Short stories from Scotland and England in the 1990s

How about this for a sentence?

She left the house with her raincoat, her handbag and a pair of painful silver shoes she had worn to annoy Edward that morning, but which by the end of a day that included the plane south, a journey on the tube that had been almost alarmingly smooth, as though she would never have human feelings again, a hot train journey that made her homesick already for Scotland, and a promising period of eavestropping that ended with one of its participants’ disappointingly quiet death, annoyed her much more and burned her too, by virtue of their metallic finish. (Candia McWilliam, Wait Till I Tell You, p. 140)

The sentence occupies a whole paragraph and comes at about the midpoint of a story, “Seven Magpies”, which itself forms the hinge or pivot between the Scottish (“North”) and English (“South”) sections of Candia McWilliam’s only collection of short stories, Wait Till I Tell You (1997). Its ostensible subject is a pair of painful shoes but it incidentally tells the reader much that has been withheld up to this point: such as that the two apparently unrelated episodes which form the story so far are linked by Morag, the unappreciated wife and mother, who has also been the unremarked witness to the final argument between Findlay Meldrum and his disapproving septuagenarian father, Robert.

Morag and Findlay have this much in common: they respond with passive aggression to the strict and demanding behaviour of husband and father respectively. Morag’s silver shoes are an example of this, as are the five pieces of chewing gum that Findlay has popped in his mouth all at once, with the result that “his throat was flooded with minty saliva and his jaw was aching” (p. 134).

The cool hostility between Morag and Edward has reached the point where it is no longer hidden from their children:

Edward’s comment had been made in front of the children before, but never before, as now, stripped of the pretence of levity. (p. 136)

Morag has made a deal with herself and “with fate: she would tend to him scrupulously if one day she might be delivered from him” (p. 136). When we learn that she has taken plane, tube and train — so passing through London on the way — we surmise that she has left Edward, and this turns out to be the case. She has also left her two children, though we learn nothing at all as to how she feels about this. It may be that she has come to take seriously Edward’s repeated assertions that he is “so far superior” (p. 136) to her and therefore in a better position to look after and provide for the children.

No one could say she had not colluded in her own demotion from love object to servant. The extravagant acts of obedience and enslavement had, she thought, been a conduit of intimacy between them. Now these actions has set into resented habits and their certainly fetishistic significance had fallen away. (p. 138)

Morag is on her way to stay with her mother, Jean, who is living in the house of “her employer” (p. 143) Ludovina, who is now in her 80s and has led a life of “privileged activism and rash adventurous travels” (p. 145).

Morag turns up at Ludovina’s house accompanied by the bereft Findlay Meldrum, who falls off some scaffolding — it seems that Ludovina is having work done on her house. While Findlay is lying on the ground, Morag holds his head in her lap to prevent him from beating it against the path at the edge of the lawn. Ludovina watches composedly “as he breathes in a stranger through her skirt wet with his own tears” (p. 145).

It hasn’t been clear till now what Ludovina does but we know that she has a workroom, from which she has emerged with “inky hands” (p. 146). (I realize I’ve been imagining her as looking a bit like Doris Lessing.)

She had the thread of a new story almost in her grip. She could not wait to return to her pen, with which she had a further three hours to spend that day, before she went out to dig the evening’s potatoes. (p. 146)

Even if one at once dismisses it as risibly bathetic, surely it’s impossible to avoid considering, however momentarily, the ambiguity of Ludo’s impatience “to return to her pen”, particularly in the context of Morag’s once pleasurable fetish of submission and subservience?

There’s a lot the reader doesn’t find out: what becomes of Findlay, does Morag maintain contact with her children, in what capacity is Jean employed by Ludo, where was the train going and how did the Meldrums come to be on it as it passed through “this thinly chivalric part of England”? For all that, the story seems to me to be entirely satisfactory. Here and in most of her other fiction, McWilliam adopts an oblique style, while at the same time providing a full banquet of specific detail. We may not be sure what is going on, but we are wholly caught up in the particulars of whatever it is.

In the closing paragraphs of “The Only Only”, the deaths occur of seven of the eight children attending an island school. I’m still not sure whether they occur in actuality or, having been averted by the merest chance, in the imaginations of the children’s mothers. Either way, the consequences must be appalling for Davie, not himself an islander, who worked part-time for the ferry company, his wife Euphemia, the local teacher and their only child Sandy, the survivor. The reader is left to imagine those consequences.

McWilliam describes the incident with a chilly, clear-eyed precision which nevertheless leaves the answer to the central question unclear: did the children survive?

The stern spring of the boat cracked free from the cleat from which Davie had forgotten to lift it. After the first tearing report of the bust rope came the whipping weight of sixty yards of corded hemp and steel, swinging out through its hard blind arc at the height of a good-sized child. (p. 30)

Everybody immediately lies flat on the ground, letting the rope fly over their heads — everyone except the mothers, who first run to their children, at the end of the pier from where they would wave at the departing ferry. Euphemia, the only mother who has only one child, gets Sandy down safely. But what of the others?

