Dance Move, by Wendy Erskine, Stinging Fly Press, 240 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1906539924
This Train is For, by Bernie McGill, No Alibis Press, 180 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1838108175
In their sophomore short story collections, Wendy Erskine and Bernie McGill explore how the past marks us in ways that are indelible, but often imperceptible. In both books, the past is a place. It is a specific site that can be returned to in memory, if not in always in reality. Erskine’s Dance Move and McGill’s This Train is For consider the particularly fraught relationship to history in Northern Ireland. McGill writes: “This is what we do here: move forward while facing back, keeping a sharp eye on what has been, in case it gets a run on us, overtakes on our blind side.” “But where did it all go wrong?” asks one of Erskine’s characters. The people in these stories are either trying to relive or outrun their pasts, and they keep looking back in spite of themselves.
East Belfast native Wendy Erskine and Portstewart-based Bernie McGill are two of Northern Ireland’s finest short fiction writers and their work has been widely anthologised in landmark volumes of Irish literature. Their debut collections were each shortlisted for the prestigious Edge Hill Short Story Prize: Erskine’s Sweet Home (Stinging Fly Press, 2018), and McGill’s Sleepwalkers (Whittrick Press, 2013). McGill is also an acclaimed novelist and Erskine is currently writing her first novel.
Wendy Erskine’s Dance Move is a magnificent album composed entirely of B-sides: gloriously offbeat tales of people who live on the flip side and are out of step with those around them. As in Sweet Home, Belfast is the point of origin for the majority of the characters and their stories in her new collection. Erskine’s view of life in the city is unflinching and often very funny – at times self-reflexively so. Her deadpan delivery pokes fun at the perceived “limitations” of Northern Ireland, “such as the cultural quarter of Belfast that consisted of a single street”. In “Cell”, a woman has mixed feelings about the city she regards as a prison: “Belfast is a city but it isn’t a city, not really … Mortifying that she was now homesick for a place she never liked in the first instance.”
There are clever moments of metafiction about the expectations attending the position of “post-conflict” Belfast writer, with cheeky hints that even the author herself cannot escape the past. The tale “Memento Mori” features a cameo by a writer called Wendy:
Gillian’s old friend Wendy had written some short stories. The launch took place at a bar down near the docks, which had not yet succumbed to anyone’s notion of a new Belfast … Although they had all bought the book, dutifully, they agreed that they didn’t read short stories, or even like them all that much.
The perils of hearkening back to the “old Belfast” permeate “Nostalgie”, a standout story about one-hit-wonder Drew Lord Haig, who is called out of retirement in England to perform an obscure song for the centenary celebration of a loyalist paramilitary battalion. It turns out that their “anthem” is not his big hit but “its B-side, a nihilistic affair called ‘Nostalgie de la Boue’”. The title is a borrowed French phrase “for an attraction to what is depraved or degrading … he intimated a complicated past which he had not had”.
Admittedly Drew doesn’t “have much interest in Ireland”, and he knows even less about the northern part of the island. When he receives the surprise invitation, he scans a Wikipedia entry on the loyalist battalion and discovers that “they had in the past been responsible for a number of deaths” but are “now disbanded”. He agrees to come anyway and is disappointed by the lacklustre atmosphere: “The function room suggests a downbeat high-school prom … They are mainly men. Many of them are ancient and shrunken … there are younger people, some in pristine sportswear.”
Drew Lord Haig’s performance is rapturously received and he revels in the attention until he learns that the battalion had played his song on the jukebox by mistake, hitting the wrong button “after they’d done The Hill Haven”. It has “been their song since the eighties”, from the night they shot up a local pub and killed innocent civilians in a tit-for-tat reprisal. A quick Google search displays descriptions of the dead alongside “a picture of blood-streaked linoleum, shards from a shot mirror”. Still, when the ex-brigadier demands an encore performance of their anthem, Drew obliges.
