Ted Hughes had his fox appearing out of the darkness, just as the Romantics took the Aeolian harp as an analogue for inspiration. An instrument which makes its sound when vibrated by the breeze, this harp suggests the poet/writer as receptor and inspiration as elusive, capricious. I favour the idea of the arcade game Penny Falls, where coins are inserted through a slot perhaps to the sound of beeps and electronic rings of the kind not yet heard on Mount Parnassus. Mostly the new penny causes no movement but sometimes it sets up an unexpected chain which causes a cascade down the metal chute.
For each of the stories in the collection Sweet Home I can attempt to trace the notes that blew, the hot and stinking animal that appeared out of the clearing, the chain of coins that fell.
“To All Their Dues” is a story about the owner of a beauty salon, a small-time gangster and his wife. The imperative verb form can be both beseeching or commanding, contingent on situation. I thought about how power could shift in three different situations involving the same three different people, the weak becoming powerful, the powerful becoming weak. I recalled being in a café many years ago when the staff were intimidated by a local thug. His leather jacket looked butter soft. I thought of beauty salons and the obliging response to orders: close your eyes, turn over, bend your knee. And in all of the situations skin, being torn, soft, cut, hit, touched. “Render therefore to all their dues”, Romans 13:7, provided the title.
“Inakeen”: a tale of a lonely woman who becomes fascinated with her niqab-wearing neighbours. Two niqabi women once walked past me on the Albertbridge Road in Belfast and a plastic bag caught on the foot of the taller one so she did an elaborate kick to get rid of it. I heard the other woman laugh. I remembered as well a camera course I’d once gone on, the lectures on apertures, the interest in how the light fell on young women”s faces. I thought of looking: through a lens, through curtains. The sound of “Black Sail” by Chastity Belt, the touch of an edge of a curtain, Google Translate, French classes, je m’appelle Wendy, bonjour, au revoir
“Observation”: a teenage girl observes the dynamic between her friend, her friend’s mother, and her friend’s mother’s boyfriend. I noticed people like the friend’s mother at the gym as they considered the calibration of the kettle bells. I observed where their straps cut their tattoos in half, the bas-relief of deltoids as they pull down the metal bar. From the top deck of a bus, I saw two girls eating noodles in the bus-shelter. One of them looked up to see me watching her. I imagine their sleepovers, lying on a blow-up mattress on the floor, the thinness of the walls of the rooms.
“Locksmiths.” Re-grouting a bathroom floor, I scraped out dirt and old cement from between the tiles with a knife. I thought of the skips I pass, filled with rubble and the things that were once the constituent parts of a home – old lamps, tables, sofas. My reading at the time: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison, where one woman waits outside prison for another. The skips I pass daily outside houses, the legacy of Le Corbusier in the nearby estate and the things that make up a home - trays, rugs, stains, cups – coalesce with a half-remembered newspaper story about locksmiths in Pamplona who refuse to change the locks of the houses of evictees. And so came a story about a mother being released from jail and her daughter who does not want to share a house with her. D.W. Harding’s phrase: ‘regulated hatred.’
“Sweet Home.” The Chekhov story “New Villa” is about an engineer and his family who buy a house in the country. They treat the locals with kindness, but these people in turn have little respect for the new arrivals. They prefer masters who act like it. Move it to Belfast, and what, substitute a female architect for the male engineer? A community centre for the engineer’s bridge? Keep the disdain versus the generous impetus? In the pristine new community centre the occupants have blu-tacked A4 pages to the windows. The disruption of design intentions.
“Last Supper”: this is a story about a small café that is collaboratively run by a church and a mental health charity. I was thinking of a 3-D piece by the Dutch artist Maurice van Tellingen of a birdhouse in a bleak garden. It’s a sanctuary, albeit a sad one. I thought as well of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Outside there is apocalypse waiting to happen because the café cannot keep going in the face of dwindling customers and employee misbehaviour. Things fall apart and “The Second Coming” is transposed to the most mundane of settings, with scones and paninis. There is time for one last supper however. They put down a white paper tablecloth, the manager in the middle as they eat Battenberg cake and drink non-alcoholic cava.
“Arab States: Mind and Narrative”, a story where a woman, in an attempt to recapture an aspect of her youth, travels from Belfast to Newcastle upon Tyne to hear an author talk about his book. This writer is someone she briefly knew at university. A row of shops near Wansbeck Road Metro Station. A night in a hotel room, untethered from the paraphernalia of home. In my mind, Death in Venice, Aschenbach’s dyed hair and painted face, converges with adverts for anti-ageing and illuminating creams.
“Lady and Dog”: a middle-aged Protestant schoolteacher develops an unlikely romantic interest in a young Gaelic football player who comes to give lessons to the children in her class. “he Lady with the Dog” by Chekhov presented itself. In this story there would also be a man, a woman, a dog and an affair but they would be connected differently. A box of pencils and a mechanical pencil sharpener where the shavings fall into the plastic container suggested the repeated, precise movements of the teacher. I remembered someone who said that they would not, on ideological grounds, eat the green sweet in any packet of pastilles. Celtic signifiers, sweets and mugs, the enormity of the unsaid.
“77 Pop Facts you did not know about Gil Courtney’ is an account, told in a list of ‘pop facts’, of the life of a reclusive musician who spends the last of his days in the house where he was born. Here, over thirty years of reading music books and magazines generated names and places, failures and missed opportunities, successes and thrills: Smash Hits, No 1, Record Mirror, Flexipop, Hellfire by Nick Tosches, reading accounts of Eric Burdon’s mother and how she entertained pop stars in her Newcastle home, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Ian Hunter, Diary of a Rock and Roll Star; reading about Arthur Russell, Nicky Hopkins, Gene Clark, Alex Chilton. I thought about visiting Keats’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and reading the lines on his grave “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
“The Soul has no Skin” takes its title from a few lines from Bukowksi: “the soul has no skin: the soul only has insides that want to sing, finally, can’t you hear it, brothers? Softly, can’t you hear it brothers? A hot piece of ass and a new Cadillac ain’t going to solve a god-damned thing.” It is a story about a young man with a chronic skin condition who works in a shop in Belfast. Despite a stoical attitude, he has difficulty forgetting past events. I thought about the people I see at bus-stops early in the morning, quietly waiting in their liveried work clothes. But most of all I thought of my favourite scene from any film. It’s from Crazy Love by Dominique Deruddere, based on various Bukowski stories. Harry Voss goes to the bathroom to cover his terrible skin with toilet roll so he can dance with the beautiful girl as “Love Hurts” plays.
That’s how my pennies fell, more or less.