photo © Shardayyy, 2011
by Gina Parsons
If I told you that a short story collection saved me as a reader and as a writer, would you believe me? Probably not. But it’s true.
During a dry writing spell, in which I struggled even to enjoy reading, I enrolled on a residential writing retreat with The Arvon Foundation – something I’d longed for, and had been fearful of, for years. Robert Shearman was one of the tutors, but I was unfamiliar with his work so I started some tentative Googling and discovered he was responsible for the return of the Daleks to our screens, in 2005 (the source of many of my son’s nightmares). I Googled some more and found he also wrote for stage and radio, including BBC Radio 4’s weekly series Chain Gang, which I listened to without fail. Then I discovered he is an award-winning short story writer and I felt I needed to read some of his stories before I met him. So, despite the ‘horror’ tag, which I winced at, I chose Remember Why You Fear Me and took a deep breath.
The first story in the collection, ‘Mortal Coil’, tells the tale of an entire population learning their fate, after the powers-that-be inadvertently give humans ‘knowledge of death’:
The envelopes were light brown, soft to the touch, and seemed almost to be made of vellum, like medieval manuscripts. There were no stamps on them – and the names weren’t handwritten, but typed. And there was one for each member of the household, however young or old. Inside, each recipient found a card, stamped with his or her full name. And underneath that, as plain and as unapologetic as you like, was a short account of when and how the recipient was going to die.
However, one man, Harry Clifford, doesn’t receive a letter and the result of this is hilariously portrayed as we read about his struggle with employment, his wife deciding to leave him – because she doesn’t want to waste the two years she has left – and his struggle to find a purpose in life, despite being the only one who doesn’t know when he’s going to die.
Reading this this story felt… comfortable. It was conversational. It was funny. This wasn’t horror; this was hilarious. It was also the one that made me throw the switch on the lounge light so I could rummage around in an old file of my own stories. In my story, I too had written about a letter informing the recipient of their fate. I re-read mine and deconstructed Shearman’s story to find out why his worked and mine didn’t. What I realised was, I’d written mine – as I had with everything else up to that point – with the mistaken belief that I should be writing serious women’s literary fiction, but in doing so, I’d lost my own voice, my own sound; I was forcing myself to write in a style that didn’t belong to me. That small connection, of shared short story subject matter, gave me hope that I could learn a lot from Shearman’s stories and that they would inspire me to write again.
‘So Proud’ tells the story of a newly-married couple getting used to each other in their new, small flat with their hand-me-down belongings. What starts as a relatively ‘normal’ story, quickly takes a turn for the weird and wonderful. The woman falls pregnant within a few days and in less than a week gives birth:
That Friday evening […] her waters broke. She told her husband she felt the most extraordinary urge to push, but he told her she was being ridiculous and went into the kitchen for a Diet Coke. But she pushed anyway […] and she did it all very quickly; he hadn’t made it back from the fridge before she gave birth […] She got to her feet to see what her new baby looked like. It wasn’t what either of them had expected. It wasn’t a baby […] instead, they were looking at a Chesterfield sofa.
The woman goes on to give birth to various other bits and pieces of furniture, which her husband sells, yet, despite its hilarity and the unimaginable aspect of labour and birth, you can’t help but start to feel a sense of unease. She begins to question the true nature of her relationship with her husband and watches as he takes away everything she brings into the world. Perhaps the story is about how it really feels to lose a child, whether through miscarriage, or perhaps by outside forces, such as social services, and the effect that this has upon a relationship.
In the story, the wife gives birth time and time again to furniture she can’t bond with, that doesn’t resemble her at all, and this again resounded with me as a writer; I couldn’t bond with any of my stories because they didn’t resemble me, they didn’t sound like me, they didn’t feel like they were mine. In this story, and in the rest of the collection, you can hear Shearman’s voice as you read, as though he’s right there telling you the stories himself, and that inspired me to try again, to go back and find my voice and to write in a way that sounds like me.
At the end of the story, the wife feels ‘something fall out of her body and hit the floor with a dull clang’. It’s not the best looking kettle in the world that’s come out, but finally ‘it looked like her’. Like this little kettle, it’s the little stories that closely resemble ourselves, which we take pride in the most.
Remember I told you at the beginning it was Shearman’s fault my son had Dalek-related nightmares? Well, let me leave you with this. My son likes to build with Lego. Once or twice I caught him concentrating extremely hard and, as he did so, I saw that he chewed his bottom lip to the extent that there was a little bit of blood. It didn’t seem to bother him, but it gave me the creeps. I started to tell my son about how what he was doing reminded me of a story of Shearman’s I had read in the e-book version of Remember Why You Fear Me. I scaled my telling of it right down – he is only eight, after all – and I summarised and skipped bits where appropriate. The story is ‘The Big Boy’s Big Box of Tricks’ and, in it, children chew their bottom lips with disastrous and incredibly scary consequences. Needless to say, my son hasn’t chewed his bottom lip since.
So, on the one hand, while I blame Shearman for my son’s nightmares, I also thank him for helping to avert a tragedy; for saving my son from chewing his own head off, and for saving me as a reader and a writer.
Gina Parsons is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester where she hopes to develop as a writer and find that voice. She is currently fine-tuning a range of short stories which she hopes will find homes later this year. She lives in Brighton with her family and enough books to open her own independent bookshop.