Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 26; 10 November 2021

“A wormhole to another place”: Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes

The Irish short story in the 2010s, no. 2

I’ve suggested before that publishers, and some authors, tend to think of short stories as apprentice work for novelists. That clearly isn’t true in the case of Lucy Caldwell, who had already published three novels and written several plays when her first collection of stories, Multitudes, appeared in 2016. She brought out a second collection, Intimacies, in 2020 (and a fourth novel is due next year).

With just one exception, the stories in Multitudes centre on Belfast and, for the most part, present it as somewhere to be escaped from. In the first story, “The Ally Ally O”, the narrator’s mother, originally from Manchester, tells her daughters:

When I first came over … your dad drove me up here at dusk, to watch the lights come on all over the city. That’s when I thought, Yes, I could live here after all. (Multitudes, Faber & Faber paperback, 2016, p. 8; ellipsis added)

The two older girls immediately protest that she always tells them to grow up and get away. They are on a hill overlooking the city because the mother has suddenly abandoned her ironing, saying “I need to get out of here” (p. 2), told her daughters to get into the car, and driven around playing the Getting Lost game. They loved to play this game as children before their youngest sibling was born: the children would tell their mother which road to take whenever they come to a junction or crossroads, so their eventual destination would be at least notionally unpredictable. But their mother knows where they will end up because the city and its surroundings are too small and constricted for them to get properly lost.

In the next story, “Thirteen”, the narrator loses her best friend when the friend’s mother decides to move to London.

They’ve had enough is what Susan’s mum says. She just can’t take it any more. “This country,” she says to my mum. (p. 11)

The two girls exchange letters for a while, until Susan sends her a postcard, on which she’s written:

London is soooo cool. I am happier here than I have ever been in my entire life. It’s such a relief not always to be the only one!! (p. 17)

With Susan gone, the narrator realizes that she doesn’t have a single friend. She pairs up for a while with “the other Norma in the class”, Jacqueline Dunne. She dislikes Jacqueline — “But she’s all I’ve got” (p. 17). However, after Jacqueline refers to Susan (who is biracial) as “that wee black bitch” (p. 29), the narrator abandons the idea of being friends with her.

Even her parents misinterpret the nature of her relationship with Susan. She overhears them discussing her current friendlessness:

“I always said it wasn’t healthy, being so much in someone else’s pocket.”
“She’s a loyal wee soul,” my dad replies. “Maybe she felt she couldn’t have other friends. Maybe she felt it would be abandoning Susan.”
“Do you know I’ve wondered that myself,” my mum says, “I mean, I know the bullying could get nasty. I’d Janet Clarke here in tears about it more than once.”
“I’m proud of her, you know,” my dad says, “sticking by Susan all those years.”
The skin all over my body is itching and burning. It wasn’t like that, I want to shout. Neither of us cared about anything else. We used to do magic spells so that things people said would bounce right back at them. (pp. 18–19)

The narrator is still only 13. It will probably be another five years before she can get away.

Sometimes games can provide a temporary diversion. We’ve seen the mother in the first story try to use the Getting Lost game for this purpose. In “Escape Routes”, the narrator plays the first level of Zork, a text-based game. Her older friend, Christopher, sometimes shows her “wormholes”: “Places where it looks like you’re stuck and then squirm through in safety, whisked through space and time” (p. 65).

Christopher “goes missing” (p. 69) one summer, and the narrator eventually comes to understand that he has gone for good; she won’t be seeing him again. His disappearance isn’t explained but, in the context of a collection where so many other characters find that they need to get away from Belfast, it’s reasonable to assume that that’s exactly what Christopher has done.

His “wormholes” also make an appearance in “Here We Are”, a story in which the (temporary) escape from the constraints of suburban teenagedom takes the form of an intense love story. The narrator, a flautist in her school orchestra falls hard for Angela Beattie, two years older, a prefect and the school’s star musician, who plays both saxophone and piano. Angie’s mother has been killed by joyriders and her father is a born-again Christian and local councillor. The all-consuming relationship between the two girls leaves them feeling that “These streets are ours” (p. 101), not something one would expect to hear from any other character in this collection.

And then we had the summer and we were freer than ever, completely free, and I lied blithely to my parents about where I was going and who with, using a rotating cast of old friends, and neither of them ever cottoned on, and I assumed it was the same for Mr Beattie too. (p. 115)

When Mr Beattie discovers the relationship and reacts with disgust, revulsion, anger and panic, Angie sees that she has to break up with the narrator:

“I have to do it,” she keeps on saying. “I’m all he’s got. It won’t change anything. But I have to do it.” (p. 115)

Heartbroken, the narrator writes an essay devoted to the final stanza of “The Eve of St Agnes”, in which “These lovers fled away into the storm.”

You think it’s all over for them, but then you read on, and you realise they’ve slipped away, out of your hands, before your very eyes, a miracle, a magic trick, a wormhole to another place, another time, where no one can ever follow. (p. 116)

(I like the way the lovesick teenager uses phrases like “think it’s all over” and “before your very eyes”, which her older self avoids.)

Years later, the narrator learns from Google that Angie didn’t go on to become a concert musician but was a music teacher, running a small music school in Ayrshire with her husband.

