‘Under the Garden’ by Graham Greene

I found this story, collected in the appealingly named A Sense of Reality, in a second hand bookshop in Leamington Spa when I was in my teens. I remember reading it and shivering at the strangeness of the tale in which a young boy, William Wilditch, chances on a door in the bottom of a tree in the garden of his uncle’s large house. He crawls down a path and finds himself in a strange abode of two very strange people, Maria, an aged woman in a tattered sequinned dress, whose only utterance is “Kwahk”, and the much more voluble Javitt, a one-legged old man. Javitt has a lot to tell William, in homilies that strike the child (and frankly, the teenage me reading the tale) as bulletins from life. I still remember the assertion “Beauty doesn’t come from beauty […] only when you come back to zero, to the real ugly base of things, there’s a chance to start again.”

This is apropos Javitt and Maria’s daughter, Miss Ramsgate, whose pictures in a magazine Javitt shows the narrator. On and on it goes, including a moment of seeing “the treasure”, until finally, several days after he went under the garden, William is able to escape. Was it all a dream? Or something far more psychoanalytical? The story is layered in other frames – the Treasure Island-esque narrative a slightly older William writes about it for the school magazine, and the present-day impetus he has to revisit the house, and the island in the pond where the whole episode took place. Rereading it now, maybe thirty years after the first time, it was no less eerie. I seem to have dreamed it myself, and when you read ‘Under the Garden’, perhaps you will have dreamed it too.

First published in 1957; collected in A Sense of Reality, Viking, 1963; also available as a Penguin 60, 1995

‘An Advertisement for Toothpaste’ by Ryszard Kapuścinski, translated by William J Brand

Not exactly fiction, but probably not exactly non-fiction either in a way I find interesting, this episode opens:

The sax wailed piercingly and Marian Jesion shouted: “Let’s go, boys.” On the forest road through the limitless  darkness Jesion’s grandmother sighed a tremulous whisper: “Oh God.” Those three voices, raised simultaneously but so clearly out of step, weigh like a stone on the village of Pratki in Elk country.

It’s so theatrical! The narrator, some kind of hovering projection of Kapuścinski himself, is in this Polish village observing/learning about the village dance, in which fifteen dressed up girls stand on one side of the hall, and four boys on the other. The narration shimmers between the dance itself and reports to the narrator later: “After that number, the girls tell me, the boys started pushing and shoving each other.” In just a few pages, different elements are woven together. There are details of the dance:

The girls stood on the blue side and the boys on the red side. They were divided by the multicoloured expanse of the village hall with the bandstand pinned in the middle like a brooch […] The boys looked pensively in the direction of the girls, evaluating the quality of their high heels, nylon dresses, and Czech jewellery, as they mulled over all-too-predictable plans to be implemented later.

But there is also more of Marian Jesion’s grandmother, and of the poor dental hygiene of the village:

Pratki bachelors buy themselves motorcycles and the girls acquire, for a pretty penny, fashionable organdie slips, which is why nobody can afford a tube of Odonto toothpaste (produced y Lechia, Poznań) for three zloty and five grosz.

Lurching in and out of the piece, maybe like the young men steering around the chosen four young women in the dance, are hope, youth, violence, commerce, and… bad teeth. It’s a great piece of writing.

First published in Polish in Polityka. Collected in Nobody Leaves, Penguin 2017, also as a Penguin Modern, 2018

‘Hunters in the Forest’ by Tim Pears

Ben is eighteen. The story opens with him cleaning and greasing his rifle and leaving his house late one night to go hunting in the forest with Phil and Jimmy. In a conifer forest somewhere near Exmoor, they shoot, cook, and eat some rabbit, then drink whisky. Ben is soon off to university, Jimmy about to join the army to train as a mechanic. In the forest, in between bouts of drinking, they try to shoot a deer. An animal is hit, but it takes time to figure out what’s going on, and the hunting trip ends in an undignified exit. The final few paragraphs form one of the most striking endings of a story that I’ve read, leaving the reader absolutely suspended in possibility – something only the short story, perhaps, can do, and breathtakingly done here. 

