‘To All Their Dues’ by Wendy Erskine

Erskine’s latest collection Dance Move has been garnering rave reviews from just about everywhere this year, and with some justification. She’s one of the best short story writers around and had to go in here somewhere, but I’ve decided to pick one from Sweet Home and have gone for the first one in the set. I remember sitting down with them for the first time and being hooked right from the off; even after the first couple of pages I thought, this reads like it’s going to be the fucking business, and so it proved. The story features three characters – Mo, who’s just set up her own beauty parlour; Kyle, a man with extremely questionable connections who’s running a protection racket on the street where Mo’s business is, and Grace, his wife. It’s a clever bit of work; each character has their own section where we find out a bit more about them and their past, but she manages to get a huge amount of depth into each, especially considering how short the pieces are. It’s almost like three stories in one, but as you read you see how they overlap to get a fuller picture, and she skilfully shows how three people’s lives can overlap even when they’re not all aware of it. 
As has already been made clear, I’m drawn to writers who can do dialogue well, and it’s an area in which she excels, capturing the dry humour and idioms of her character’s speech in a way that’s pitch-perfect. There’s always a grim humour at work too, like when Kyle visits a hypnotherapist and is told to imagine a happy place, and his first memory is him and his brother as boys aged thirteen and fourteen beating the shit out of their abusive, alcoholic father; he asked to focus on something to keep him there, a memory of something specific, and comes up with “the blood on the floor, way darker than you’d think”. That she can imbue her characters with so much humanity in so few words is hugely admirable; that she can do it over and over again is extremely impressive indeed. 

First published in Sweet Home, Picador, 2018

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