It was the third of June
Memory, nostalgia and a celebration of life
Maybe it's my Scottish-Irish bloodline, but for some reason, most of my fiction could be classed as 'sad'. A friend said to me, after reading Ordinary Domestic: collected short stories, 'could you not write something happy?'
Genre fiction follows certain conventions, so that someone who starts reading a murder mystery knows, right from the beginning, the story will end with the unveiling of the murderer and the tying up of all the loose ends. In a love story, the reader always expects a happy ending. To interfere with these conventions is to disappoint the reader.
In literary fiction, these rules don't apply. Instead, the focus is on one individual and his or her inner growth. There might be no great plot; no earthquakes or typhoons to man up against. There might be just the flimsiest inner shift in the character's thinking: a slight change of attitude, or a sudden understanding. Realisation. Literary fiction is also usually 'fine writing', i.e. with much thought given to quality of language. With that in mind, I'll cite, in passing, two of my recent favourites which I reviewed for Booktrust - Amy Sackville's Orkney, and Jane Rogers' Hitting Trees with Sticks.
Perhaps the reason our 'classic' literature (in book form and film) has become classic is because it fuses the two elements: genre and literary. An outer challenge and an inner realisation.
In 2002, when I was frustrated at being unable to progress with my fiction, I thought hard about what it was that kept my husband Keith glued to the TV. No surprise: the three magic ingredients were a car chase, sex and an edge of violence. So I wrote my short story 'Unrestricted', which went on to win me £500 when it was shortlisted for the final Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition. (Incidentally, the car chase in it is on Playstation.) 'Unrestricted' ends with the young woman on a literal and metaphorical threshold. The story is sad, but the subject is empowerment.
The 'literary' writer is trying to make sense of existence. There's that phrase that's bandied around - 'the human condition'. It concerns the knowledge we have that our lives are finite and pointless, and that we're essentially alone, which sounds a bit bleak. Into the mix, toss in some revelling in the beauty of the natural world and in the company of other people, and that makes it a bit rounder.
This is what I struggle to write.
I mentioned my Scottish-Irish bloodline. Maybe there's a history of keening in my blood. But I dare say that's no different from any other branch of our race at any time or place on this planet.
Coincidence and the search for meaning
Yesterday was 3rd June. It's a date that's stuck with me since 1967 when Bobbie Gentry had a hit with her song, 'Ode to Billie Joe' whose lyrics begin: 'It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day.' Interestingly, Billie Joe who threw himself off a bridge had a Scottish surname (MacAllister). Though I found it mesmerising, my father didn't like the song because it was too 'maudlin'.
When I was studying my MLitt in Creative Writing jointly between the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow in the late 1990s, I wrote a story loosely based on my teenage years, which I called 'Oh Danny Boy'. It's always been my favourite, but I've never tried to have it published because it incorporates song titles and song lyrics and that would cause too many copyright issues for publishers.
My teenage years were difficult because of a growing sense of isolation. I won't go into that here, but there was a space stretching out between me and the rest of my family. Maybe that's a normal part of growing up. Add to this my kind, fair and honest father's transformation into Mr Hyde every Saturday night and you have the picture.
My father died on the third of June five years ago. And two years ago, my mother-in-law also 'chose' that date to die. Isn't it weird? My family's calendar is full of double dates. It makes me wonder if there is a meaning to this life, and these are clues the over-world is sending us if we're there to pick them up.
Anyway, here is 'Oh Danny Boy'. Look for the memory, the nostalgia, the sadness. The Scottish-Irish bloodline. Is there a celebration of life? The adults in this story seize the moment for sharing happiness. Life's to be lived. Fully. In the moment. The 'human condition' says it won't last forever.
Oh Danny Boy
Danny showed me how to catch bees, out in the fields, in the summer. We spent most of the holidays together, Danny and I. No one ever seemed to wonder where he was.
The sun would fire our necks as we stood with our feet lost in flower heads. We’d walk, our feet dipping carefully through the froth of clover, our eyes on the ground as we searched for the biggest bees. I see us hover, jar in one hand, lid in the other, and trap. Holding their invisible prisons up to the sun, we’d admire our pretty captives, baffled behind their layer of glass. Their wings would drum a flurry on the roof, till we’d lift the lid, and they’d stream out in ribbons of yellow and black.
With Danny I’d range over all the forbidden country, paddling through the burn, swinging on a rope, guessing which were animal holes. With Danny I was never afraid. We’d chew on grass, Danny showing me the stiffest stalks with most juice, and the blades you could hold between your thumbs and blow like a trumpet. We’d walk the school railings like tightropes, run in the out-of-bounds car park, conquer the flat roof of the infant block, and exultantly admire the view. In the summer we were carefree, Danny and I.
In winter I only saw him at New Year, when we went to visit Grampa.
Grampa was scary, because he sat in his chair by the fire, and didn’t say a word; he’d only grunt. His trousers were shiny on the flat of his thighs, and the two teeth in his mouth were brittle and yellow. He didn’t read the paper, but Danny would shout the stories to him. At Hogmanay my family went to Grampa’s, where my cousin Danny lived.
