Last Night by James Salter

This story was someone’s suggestion for a perfect short story. It was published in the New Yorker in 2002. It begins with a translator, Walter Such, at home in his lounge room with a guest, Susanna, having a drink. His wife, Marit, comes downstairs in a red evening dress ‘in which she had always been seductive, with her loose breasts and sleek, dark hair’. She asks for a drink too. It transpires that Marit is sick and, as the group talks in a desultory way, ominously the narrators tell us, ‘It was the night they had decided would be the one’.

Immediately a tension is set up and the rest of the night (they are going out for a last meal) builds in the light of this revelation – most poignantly, Marit noting the beautiful night sky on the drive home: ‘The wind was moving in the tops of the shadowy trees. In the night sky there were brilliant blue clouds, shining as if in daylight’. Perhaps the reader is a little surprised at the presence of Susanna, a ‘family friend’ who is only twenty-nine and wearing a ‘short skirt’, but we push this to the back of our minds. Salter is very good at describing Walter’s nervousness and difficulty in bringing himself to give Marit the fatal injection of morphine and there is the wonderful line: ‘Now he had slipped her, as in a burial at sea, beneath the flow of time’. At this stage we are in a sad, emotional place.

This could have just been a story about euthanasia, but the Salter does something I’ve noted before in short story writers; he twists the story to make it something else. Walter comes downstairs after the deed, after he has kissed his wife’s hand farewell, and goes to find Susanna. Although she resists being seduced at that time, Walter ‘devoured her, shuddering as if in fright at the end and holding her to him tightly’. They had been having an affair.

The next morning, they are having breakfast when they hear a footstep on the stairs. Marit appears saying to Walter ‘something went wrong … I thought you were going to help me’. A coda tells us that that was the last time Walter and Susanna were together. We are left to wonder whether Marit devised the whole thing to expose Walter, certainly the decision to invite Susanna to be there on the night of the euthanasia (Marit’s decision) suggests this.

As with some ‘twist’ stories, I felt a little manipulated by this one. The reader is led into the poignancy of the initial situation. We get a little of Marit’s backstory and empathise with the emotiveness of her last thoughts, looking around her house, the things that she would see for the last time, the world moving on and she not in it. Then, Marit is diminished in our eyes, if indeed she has devised a cruel revenge on Walter. Marit does indeed have terminal cancer, so whatever revenge she gets can’t mean much. I was left annoyed with this story. Yes, it is clever, but the emotional resonance is cheapened by the cleverness.

Short Story – Making Stuff Up

Making Stuff Up by KW George

Big Issue Fiction Edition 2019

It’s one of the tropes of fiction writers to write a story about writing a story. This can be done in a metafictional way where the author/narrator steps out of the narrative to show themselves writing it or, as here, it can be a story about a writer trying to write.

George begins her story with her first-person narrator, chatting online with her writing group about an American author, FJ Aden who is in the news because he’s made up things about his own life which aren’t true (this seems to be based on AJ Finn’s confessions). The group discuss whether this matters, and whether or not they’d read this author’s works after the scandal. Our narrator muses that the writing group is supposed to be about their own writing and that it often descends into gossip and chat.

She’s spent so long online that she’s late for making dinner (her husband works in an office all day). There is a slight tension between them because, they are supposed to have given up alcohol for the month and the husband wants a beer. He takes off to get some low alcohol beer from the supermarket and she wanders into her study where she’s hidden a bottle of wine.

For the rest of the night she muses about Aden, who she’d originally defended, saying what’s the difference between making things up in fiction to sell and making things up about your real life? Now she thinks, what does he really know when he described his mother supposedly dying from cancer? Our narrator, it transpires, has experienced chemotherapy and had a mastectomy.

In the morning, she tries to open up a document of the writing she’d done the day before but there’s only a blank page – she’s convinced herself she had actually started on the story she’s trying to write. Here we get a metafictional bit when she recounts to us the idea she has for this story. A man, a bit like her husband, is interested in a woman at the office who he meets in the lift: she’s well-dressed but wearing a necklace of paperclips. His wife, at home, notices ‘he misses her mouth when he bends down to kiss her hello when he gets home from work’.

