Why Don’t You Stop Talking by Jackie Kay
There are several excellent short stories in this collection. This is a taster from Timing:
The copper one threw her arms around the dark one and they kissed at the side of the river. I have never seen a kiss on one of my walks, not a long desperate kiss like that. I had to slow down so that I wouldn’t have to pass right by it. It just went on and on and on. The river moaned and rushed and the sun spilled right along the river bank and this kiss continued. It looked to me, as I walked towards it, like the kiss of the century. It was stunning, compelling. I knew I should look at golfers but I couldn’t. I had to pass close to them and hold in my breath in a sort of movement of sympathy. I had to get past them. I couldn’t turn back. Who could turn their back on such a kiss? I have not myself had one. A long wet kiss like that. I started to lick my lips quite unconsciously until I noticed myself doing it. Strolling by the river licking my lips. I was about a yard away from them and my footsteps could have been heard, my presence could have been sensed. I walked past them and nobody looked up. I climbed up the stone steps to the old iron bridge. In days gone by I would have had to pay a halfpenny toll to cross this bridge, I thought to myself, clutching at facts to try and remove the impact of the kiss. When was this bridge built? 1816. I turned and looked to my side and the kiss was still going strong. Who was Jackson? Why is the pub called Jackson’s Boat? Don’t know. Don’t know. Don’t know. I was hot, sweating. My heart was beating like a bird’s. I felt light-headed as if I had gulped a whole gale.
The title story, about a woman who self-harms, creeps up on you and suddenly takes you by the throat in the final paragraph. Jackie Kay has a sense of the dramatic as well as an ever-present willingness to experiment with language.
Kay is compassionate and brutal at the same time in many of these stories. Her subjects are often outcasts, living on the edge of transformations, often encrusted with surrealistic imagery like the treasures in an old chest.
In quick succession she gives us Brian Murphy, a man who lives nowhere near the sea but is obsessed with sharks. Melanie who lives on fish except at weekends because she only needs her brain during the week. Irene Elliot, haunted by cutlery. The oldest woman in Scotland, who sounds like the sea. Doreen, a woman in the process of turning into a tortoise. Two teachers, Physics and Chemistry, with a love that is impossible to hide. And a woman with a dying lover living out the dregs of their time together in a mythic elephantine landscape.
If you’ve heard the rumour that the short-story is dead, take a look at some of these and reconsider.