of her long skirt swung from side to side below the coat. Every time a car passed Frank stopped to look but it was never his friends. Jim wondered what they meant to do. They wouldn’t know where he was if they came back. He thought of saying that to Connie but his ear smarted. He fixed his eyes on the bare feet under the long brown duffle-coat. They were wet and splashed with mud and they moved quickly.

            Connie put her key in the door and shoved it open. She grabbed Frank by the arm and pulled him inside and he stood in the dim hallway pushing one foot over the other. His face was pale and damp and he didn’t look drunk any more.

            “Come on, come on,” Connie said, and he followed her.

Melanie – a poem

Tinted warm by rose and amber light

Melanie smiles and pouts her painted mouth

Exotic spider, webbed in scarlet silk

She wears the face of Venus, Helen, Circe

Drawing one-hour lovers to extol her grace

And wit. She lends her body, listens, comforts

Promises a paradise of lust

The door lets in the shocking light of day

Melanie leaves, her pockets full of gold

Her eyes are clean and cold and bold

And know the secrets of the world.

A Review of “Keep Your Eyes on Me” by Sam Blake

I love a good thriller and “Keep Your Eyes on Me” doesn’t disappoint. It truly is a page-turner. The premise is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel – Strangers on a Train, and of course, Hitchcock’s movie of the same name. However, that doesn’t take away from this novel. The two protagonists are women, two very different women, but equally determined to avenge the wrongdoers.

Lily and Vittoria meet in a waiting lounge in an airport and before long they get into conversation, becoming more and more intimate as time passes. Lily tells Vittoria about how her brother, Jack, was taken advantage of in a card game; he has lost the family shop to a man with a suspicious history in the Art business. Why would he want Jack and Lily’s shop? Was he dealing drugs? Laundering money? Or what? And Vittoria – she is tied up in a prenuptial agreement with her unfaithful husband and would do anything to get out of it before she is left with nothing.

Lily is the softer of the two, more worried about her brother than anything. Vittoria is tougher, and it is she who works out the plan of revenge. At this point the reader is fully involved and reading quickly; the tension makes it hard to put it down. You know there is more going on than you’re aware of – something devious at the back of everything but what could it be?

The prose is straightforward, without fluff or padding; the dialogue is terrific; the plot ingenious and the characters believable. And the ending – it’s ambiguous, and all the better for it!

It took me a couple of chapters to get really into this book but apart from that it’s terrific and I am happily giving it 4.5 stars.

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.”

amazon.com/author/elizabethmerry