Then our narrator’s mother rings, breaking into her thoughts, and tells her about a yeti documentary she’s watched – supposedly factual, but of course it must be ‘made up’ to some extent. In the last paragraph our narrator says, now she knows how to end her story – ‘My Lara character needs to have a Mum … who confirms it’s bizarre to … find … a handful of paperclips in your husband’s suit pocket …’

‘Making Stuff Up’ is the type of story that relies on the voice to carry it and George’s narrator is an engaging one. I like that it is a story about writing a story and the extent to which a writer can mine their own life for material. The narrator can identify with Aden because (as we find out in the last para) she is using something personal to ‘make up’ something that might hurt her husband, while at the same time lying about her drinking (which is another type of ‘making something up’). I wasn’t quite convinced about the intervention of the mother and why her mother’s swallowing of the yeti story should convince the narrator about the validity of the paperclip/affair aspect to her story.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable short story, covering some interesting ideas with a light touch.

Short story – Bushfire by Kate Grenville

Bushfire – Kate Grenville

Something Special, Something Rare – Black Inc

Despite its title, ‘Bushfire’ is not predominantly about a bushfire, it is a relationship story, a love story. The fire does appear, however, in the second paragraph: ‘brown smoke hid the contours of the hills over in the distance and smudged the sky. After a term in Mindurra Public school, she had got used to seeing the hills … It was unsettling to have lost them now.’

We are thus introduced to our focalising character, Louise, an outsider to the small town. Louise has walked into town to see if she can volunteer to help with the firefighting but not being particularly useful, she’s sent off to make sandwiches. On her way to the hall, she glimpses a man on a fire truck ‘half-hidden among hoses and tanks’. He lifts a hand in greeting but she is taken by surprise and ‘by the time she waved back, the truck had gone’. We are then given a flashback when Louise recalls the time at a town fair when a busybody intending to matchmake had got the man, Lloyd, to bring her a cup of tea, and then ensues an awkward conversation between them. Again, Louise seems out of synch: although Lloyd blurts out some information about himself, she can’t manage to engage with him – ‘Yes, she’d managed to say, feeling the startled look on her face, hearing it in her voice’. She observes, fascinated, as a blush spreads over Lloyd’s face and neck, and then, to her own discomfiture, she begins to blush herself: ‘It was as if her skin and his were having a conversation with each other, all by themselves’.

This image tells the reader something that Louise only slowly works out for herself as she makes the sandwiches.

A man comes into the refreshment hall from the fires, panicked and excited, and this brings us back to the moment of fear and tension and Louise sees that something she thought mundane about Lloyd might be a ‘kind of heroism’. There is then a flashback to one of Louise’s ex-husbands a survivalist type who said if they were separated, he would meet her on the steps of the Gunnedah post office. She reflects sardonically, that he was ‘not the type of man she would want to find’. This train of thought leads her back to Lloyd and the missed opportunity of her conversation with him that the fire has brought into focus: ‘he would not be burned alive. He would come back down’. The last sentence of the story harks back to the blushing incident and places it at the centre of the meaning of the narrative – ‘perhaps they could continue the conversation that their skins … had already begun’.

This is a charming story that shows Grenville’s ear for human frailty, and for the foibles of quiet, overlooked people. The bushfire is a device that brings the mishandled and awkward meeting between the main characters into focus, and gives it a time imperative. The device of the blush device that has their two bodies ‘talking to each other’ works well, and the heat in their faces links in to the heat of the fires. Like the fire it can either overrun them, or the wind can change and it could go off in another direction.

This story was first published in The Bulletin and in Best Australian Stories 2000.

When reading it, I was reminded that one of my favourite novels is Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (recently reissued by Text) which has a similar mismatched couple at its core.

Short Story – Peeling

I am intending to read and critique a series of short stories to see how they work, and succeed and/or fail. I will examine the whole of the story, including the ending. Fair warning to read the story first, starting here with an unusual story by Peter Carey from 2010.

Peeling – Peter Carey

Meanjin Summer 2010

This is written from the point of view of an elderly male living alone in a room of, perhaps, a boarding house. He tells us of his interest in a woman who lives above him – contemplating her movements, his slow interest in getting to know her, but not too fast. There is a certain creepiness in this attention and voyeurism (the woman is younger and possibly vulnerable). She collects dolls that she de-hairs, pokes their eyes out and paints white. For the first half of this story, I thought it was about getting into the mind of a predator, that the ‘peeling’ of the title was really about him slowly revealing himself to us while he thinks he is exposing and defining the woman. From here, however, Carey twists the narrative as the woman begins to speak and reveal herself to the narrator (much to his annoyance as he desires to reveal her himself). At this point, we find out the woman assists with backyard abortions and this has disturbed her (hence the mutilated, purified dolls). As the narrator disrobes the woman (with her consent), she is peeled away: first clothes, then skin, then gender, then age, then identity as she disintegrates into a tiny shell-like, broken doll.