First published in Chemistry and Other Stories, Bloomsbury, 2021

‘Miami Beach, Kentucky’ by James Hall

I’m glad to be reunited with a copy of this book, which I got at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon as a teenager. At that point, I hadn’t read anything like it, and continued to think about it off and on through the years. While I was a reporter at the Times of India in Mumbai in the mid-2000s I Googled James Hall and found only a website for a thriller writer based in Miami. I emailed to ask if he was also the author of Paper Products, telling him how much I’d loved the book, and he said that he was, but that he’d moved on to writing detective fiction because there was no way of making a living from literary stories. Anyway, I like these stories. In ‘Miami Beach, Kentucky’, which is set in a town called Sinking Fork, Kentucky, the teenage narrator’s father, Mean Buck, is the town mayor and owns the radio station. Mean Buck’s best friend is a rather unreliable writer called Thornton Blanding, and the narrator’s mother, Billie Butterworth, is a school teacher. Mean Buck, perhaps abetted by Thornton Blanding, decides that the latest improvement scheme that Sinking Fork could use is to change its name to Miami Beach, and begins to speak about it on the radio early in the morning:

“Miami Beach, Kentucky,” he said, wooing us all, all in our beds, all of us half-dazed from dreaming. “Miami Beach, Kentucky,” he whispered. “We can make our town anything we got the gumption to imagine” […] Then he went on about palm trees and ferns and lobsters and crabs and egrets and laughing gulls, sandpipers and marlin, dolphin, sailfish, red snapper, sea turtles, tarpon.

A collective delusion falls over Sinking Fork, inhabitants lying out in the “halfhearted sunshine” oiling themselves, wearing Hawaiian shirts to school, or painting their houses pink… 

First published in The Iowa Review, Winter 1984; collected in Paper Products, WW Norton, 1990/Minerva, 1991

‘Wage packet’ by Stanley Donwood

The last time I was thinking about writing some short stories, in 2012, I asked for recommendations of collections on Twitter. This collection, by the artist Stanley Donwood, was one of them, and this story in particular has never left me. It’s of the classic escalation type, but maybe it also stuck with me because it evoked a particularly horrible job I had briefly the first summer I was at university, working in a department store café for under minimum wage (‘we have a special student rate’). The story opens with a simple line: “During a period of poverty more pronounced than usual I consider applying for a job.” The job in question is as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

The friend who used to work there tells me that in a restaurant there is a structured hierarchy of abuse; the owner harangues the manager, who insults the chef, who turns angrily on the preparation staff, who vent spleen on the waiting staff, who then unleash their fury on the dishwasher. The dishwasher has very little room for manoeuvre in this concatenation of spite.

The last line of the section I’ve quoted draws attention to one of the features of the story that I enjoy: its use of both a flat tone of resignation and an almost geometric appreciation of the different formations of unfairness. I’ll only add the following hints: every night after work there is a form of lock in, and that the back room of the kitchen houses a type of industrial macerator that deals with scraps of food, a large metal machine known as ‘The Pig’.

First published in 2011, collected in Household Worms, Nosuch Library 2012 and Humour, Faber, 2014; also as a limited edition chapbook of “nearly 100 copies”, 2014

‘Miyah Mansur’ by Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, translated from Assamese by Arunabha Bhuyan

The protagonist of this story is a writer, waiting at a river dock near his home for a boat to arrive containing the first printed copies of his book. While he waits, he watches the itinerant labourers unloading other cargo. The writer is at first repelled by the lack of interest that the clerk in the dockyard takes in him: “The realization that he did not understand me as a person, my worth, brought a deep pain within me. Suddenly, the happiness of writing and publishing a book was no longer there.” While he waits, he begins to watch the men, some asleep after hard labour. It’s raining heavily, and the Brahmaputra becomes turbulent; an approaching passenger boat is tossed about. The narrator’s servant then says that Anu, the narrator’s wife, is on that boat, returning from her mother’s house. In the drama that plays out, the dock clerk has an important part. Later, another labourer describes all such workers (from East Bengal, now Bangladesh) as “homeless” (aghori), a condition that still evokes suspicion in Assam. It’s that very condition of being placeless that seems to have allowed the dock clerk – whom the narrator doesn’t see as like himself in religion, language, or kind – to behave selflessly. The story always brings a lump to my throat.

Collected in The Greatest Assamese Short Stories Ever Told, selected and edited by Mitra Phukan, Aleph 2021

‘Ganjefa’ by Naiyyer Masud, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon

I first read a story by the Urdu short story writer Naiyyer Masud in the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri. Later, I came across this volume of his stories in translation (that edition published by Penguin India) in a bookshop in Pune. They really are extraordinary stories, “shimmering”, as the translator notes in his preface, between the mundane and the dreamt. ‘Ganjefa’ (which means a game of cards) opens with the narrator noting, “I began to feel bad about my life the night of the riots.” A young man educated in Allahabad and now returned to his native city, Lucknow, where he doesn’t work, but lives (as his dead father used to) off his mother’s earnings. After the night of the riots, humiliated by being asked by the police not only “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?” but “What do you do?” he decides to look for work. “Gradually I started to go out less and less, or rather I should say more and more, because now I stepped out several times a day, only to come back shortly thereafter, go out again, return again…”

