It’s the combination of poignancy and humour which makes this collection of short stories such an enjoyable read for me. Most of the protagonists are women in middle age, trying to deal with loneliness and everyday addictions. So ‘Mini- me’ is an account of dieting-the failure to get started highlighted by the subheading ‘ Day One ‘ repeated again and again. In ‘Reality, Reality’, the protagonist is spending a week’s holiday from work cooking meals in tandem with a TV reality show. The extravagant dishes she prepares are depicted in glorious detail while her thoughts running on in the next breath to the weighing scales and her Whisky Diet. In ‘ These are not my clothes’ the sad isolation of a care home is depicted. The slow release of the stream of consciousness narration gradually builds up a picture of the indignities endured by the residents to a painful and cruel twist at the end.
This is predominantly a women’s world. The relationships- friendships and love affairs- are between women and are sometimes double edged. In ‘The White Cot’ the clever dialogue makes us uncomfortable about the power relationship between the two partners. In ‘Mini- Me’ the protagonist’s friend Jenny offers her crisps and a poke of chips in the pub after she has successfully lost several stone- to the dismay of us readers, who have witnessed her struggle. Like that unhelpful friend who wants to keep you bolted down in your old life. Yet I was moved by the friendship in ‘ Doorstep’, a tale both sad and funny, where a ‘pal’ comes up with a heartwarming solution to spending Christmas alone.
Sometimes loneliness and sadness are expressed by the mind slipping into the realms of the ghostly or surreal. In ‘The White Cot’ the presence of the cot in the bedroom of the holiday cottage triggers both grief and the unexpected for the childless protagonist. And who is the visitor in ‘The Winter Visitor’? The noise of clattering, clearing cupboards from downstairs announces the arrival of the dreaded visitor, stern and grim in her wool tights and long skirts. In the subzero temperatures and snowy landscapes outside she seems at first a kind of harbinger of doom, like the hurdy- gurdy man in Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’. She disappears as suddenly as she arrives and the narrator notices there is no snow on the ground after all. She has been before and will come again, invading the house like a bout of craziness taking over the mind.
My favourite piece of surrealism is in the story ‘Mind Away’, which makes us laugh about the forgetfulness of the protagonist’s dementing mother. She feels that her thoughts have run away with someone else-probably a ‘dishy doctor’- and the narrator explores this idea as she writes the story of Doctor Mahmud suddenly blurting out her mother’s words during consultations with his patients. This surreal idea leads to hilarious mix-ups and misunderstandings. We feel the mother’s relief and consolation when she finally gets an appointment with Doctor Mahmud, realising her dishy doctor is him. Yet the final sentence, the snow lying like ‘a fresh sheet of paper, no footprints yet, nothing’ brings us back to the prognosis and the mother’s sad future.
And I felt especially sad, as having read Jackie Kay’s marvellous memoir ‘Red Dust Road’ I felt I knew this plucky Glaswegian mother. Just as I enjoyed the familiarity of her stories being set in the streets and suburbs of Glasgow, Manchester and London. These are stories of ordinary women who inhabit those streets and cities, their experiences familiar and yet each rendered unique by Jackie Kay’s superb command of speech patterns, of accent, dialect and the associative leaps of consciousness. They are funny and sad, just like ‘Reality, Reality’.