A short story collection can, in certain respects, be seen as similar to a poetry collection. If the individual stories, like the individual poems, are well conceived and well written then they can stand alone. However, when they are considered in their entirety it only then becomes apparent what the collection is ultimately saying as a whole.
Gerda Stevenson’s poetry collection Quines (2018, Second Edition 2020) contained poems in tribute to Scottish women and each poem can stand alone. The effect of the collection as a whole, though, revealed the enormous impact Scottish women had made both nationally and internationally. Similarly, her recent short story collection Letting Go (2021) features women from different backgrounds and from different periods. The subtitle of the book is A Timeline of Tales and they begin in the 19th century with Graves, take us on to the Second World War with Bella Day, through recent times and on to the future with Skeleton Wumman. What these tales have in common is the struggle of women through history to affirm themselves.
The title story Letting Go features mum, Lily, and daughter, Jean, having a day out together. They have gone to view Neidpath Castle, once attacked by Cromwell’s troops in the 17th century. Stevenson gives us an intimate portrait of their close relationship. Lily reminisces about her past, growing up in Lancashire. As a young girl her expectations seemed limited to her helping run the family newsagents. Her father worked in the mill and his manner seemed a good bit softer than that of her mother. When Lily started going out with Harry Carter, a conscientious objector, her mum would have nothing to do with her any more. Lily and Harry were married and moved to the Scottish borders.
Lily wonders about her younger sister, Clara, and misses never having been able to talk to her all these years. Lily had adapted well to life in Scotland and loved the sound of Scots words and seemed to immerse herself in the culture of the place. Scotland was home and where her heart was, with Lancashire no more than a sad memory now. Jean, listening to her mum talk of her regrets over her estrangement with Clara, hands her Clara’s death notice. It said that she had worked all her days in the family shop and never married.
Lily drops the letter and Jean wishes to retrieve it but Lily says,’ Let it go… let the river take it.’ What Lily’s action says is leave the past now, let it go. But her resignation also suggests her feeling of regret about the wasted potential of Clara. Family pressure, convention and sense of duty have often held women back. Lily challenged this through an act of rebellion and went on to have a fulfilled life, whereas Clara must have succumbed to family pressure and accepted her lot running the family business.
The theme of letting go is also examined in a few other stories in the collection. In the opening story, Graves, we are taken back to the 19th century. A traveller approaches Sarah as she is working on a wood carving in her local church. The man says he is looking ‘for the man that killed ma mither.’ Sarah has no idea what that may have to do with her and changes the subject. He makes baskets and she says she will have a look at them. She chooses one and pays him with the few coppers she has in her skirt pocket. The man is engaged in seasonal work building a new reservoir and he is camped in the nearby hills. The work he later describes as ‘slave labour’ and the workforce is ‘Irish, maistly, an a hantle o us traivellers.’
The industrial revolution is underway at this time and a massive immigrant workforce from Ireland helped aid this development as a cheap source of labour. Sarah is intrigued by the man and he has aroused feelings in her. She later decides to pay him a visit at his encampment and discovers he is called Duncan. He had been hoping to confront her father, who is the Queen’s surgeon and based in London.
Sarah’s father, the traveller later tells her, had worked for Dr. Knox, the anatomist. As a respectable bourgeois daughter of the gentry, Sarah has been told to say her father is a baronet. She is an innocent party and has no real idea of what working with Dr. Knox would have entailed.
This dread name evokes a ghastly trade in dead bodies – and in murder to obtain them. The names recall the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare. They would steal bodies from their graves to sell to Dr. Knox who would buy them from between £7 to £10 a corpse, an enormous sum in those days. When the graves had metal bars installed over them, Burke and Hare would murder vulnerable individuals around Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the short story The Body Snatcher (1884) as a result of these events and Dylan Thomas wrote the play The Doctor and the Devils (1953) which presented many of the local people who fell victim to this unscrupulous and barbaric trade. Dr. Knox knew that his corpses were stolen or murdered and justified his anatomical research on the grounds that his scientific work would eventually save millions of lives. Today, there is a military expression that says much the same thing – it is collateral damage.
The great scientific, philosophical, literary and cultural developments that took place in Scotland from the latter half of the 18th century and into the 19th century are known as The Scottish Enlightenment. While this was a period in a ferment of ideas, it was also a period of essentially slave labour at home and quite literally slave labour abroad, and Dr. Knox built up his knowledge through this exploitative and reprehensible trade in murdered bodies. The comment once made by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) that ‘every document of civilisation is also a record of barbarism’ certainly rings true here.