Soup to put a lining on your stomach. Steak pie and peas before the Bells. The whole house had a bath before the New Year, stuffing corners of towels in their ears. Even Grampa, whose hair was fair and fluffy after all, and wouldn’t be good and lie flat at the crown.
Grampa was an old man who’d had a stroke, Danny told me. But I was still scared of my Grampa. When I talked, I couldn’t seem to make him understand. And Grampa didn’t like the records. They were noisy: Frankie Laine, Patsy Cline, the Beatles and the Stones. He preferred it when his family did the singing.
- A song Dad? Here ye go! - Moon river, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style, some day, they’d sing, or Saturday night at the movies. Cheerful songs, epics, all the poetry they needed. Sitting in a circle drinking whisky - they can really let their hair down. This is their flat roofs and the burn, this is their bees in the field of clover, this is all time and space rolled into one.
They all like playing ‘colours’. ‘Colours’ is a game, but the pleasure is in playing. There’s no peeling off the wrappers, hoping you can win the prize. Mum starts with The yellow rose of
Uncle Billy is next with Tie a yellow
ribbon. That gives Dad an idea, and he sings Scarlet ribbons for her hair, which is an old favourite. The first
few are easy - they’ve played this game before, and anyway, for weeks now
they’ve been practising, washing the dishes, waiting for the train, Blue moon, you saw me standing alone. Oh my love has got a red, red nose my
uncle sings, clowning around, and everybody laughs. Texas
- What about you hen?
Everyone stops talking and I feel them looking at me. I don’t like anyone to look at me, like I’m a prisoner, caught behind glass.
- Leave her alone, Danny says. She’ll sing in her own time. Who is it?
It’s Mum again. She’s got her make-up on for the party -
Till the moon deserts the sky
Till all the seas run dry
Till then I’ll worship you, dear
We throw open the windows for the Bells, and listen to the horns of the ships docked on the Clyde. Then Danny and I slip outside into the New Year. It’s black in the street. Black enough to dance in, to our own choice of music. Round and round we turn like records, spinning on our own spindles till we’re dizzy. I open my eyes, or I close them - there’s nothing but the blackness and the singing, and Danny. Music blurs from the window that is open. I see the music and the laughter waving into the darkness like ribbons - yellow ribbons, scarlet ribbons - the colours that remind us of the summer. We climb on to the school roof and listen to the singing, and look at the windows of the houses all around, some with the lights out, some with the windows wide. This is where we belong. There’s no need to act a part. Then back inside with the company again I sit at my father’s feet -
Slumber on, my little gypsy sweetheart---
he sings for me. Then they spin the bottle again and it points to Danny. I smile at him and he winks at me and then he starts to sing a sad song -
It was the third of June, another sleepy dusty delta day –
They jeer at him and tell him to stop singing it. He laughs and drinks deep out of his beer glass but I can see that their teasing is hurting him. His hands are shaking and he’s holding his arms rigid. I move over to sit beside him while everyone’s listening to my uncle singing.
- Are you alright? I ask, sliding my hand in under his arm.
- Don’t worry about it, he says and wrinkles up his nose at me. He puts down his glass and tears at the skin around his fingernails.
They don’t like that song because Billie-Joe dies in it. Danny and I like it, but they say it’s maudlin. Top up the whisky glasses. Lie that bottle down, it’s a dead man. Spin the other bottle.
Auntie Peggy’s going to sing Danny Boy for Grampa. Danny Boy’s his favourite because my grannie used to sing it for him and because it’s his name as well as my cousin’s. Danny looks at his hands while she’s singing and everyone in the house goes quiet.
And when you come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, you’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an ave there for me. And I will hear you softly tread above me, and all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be. And when you kneel and tell me that you love me, I’ll lie in peace until you come to me.
The last time I saw Danny was at Grampa's funeral. He held my hand when I said it would be alright for him to cry, yet it felt like there was something in between us. His hand was cold as glass and his face was pale. I didn't ask what had happened. I thought he was missing Grampa, yet he didn't stay for Grampa's final party. I have to get out of here, he said, and left alone. I watched him from the window. He didn't look back. It was strange to see Danny in the summer, dressed in black.
Danny won’t be there to see me wear it. Mum says Danny preferred to sing alone. Ink on a pin, underneath the skin, an empty space to fill in. No one ever seemed to care where Danny was.
They’re getting drunk at this party. Too drunk but still singing. Out in the dark on my own, I’m not too big for birling. My head and body are birling. Spinning and spinning with my eyes fixed on the sky. Because there’s something in the air, maybe Danny would have sung. Or Baby, baby, baby, we’re out of time.
Blue, I sing. Songs are like tattoos.
These green railings that Danny dared me to walk on I’m holding in my hands now. I can’t climb them without Danny. The bars are iron cold - I hadn’t noticed that before. In the dark the green is black, like the clothes Danny was wearing. No colours any more I want them to turn black. The blisters in the paint scratch my palms and my fingertips. They must have painted these railings when Danny and I were young. Layer upon layer as Danny and I grew. The bars press into my forehead and my mouth is open, but there aren’t any words for this song.