“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.

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.

Re-launch of “We All Die in the End”.

I had to republish the paperback edition as the first one looked awful. My own fault but I have learned now how to do it properly with the help of some knowledgeable friends. It will be available from Tuesday 13th October in its new improved form. Here is an excerpt from Scene 9: “Siblings”

“We’ll have to tidy up, girl. I mean – look at the place. Could you not have washed up the dishes or – “

            He stared around, helplessly.

            “And did you get the ham? I thought you’d have done something by now. Dicky bird said evening. What’s evening? What time is evening? Six? Seven? Eight? And do you know what I thought of as well, they might want to use the new bathroom.”

            “But – ” Sarah turned to the stairs. “But – oh . . . “

            Barney moved quickly, went up and pushed at the stiff door of the bathroom. He heard Sarah coming up behind him and he pushed harder.

            “There’s something in here,” he said.

            “Push it, push it,” Sarah said, pushing at his back.

            And then the door gave way and they tumbled inside. Barney sniffed, raising his eyebrows at Sarah. The sink and toilet and bath were black with dust. Sarah touched a tap and quickly withdrew her hand.

            “Here, look at this,” Barney said.

            In the corner behind the door was a roll of wallpaper, brown along the edges, black across the top, and sticky when Barney tried to open it.

            “Do you mind, Sarah? Do you mind I bought that when we got this put in?”

            “Well, they can’t use it, so they can`t, and that’s all about it.”

            Barney dusted his hands on his trousers.

            “They’ll have to use the downstairs like everybody else. It`s good enough for us, isn`t it?”

            The door of Martin’s room was shut and they could hear him sniffing and moaning.

            “What’ll we do about him?” Sarah nodded towards the door. “He’s been crying since you left. I couldn’t get a thing done with him like that.”

            “I’ll give him a drop of whiskey maybe. Look.”

            Barney took a half-bottle from his pocket.

            “I got it today – it’ll come out of my wages – for Dicky bird, you know. Nobody can say we don’t know how to treat our visitation. I’ll give Marty a drop in hot water and he’ll go asleep.”

            Sarah sighed and followed him downstairs.

            “We’ll have a drop ourselves, Sarah – what do you say? Sure isn’t there plenty? Dicky bird won’t want all of it.”

            Sarah filled the kettle, her eyes beginning to gleam.

Thank you for reading this. If you enjoyed it you might check out the 5 star reviews on Goodreads.

Upcoming launch of paperback edition of “We All Die in the End”

Here’s a short excerpt from my book. It is currently available as an ebook and I’m looking forward to the paperback edition. Should be ready tomorrow so maybe Monday for launch day . . .

“Upset!” Bridie turned sharply to her husband.  

“She doesn’t know what upset is. What do you want to get married for?” she said to Brigit. “Aren’t you comfortable here? You never said before you wanted to leave. Of course we’re getting on now. You’re bored with us, I suppose.” 

“Ma! Why would you say that? Don’t – ” 

“Nothing for you here only knitting every night and listening to your father shouting at the television.” 

“You leave me out of it,” Reuben said.  

“Tears now and the dinner ruined. I know what you’re at. Oh aye, up to your old tricks again.” 

“Am I talking to you? Am I? Am I talking to you?” 

“Talking!” Reuben stood up.  

“You’re not talking, woman, you’re ranting! Well, rant away. I’m going to eat in the kitchen.” 

“This house is yours,” Bridie said, tugging at Brigit’s hands.  

“You have all the security you want right here. I don’t understand why, all of a sudden, just because that fellow asks you out – ” 

“It’s not just all of a sudden. He was always . . . there, you know. I thought you’d want me to get married. You did, you and Da – ” 

“Huh! Him? Sure what did I know? I was only a girl.” 

She put her hands on the table as if she was about to get up, and then she half-laughed. 

“I married him because I liked his name.” 

“Aye!” Reuben pushed open the kitchen door.  

“I heard that. And it’s the only thing you ever liked about me.” 

He pointed at Brigit. 

“Do you know what she said when you were born? She said that I,” Reuben tapped his chest, “that I, was a monster to put her through all that, and she’d die before she’d let me near her again. One year I had of married life. There was no pills in them days – not that it would have made any difference to her. Marriage! Don’t talk to me about marriage! Work, work, work for me – take, take, take for her. And I’ll tell you more than that. She tried to make you the same as herself – wouldn’t allow you as much as a lipstick – ” 

“Stop it!”  

Bridie’s chair scraped on the floor. Her face was flaming, her cheeks bulging. 

“Ma!” Brigit cried out. 

