‘The Pier Falls’ by Mark Haddon

This is the title story of Mark Haddon’s 2016 collection, published by Vintage. It’s the one that has stayed with me since I read the book. It’s vivid with life (and death) and telling details. You can see it all happening as you read. As with any horrific event you witness, time seems to stretch and what you see etches itself on your retina, drills into your brain and replays itself over and over. It’s a story that’s definitely pertinent to the summer, and even to reading on the beach, but it may well make you cautious about stepping foot on a pier. And however warm the day, you will definitely shiver. 

First published in The New Statesman in 2014 and available to read online here. Collected in The Pier Falls, Jonathan Cape, 2015 and The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, ed. Philip Hensher, Allen Lane, 2018. Selected by Cath Barton, whose prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and her short story collection, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Retreat West Books in early 2021. You can read her full Personal Anthology here.

‘What I Did on my Summer Holidays’ by Paul McVeigh

Paul McVeigh’s novel The Good Son (2015) conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles in Northern Ireland than any number of factual accounts. Its hero, young Mickey Donnelly, was introduced to readers some fifteen years earlier in this short story. Mickey’s voice and his feistiness are there, loud and clear, and McVeigh is already showing his ability to navigate the geography of both the Ardoyne and the human heart with great precision. Remarkably, he says this was his first attempt at prose, never mind a short story!

First published in the anthology New Century, New Writing, ed by P-P Hartnett, Millivres Press, 2000, and available to read online here. Chosen by Cath Barton: read Cath’s Personal Anthology here

‘At Sea’ by Guy de Maupassant

As a student of French, way back, I was taught that Maupassant (together with Prosper Mérimée) was a master of the short story. He published about 300 of them. I don’t remember how many I actually read, but I’ve never forgotten the vivid central image in this one, of the fisherman whose arm is cut off to save the catch. It’s firmly in the nineteenth century French realist tradition that Maupassant learned from Flaubert (Madame Bovary etc), and that encompasses all those gritty urban stories by Zola. Maupassant’s first love was the sea rather than the city, but he made as strong a social comment about the inhumane priorities of the fishing bosses in a short story as Flaubert did about the bourgoisie and Zola the factory and mine-owners in their novels.

(First published in 1888. You can read it in English here)

‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ by Rudyard Kipling

I still have the red leather bound edition of The Jungle Book from which my father read to me and my brother when we were children. His reading to me kindled my love of stories, short and long. My memories are about comfort and excitement in equal measure. There was something so exotic about the names of Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose and Nag and Nagaina the cobras, killed by Rikki-tikki to protect his young master, Teddy. But we were cosy and cosseted by the fire; there were no snakes in the English Midlands. Reading the story now, so many years on, I’m struck by Kipling’s descriptive powers “… a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane – the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick-work.” And my heart weeps afresh for Chuchundra, the sad little musk-rat who “whimpers and cheeps all the night, trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room. But he never gets there.”

(From The Jungle Book, Macmillan,1894.  You can read it, with the original illustrations by W. H. Drake, here)

‘The Luncheon’ by W. Somerset Maugham

This is the story I always quote if I want to give an example of a story with a sting in the tail. Somerset Maugham is an old-fashioned storyteller, spinning out the story of a self-important woman who flatters and then mercilessly takes advantage of a young writer living in Paris. Her recurring refrain that she never has more than one thing for luncheon couldn’t be further from the truth, as she feasts on out-of-season salmon, oysters and asparagus and drinks champagne. In a few pages Maugham creates two utterly believable characters, and draws deftly the arrogance of the woman and the vulnerability of the young narrator as he sees her eating and drinking her way through the money that was supposed to last him for the rest of the month. She goes off laughing, but it is he, eventually, who has the last laugh. It’s a gem.

(Originally published in Nash’s Magazine, London, in 1924 and available alongside with other of Maugham’s works in modern editions from Penguin)

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas developed this story from a piece called Memories of Christmas which he wrote for broadcast in 1945. I read it every Christmas, preferably out-loud and, if I get a chance, at least part of it to an audience, though of course I can never equal Thomas’ own delivery. The anecdotes are charming and the language and images incomparable. For example, while the boys are waiting to snowball cats in Mrs Prothero’s garden, a fire breaks out in her house and they run down the garden with snowballs in their arms – “and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii.”

(First published in 1950, and now in the author’s Collected Stories by Orion Books. The author himself reads the story here)

‘Curl Up and Dye’ by Fran Landsman

I came across this story by chance and loved it for its vibrancy and dark comedy. I didn’t remember the name of the writer (sorry, Fran Landsman!), but I did vividly recall the picture of life and death in an old-fashioned hairdressing salon, with its “pink-domed Bakelite hair dryers” and a bored work-experience girl who “dreams of a future in the centre of Bath where she can ask clients if they’re going anywhere special, and they’ll say yes.” Finding it again I wasn’t surprised to read that Landsman is also an award-winning documentary film maker. And that she is interested in writing about the extraordinary qualities of ordinary people. That very much appeals to me.

(Published in The Bridport Prize 2008 anthology, available as an e-book here)