BLOG Caroline Stockford

NWR Issue 101

Welsh Short Story Network Event

Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s round studio was the venue for the first Welsh Short Story Network event on Wednesday 6 November, which was hosted by poet and author, Matthew Francis. First to read was Maria Donovan, followed by John Levin, Matthew Francis and Mary-Ann Constantine.

Maria Donovan

In Maria Donovan’s story, ‘The Wish Dog’, our narrator is a single lady who has been ‘found’ on the internet by her former friend and housemate who now pays a visit for the weekend. The pair had suffered a serious falling out many years earlier over a stray dog that it turns out the narrator had secretly been ‘wishing’ for all along. Maria’s rendition of the characters’ voices really brought them to life, those of the sullen and seemingly reluctant visitor who has just fallen off the wagon again and her hostess, who offers her a beer and has hidden all of the ‘hard stuff’ in the attic. Hints were dropped and spaces left for the listener that would invite a second reading, as although the story had a familiar feel, there were layers and mystery to explore.

Whilst the friend is showing her moody and jealous guest around, showing off ‘my free standing floor lamp’, the guest ‘put up her hands like a mime artist finding a wall’ and declared she could sense a presence. A ‘fetch’ she informed us, is the ghost of someone still living. The listener wonders which, if either, of these women has had a satisfying life and not simply carried on, like a ghost. The narrator wasn’t able to tell her friend she’d been wishing the dog into her life, as ‘they do say: if you work magic you should never speak of it.’

‘The Wish Dog’ will appear in an anthology of short stories entitled Ghosts to be published by Honno next year, and Maria Donovan’s debut story collection, Pumping Up Napoleon is available from Seren.

John Lavin

Next up, John Lavin read ‘The Dogs They Keep’, which told of Agnes and Jane, their relationship to one another and their unfulfilled relationships with their respective lovers. The central subject of the story was Agnes’ giving up her baby daughter to her brother and his wife, observing, as they held the newborn, ‘their nervousness, their weird happiness’. The pain of letting her baby go at nineteen and its resulting in her ‘structure becoming unsound’ was sensitively handled with an authentic voice brimming with regret. The story spoke of ‘lines being crossed’ and Agnes’ sadness that whenever she tried to tell a man she loved him, ‘somehow she was always the one who felt ashamed’. The story could have flowed better with a more confident reading and less detail as we were introduced to four characters and two families as well as the mental health issues of a lover’s mother. The story is part of a series John Lavin is collecting for publication.

Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis then read the title story from his debut story collection, Singing a Man to Death. He told us that the story had been inspired by three things: undergraduate life in the 1970s, rock music on vinyl, and an urban folk tale of a song, that if you were to hear it frequently enough, would prove fatal. The story tells of three students, their frog-faced landlady ‘with a helmet of black hair’ hailing ‘from the Carpathians’ and the protagonist’s doomed infatuation with Yasmin, ‘whose eyebrows looked like Chinese calligraphy’ and whom he would think about in ‘that brief moment between the last drunk and the milk float’. The nostalgia of vinyl that was scarred with life and that ‘played not only music but every knock and scrape and slip and shake that had happened to them since they left the studio’, the importance of ‘cool’ and the hilarious quirkiness of fellow students, are wrapped around the chilling centre of the mysterious ‘murder song’. A song which, if you heard it 77 times, would kill you. Excellently read and funny throughout, this story also delivered up a satisfying sting in the tail. Singing a Man to Death was published by Cinnamon in 2012 and was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year.

Mary-Ann Constantine

Mary-Ann Constantine was the last to perform, reading two ‘short’ short stories from her collection All the Souls (ebook winter special offer), published by Seren early this year. Both stories were full of delicate and poetic prose. The first, ‘Centaur’, is set in a mid Wales village at a time when vehicles have become defunct and no-one has driven for thirty years. People are foraging and the silence that has bloomed in the absence of traffic-roar, is deafening. ‘Snow came like a premonition of future silences’, and ‘the noise the birds make is like something whistling, boiling, damn them.’ The aged protagonist looks back over the years to when she met the man with whom she chose to stay following ‘The Emergency’, when everyone else had gone ‘to where there were still hospitals’. She refuses to leave and stays put with her man, the village school teacher who so long ago had ‘grinned at me across the heads of his tribe’.

Her second story was likewise peppered with observations that were sharp and original enough to raise the attention levels of the listeners another notch. This was entitled ‘Fish’ and concerned the ‘choreography of domestic space’. Two friends are caring for their children, attending to the constant minutiae of daily provision. Whilst focussing on the stream of small tasks and un-wished-for pets with their attendant dramas and deaths, one friend has been distracted from the fact that her relationship has completely broken down. Both women ‘do time’ in their kitchens, ‘how many of us stop in their air-tracks and stare into the tank’. Tired, the narrator’s friend is ‘mid-week November weary’ with ‘fatigue latching on to every cell in her bones’. Whilst drying up at the sink, her friend ‘looks at the silver space [she's] making’ on the draining board and they consider ‘the ship-wrecked quality of [their] conversations’ pirated by toddlers and tiredness.

Of all the stories I heard during the evening Matthew Francis’ 'Singing a Man to Death' was the most accomplished and engaging, however, nothing was left to the imagination and so although I did go out straight away and buy his book, the story that haunted me and that I still want to read again when it comes out from Honno Press was Maria Donovan’s ‘The Wish Dog’. The Welsh Short Story Network debut was, despite low audience numbers, a successful format and a great evening’s entertainment.

Caroline Stockford, a translator of Turkish literature, poetry and plays, lives in Aberystwyth. She is a member of the Emerging Translators’ Network and participant in the Cunda Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature 2013 and the Arvon Foundation Literary Translators’ Summer School 2012. A selection of her translations can be viewed at Word Prism. She is currently reading for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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