The first time I ever saw Liam Neeson act it was in “My Dear Palestrina”, a television dramatization by Bernard MacLaverty of his short story of the same title. I was deeply impressed by Neeson’s performance and MacLaverty’s story alike, and left with the strong hunch that MacLaverty was one of the best short story writers alive. Yet, over the next 40 years, I read at most two more of his short stories. (I saw the films that were made, from his own scripts, of his first two novels and to the best of my recollection read the first of those novels, Lamb.) Why didn’t I read more short stories? Partly, no doubt, it was fear of being disappointed, of being forced to conclude that his stories weren’t as amazing as I had thought they must be.
With his sixth collection, Blank Pages (2021), I’ve finally got around to paying MacLaverty some of the attention that I’ve always felt he deserved. The last of these 12 stories to be written is clearly the bleakest. When the Covid pandemic struck, the collection was almost complete, but MacLaverty felt that he needed to acknowledge the changed circumstances. He wrote about the deaths of Egon Schiele and his young, pregnant wife during the devastating flu pandemic of 1918. Schiele was only 28 years old, but he left behind an extraordinary body of work.
In the other stories, nothing terrible happens centre stage. Missing people are found, those at death’s door are revived, the bereaved are comforted, disasters and catastrophes are held at bay. And yet the various threats continue to loom. In an interview with Colm Tóibín, MacLaverty points out that the first and last stories deal with resurrections of different kinds, while the middle one shows defeat and death, forming a structure like a hammock. Each of those three stories has a dateline beside the title, the “resurrection” ones each being set in the early years of the Second World War, while the middle one, “The End of Days”, takes place in the aftermath of the First.
The first two stories in the collection are filled with suspense. In “A Love Picture”, a widow whose son’s ship has been sunk in the Atlantic, so he is presumed dead, is given some reason for hope. Her niece has seen a newsreel item in the cinema about rescued sailors disembarking at Galway (in the neutral Irish Republic). The niece is pregnant and had dozed off on taking her seat in the cinema, being woken by her friend when the news item came on, so she caught just a glimpse of the man who looked like her missing cousin.
On hearing this, the widow is impatient to see the newsreel for herself and strikes up what looks like the beginning of a friendship with the cinema manager. (The projectionist has finished work and gone off to the pub.) The reader is aware how unlikely it is that the niece, suddenly waking to catch just the briefest glimpse of a face on a newsreel report, actually saw what she thought she saw, but her aunt, when she finally sees the newsreel for herself, is sure that it really is her son. She begins to make plans to travel to Galway.
The next story is even more suspensful. In “Glasshouses”, a man in his 80s temporarily loses his grandchildren in Glasgow’s botanical gardens. As he searches frantically he feels pains in his arm and chest. He doesn’t suffer a heart attack — not this time — and the children are safe and unharmed, but he’s had an unwelcome reminder of the things that could go wrong.
The increasingly anxious state of the grandfather in “Glasshouses” is contrasted with the resigned exasperation of the central character in “Wandering”, whose octogenarian mother has gone off into the night in her slippers and nightgown. The daughter, Vera, is a teacher who would like nothing better than to retire and write. She has had a short story accepted by the Irish Independent’s New Writing page. The combination of teaching and looking after her mother leaves her exhausted and makes it difficult for her to write. She wonders whether “a Zimmer frame in the attic [is] any worse than a pram in the hall?” (p. 188).
A recurring theme in the stories I’ve mentioned so far is the search: the characters search for a son presumed lost at sea, grandchildren who aren’t where they were just a minute ago, an elderly mother suffering from dementia. “Searching” is the title of one story, set in Belfast in 1971. A woman wakes up in the night to find that there are people moving about outside her house, apparently about to break in. When they identify themselves as “British Army, mam”, she responds “thanks be to God” (p. 59).
It’s not that she’s pleased to find armed soldiers entering her house in the middle of the night, but they’re at least more predictable and in most circumstances more disciplined than paramilitaries or ordinary “decent” criminals could be expected to be. I was trying to think of how to describe her attitude to the soldiers and the best I could come up with was “hostile toleration”, but that doesn’t quite catch the nuances.
The soldiers issue what to a layperson must inevitably look like self-contradictory signals: one moment shouting in her face that they want everybody in the house downstairs now; shortly afterwards engaging in a calm conversation about cricket. Of course the shouting and the “Now!” make sense: the soldiers’ first priority must be to make sure that there isn’t any threat.
Molly surmises that they’re looking for “somebody on the run” (p. 63). They show some interest in the signs that her son had been staying there, but he’s clearly not their quarry. He has since gone back to London where he lives and works. The soldiers find his cricket gear and ask Molly who does he play for in London? She hasn’t the foggiest idea and offers the names of football clubs.
The soldier says “I thought Roman Catholics didn’t play cricket,” and her reply is “That shows how little you know” (p. 67). Her mother has just asked Molly why she’s talking so much to the soldier and Molly has no answer. Earlier, she has thought that he has a voice and an accent like “something from the BBC” that “lured” her into the conversation against her will.