Carey shows total control of narrative, character, scene, language, as you would expect. If I were writing this story, I would probably have finished it at the half-way mark and made it more about exploration of character, but Carey pushes it further to give it that bizarre twist, and thus an additional metaphorical layer. This does make the reader sit back and consider ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what is he saying?’ but, to me, I thought it was taking it too far – the inherent interest we have in the situation as ‘real’ is wrenched around as we are given further ideas of  ‘peeling’, further ‘layers’ that we weren’t expecting.

Pigface and Other Stories review

Like most anthologies, there is a great variety of stories here: realist and more fantastical, bush and city, sad and amusing. ‘Pigface’ by Andrew Roff (the winning story of the Margaret River short story prize), is a great piece of controlled prose, and unfolding tension. Kat is a ranger in an eco-resort; she knows she has a good job but the pushy guests she takes on a bush walk test her patience: she tells them about the plant pigface and a guest ‘stabbed a question at her-“Latin name?” Like a fork pointed across a dinner table’. Luckily, she knows the answer! Of course, tension builds and tempers flare as the walk goes on and I, for one, hoped one or two of the guests would get their just deserts.

In another story, ‘Living With Walruses’ by David Wright, a group of walruses inexplicably takes over the beach of a small coastal town. The locals love it (it brings tourists) but soon the smell and noise turn them against the creatures. It’s a quirky story about tolerance and cruelty, with a slight supernatural edge. I also loved ‘Setting Sail’ by Zoe Deleuil, a quiet story where a gentle encounter with a neighbour offers hope to a woman in a controlling marriage. ‘Descent’ by Fiona Robertson is a wonderfully tight, controlled story where the whole relationship between a father and his young son from a previous marriage is revealed in one bush walk up (and down) a mountain. The father is a great character – self-absorbed and obnoxious – and his relationship to his new wife and young daughter is acutely observed, as is the character of the teenage son (whose growing confidence in standing up to his father is the centre of the story).

In a more amusing vein, ‘Small Fish’ by Penny Gibson skewers a particular type of Aussie male – here seen on a fishing trip – although, in the end, the story is more poignant than harsh. I didn’t think I would feel empathy with any of these men but the author achieves this. I also enjoyed Tiffany Hastie’s ‘The Chopping Block’, a moving, beautifully-written story about a woman and her dog, and loneliness and resilience. An underlying sense of tension is built (and a certain amount of blood spilt!). ‘Habitat’ by Cassie Hamer is a clever piece of writing that covers a lot of issues on a small canvas – it, almost imperceptibly, builds up a sense of unease and angst in the everyday life of the main character.

Margaret River Short Story Competition

Congratulations to the winners of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition 2018. I’m pleased to say my story ‘On Either Side’ was shortlisted and will appear in the anthology that comes out in June this year. Margaret River is a small press but has a good reputation for publishing interesting titles. Their yearly anthology of short stories is one of the few remaining ones that come out in book form (I can think of ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Award Winning Australian Stories’ …). The complete list of shortlisters and winners is below.


  • Jessica ANDREATTA – Ring Pull Art
  • Judith BRIDGE – Foodies
  • Abigayle CARMODY – No Harm Done
  • Zoe DELEUIL – Setting Sail
  • Penny GIBSON – Small Fish
  • Ashley GOLDBERG – Soap
  • Cassie HAMER – Habitat  *Second Prize*
  • Tiffany HASTIE – The Chopping Block  *Southwest Prize*
  • Tee LINDEN – Bounds
  • Miranda LUBY – The Sea Dragon
  • Helen RICHARDSON – On Either Side  
  • Fiona ROBERTSON – Descent
  • Sue ROBERTSON – Le Micocoulier de Provence
  • Andrew ROFF – Pigface  *First Prize*
  • Kit SCRIVEN – The Fate of Angels
  • Warwick SPRAWSON – Cracked Head
  • David Thomas Henry WRIGHT – Living with Walruses

Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

My top book read in 2016

a-golden-ageMy criteria for top book is simply the book I loved the most. I guess that is the book that resonated the most, that moved me, that drew me in to an absorbing, interesting world, that had characters I wanted to spend time with. On the whole I don’t read a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it. The only exception is our book group books which I’m obliged to read. Luckily this year they were all good and interesting in their own way: Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Lily King’s wonderful ‘Euphoria’ (based on the life of Margaret Mead), Eggers’ spot-on Facebook/Google satire ‘The Circle’ and Imbolo Mbue’s flawed but fun migrant story ‘Behold the Dreamers’.

