‘The Gatekeeper’ by David Wheldon

I have to again declare a personal interest in this choice, as I was introduced, first to Wheldon’s work then to Wheldon himself by the Irish writer Aiden O’Reilly. Wheldon was a genuine outsider; despite finding fame with a string of novels in the 1980s he stuck to his profession in medical research but continued to write, mostly poetry and short stories, in complete obscurity once the acclaim had died. O’Reilly had discovered the novels while living in London at the time. In the Internet age and back in Dublin, O’Reilly came across Wheldon’s website – used also for his medical writings – and made contact. He decided to help get Wheldon’s short fiction published and asked me to suggest some British magazines; Confingo was one of them. Tim Shearer, the editor, was as intrigued by Wheldon’s work as I was, published several stories in the magazine, then decided to publish a collection. Very sadly, David Wheldon died just as the book was going to print.

His stories are deeply strange in ways hard to describe. The settings are mostly English, but an almost mythical, timeless England which could be Victorian or post-war, but with contemporary details and Continental inflections – Dickens crossed with Kafka, perhaps. But the one that snags my memory differs in being set in China, and in a far deeper past.

The first, and longest, of three subtitled sections is narrated by a candidate arriving by sedan chair, after a six-day journey, to an Examination Station, being assigned his cell (a very monastic yet bureaucratic set-up) and informed of the arrangements for food and facilities while confined for the duration of the examinations.

Opening a cupboard, he hears a girl’s voice – she has discovered a loose brick in her corresponding cupboard against the party wall. This allows us to glean some scant details from their conversation and their own guesswork, but it only adds to the sense of our alienation, as do the hints of an impending apocalypse: both have had some infection in childhood which leaves scars but also gives immunity against smallpox, an epidemic of which has been prophesied. Is that why they were chosen as candidates? They, and we, don’t know.

After a single-paragraph middle section, a meditation on sleep, the final section, a longer single paragraph, offers the reflections of the ageing gatekeeper, himself once a childhood candidate who chose the position instead of whatever other career awaited him; he too protected against the smallpox to come; he too aware only of the essential mystery behind the lucidity of life.

Haunting, that deceptive lucidity.

Collected in The Guiltless Bystander, Confingo Publishing, 2022