I don’t know why I was so taken aback. I was engaged after all. Engaged, happily engaged, and about to buy a flat. I just had never imagined it for her. (p. 117)

So perhaps their escape, painfully short-lived though it had been — the fleeting but remembered feeling that “These streets are ours” — was enough in the end to get them through the disgust, revulsion, anger and panic. The narrator doesn’t say where she is about to buy a flat, but it clearly isn’t in Belfast. The night after she Googled Angie’s new life, she again walked the streets of East Belfast, in her dreams.

Not all escapes are necessarily permanent. The narrator of “Chasing” comes back to Belfast having spent several months at art school in London. Almost immediately she thinks:

Coming back was not the answer. (p. 122)

The title of this story is in part a reference to “chasing the dragon”, smoking heroin, which the narrator has tried just once in London. The experience has frightened her, though there’s a suggestion that she might be substituting a minor cause of anxiety for something less tractable, and not so easy to identify.

I had done it. Heroin. There was a before and after to my life now — something there’d never been before.

It didn’t seem to change anything for the rest of them. I couldn’t get my head round that at first. For them, I realised, even as we talked about it the following day, it had been an adventure, something to do because we were young and at art school and it was an end-of-term party. There was no reason it should have been any different for me. (p.133)

She dismisses the idea that she had any trauma to get over, or that there had been anything significant about the experience. And yet it frightens her:

Now that I had done it once, what was to stop me doing it again, and again, and again? I decided I had to leave art college and London. Maybe it was overreacting. Maybe it was an excuse for something else entirely. (p. 134)

Her parents are pleased when she suggests that she might enrol at the University of Ulster next year.

“Cypress Avenue” is told from the point of view of an editorial assistant at a small London publisher. She resists coming “home” to Belfast for Christmas, but then feels guilty about it because her older sister Janey, had died just after Christmas, years earlier. While waiting for her flight, she meets Nirupam who was a contemporary of Janey’s at school and who believes he remembers Janey giving him a packet of crisps (though the narrator is doubtful about this because her mother would never have allowed Janey crisps). It turns out that the narrator’s and Nirupam’s mothers knew each other when Janey and Nirupam were in the same Mothers and Toddlers group.

Nirupam, too, lost a sibling, as well as a parent, when his father and baby sister were killed in a car crash. After their deaths, Nirupam “used to hope my mum would move away, that we’d move back to England, but she never would” (p. 150).

Nirupam is more dutiful than you and comes back often. You come back to Belfast once a year for Christmas and Boxing Day — Janey’s Day — in one fell swoop, then back to London again on the twenty-seventh. But now, for the first time ever, you’ll allow yourself to think that maybe you’ll come back again in a few months’s time, when the days are beginning to lengthen. (p. 153)

Maybe it’s not necessary to stay away to remain free, then. But for many of the characters in these stories, Belfast offers nothing except loneliness, friendlessness and disappointment. This is true of the trans girl in “Through the Wardrobe”, whose doctor “will insist there is no service anywhere in Northern Ireland that can help you” (pp. 98–9). Eventually, she will get a referral to the Tavistock but will be obliged to travel back and forth between London and Belfast.

This story, “Through the Wardrobe”, is one of several whose protagonists are addressed in the second person. None of the protagonists is named, so I’ve referred to them where necessary as “the narrator”, though that might be taken to imply that they tell their stories in the first person. The second person approach is a way of making it clear that it is the speaker’s own story that is being told, while at the same time keeping a certain distance: avoiding (or evading?) intimacy. It’s said to be a difficult technique to use well. Caldwell handles it very skilfully.

There’s a lot of death in these stories. Janey in “Cypress Avenue” as well as Nirupam’s father and sister; Angie’s mother in “Here We Are”, the narrator’s daughter in “Inextinguishable” (which I haven’t discussed but recommend). The narrator of “Killing Time” attempts to take an overdose of paracetamol, which leaves her unharmed.

The weird thing is I feel better than I have done in ages. It’s like a safety valve has been released, and for the first time I can breathe again. (p. 79)

Death is avoided, just, in the final, title story of the collection. Its events take place, not in Belfast, but in Whitechapel, where a new-born child is given only a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Just a few days later he is sent home with his parents because …

… they need the room, and we live near and can bring him in three times a day to receive the rest of his course of IV drugs. (p. 165; ellipsis added)

His mother is bemused by the fact that his survival is independent of anything she or her husband could do: it’s out of their control:

It’s chance, luck, Alexander Fleming in 1928, nothing we’ve done, and this makes us fearful. The ferocity I felt through the nights in hospital, the conviction that I could and would fight for his soul, has melted away in the daylight, and now it’s just the three of us, left to watch and wait and muddle through. (p. 166)

I subtitled an early issue of this newsletter “The ‘Irish’ short story in the 2010s” and in it I discussed Roisín O’Donnell’s collection, Wild Quiet. While I’ve partly reused the subtitle for this issue, the two don’t really form a series: these are two very different writers, though both have a connection to Northern Ireland. I’ll be returning to the Irish short story in future issues.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 10-Nov-2021.