The first three are all honourable mentions as is Margret Atwood’s acute and wonderful ‘Stone Mattress’ (the book, a collection of stories, is uneven, though, but the title story is brilliant). Commendations also to Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’ – an atmospheric, moving and spooky tale set in a rain-drenched fenlands, and Atwood’s other wonderful and strange classic ‘Surfacing’ that somehow I had missed out on reading all these years – first published in 1972, if you can believe it. Joanne Harris’s ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was a satisfying, twisty thriller that I think they are making into a film.

But drum roll, or, more aptly, sit down quietly under a mango tree and sip a cup of Darjeeling – my favourite was ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam. This wonderfully moving, sad and understated novel follows the lives of a mother Rehana and daughter Maya and son Sohail, at the time when Bangladesh was fighting for it’s independence from Pakistan. The novel captures you from the opening lines:

Dear Husband, I lost our children today …

How would she begin to tell him?

She got back into the rickshaw with the children … the graveyard was dotted with dusk mourners. They tossed flowers on the wet pelts of grass that grew over their loved ones. In the next row a man in a white cap cried into his hands. Beside him, an old woman clutched a spray of bokul.

Rehana held the round palms of her children.

‘Say goodbye to your father,’ she said, pointing to Iqbal’s grave.

The rest of the novel is Rehana’s explanation to her dead husband about what happened to her and their children. To get her children back from the court who has given custody to her wealthy brother in Lahore, Rehana scrounges money to build a house in her backyard that she rents out so that she can say she is financially independent. She is happy to be a widow cooking and having friends over and bringing up her children – feminist Maya and university radical Sohail. History, of course, steps in.

I’m conscious that this description would probably not draw anyone to read this book but, as with the best novels, it is not the plot: it is the atmosphere, the characters who get under your skin, the sense of the richness in human existence, shadowed by things none of us want to face.

I have Anam’s follow-up novel ‘The Good Muslim’ that follows Maya’s life to read this year.

  • For the stats. Five male writers out of 33 books. Two memoirs, one non-fiction, one classic, eleven fantasy or spec fiction, three crime, the rest general fiction. I will try to up the classics in 2017.



The Trouble With Flying – Review

BigTroubleWithFlyingFinalCoverwebRichards Rossiter and Susan Midalia (eds)

The Trouble With Flying is the third anthology published from winning entries to the Margaret River Short Story competition. As such, this handsomely-produced book, is an eclectic mix of stories from WA-based writers, and Australian writers, more broadly. There are many forms of trouble in this collection: the trouble with children, the trouble with parents and the elderly, the trouble with the bush and the city, the trouble with love, sex, sickness and death.  Most of the writers here have found fresh angles on their chosen themes, while others take us off on strange and new paths. What they all have in common is accomplished writing that engages and interests.

The title story, Ruth Wyer’s ‘The Trouble With Flying’ features odd-girl-out TAFE student Rita trying to fit in with her new classmates and forming an uneasy relationship with punk-music mad Milo. The fine line of Rita’s life—to fit in or to forever be a loner—is somehow linked to the fate of two birds; a panicked pigeon stuck in a TAFE corridor and a seagull on a beach. This is a moving, tone-perfect story.

Linda Brucesmith’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is another beautifully-pitched story about two young sisters, supposedly asleep, listening to their parents’ dinner party downstairs. The opening line, ‘Don’t dream about ghosts’—the admonishment of Caitie to her sister Poppy—sets up the unsettled tone. Brucesmith pits the limited knowledge of the girls, against the reader’s suspicions, to create a tension and a mystery. What Poppy sees through the bedroom window at the end of the story, may or may not answer the initial statement.

