Shena Mackay’s 1987 collection Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags is a great place to start to understand the art of short story writing. The first paragraph of the title tale is remarkably vivid, as is the opening of one of her classic vignettes, the typically twisted and tragic tale of The Most Beautiful Dress in the World:
“There are houses which exhale unhappiness. The honesty rattling its shabby discs and dominating the weed flower bed, the carelessly rinsed bottle still veiled in milk on the step from which a tile is missing, the crisp bag, sequinned with dewdrops, which will not rot and will not be removed, clinging to the straggly hedge, are as much manifestation of the misery within as are the grey neglected nets, respectability’s ghosts, clouding the windows like ectoplasmic emanations of despair.”
Right from the start Shena has conjured up the most remarkable, memorably lethal lines. In her debut story Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger, published in 1964, her description of the two young lovers meeting is perfect, and bears repeating once more: “Abigail saw Eugene first. He was standing by the bookstall at Charing Cross, wearing narrow green corduroy trousers, a white mac and suede boots. She stood beside him for perhaps two minutes before he saw her. When he did, his lazy eyes lit up and he smiled, elusive like a cat’”
In the accompanying tale Toddler on the Run, in a perfectly weighted sentence, the book’s unlikely hero Morris Todd tells his gran: “In your unobtrusive way you’ve ruined quite a few people’s lives, haven’t you?” And from An Advent Calendar this is a perfect example of Shena’s gift for description: “Cars huddled like lumps of Turkish Delight at the side of the drive”. This is perhaps beaten by the book’s mention of the “susurration of the shower curtains, time dripping from the tap.”
Every fan of Shena’s writing will have particular favourites from among her comic interludes. These are likely to include Mrs Finch’s fracas in Quality Seconds which features in A Bowl of Cherries, or the aloe vera joke in Dunedin, or from the same book the line about Danny and Olive Schwarz marrying in Hastings and repenting at Leicester. Or Grandpa Fitz in The Orchard on Fire whose model of Crystal Palace made from matchsticks “went up in flames like the original. What they call poetic justice.” Or the line in The Artist’s Widow about a painter who threw herself off Beachy Head but didn’t make much of a splash.
Shena is at her deadliest and most moving when there is a serious point to be made, like when Violet in the short story Angelo wonders “when the power had passed to those young men with sliding smiles, snidey eyes, when had they staged their coup.” Or from the same The Laughing Academy collection there is Alice who “did not cry tonight; she had cried in so many hospital car parks over the years.” There are whole sagas in those short sentences.
From the novel The Artist’s Widow, early on in the book, there is a glorious line about how “every artist leaves behind a shadowy retrospective of the pictures that were never painted.” At the book’s denouement there is a reflection on the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and how there was a “danger of genuine grief being whipped into something ugly.”
That short story The Most Beautiful Dress in the World reappears in The Atmospheric Railway and offers a fresh opportunity to savour some of Shena’s most brilliant words: “The early October sunshine had an elegiac quality that reminded her of the slow movement of a cello concerto.”
And one of the joys of re-reading and revisiting is that lines can take on all sorts of new meanings, and can resonate alarmingly as our own lives have changed, as with this sentence from The Most Beautiful Dress in the World: “She found that as those who work at home know, the anticipation of arrivals and departures creates an enervating limbo peppered with frustration and irritability and the failure of an awaited letter to arrive or the telephone to ring can sour the day as hope curdles to despair.”