Since 2005, Faber & Faber have published a series of anthologies of “New Irish short stories”, the first two being edited by David Marcus. Subsequent volumes appeared under the editorship of Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Barry and Deirdre Madden respectively. The most recent anthology, Being Various (2019) was edited and introduced by Lucy Caldwell.

There are 24 stories here, all newly written: the copyright page says “All the stories are printed here for the first time”, though Sally Rooney’s story “Colour and Light” appeared (as “Color and Light”) in The New Yorker in March 2019, a few weeks before publication of the anthology. Kevin Barry’s “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” is included in his most recent collection, That Old Country Music (2020). I’ve already written about Rooney’s story, and about Kevin Barry’s collection, though without mentioning the story included in Being Various.

Arja Kajermo, “Alienation”

On first reading, the story that immediately caught my eye was Arja Kajermo’s “Alienation”. I recognized her name. In the 1980s, before I left for London, her cartoons had been a regular and welcome feature in the magazine In Dublin. I was surprised to find that she was writing fiction. The narrator of “Alienation” is a mother whose children have grown up and left home. Her husband had left earlier and she’d had “much legal wrangle to get to live in the family home with the kids” (p. 301). The children were presumably Irish citizens, but their mother was not. She had no residence permit, and her position was uncertain in other ways too.

Without a utility bill in my name I had no identity. I had never imagined that a household bill was valid as ID. (p. 306)

(In fact, a utility bill is treated as evidence of address rather than of identity.) Her solicitor tells her that she will not get a residence permit because, as she’s no longer living with her husband, “Your reasons for residing in the State have ceased” (p. 307). She couldn’t get passports for her children during their minority without her husband’s signature, which wasn’t forthcoming.

So I just stayed on without a Residence Permit and waited for a knock on the door but nobody came to deport me. (p. 307)

When the narrator first came to Ireland she thought the people “easy-going” (p. 305) but in time realized that this was an illusion. When rubbish is dumped in the garden of an elderly woman who lives nearby, an anonymous note is pushed through her letterbox (signed “The Residents”). A neighbour tells her that not everybody got one of these notices.

“… Only the foreigners, the Polish families round the corner and you! Aren’t people awful?” (p. 303)

The narrator is Czech-Slovak-Hungarian but to avoid protracted explanations she simply tells people she’s from the Czech Republic (p. 310).

I left a perfectly good place that was far better than here even though it was in the mess that is Mitteleuropa. My homeland has always had armies trampling over it, coming from the east and going west and coming from the west and going east. Tatars, Ottomans, the Swedes came and looted and left, then Hitler, Stalin, you name them, they have all been. The borders have shifted and changed. (p. 305)

She passes three Nigerian womena and thinks:

I envy them the way they occupy their space without apologising. They are big and proud of it and they don’t give way. They don’t flatten or diminish themselves like I do all the time in every way. I fear attention in case my foreignness attracts hostility. They glory in being noticed. (p. 304)

The Nigerian women’s “foreignness” is obvious, there would be no point in trying to hide it, so they don’t. The narrator’s can, up to a point, be concealed, so she gives in to the temptation to try to keep it under wraps, to avoid making her otherness apparent. On the face of it, it seems ridiculous to suggest that a white European is worse off in conservative, tradition-bound Ireland than a Nigerian woman, but it is clear that the narrator believes this to be true. It’s not unusual for people to believe that their own disadvantage is more serious, harder to cope with, than that of others.

We Irish tend not to be as welcoming or as friendly as some of us like to appear:

… the passive aggression that is the speciality of people here. The way they smile crooked and look at you sideways and lob the insult into you. And you jump up like a well-trained dog and catch it and stand there not knowing what to do with it, so you just walk away with it between your teeth. (p. 303)

Unable to get either a divorce or a residence permit, and needing to make a living, the narrator writes a weekly newspaper column, “A Stranger in a Strange Land”, a pointed commentary on the idiosyncracies of Irish life and society. Later, she supplemented her income from the column by writing more soft-centred, rose-tinted sketches of supposed Irish life for publications in other European countries. Some of these were titled “Postcards from the Celtic Mist”.

