There is at the end of Shena Mackay’s short story Swansong the phrase “everyday failure”. That is taken out of context here, but “everyday failure” is something she specialises in writing about.
Shena’s books feature some wonderful examples of immortal invisibles. She is brilliant at compassionately creating disappointed men and women who are likely to be gently unravelling, hopelessly neglected, unfairly overlooked. She depicts their plight, the gentle descent of decent people, the drift of the disillusioned and the desperately unlucky, whose disintegration could accelerate alarmingly or be halted by a sudden change in their fortunes.
This is not the world of spectacular rock ’n’ roll debauchery and depravity. This is something far more shocking, where usually to all intents and purposes there is nothing wrong, and the characters try to keep up appearances and want to connect. But to the trained eye there is always a giveaway sign that something is not quite right.
Shena has given us some wonderfully memorable characters that come into this category. One that springs to mind is John Wood in An Advent Calendar, with his put-upon wife Marguerite and young kids, who due to the tricks of fate have to move in with Uncle Cecil and his goat Pickles. There is plenty of scope for Shena to try out her grotesque comic skills, and she comes up with situations that are up there with the best of Galton & Simpson and John Sullivan.
John Wood seems destined to find life a struggle, being a “jobless GCE-less genius” who is “a dead loss at a party” and has a mind which is “a rest home for old, worn out forgotten things”. Nevertheless he seems a decent man, a likeable one, and deserves better, as does Stanley Beaumont who appears in A Bowl of Cherries.
Stanley is one of the great literary creations, and there is a sense that Shena is really rather fond of him. Without giving away too much of the story, Stanley and Rex Beaumont are twins. Rex, the elder of the two by five minutes, is a successful author who lords it up in the family home with his wife Daphne. Stanley, who has always felt like a cheap copy or a caricature, lives alone in a bedsit in Dorking, drinking Camp coffee, smoking cheap cigarettes, working in a Spanish restaurant, with as his closest companion his landlady’s neglected grandson Jason.
Stanley, a poet, once a man of great promise, was a conscientious objector in WW2, imprisoned, then sent to work down the mines. His book of poems, The Profane Comedy, “a set of cantos based on his experience in the pits”, is something he bitterly regrets. He believes that were it not for those “worthless vainglorious verses” he “might have been a happy man today instead of his brother’s distorted shadow. He might have a wife and children, a little shop.”
Naturally Stanley cannot quite leave his writing behind him, and pecks away at his old black typewriter in his lonely room, amassing folder after folder of typescript. He is torn between a desire to be left alone, and feeling rueful about never being “one of the disinterred”: “Surely over the years, someone might have noticed his absence?”
He complains that “it was if he had never been” and when against his better judgement he makes an effort to reconnect he gets the “cold reception of the outsider where he had been a familiar face” in the French pub where it is tempting to imagine him in his heyday at the bar with Francis Campion and Vivian Violett in tow. He, however, is a good, kind man in a way his brother could never be. Does Stanley have the last laugh though?
In Dunedin there is William McKenzie, another of Shena’s most appealing characters, who is in his late 40s, an ex-head teacher who is haunted by a tragic incident on a school trip to Paris, who is seemingly condemned to drift, adopting the uniform of old grey cardie, watching the Australian soaps on daytime TV, and seeking sanctuary in South East London’s secluded green spaces: “He had too much time on his hands, too much time to search a bankrupt soul, and dredge up dross.”
When he tries to do something positive, to shake off the creeping inertia, he seems doomed. While perusing a local shop’s adverts he strikes up a conversation with a middle-aged lady. She remarks that there seem a lot of people offering massage services, and William replies that, yes, it is a good place to live if you have a bad back. The lady is looking for someone to do a bit of gardening, and William volunteers, thinking this could be a good way to get himself going again.
The lady, a Mrs Handisyde, lives over Tulse Hill way, and when William sees her in shrunken cashmere on her home turf he realises that the other man’s grass is not always greener, and in a funny sort of way this is the start of his redemption. And, knowing how vicious the sudden swerves in Shena’s stories can be, when good things happen to good people like William it really is something to celebrate.