The anthology places two bushfire stories side by side—the ambitious but flawed ‘Firestick Farmer’ by Peter Curry and the gentler, more subtle ‘Butcher’s Creek’ by Mark Smith. The average person pitted against the ferocious unpredictability of fire is a trope in Australian fiction but Smith adds an extra dimension to build tension in his story of a city-slicker couple trying to make it in the bush. They are warned off by a local who used to own their property, but, as is often the case, the well-meaning newbies cross an invisible boundary and are made to pay for an older, harsher reality, not of their making.

Claire Aman’s ‘Zone of Confidence’ belies any tropes; it’s a beautifully-written character study of obsession. The narrator is riding her boyfriend’s motorbike up the Queensland coast, following him as he sails a boat to Cairns for a client. In Aman’s deft hands, we accept the narrator’s actions as reasonable and feel her growing anxiety for the boyfriend’s safety:

The clouds are unpleasant with their grey bellies. I suspect them all. They’re questing for a tiny boat, your brave little sail under a puffy sky. I push them away from the coast. I’ve hurt my throat shouting warnings to you about storms boiling up in the west, and now I’m like a dog without a bark.

The bike ride becomes harder and harder with a resolution that, when we see it, we realise is strangely appropriate.

‘Red Saffron’ by Isabelle Li also stands out for taking on new ground. It is an unusual, elegantly written piece that canvasses an array of ideas from food, to religion, to poetry, to infidelity. It is Li’s achievement that she can make her unsympathetic narrator so compelling and interesting. The character’s wit, keen observation and unflinching self-possession seduces the reader, as it will no doubt also seduce her next intended conquest.

In Rosie Barter’s ‘Grasping for the Moon’ we are back in familiar territory— older woman’s infatuation with a younger man—but the muscular writing and engaging main character juggling Buddhist philosophy and her own desires, make this an enjoyable and taut story. Take this scene where Martha sneaks into the room of her new housemate and finds him asleep naked:

She must not look; but she does. One second, five, ten, she does not know; but when a sudden impulse charges his body, jerks his head towards the wall and he rolls over from her gaze, she jumps. Hand on her thrumming heart she backs out of the room …

Stories about death and dying are hard to pull off. They tend to be overly sentimental, too oblique or they use the inherent emotional reverberation of the subject matter as the only point of tension. Melanie Kinsman’s ‘A Paper Woman’ avoids the pitfalls; while it is the story of a young woman with cancer, it is also about someone falling in love, who thought she never would. The narrator’s pragmatism and clear-eyed observations encourages you to go along with her willingly on her tough journey:

The first time you saw me naked, I was afraid. I had not warned you of the scar. I quivered before you in the room, raw and unclad, afraid of disgust and shock in your eyes. I was a paper woman, thin and flammable. Your gaze was a match.

While you could feel exploited, you never do with this story; it is moving and ultimately uplifting.

The elderly narrator in Kathy George’s ‘Walking the Dog’ isn’t at death’s door, but he’s getting there and he knows it. Concerned with the small things of life, he keeps his head down, making sure things tick over for as long as they can. As with the birds in ‘The Trouble With Flying’ it’s an animal that reflects and elucidates the character:

There’s a guest in the bathroom. A moth. It has large dark wings like a dinghy with sails. Becalmed, it sits on the cistern lid and watches the dribble of my slow pee. When I flick the light switch it bangs and crashes around as if it is blind. It will damage its wings if it’s not careful.

George gives a cleverly nuanced portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and his adult daughter, worried about him but still at the stage where she has to give him room to live his own life. When he makes a joke and she laughs he thinks, ‘It’s nice to know I can still be funny’. Like the moth in the bathroom he knows that his time is limited.

There is a lot of talented writing in The Trouble With Flying, some exceptional. The editors have thought carefully about the placement of stories and this enhances the reading experience. The breadth of the stories on offer means that diverse readers will find something of interest in this anthology to engage and stimulate.

This review is also on Goodreads.

The Long & the Short – Peaches by Dylan Thomas

A series analysing short stories

young-dogThis story comes from the autobiographical collection Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog first published in 1940.

The story starts with the young narrator sitting on a cart in a laneway while Uncle Jim goes into a pub leaving the boy alone in the growing dark. As the lane gets darker, the men he has seen through the lighted window playing cards turn into grotesques:

… the swarthy man appeared as a giant in a cage surrounded by clouds, and the bald old man withered into a blank stump with a white face.

We have also seen a glimpse of ‘a pink tail curling out’ of a basket the boy’s uncle takes into the pub.