“You’re a dirty man! Such things to say! You’re a dirty man to talk like that in front of your daughter.” 

“Daughter!” Reuben roared. “Look at her! She’s nearly a middle-aged woman!” 

“Da!” Brigit clapped her hands over her ears.  

If you liked this excerpt, find out what happens next . . .

amazon.com/author/elizabethmerry

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: Peaches by Dylan Thomas

I first read this story many years ago and never forgot about it so recently I read it again, and again it seemed terrific. It is written from the point of view of a very young Dylan, perhaps ten years old. He is spending time with his aunt and uncle in rural Wales, and his best friend from school, Jack, is coming to visit. Jack’s people are well off and he is expected to arrive, accompanied by his mother, in a Daimler. Dylan’s aunt has been holding on to a tin of peaches for a special occasion and is now looking forward to serving them, with a dollop of cream, to Jack’s mother.

And all around this situation is built a whole world of characters:

” . . .  a thin, bald, pale old man, with his cheeks in his mouth . . . “

” . . . a sour woman with a flowered blouse and a man’s cap.”

There is not a wasted word in the story of this small boy with his fears and fancies; it draws you in, subsuming you almost, until you are living on that farm,  playing in that farmyard:

“On my haunches, eager and alone, casting an ebony shadow, with the Gorsehill jungle swarming, the violent, impossible birds and fishes leaping, hidden under four-stemmed flowers the height of horses . . . my friend Jack Williams invisibly near me, I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart . . . the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between my toes . . . “

The young Dylan imagines his uncle:

“I could see uncle, tall and sly and red, holding the writhing pig in his two hairy hands, sinking his teeth into its thigh . . .  leaning over the wall of the sty with the pig’s legs sticking out of his mouth.”

And about his his aunt he writes:

“She went upstairs to dress like Sunday.”

In this tale the writing is the thing. It is hardly like reading at all; it’s like someone sitting beside you telling the story, the language rich and sumptuous and deep and luscious, full of adverbs and adjectives:

” . . . for his uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-brushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

It makes today’s pared-down prose appear without smell or taste or colour, and it reminds me of “A Christmas Carol”, especially the middle part, about Christmas Present. I found it very difficult to choose which quotes to include in this short commentary – every line is memorable.

A Review: The Three Fat Women of Antibes by Somerset Maugham

Does anyone read Somerset Maugham any more? I don’t think so; my own young ‘uns don’t for sure. Two of his novels are terrific – Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, both made into successful movies. But his short stories are even better, wonderfully exotic, full of heat and colour, and cocktails – a combination of narrative drive with great dialogue and characters. I should add to my series on “writers no one reads any more” and begin with him. Or Graham Greene anyone? Maurice Walsh? Do young people read War and Peace? David Copperfield?

Anyway . . .

From the opening paragraph of this story the reader is grabbed and held in fascination. Here we have our three fat ladies, three friends who have melded into a tight unit over many years, each one balancing what is missing in the other. They are kind to each other, making allowances and being supportive. Arrow was the youngest, an American twice divorced; Beatrice Richman was a widow and Frances, who was known as Frank, had never married. Maugham explores what happens when an outsider joins this group, how the dynamics are altered and distorted.

“They were great friends, Miss Hickson, Mrs Richman, and Arrow Sutcliffe. It was their fat that had brought them together and bridge that had cemented their alliance.”

The ladies are grossly overweight and every year they go to Carlsbad in Western Bohemia – the Czech Republic now – for a “cure”. They take the waters, follow the strict regime and attend the same doctor. If one of them falls behind with weight loss:

” . . . the culprit went to bed for twenty-four hours and nothing passed her lips but the doctor’s famous vegetable soup which tasted like hot water in which a cabbage had been well rinsed.”

And every year they return, fatter still. This year, Frank decides that they should take a house in Antibes to continue the “cure” on their own for a month or two and Arrow and Beatrice happily agree. They would have their own cook who would continue to feed them boiled eggs and raw tomatoes. But there was one problem – where would they find a fourth for bridge?

“They were fierce, enthusiastic players . . .  they had long arguments over the rival systems. They bombarded one another with Culbertson and Sims.”

However, it so happened that a cousin of Frank’s was newly widowed and making her way to the Riviera. Frank invited Lena Thorne to join them.  She was a bridge player so they would be independent of outsiders and able to continue with their restricted diet.

Lena arrives. Lena is not fat. They sit down to dinner the first evening and Lena immediately asks for a cocktail. Frank, aware of her friends sensibilities says:

“We find alcohol isn’t very good in all this heat.”