Death, actual, impending or postponed, is a frequent presence in these stories. In “Night Work”, a woman is called out to make a death mask of a prominent mathematician for a sculptor. The story isn’t dated but is evidently set a few years before the Second World War. The woman shares her forename, Lily, with the mother of Vera, the protagonist of “Wandering”, though I don’t think it’s the same woman at an earlier stage of her life. For one thing, “Night Work” is set in Edinburgh, while the action of “Wandering” seems to take place in Northern Ireland. For another, there’s no mention in “Wandering” of a death mask or any other details from the earlier story. “Night Work” describes in careful detail the process she follows to make the mask. She’s a skilled worker, a craftswoman, but she does not make a great deal of money from her skill.
If death is a constant presence, its precursor, old age, is even more prevalent. As well as the grandfather in “Glasshouses”, Lily in “Wandering”, there’s the alcoholic living in a squalid tenement room in “The Fairly Good Samaritan”. When his neighbour, “Mrs Downstairs” tells him “If you go on the way you’re going, you’ll kill yourself” (p. 92), he doesn’t answer aloud but thinks that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. Yet, Mrs Downstairs is the one he discovers lying on the ground inside her open front door, having suffered what looks like a stroke. So many of these characters are vulnerable to heart attack, stroke, declining strength and agility, bereavement and loneliness, things which don’t always land where most expected.
In “Sounds and Sweet Airs”, an elderly couple return by ferry from Northern Ireland to Scotland (where they now live). The man has had an operation on one eye for cataracts and will soon have the same on his other eye. They get into conversation with a young harpist who, like them is from Northern Ireland but now lives in Scotland. Lisa has been home to see her father, a Catholic with a Protestant-sounding name (Boyd) who used to work in the shipyard. His ancestor named Boyd who had converted to Catholicism (in order to marry) had also worked in the shipyard, where
he lived in fear that his secret would be discovered and “the red-hot rivets would rain down on him” from the other side. (p. 228)
The harpist’s father lost the ability to walk following a spinal injury when from scaffolding in the yard — “somebody’d not done their job properly” (p. 222). He was paid compensation and has “a team” (p. 223) who help him to manage but his daughter is painfully conscious that she’s not there to look after him as he gets older. On the bright side, his situation has made her much less self-conscious about playing — and carrying around — her full-sized harp.
The title story concerns an elderly widower, a writer who hasn’t been writing much recently, who has to have his deceased’s wife cat killed by the vet because of age and illness. He hadn’t been fond of the cat nor the cat of him but they have come to console each other a bit in their loneliness following his wife’s death. Before taking the cat to the vet, he covers the floor carpet with blank sheets of white paper to see if they show up fleas. “There’s no shortage of blank A4 in this house” (p. 206).
The last story is one of the “resurrection” ones. It features two very prejudiced men, both doctors, one of them an out-and-out racist. The story is set in County Derry in 1942, not long after the entry of the United States into the Second World War. Dr Irvine, a Unionist and member of the Orange Order, is treating a Catholic, Peter Conway, for scepticaemia, which has taken him from rude good health to death’s door in just a few days. Dr Irvine is not hopeful.
A major in the US Army, who is also a doctor, tells him about penicillin and is able to get him some. Together, they go to treat Peter Conway with the antibiotic, with results that seem almost miraculous to Dr Irvine.
Notwithstanding the good they do in the case of Peter Conway and others, the medical men have hateful views and opinions. The major is a racist and an antisemite. He believes that the Black soldiers in the army are “not fit for combat. Looking after latrines and the like” (p. 246), and he also makes approving remarks about Henry Ford, particularly mentioning his antipathy to Jews (p. 250). Dr Irvine is probably less overtly sectarian than his wife, Myrtle, since many of his patients are Catholics, but he is an Orangeman, “a member of the Black Preceptory” (p. 247). If he needed casual work done, like hedge-clipping or grass-cutting, “Dr Irvine kept those kind of jobs for the not-so-well-off on his own side of the house” (p. 241).
When Myrtle says that she wouldn’t have a Roman Catholic about the place, the major doesn’t reply but just “smiled and excused himself” (p. 257), then goes outside with Dr Irvine. Earlier, when they visited Conway’s home they were told that he had been “annointed”.
“The annointing means they think he’s going to die,” said Dr Irvine.
“I know. I’m Polish.” (p. 253)
One might like to think that exposure to the obvious bigotry of the other would open each party’s eyes to his own, but there’s no suggestion in the story that this is what happens. Instead, it may suggest that an institution like the medical profession can function to treat illnes and save lives in spite of the malevolence or moral shortsightedness of the people who make it up. MacLaverty gives the doctors their due, but without letting them off the hook.
Mrs Irvine, at least, thinks Peter Conway feckless and irresponsible. He has a wife, four daughters and no regular income. It turns out, though, that he’s a bit of a craftsman, like Lily in “Night Work”. He selects suitable blackthorn branches, straightens them by hanging a boulder from them for a year, treats and varnishes them to make walking sticks that are “jagged and straight at the same time. So straight you could rule with them” (p. 259).
I’ve been referring to Blank Pages as a “collection”, though it seems that most of these stories haven’t been previously published anywhere else, such as in magazines or journals, so perhaps it would have been better to call it a volume or a book. His previous book of new stories came out in 2006 so presumably these were all written since then. It’s not surprising, then, that they evince such a preoccupation with age and the approach of death. I don’t mean to suggest that the stories suffer in the slightest as a result of that preoccupation, but it makes me curious to see what preoccupied him when he was younger. I’m about to order A Time to Dance (1982), the volume which contains “My Dear Palestrina”.
Edition: Jonathan Cape hardback, 2021