When the party is over and he heads back to England, Drew is confronted by the reality that he has accepted their blood money and repeatedly wronged the victims. It is the same song all over again. Erskine’s tale implicitly references British collusion with loyalist paramilitary atrocities and examines paramilitary violence as a performative act. “Nostalgie” is a provocative parable about complicity as an insidious form of violence, and the danger inherent in attempting to reconstruct the past in Northern Ireland.
The past returns unbidden in Bernie McGill’s artfully unsettling This Train is For, an intricately crafted collection of unexpected journeys through time and the stations of the heart. “This is what it feels like to travel through history,” observes the narrator of the title story as he contemplates the lost Irish place names of the North. The opening tale features echoes of Brian Friel’s play Translations (1980) in its reflection on “the altered landscape of the tongue” – a central theme which McGill makes her own. For the book is a modern meditation on the inextricability of language and history in Northern Ireland, a place where the naming of things, or the not-naming of them, encodes expression with additional layers of meaning.
McGill considers how, in a culture of silence and linguistic evasions, the truth of what happened in the past must be read in between the lines. While trying to piece together the mysterious life of his late aunt, the narrator of “A Loss” ponders the phrase “The truth will out”, which she had reiterated to him as a child. “As if truth were like oil and will rise to the surface; as if it will always declare itself in the end,” he remarks bitterly. When historical truths do appear in these tales, they are always fragmented. McGill suggests that in a traumatised society we will never get the full story of what has occurred.
In the heartrending “There is More Than One Word”, a woman searches for memories of her brother in the words for things from their childhood in the North, a place she left long ago. The unspoken yet insistent word that haunts every syllable of the story is “Disappeared”. Jaynie’s brother Paul was abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA when he was seventeen and she was just three. She wonders “for the thousandth time” what Paul did or didn’t say that made him a target: “‘Loose talk costs lives’; warnings on murals everywhere”. In her mind the event “play[s] through again on a loop, a circular story with no beginning or end, no real sense to it at all”. There is no possibility of closure or comprehension in a story about the Disappeared.
Jaynie requests leave to go home for the death of her brother without offering her boss any further detail. She thinks: “She hasn’t told him that between these two events is a gap of forty-seven years; that she isn’t certain there will be a burial, that she hopes there will”. The authorities have located bodily remains which have not been identified yet and she is waiting for the call. Jaynie reflects:
It is hard to think of him, if it really is him they’ve found, in that lonely stretch of ground for all this time. No slow drum for him; no fife playing low; no death march; no lowering down. The whistle of a weasel, maybe; or the roar of a cow, calling to her stray calves to come out of the rough ground to the sweet meadow grass. Jaynie thinks of the bog cotton swaying over him in May, the heather purpling in September. She thinks of the whooper swans, grazing through the winter, rising in April with their long necks stretched, the shape of them in the sky as they pass overhead. She thinks of the midges weaving a burr of sound under the trees in May; the smell of wild mint crushed under hooves; the pink of wild orchids in July; the trill of the curlew, the sawing of snipe.
McGill limns a soaringly lyrical elegy for the Disappeared, the lucent language and evocative natural imagery honouring the memory of the dead with their quiet beauty. “There is More Than One Word” is a masterful story in dialogue with Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Strand at Lough Beg” (1979), an elegy for his cousin who was murdered by the loyalist Glenanne Gang.
Her choice not to name the word “Disappeared” in the tale alludes to the silence that surrounded this unconscionable act by the IRA during the Troubles, and which continues to enshroud its memory today. McGill indicates that even in cases when remains are recovered and reburied, there is no solace without justice. At the story’s close Jaynie laments, “these shadows are long, and lengthening”.
The short fiction form enables Wendy Erskine and Bernie McGill to glimpse the complexities of individual histories, the striations of past experience that make up a place and its memory. The past is always just beneath the surface of these darkly gleaming stories, which capture the grit and glister of life in contemporary Northern Ireland in understated yet stylish prose. Erskine’s Dance Move and McGill’s This Train is For are enormously impressive second collections and as their titles promise, these are books that will move you.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is visiting scholar in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and visiting fellow in the Arts and Humanities Institute at Maynooth University. She is co-editor of the anthology Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She is on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.