But Lena says the heat doesn’t affect her and when dinner arrives – a poached sole, all  alone on a plate – she asks for, and receives, potatoes with plenty of butter. But worse was to follow – Lena asks for fresh bread.

“The grossest indecency would not have fallen on the ears of those three women  with such a shock. Not one of them had eaten bread for ten years.”

And when Beatrice intimates that she will get fat Lena laughs and says that nothing ever makes her fat and she can eat whatever she likes without worry.

“The stony silence that followed this speech was only broken by the entrance of the butler.”

And then of course, Lena was a terrific bridge player, playing with glorious abandon and imagination, ignoring systems and rules. The friends begin to bicker, accusing each other of being vulgar, of sneaking food, and of never losing any weight. Tears and recriminations, but they make up and hug each other and decide that Lena, being a new widow, should have whatever she liked to eat.

“But human nature is weak.”

Beatrice grew “limp and forlorn”; Arrow’s “tender blue eyes acquired a steely glint”, and Frank’s voice “grew raucous.”.

Lena guzzled macaroni and cheese and paté de fois gras with peas swimming in cream; she drank burgundy and champagne. The bridge sessions became bitter and silent, often ending in tears.

“They began to hate one another.”

But Lena’s stay in Antibes came to an end and Lena went on her way, claiming she had had a wonderful holiday. Frank left her to the train, holding herself together, remaining polite until she waved goodbye. But on the way home:

“‘Ouf!” she roared at intervals. “Ouf!'”

Beatrice was the first to give in. Frank found her in a restaurant eating croissants with jam and butter; a jug of cream stood by the coffee pot. Frank hesitated, but only for a second before sinking into a chair. And then Arrow came along. She pretended horror and disgust before seizing a chair herself and calling for the waiter. Course followed course:

“They ate with solemn, ecstatic fervour.”

And Frank said:

“You can say what you like, but the truth is she played a damned rotten game of bridge, really.”

From “Man and Wife”

Jim coughed again, a hard, tight bark from the top of his chest. His head jerked forward when Connie’s big hand landed on his back and he gulped for breath, waving her hand away. Connie grinned and hit him again anyway. His chest hurt; his eyes watered and tears sat in the long creases in his cheeks.

            The beer tasted sweet going down and he took a long suck, wondering if Connie would let him have another one. He looked at her glass and measured the last of her pint. Connie gave him one of her half-smiles and he knew she knew he wanted another drink. He set down his glass as if he didn’t care and glanced with pretended interest around the bar.

            The usual trio sat on stools, their heads together, Eugene Curran and the Brothers Grimm, and Jim thought that if Connie wasn’t with him he might walk over and say hello, what are you having boys? He tried to imagine that . . . they would talk to him about sport and ask his opinion.

            A shout from the corner drew his attention. He thought there was a fight starting but it was only a crowd of young fellows, a whole gang of them, shouting and laughing, and pushing and shoving at a slight, fair-haired one in the middle. He looked like he couldn’t stand up for himself and Jim’s heart beat sore for him.

            “Birthday party,” Connie said in his ear.

            Jim looked again and saw the huge gold key on the table. The fair-haired boy wasn`t being bullied; his friends were teasing him and Jim could see that he was full of drink. The hair was stuck to his head and his face bloomed in the dark corner.

            “That boy’s not twenty-one.”

            “Eighteen.”

            “You have to be twenty-one to get the key.”

            “No you don’t. That was years ago, it’s eighteen now. You know nothing.”

            “He’s not old enough. Look at him.”

            “Time!” Charlie roared, rattling a spoon against a glass.  “Come on now.”

            Barney Madden started picking up glasses. He’d lift it from under your nose, finished or not. Jim held his on his knee. 

            The crowd in the corner stood up and pulled the birthday boy to his feet, shouting at him to make a speech and he began to talk, leaning on the back of a chair. He seemed to be nearly crying and he shook everybody’s hand over and over.

            The trio at the bar pocketed their change and went out, leaving the doors to swing behind them, letting in great gusts of cold air.

            “Come on now, Connie,” Barney said. “Get that into you. Jim, can you do nothing with that wife of yours? Take her away home to bed.”

            He laughed when he said that and clattered glasses onto the counter.

            One by one the young men got up. With the fair one in the middle carrying the huge gold key they pushed through the swing doors and then they were gone.

            “Now, Barney,” Connie said, and handed over her glass.

            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.

From “We All Die in the end” – Now with three 5 star reviews on Goodreads

amazon.com/author/elizabethmerry

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?

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.”