Duncan’s mother had fallen victim to the body snatchers and he had sought revenge but now lets it go. Sarah, a product of apparent bourgeois respectability, realises it is nothing more than bourgeois hypocrisy and she lets that go, and in an act of rebellion and self-definition she goes off with Duncan instead.
Two of the stories – The Grail and A Day Off – share a similar thematic terrain. They both feature characters who have come to live and work in Scotland. In The Grail, the name of a former bookshop and coffee house, Rhona has returned to the place many years later to find that it has gone. It was there she first met Vitale, who once served her coffee. She and Vitale had become an item and she reminisces about their time together.
Rhona had to settle for a Starbucks instead this time round and felt she needed something to eat and spotted a trattoria across the road. Amazingly, all these years later she meets Vitale in there who is now ‘a chubby, middle-aged waiter.’ They talk about their respective pasts and Vitale, who once studied photography and had hoped to go on and be successful in this field, says he became ‘a cliché- an Italian waiter.’ It is clear that Vitale lacks a certain vitality in his life now with his marriage over and he seems deeply unsettled.
He had loved the landscape of Scotland but now, he says, ‘everything’s changing.’ This is now Brexit Britain and he says, ’I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay much longer – I’m not British.’ The great irony is that Vitale has lived two thirds of his life here whereas, Rhona, who was born here has lived a good part of her life abroad studying and working as an illustrator of children’s books.
When Rhona comes back to the trattoria some weeks later she discovers, like The Grail bookshop before, that it has now become The Albion, yet another corporate styled franchise. Vitale has gone, maybe to join his son in Germany.
Stevenson does not use the word ‘Brexit’ here but she shows nonetheless what some of its side-effects have been. Scotland has lost a valuable labour source in the hospitality sector and people who were once valued have been devalued and made to feel unwelcome. In a twist at the end of the story a man is standing up a ladder removing spray-painted letters above The Albion. What is being removed is the word Perfidious. The expression Perfidious Albion has an extremely long history and it has been directed at England and then Great Britain for centuries. Brexit and perfidy are clearly related here.
A Day Off
In A Day Off we are introduced to Anna, a worker from Poland. She is working in a chicken farm and Donald, a student at university, takes a fancy to her. They become friends but Anna has to endure the hostility of the temporary boss, Sheila, who is charge while Hendry, the actual boss, is on holiday. Sheila is merciless in her treatment of Anna yet Anna takes it with her customary politeness. This simply enrages Sheila even more.
The story is set in the run-up to Brexit. Sheila resents Anna and Donald because they have horizons, opportunities beyond the chicken farm where she has to remain. She is the main provider in her household where her son is unemployed, and her husband is in a wheelchair with his ‘benefits cut tae the bone.’ Sadly, Sheila fails to realise that such benefits were not cut by Brussels, but by London and people like Sheila who fell for the xenophobic Brexit message will now find their benefits cut even more and will have to make use of the ever- growing number of foodbanks that have arisen since Brexit.
Anna has had enough and decides to leave but in a wonderful act of rebellion she releases all the chickens before she goes. Like Vitale before her, Anna was to realise ‘We are needed, but not wanted.’ And letting go people like Vitale and Anna was not merely an act of folly, it was an act of perfidy.
Another Italian character appears in the story Bella Day. This story is set during the Second World War at a prisoner of war camp in Robinsisland, West Linton, in the Scottish Borders. Local girl Mary Whyte falls in love with Raffaelo, who is imprisoned there. He has an exotic kind of appeal for Mary and he carves her ‘a bonny wee cross wi rosehips on it.’ He later carves her a boat and his craftsmanship brings to mind the Italian prisoners who left Orkney with a wonderful Chapel they created from scrap they found around them on the seashore.
Mary’s parents do not like having the enemy close at hand and describe the Italian POWs as ‘filthy Catholic foreigners’, confirming both their narrow insularity and their religious bigotry. When Mary tells Raffi that she is pregnant he cries and this is the first time Mary has ever seen a man cry. The reaction of her parents was predictable – ‘It’s no enough ye’re gonnae hae a Fascist bairn – ye’re turnin Catholic on us noo.’
This story has a certain echo of an earlier novel written by Jessie Kesson (1916- 1994). In her novel Another Time, Another Place (1983), a young woman similar to Mary has three Italian POWs billeted in the cottage next to where she stays with her husband, who is a farm worker fifteen years older than her.
Where Mary has a name in Bella Day, the anonymous young woman in Kesson’s novel is often called simply wifie. What Kesson and Stevenson share is the desire for their women to escape the trammels of narrow insularity that holds back both their passions and their need to seek liberation. Both tales end disastrously, however. Raffi left after the war ended. He had wanted to hold on at Robinsisland for as long as he could to wait for Mary to return with their baby. She was sent to a boarding house ‘near Lanark’ to have her child, and by the time she got back, Raffaelo had gone. It turned out that on route home to Italy he stopped to stretch his legs and stood on a land mine somewhere in France. In Kesson’s story the young woman who had an affair with Luigi was blackmailed by him and she then had to face the wrath of her narrow, unforgiving community.