First published in 1997, collected in Snake Catcher, Interlink Books, 2006

‘The Midnight Mass’ by William Carleton

William Carleton is a fascinating figure. He was born into a Catholic farming family in County Tyrone and spent a couple of years training to be a priest, but dropped out and ended up converting to Protestantism. His stories, written for readers in England, offer scenes of rural Irish life with a certain amount of anthropological gloss. This story, set over Christmas, takes place in a village in the shadow of a mountain, and follows love rivals Frank McKenna and Mike Reillaghan, both interested in Peggy Gartland (Peggy loves Mike, and wants Frank to leave her alone). Also featured: a blind fiddler, and a holy man of sorts, and a climax that takes place during a blizzard on the mountain. 

First published in 1834 in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, second series. Here collected in The Party Fight and Funeral, Mercier Irish Classics vol. 4. Available to read online on Project Gutenberg

‘Mathematics’ by Wendy Erskine

I liked this story from the opening line: “The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun: a small mother-of-pearl box, inlaid with gold, a lipstick that was a stripe of fuchsia, a lucky charm in the shape of a dollar sign.” Roberta is a cleaner for the properties owned by Mr Dalzell. “She got used to the sick and even the shit.” In one of them, as well as the remnants of a fairly scary-looking party, she finds a little girl of eight or nine, and takes the child home with her. Shimmering with unease, the story also has the irresistible allure of an unexpected gift.

First published in Dance Move, Picador 2022

‘Kookaburra Sweet’ by Irenosen Okojie

Kara has missed her flight from Sydney to London. ‘That was the problem with being late often. It actually changed outcomes when it mattered.’ She buys another ticket, and while waiting in the airport meets an Aborigine man named Kizzy who offers her some Kookaburra branded licorice. She takes a handful and stashes them in her rucksack. Back in London, she finishes the last of the sweets in between the train station and her flat; a metamorphosis of sorts begins: ‘Sure enough she was not herself. Or she was herself, but something different. Something skewed and accidental, something tainted with the margin particles of an incense-smelling man who could mimic the curves of a sidewinder.’ The story made me smile, with its absolute repudiation of what a short story might be for, how it might be shaped, how it might work. Liberating.

First published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books 2019

‘Old Ghost’ by Anna Metcalfe

Fiction that happens in part in an unnamed place is tempting to write, and hard to pull off. The narrator of ‘Old Ghost’ is driving a taxi, and living in a shared flat in Paris with Rina, a fellow immigrant or refugee. Old Ghost, the character of the title, is a friend – originally a friend of her brother’s. “Actually he was not my brother’s friend; he was trying to become my brother’s friend.” Instead, it is the narrator who befriends Old Ghost, playing cards with him. The story, written in short sections, is full of corrections and elision:

“Did you always know you would leave him?”
“No,” I say. I don’t like this. She knows. 
“So tell me about the maps.”
I tell her about the maps.

Sometimes fiction that elides details – names, places, years – reads to me as though the writer is (understandably) dodging a problem. But in this story the elisions moved me. Something is said but much is not, and in that a space is held, tender, for what was lost.

First published in the first issue of The Lonely Crowd in April 2015, and collected in Blind Water Pass, John Murray, 2016

‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It could almost have been any of the stories in this volume, that I pored over and re-read from about the age of eight, but maybe this is the one that most exuberantly plays with the poeticising of industrialised America. I think one of the things I learned from and loved in Fitzgerald is that the everyday is itself splendid and elevated (or can be). Just as the narrator of This Side of Paradise, his first novel, loves Swinburne, I love Fitzgerald for that lift of exuberance. What to say about this story? As you know, it follows John T. Unger, an inhabitant of Hades, a small town on the Mississippi, when he visits his friend Percy Washington’s home during a holiday from St Midas’s School, where both are boarders. Fitzgerald has fun with every element of the story. For example, the town where John and Percy alight from their train is called Fish: “There were twelve men, so it was said, in the village of Fish, twelve sombre and inexplicable souls who sucked a lean milk from the almost literally bare rock upon which a mysterious populatory force had begotten them.” In this story greed is the force that’s celebrated, with and without irony, and when greed fails, it’s disillusion that returns; that is to say, the end of the story is all about the end of stories, and coming back to lumpen life.

First published in The Smart Set, June 1922, and collected in Tales of the Jazz Age, Scribner, 1922 and elsewhere, including The Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Penguin Modern Classics, 1986