The German translator rang me to ask what is “Celtic mist”. “Mist” means “dung” in German. That’s what my vignettes are, pure shite. (p. 309)

In the material intended for local consumption she can afford to be more sharply realistic since the editor is able to keep her authorship a secret. Readers speculate that the writer might be Japanese, or an Irish person pretending to be a foreigner. Curiously, she seems to find the absurdity of the Celtic mist more amusing than the satire of her more hard-hitting columns:

Sometimes I type away and stifle my giggles until the tears run down my face. (p. 308)

In the end, she finds herself falsifying her experience of Ireland, not just in the vignettes she sends to publications in other countries, but in Ireland too, where she assures “a teenager on work experience” (p. 309) who is standing in for her usual hairdresser that “I love it here. I love Ireland!” Seeing herself in the mirror, she recognizes that this is “me reversed” (p. 310), the opposite — or at least a distortion — of what she really thinks.

Kit de Waal, “May the Best Man Win”

Kit de Waal’s story is set in Birmingham in 1981, on the day of Muhammad Ali’s last ever fight, which he lost by a unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick. Eddie Lovett, a self-confident, brash, charismatic, white and apparently wealthy man, walks into The Carpenter’s Arms, followed by three men, presumably his employees, who are carrying a very large television set. Eddie has been on his way home to watch the fight and has bought a new telly for the occasion, but traffic on the motorway is at a standstill, so he gets his “men” to carry the telly into the pub.

All the men in the pub (except the newcomers) are black. There are two white women, one of them being the 20-year-old behind the bar. She is Patti, and the story is told from her point of view. Eddie asks her to unplug the bar’s “small grey television, hissing on a narrow shelf” (p. 175) and plug his in instead, which she does. The only one of the locals to challenge Eddie is Fitz, the father of Patti’s 6-year-old child. Fitz shouts “… You can’t just come in here!” (p. 174), but he’s already very drunk and when Eddie buys him a rum and tells Patti to keep him topped up, Fitz dozes off and sleeps through the fight and doesn’t wake up till Patti is closing the pub.

Eddie is cheering on Muhammad Ali, whom he describes as “the greatest boxer in the world” (p. 176). Just one of the pub’s regulars openly dissents from this opinion. He is known as Reds and has dreadlocks “like skeins of rope over his chest” (p. 177):

“I don’t want Ali to win. Berbick is from my parish, mister. My countryman, that.” (p. 178)

Eddie is conciliatory, agreeing that Berbick is a good fighter but without backing down in his support for Ali. He buys Reds a drink, shakes his hand and says “May the best man win” (p. 178).

Everybody gets caught up in the fight. When the decision goes against Ali, Eddie pronounces it “Out-fucking-rageous!” (p. 181). Is he sincere in this or is it an act? The tv commentator says that Ali was in much better shape than many expected and had done all he could but had been a bit slow. That must have been as clear to Eddie as to the commentator and others. Maybe he just wasn’t able to accept that his hero was in decline.

After the fight, Patti cleans up the bar. Eddie gives her a fiver and a bit of paper with his phone number, telling her that she should contact him if she ever needs a job in London.

“In fact, if you don’t need a job look me up. Or ring me on this number. Tomorrow maybe.”

Patti accepts the money and the number. She’s been fascinated by Eddie since he came in: she’s never seen anything like him, with his blue leather trenchcoat that matches the colour of his eyes. When he asks how she’s getting home, she tells him that she lives with Fitz and that they have a six-year-old named Damian.

He didn’t raise an eyebrow. He didn’t look her up and down or make quick calculations about her age, poor judgement and easy virtue. He didn’t wonder whether her mother had thrown her out for being a slut that had brought disgrace on her family and Catholics all over the world. (p. 182)

We could easily see Eddie as a privileged white man who invades a de facto Black space and imposes his wishes and his personality on it and the people who occupy it. Indeed, that’s certainly partly true. But the situation is ambivalent, finely balanced. In order to get what he wants, Eddie has had to negotiate, to charm, to perform. Whatever his intentions or motivations, it’s arguable that his “invasion” has been beneficial for the pub’s regulars, or at least hasn’t injured them (apart from Fitz, who’s about to lose his girlfriend).