There are further scary intimations on the slow ride home, with Uncle Jim stopping outside a house and telling the young Dylan that ‘a hang man lived there’.

The only comforting things are Dylan’s own imaginings—‘A story I made up in the warm, safe island of my bed’, the steady clop of the mare drawing the wagon on: ‘the old broad patient nameless mare’, and running into his Aunt Annie’s arms when he arrives clutching his ‘grammar school cap’. This latter gives the clue that he is visiting the farm for holidays.

To Dylan’s over active imagination the farmyard in the dark is nightmarish:

The cobbles rang, and the black empty stables took up the ringing and hollowed it so that we drew up in a hollow circle of darkness and the mare was a hollow animal and nothing lived in the hollow house at the end of the yard but two sticks with faces scooped out of turnips.

The next day everything seems more normal, although it is apparent the farm is terribly rundown and life there threadbare, until we meet the unsettling cousin Gwilym. Gwilym is a young man studying for the church with a disquieting propensity to mix up sex and religion.

Dylan gets on reasonably well with Gwilym although his description of him suggests a critical distance: ‘a thin stick of a body and a spade-shaped face’, but when Gwilym uses an unused barn as a chapel and a cart as a pulpit, and preaches to Dylan, the boy goes along with it, letting his imagination run as it always does.

Thomas (the writer) has now set up the story. All is not well in the trope of child goes to farm for holiday. Uncle Jim, we suspect is a drunk (Dylan finds out from Gwilym that he is surreptitiously selling piglets for drink) and Thomas uses the wonderful predatory imagery of a fox to describe him: ‘Uncle Jim came in like the devil with a red face and a wet nose and trembling hairy hands’. Gwylim’s preoccupations are worrying, and, although Aunt Annie is well-meaning, she is downtrodden. Despite all this, Dylan is not threatened in reality—they are his relatives and he is accepted there—he is only threatened imaginatively, through his night fears and his overactive imagination.

At this point in the narrative Thomas introduces a new element. Into the world of Gorsehill Farm comes Dylan’s best friend from school, Jack Williams, dropped off by his wealthy mother to spend the holidays with Dylan, and here we also encounter the peaches of the title.

The peaches are in a can left over from Christmas and kept for a special occasion by Aunt Annie. Mrs Williams, of course, can’t wait to get away from the ‘good room’ with its dust and bedraggled stuffed fox and refuses the offer of the peaches. When she bends down to kiss her son goodbye he tells her she’s wearing perfume, a clue to why she’s dumping Jack at the farm for two weeks.

The boys start off in high spirits playing games and running around but when Dylan initiates Jack into the mock chapel in the barn things go awry. Gwylim tries to get the boys to confess their sins, and Dylan goes through a litany of them in his head from stealing from his mother to beating a dog to make him roll over but, when pressed, can’t admit them:

‘Go on, confess’

‘I won’t! I won’t’

Jack began to cry. ‘I want to go home,’ he said.

Dylan has suffered a lack of imagination in being able to make up a sin and caused Jack to want to go home. Back in bed that night, however, the boys do confess to each other and then Dylan goes on to says he’s killed a man—his imagination running free again symbolised by the sound of a stream he thinks he can hear running next to the house.

But just as Jack’s fears are assuaged, Uncle Jim comes home drunk and there is a row downstairs. When Jim hears about the peaches he lets fly:

‘I’ll give her peaches! Peaches, peaches! Who does she think she is? Aren’t peaches good enough for her? To hell with her bloody motorcar and her son! Making us small.’

The next day Dylan tries to play with Jack but Jack won’t talk to him:

Below me Jack was playing Indians all alone … I called to him once but he pretended not to hear. He played alone, silently and savagely.

Jack calls his mother from the post office and she comes to pick him up. Dylan waves his handkerchief as they drive off but Jack ‘sat stiff and still by his mother’s side’.

Dylan’s way of dealing with the threat of the adult world around him is to see it through the filter of his imagination which can be both threatening and amusing. The reader can see how parlous the situation at the farm is, but Dylan is matter of fact about it—everything can be made different and interesting by seeing faces like spades and his uncle as a fox eating piglets and chickens. We feel sad when Jack won’t go along with it. When Jack sees the threat from Uncle Jim, he leaves, breaking the compact with Dylan. Both boys have to deal with their own situations as best they can, and Dylan’s fantasy world can only ever be particular to him.

© 2014 Helen Richardson