‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ by Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell is a rising star of Irish literature and Intimacies is her second collection, following Multitudes (2016). The eleven stories in this collection are moving, quiet and full of empathy and compassion. Her stories aren’t about dramatic historical events or the seismic effects of war, peace or migration. Her focus in many of these stories is on the young mother, the bewilderment of being responsible for a new life and the compromises that need to be made as she suppresses her own individual dreams and needs. The language of her stories reflects the interior lives of her characters as they go about the mundane, dreary tasks of feeding, changing nappies and entertaining a child whose unending needs overwhelms them and leaves them gasping for air. As a mother, I could relate to the description of sleepless nights, the infantilazation of one’s brain and the dreary repetition of routine. In each of these stories, small children play a pivotal role in unhinging the mother, their primary caregiver. 

In ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad,’ which won the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award, a young mother flies home after the funeral of her female cousin in Canada. On the plane, a kind older man helps her to care for her toddler. They both strike a rapport and understanding in the surreal intimacy of an aeroplane cabin. The story reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation, where the main protagonist has a fleeting glimpse of a different life she could have led. 

But the hollow feeling at your centre, the ache in your solar plexus, voids all hunger, and it feels somehow right to be at a light-headed remove from the world, this sense of being vague, and insubstantial, as if you could just drift on, indefinitely; as if you don’t really exist, or need to. Sometimes, you think, your daughter is the only person who feels real, because the immediacy of her needs is so urgently, incontrovertibly so.

First published in Intimacies, Faber, 2021. Also available in the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 anthology, Comma Press, 2021. Listen to the story here

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