It’s clear from Patti’s reply to Fitz when he asks her who won that she is going to phone Eddie. That will be a leap in the dark on her part, and there’s no saying how things will work out for her. Eddie’s a showman, what are the chances that he’s also an illusionist? She doesn’t know what his business is, whether it’s legit, what kind of work he might be offering or who else is involved. Yet the reader feels that she’s probably making the right move. It’s likely to improve her situation somewhat, at least in the short term. So, there’s a similar ambivalence in the incipient relationship between Patti and Eddie to that in the relationship between the black regulars in the pub and the white interlopers.

Sheila Purdy, “Transactions”

Rose’s twin brother, Paddy (born 1963) has suddenly been taken to hospital with heart trouble. He’s had problems with his heart before but this time it’s more serious and Rose is asked to sign a consent to a risky procedure, which she does. Paddy survives this time but there’s no improvement in his condition. He gently and rather obliquely lets Rose know that he knows she has been stealing from him. She has his bank card and often buys things for herself with it. When she heard early on Saturday morning that he had been taken to hospital, she had been sitting up all night, unable to sleep because of worry, presumably about her thefts.

Having spent the whole day in the hospital, she gets the bus home, intending to come back the next day with pyjamas, toothbrush and other things he’ll need. But she’s arrested for shoplifting in the supermarket near her home. The supermarket security man tells her that it’s their policy always to prosecute shoplifters. The police find Paddy’s bank card and 17 used scratchcards of €20 each in her bag, so it seems that something like a gambling addiction is behind Rose’s behaviour.

It appears that the police are going to hold her until court on Monday morning. She won’t get station bail and obviously won’t be able to get to the hospital on Sunday with Paddy’s belongings, though this thought doesn’t seem to have registered with her:

The more she figured, the more she couldn’t bear to think that Paddy had known all along and had said nothing. If she could pull through until the morning, she’d go back in and see him. She wished for one more day, supposed she’d have one. (p. 126)

There are some suggestions in the story that Rose may not be all that intelligent. When Paddy asks her if she signed the consent form, she answers “I suppose I did, Paddy” and then, when a nurse asks her if she’s his only living relative, her reply is “I’m the only one, I suppose” (p. 113). Her vagueness may be explained by the fact that she is dazed and sleep-deprived. On the other hand, if she bought €340 worth of scratchcards with her brother’s bank card, it was a bit unrealistic to think he might not notice.

The plot is simple but affecting. I remembered details and the overall shape months after I’d first read the story, even though I couldn’t recall who had written it or where I’d seen it.

Belinda McKeon, “Privacy”

The narrator of Belinda McKeon’s story is the mother of an eight-month-old daughter, her first child, and it’s fair to say she’s all over the place. Physically, she’s in a city on the Hudson, about an hour north of New York, where she and her husband have bought a run-down house from the 1820s. It was cheap, in an area that’s now experiencing its fourth “wave” of gentrification and that was for a while the murder capital of New York State.

She’s a writer, though she’s not getting a lot written at the moment because of the baby (and particularly not the journal she’s supposedly writing for the child when she gets a bit older). She exchanges drafts with Mark, another writer whom she’s known since college. He comments on her most recent story:

There’s a lot in here … but it’s not seeming like a story to me yet. I think, sit with it, I think, the shape will come to you, if you sit with it for another while? (pp. 199–200)

This reads as a challenge to the reader, daring us to find the present story shapeless, notwithstanding its detailed, substantial contents. There are several strands “in here”. The narrator finds out as it progresses that the clay pipe supposedly taking the waste from the property to the city’s sewers has rotted away over the years and that the problem will “cost us thousands, maybe tens of thousands” (p. 203) to fix:

… the city is going to do nothing to help us, that the city thinks we’re idiots for buying these old houses in the first place. (p. 203)

But before she can digest that unwelcome news, there is the “Tampon Panic” to attend to:

… the Tampon Panic is the dawning horror that it’s all going to be revealed to be your fault, and you’re going to have to face them, the shameful, faded shoal of them, lodged in a pipe bend, billing by the minute, and that the plumber, or your landlord, or your neighbour, or your husband, will be standing beside you as you face them, holding his breath in distaste.