The boat continued to move away, its briefly lethal rope trailing behind it, a lone seaman at the winch above, coiling it in to usefulness. … The children from the end of the pier comforted their mothers, who stared out to the disappearing ship seeing, abob in the water, the heads of children cut off at the neck, their frozen sweetness of face under the streaming curtailed hair; red, red, red, red, red, red or black, and to grow no more. (p. 31; ellipsis added)

The rope need be no less lethal for having been only briefly so, and the man winching it aboard with apparent calm would presumably be doing exactly the same thing in any case, so the first sentence is not necessarily as reassuring as I took it to be on first reading.

But on the other hand, how could the children from the end of the pier be comforting their mothers if they were all without their heads? And how is it that the women, staring “out to the disappearing ship”, are seeing their children’s heads bobbing about in the water? If they were real heads, wouldn’t they still be close to the shore? Is it possible that they’re seeing them in their imaginations, transfixed by the appalling thought of what might have happened, what almost did?

I still don’t know.

Though I was aware of this collection shortly after it was published 25 years ago, and had admired the two of McWilliam’s three novels that I’d read, until a few weeks ago I’d read only two of these short stories. One of these was “Change of Use”, the last story in the book, which was separately published as a Bloomsbury Quid, and the other “Being a People Person”, which was first published in Revenge (1990) an anthology of short stories by women writers, edited by Kate Saunders. Once again, McWilliam is writing obliquely, while giving the reader a lot of specificity.

There was certainly much about the story that I felt I understood on first reading, while at the same time, I suspected that I was missing something important. Reading it now, removed from the context of an anthology on the theme of revenge, I find it less of a puzzle. Its protagonist, Patrick, feels he’s being punished for attempting to rise above his allotted station in life. Curiously, though, his “punishment” takes the form of going to dinner, and afterwards having sex, with a woman to whom he is strongly attracted. As chastisements go, it can hardly be claimed to contrvene the European Convention on Human Rights.

Patrick works for an ad agency in London. It’s called Drive, Torque, MacIsmo and most of its staff have been accustomed to wealth and privilege from an early age. Patrick badly wants to be like them and has quickly learned to imitate their speech and behaviour, though he balks somewhat at the admonition to “be a people person”. He is

… careful even in his private thoughts to use the most exclusive slang. Strive to belong, behave as if you belong, and you will belong, he told himself regularly throughout each day. Act as though you are one of them. It was not that hard, mostly just a matter of not speaking first, laughing in the right place, and copying their gestures and phrases. If you wanted something enough, you generally got it, and Patrick wanted to be one of them. They were sleek. They knew what to do. They weren’t losers. (p. 198)

He catches sight of Louella, who tells him she’s in market reseach, at a campaign meeting for a confectionary bar called Goldenrod. Louella turns out to be something of a confection herself. Patrick’s first impression of her is that “Sisterly sexiness shone from her, asking to be licked off like butterscotch sauce” (p. 194). The silk lining of her fur coat is “biscuit-coloured” (p. 201). When she comes home with him, she sits, “nice as sugar pie” and he discovers that she is “pale brown all over, dipped in pale brown” (p. 202).

Following a night during which they “gorged on each other” (p. 202), Patrick is not pleased to find that his date with Louella is widely known about. The person who had been urging the necessity of being a people person tells him that they’ve been researching the market for a bar aimed at the “male equivalent” (p. 206) of the women who buy Goldenrod. Patrick has unwittingly been part of their research.

“… We wanted the name for the bar to come from the experience we wanted the bar to reflect, soft, sweet, you know the sort of thing. And if possible firing a bloke up to want another about every eight hours. … The long and the short of it was that we needed you, you Patrick, because you may earn like an alpha but you’re the only man in the office with the distinction of having known life as a C2. (pp. 206–7; ellipsis added)

To Patrick, the message seems obvious, at no risk of being misunderstood:

This was their punishment of him for trying to be one of them. (p. 206)

But, important though it may be to police and reinforce the boundaries between the social strata, it can never be as important as turning a profit. The person assures Patrick that “this could carry a hefty slice of the sweet folding stuff when the product hits the shelves” (p. 207). Patrick will continue to “earn like an alpha” if he comes up with the goods, but he will not again forget his place in the social order. The person has been killing two birds with one stone.

He leered, but his real expression was one of attentive pecuniary acumen. (p. 207)

This story is full of images of sugar, sweetness and confectionary as metaphors for the indulgence of unhealthy appetites. McWilliam’s fiction, including her second novel, A Little Stranger (1989), often uses sweet, cloying “foods” (and occasionally the contrast with more savoury fare) in a similarly metaphoric fashion. This is particularly true of “Sweetie Rationing”, where a polite afternoon tea serves as cover for snobbery and racism, and “Pass the Parcel” (which I strongly recommend), in which an elderly woman’s apparently admirable composure in the face of that sure extinction, is revealed as something altogether colder and more repellant. The story ends when she is handed a cup of tea, containing sugar that she didn’t want, with the expression “Sweets for the sweet” (p. 226). In her case, a little added sweetener might do more good than harm.

The next time, I’m hoping to write about “spymasters” — Graham Greene and John le Carré — concentrating on two novels from the late 1970s: The Human Factor and Smiley’s People. That’s if the copy of Smiley’s People that I ordered from the UK via Alibris four weeks ago turns up by then. If it doesn’t, I have alternative plans.

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Thanks for reading.