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.
‘After the dinner we’ll go to the movies,’ the man decided. Because after the movies it would be night at last, and this day would shatter with the waves on the crags of Arpoador.
I love my family, but have no desire to be in a car with them. Consequently, I’ve chosen this, very short story which begins as the holiday ends. It was first published as part of a larger collection by Francisco Alves Editoria In 1960, although I encountered it via Katrina Dodson’s translation in one of those slim pistachio Penguin books entitled ‘Daydream and Drunkeness of a Young Lady’ (2018). Little happens in ‘Family Ties’ besides an unnamed woman saying goodbye to her mother, and feeling relieved to think that the ‘cautious tact’ that has prevailed throughout her visit will soon be over. At the same time the woman’s warmth, both towards her mother and her own, somewhat distant child are depicted with the utmost tenderness. It only takes a minutes to read, but always leaves me with a lump in my throat.
First published as the title story in Laços de família, Francisco Alves, 1960. First published in – a different – English translation in Family Ties, Texas Pan American Series, 1984 and more recently in The Complete Short Stories, New Directions/Penguin Classics, 2015 and Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, Penguin Modern, 2018). Chosen by Susan Finlay, who is author of, most recently, Indole (The Aleph Press) and Our Lady of Everything (Serpent’s Tail)
Lorrie Moore’s stories are about the abrupt and the absurd. In ‘Wings’—which is either about a woman and the men who trip her into the rest of her life, or about the unit of a couple and its inner dreaming, depending on how you read it—time curdles down to a haze of everyday coffees, dinners, music, walks and swims. KC and Dench are unfunny but earnest, like all lovers. They are hemmed into loneliness, their conversations scratching hard and daily on the same, brazen grooves of youth. “Patience was a chemical. Derived from a mineral. Derived from a star. She felt she had a bit of it. But it was not always fruitful, or fruitful with the right fruit,” writes Moore. The story ends on a perpetual summer. Moore never dims the light on their interior boredoms, or on the question of what lies beyond a young life—a feat which is exhausting but wondrous to witness, like the first hot day of the year.
First published in The Paris Review, Issue 200, Spring 2012, and available to read online here. Collected in Bark, Knopf/Faber, 2014. Chosen by Sharanya, who lives, writes and teaches between Essex and London.
One of my top-ten all-time favourite short stories, ‘Stage Fright’ was published in 1995 and I must have read it at least once a year every year since. In which case, why do I still find it so difficult to remember what happens in it? Beyond saying that it’s about a woman who on summer nights watches a couple in the apartment across the street, and that the perspective shifts from the watcher to a police photographer to the neutral gaze of a possibly imaginary screenplay, I’m always a bit stuck. Pearson – who latterly dropped the middle name – published a handful of excellent short stories (one or two of which I was lucky enough to help into print) before moving into publishing. Since 2008 she’s been running the outstanding Siglio Press.
First published in Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (FC2) edited by Cris Mazza & Jeffrey DeShell. Recommended by Nicholas Royle, who is the author of seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage) and three collections of short stories, most recently Ornithology (Configo Press). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Met, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. You can read Nicholas’s full Personal Anthology here.
‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ by JD Salinger portrays a certain, quintessential 1950’s summer’s day: stifling Florida heat, a chic beachside hotel, a woman in a silk dressing-gown paints her nails, waiting for a long-distance New York call. A gossiping mother spreads sun cream lotion on her daughter’s back. Bathrobes are removed, martini’s drunk. It is “the perfect day for banana fish,” the main character Seymour informs a little girl, while they play in the waves. Yet, everyone talks, but no one is listening. Freud’s Unheimlich, the uncanny, permeates every page. Layers of chit-chat about sunburn, cruises and green dinner dresses, barely cover the sense of impending doom. Seymour, the main character, has just been released from military hospital with post-war trauma, he seems to be losing his mind. The familiar becomes unsettling, the banana fish disturbing. Something is deeply wrong. I first read this story over 25 years ago, and this terrible feeling of strangeness has stayed with me, a Hitchcockian atmosphere captures glimpses into the double of this perfect summer beach day, what is not quite there, what has been there: death, folly, greed and war.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1948, and available online here. Collected in Nine Stories, Little, Brown, 1953. Picked by Susanna Crossman, who is an Anglo-French writer. She has recent/upcoming work in Neue Rundschau (S. Fischer), We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books), Berfrois and The Lonely Crowd. She regularly collaborates on international hybrid arts projects. Currently, she is showing the multi-lingual prose film, 360° of Morning, with screenings and events across Europe and USA. @crossmansusanna
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…
I’ve always thought John Lennon was being profoundly fatalistic when he sang that line 52 years ago, and I’ve always been fascinated by songs, poems and stories about fate and free will.
Maybe it stems from reading the ‘Appointment in Samarra’ fable at Junior School. You know the one: a wealthy merchant visits the marketplace in Baghdad; he spots Death apparently beckoning him and flees to Samarra on his fastest horse. Later that night, Death calls at his house in Samarra and explains he had not beckoned the merchant, merely expressed astonishment at seeing him in Baghdad: ‘For I knew tonight we had an appointment in Samarra.’
Here are my twelve favourite stories about fate, free will and predestination. Several are mystery tours to destinations which, when ultimately revealed, prove shocking and yet inevitable. Some concern people crushed by a sense of impending doom; others celebrate characters who struggle to escape a tragic and apparently inevitable destiny.
I hope you’re fated to read and enjoy them.
Beryl Bainbridge pursued an obsessive quest for concise and musical language. She was celebrated for her alchemical distillation of a dozen typed pages onto a single sheet, and for her relentless process of reading aloud until her words sounded properly ‘tuned’. Bainbridge’s fiction relies on wit, precision and intricate detail to explore a wide range of human experience, and she was one of those writers who took greater risks with form and style in her short fiction than in her novels. This is reflected in ‘Beggars Would Ride’, a sharply observed social satire framed by incidents, 300 years apart, involving an artefact imbued with supernatural power. A pair of vain, middle-aged, middle-class, financial service managers suddenly discover they have mysteriously transcended their customary mediocrity on the tennis court and become seduced by their new-found prowess. It turns out that unearned power brings unexpected risks. Terse, unsettling and funny: the story’s shadowy vitality is counterpointed by pithy observations of everyday urban existence.
First published in Winter’s Tales #26, edited by Alan Maclean, 1980. Collected in Mum and Mrs Armitage, Flamingo, 1987