That this nightmare vision has never actually been made manifest doesn’t loosen its hold on me … (p. 202)

“There are no tampons” (p. 203), of course. There is, however, the shoebox coffin of the beloved if cranky cat — “Light of our lives, furry hot-water bottle on our loins …” (p. 197) — that they’d buried in the garden two months earlier, whose still decomposing body becomes the object of some slapstick late in the story.

Earlier, the narrator makes much of her ambivalent, changing attitude to the contractors who have come to dig up her neighbour’s garden and will also have to dig up part of hers (including the cat’s grave). They are five brothers, the “Sons” in Giordano & Sons. She thinks it’s likely that they despise gentrifiers like her (or as they assume her to be), and wants to appear easy-going, undemanding, “incredibly sound” (p. 195). But she also wants them to see her as still attractive for a 40ish first-time mother. As she’s speaking to one of the contractors outside her front door, she thinks that the situation looks like the setup to a porno film.

The excavation team are working for her neighbour, Joe, as it’s in his house that the problem has manifested itself: “a downstairs toilet that belches its contents back up when it rains” (pp. 192–3). Joe isn’t there when they arrive. She tells them that he’s dropping his wife off at work. She tell us, the readers, that this isn’t quite true, he actually drops her to the train, because they have only one car. But this can’t be true either, because Joe’s car is outside: one of the Giordano brothers steps “between our car and Joe’s” (p. 194). (And, if “our car” is outside, how did her husband get wherever he is? There’s no sign of him here.) She withholds part of the truth from the team because she doesn’t want to draw attention to anything suggesting that she, her husband, Joe and his wife are ecologically conscious liberal types.

They are white men, blue collar, and although I don’t see any bumper stickers, up here, an hour north of the city, it’s becoming safer to just assume. (p. 196)

Fair enough, but why is she also withholding part of the truth from us?

The four stories I’ve written about are not representative of the volume as a whole. I don’t think any selection could be regarded as representative or typical of such a thematically and stylistically varied anthology. Other stories I’d like to have written something about if I’d had more time include the first one, Yan Ge’s “How I fell in love with the well-documented life of Alexander Whelan”, in which a young woman (originally named Xiaohan and born in China but now living in Cahir, County Tipperary with her mother and stepfather, and known as Claire Collins), learns that Alex Whelan died suddenly, having just accepted her Facebook friend request. A friend of Alex’s tells her that he killed himself but she’s not sure how reliable this information is. There’s a wealth of material by and about Alex on social media, but none of it tells Xiaohan/Claire very much. She learned more about him when they sat silently beside each other watching a Japanese movie (which they both understood differently) in the Foreign Movies No Subtitles group.

In Danielle McLaughlin’s “A Partial List of the Saved”, Conor, who teaches chemistry in California flies back to Ireland for his father’s 80th, and presumably last, birthday. His almost-ex-wife, from whom he’s now living apart, comes too, because the father always adored her and it would “kill him” to learn of the split. Conor finds that things are not at all as he was expecting. The title of the story refers to a newspaper report following the sinking of the Titanic. The characters visit Belfast’s Titanic Museum, which is “appropriately huge, eight storeys high” (p. 48).

The story by Adrian McKinty, “Jack’s Return Home”, of course takes its title from the Ted Lewis novel on which Get Carter was based. This Jack is a young lesbian who has been banned from Northern Ireland on the diktat of her uncle Andy, a leading figure in a loyalist paramilitary organization. She’s allowed to come home, very briefly, for her father’s funeral. This concession may turn out to be a fatal mistake on her uncle’s part.

Finally, there’s “Mikey Mulholland”, a story by Wendy Erskine. The title character is reluctantly helping his great-uncle, a World War 2 veteran, to choose music to be played during a radio interview about his wartime experiences. The problem, apart from Mikey’s lack of enthusiasm, is that great-uncle Hugh has absolutely no interest in, or knowledge of music, rendering absurd Mikey’s half-hearted attempt to help. Just before he leaves, Mikey, who is gay, sees a wartime photograph of Hugh, and learns that the old man, now a censorious, joyless scold, used to be “gorgeous” (p. 87).

Edition: Faber & Faber Limited, 2019; all ellipses added.