Nadine Gordimer says short stories are about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark.
I recently wrote a story in which a man in his sixties easily locates a book he hasn’t read since university, because his shelves are so well organized. Pure fantasy, of course: the set of books I’ve read is much larger than the set of those I can currently lay my hands on. I’ve chosen ‘A Walk in the Park’ from The Burn partly for its brutally ambiguous title, and partly, if I’m honest, because I simply could not find my copies of his earlier collections Greyhound for Breakfast and Not, not while the giro. If you’re only familiar with the novels – or not familiar with Kelman at all – these are a treat. Pure slivers of working class Glaswegian life, with all the poverty and alcohol and love and rage that the late 80s had to offer, but all rendered with minute attention to the detail of language and dialect. It’s prose you have to read at talking speed – which suits me fine: I’m a slow reader – tuning in to the demotic speech and thought-patterns of his frequently broken, but always human, characters. Some people found Kelman difficult to read – just as, more recently, some inexplicably declared Anna Burns’ Milkman difficult to read – but if you can’t hear Kelman’s people talking in your head, it’s because you’re not listening. Slow down.
‘A Walk in the Park’ maintains a perfect balance between banality and tragedy in the story of a man and woman, both weighed down by failed relationships; they meet and wonder what to do of an afternoon:
They stood staring at each other for several moments. Then she said: The library?
A walk in the park?
But a walk in the park it is. They even hold hands. She tries, she teases, and he tries, too, but all the while he’s keeping the lid on a boiling rage born of frustration, of an awareness of his own inability to cope.
A brief flash, indeed, if fireflies lived for thirty years.
First published in The Burn, Secker and Warburg, 1991; Minerva paperback 1992; currently available from Polygon, 2009