Dancing on the Outskirts, the book of selected stories by Shena Mackay that was published by Virago at the end of 2015, is a curious affair. Many of the tales will be familiar to Shena’s fans from other collections, but to counter this is the thought that for those discovering her work for the first time this is a glorious assortment to start with.
Virago since then have been steadily republishing Shena’s back catalogue in their Modern Classics series, some as e-books and some in physical form. There cannot be too many authors who have sneaked jokes about Virago Modern Classics into books and stories now featured in that series, which is what Shena has done on a couple of notable occasions.
A few less familiar and more recent stories in Dancing on the Outskirts make the collection a special treat. One of these is the delightful miniature Shooting Stars which opens with the exquisitely Shena-esque sentence: “The smell of hot pasties on the November air – flaky pastry oozing mingled scents of sweet spices and savoury juices – brought tears to Phoebe’s eyes as she walked past the shop”. This being a Shena Mackay story Phoebe’s tears have nothing to do with food, and everything to do with being left pushing a pram, that enemy of promise, when she should be studying Chemistry:
“Although her age and her charity-shop clothes were similar to theirs, the buggy whose handle she was grasping with fingers turning red in the cold set Phoebe apart from the students milling around her. She had stepped out of their world and become invisible – her contemporaries simply did not see her as they buffeted past with files and bicycles and backpacks.”
This is a story which first appeared in 2008 in the Sunday Express magazine, and Shena gets more into her thousand words than many lesser writers manage to work into something hundreds of times the length. And the cameo by Phoebe’s landlady Dorcas, an elderly energetic Quaker, is a real delight. It also serves as a reminder of the often perfect choices of names Shena carefully picks for her characters.
Another new story, Grasshopper Green is about Agnes Cameron, like Shena herself “one of many exiles living in a university city on the south coast of England”. Agnes was made redundant from her admin job at the University two years previously, found a home from home in a hardware shop, but that too is about to come to an end, with the store closing down. Everyone, including, Agnes, had cried when the owner broke the news: “A couple of days later Agnes was taking her lunch-break, feeling desolate at the prospect of the coming closure, filling in the time by drifting in and out of the charity shops.”
The story revolves around Agnes’ agitation about going to a Sunday lunchtime drinks party, hosted by a woman she hated, who had invited Agnes as an afterthought after bumping into her in the Salvation Army charity shop: “She switched on the radio. Music might prevent the grotesque cavalcade of a lifetime’s blunders and regrets from trooping through her head, and divert her from imagining her parents’ night-time loneliness and pain in old age. It was always Radio 3, because the World Service could be relied on to plant some atrocity in your head which would be with you for ever.”
Issues around how to age haunt Shena’s more recent work. A great companion piece to Grasshopper Green is the short story Windfalls, which is included in Dancing on the Outskirts but originally featured as one of the new tales in 2008’s The Atmospheric Railway. It takes us through a day in the life of Martin Elgin, who is a “sixty-three-year-old orphan, widower and housewife”. He is also retired, restless, and fed up with his endless leisure: “He knew that he could not go on like this indefinitely, and filed inside the latest Robert Goddard novel from the library was an application form from B&Q, who were taking on older staff.”
Without repeating too much of what Shena tells us about Martin, tempting as that may be, he comes across as the sort of guy whom you could easily warm to. Apparently “he looked what he was, an amateur jazz musician”, who once a month goes off to play with his old mates in London, staying over with his brother, and going to visit his wife’s grave the next day, almost inevitably, in Norwood Cemetery.
There is a lovely section where Martin walks into town, to do the rounds of the shops. He waves to Valerie in the hair salon, who is “one of those women who, as they go about their daily business, do more good in the world than many who set themselves up as professionals or charge around emblazoned with charitable logos, wearing their hearts on their t-shirts.”
He goes in to Woolworth’s and is “struck by the inherent loneliness of the Pic’n’Mix”. He goes past “the charity shop where the bloke he knew as Jeff was standing in the doorway chowing on a Ginster” (for Shenaphiles a nice cross-reference to Swansong there). And in the newsagents he “as was his habit, adjusted a couple of the worst red-tops, turning their faces and the rest, to the wall.”
Government policies and big-business practices have led to the gentle politicisation of Martin, who “had always been Mr In-Between, too busy with his work and music to get involved in anything else.” Having marched, uncomfortably, against the war in Iraq, “he lived lately in a constant state of unease about atrocities and injustices about which he did nothing”.
Did Martin become more militant in the new decade, health permitting? One hopes so. There is a theme in Shena’s later work of ancient rebels taking up causes. Celeste from the Nautilus is a veteran of demos and campaigns, from fighting redevelopment plans at Crystal Palace to showing solidarity with Kosovan asylum seekers. Maybe Martin will take up his placard and fight against fracking, tax avoidance, library closures, the selling off of green spaces, and so on, like other silver-haired members of the awkward squad, as Saga magazine might put it.
It is daft really speculating about the fate of a fictional character, but it is a testament to how vivid Shana’s characters can be, even when they are lightly sketched in a short story, leaving the reader to add any extra colour and detail. One instinctively feels that Martin from Windfalls is familiar.
Indeed, he will probably be there tomorrow, when out and about doing the rounds, in one of the local charity shops, among the schmutter and clutter, doing that strange stoop people lapse into when browsing along the shelves, leaning, lopsidedly, decidedly awkward, gazing a little short-sightedly at the CDs, more in hope than expectation, wondering whether he really needs another Ella Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee compilation, peering at the paperbacks, picking out a long-forgotten Helen MacInnes thriller, and dithering over the DVDs because there certainly won’t be anything decent on TV tonight, and at a pound you can’t really go wrong with an old comedy can you?
That will be him, with his RSPB tote bag, heading towards the till, returning the greeting of the lady behind the counter, whom he knows is called Eve, wondering whether she really knows him from Adam.