Stevenson’s women crave a passionate intensity of feeling that is both sexual and spiritual. Narrow insularities of church and community make this difficult to achieve. Her women also have to work and do much of the caring in their families and this too holds back their dreams. The expectations placed on women can be too great for them to achieve fulfilment.
The story The Fiver offers the portrait of a harassed mother, wife and daughter in one hectic day seeing to the needs of her daughter, her husband and her mother. Flora has to take her mother to hospital while at the same time she worries about her daughter ‘who, due to an extra chromosome, found it difficult to count.’ She has to get back in time to give her daughter a five pound note before she leaves for college. Her husband, who is losing his memory, seems pretty incapable of helping out and Flora has essentially become his carer.
What is also significant about the area Flora lives in is that the village no longer has a bank, has a dismal bus service and there is no longer any post office either. These are the sorts of cuts we see happening all over the country and, although they can impact on men, they can often have a more adverse effect on women.
While all turns out well in this story, Stevenson tells us in Chromosomes and Chocolate, another story in the collection that looks at the difficulties of a mother bringing up a child with one extra chromosome, that how she copes with all the demands placed upon her is to try and ‘shape the weeks ahead into some form, a structure to hang my anxieties on – a long rail of days like coat hangers.’ Women all over the world will surely recognise and appreciate the truth contained in such an image.
Stevenson’s stories deal with disability but do so without ever mentioning the word. The girl with the extra chromosome could well be a Down’s Syndrome girl, Lily from Letting Go is in a wheelchair, Flora’s husband may have some form of Alzheimer’s, the child born to Mary and Raffaelo was ‘no richt… no enough oxygen wi the cord roond her neck.’ For Mary, though, this seems unimportant as she says, ‘But, ye’re mine.’
For Stevenson all people are as they are and all are special because they are people. This is why she refuses to use medical terms for conditions because she clearly believes that all people are gifts to life. So-called disability is as arbitrary a condition as skin pigmentation – something she explores in the story Colour – and nowhere is this more heroically depicted as in the final story Skeleton Wumman. This story is set in a future where the world of climate change has well and truly come to pass. The skeleton woman was born with her ‘legs frozen at birth’ and she can’t speak either, so narrates the story internally to us. Even although she is dead and swirls along the sea bed, her voice is compelling, loving and tender. Her parents realised that she was of sound mind but found it difficult tending to her needs.
The coastal town she lives in finds itself in a precarious situation with rising sea levels. One of the great ironies – just like today – is that the TV is always showing programmes about nature and telling viewers there was little of it left. Another irony is that when the great waves come and sweep everything away all the cash comes ‘pourin oot the banks wi the flood, waves o gowd and siller.’ What use is money anymore, what use gold and silver in a world that we have allowed to let go? This is the ultimate sense of letting go in this collection. Ecocidal capitalism has always placed profit before people but the irrationality of such a system that it is clearly prepared to sacrifice the planet and all her peoples for more and more profit, shows us the need to hold our leaders to account and demand a world for our children and grandchildren to inherit.
It was fitting that the voice of this last story was a woman’s voice. Women wanted more from the world than its material benefits. They wanted a love that was not only passionate but one that was also nurturing and caring. And women have been prepared to do all they can in additional labour to help this come about. Stevenson’s stories are a Timeline of Women and they possess not only a literary artistry but a campaigning spirit that challenges how the entire world is. She is opposed not only to sexism but to racism, the labelling of people by their disabilities, narrow religious insularity and ecocidal capitalism.
And she manages to convey all this with a relative ease with the language she uses. She flits effortlessly from English into Scots and this is a true gift. Not only that but she also quotes from Gaelic, Italian, Polish and Afrikaans. She loves the shape, the sound and feel of languages and this gives the collection a strong international dimension. All our languages should bring us together, not separate us from one another. Language, after all, is the medium of all our stories.
One final word and it will be on the relationship between men and women. In the story A Botanical Curiosity for Eve, we are told ‘Adam was the gardener and Eve carried the trowel.’ In such a statement lies the unequal relationship between men and women – and this relationship has to change because men will actually be the beneficiaries of such a change as much as women will.
Letting Go is a fine collection of stories that deserve to be widely read. Stevenson has previously shown how good a poet she is and this collection shows how equally good she is at writing prose.
Letting Go is published by Luath Press at £8.99. It is available here.
Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.
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