‘Mayday’ by Lucy Caldwell

In ‘Mayday’, author and playwright Lucy Caldwell writes of the trauma of an illegal, pill-based abortion in Northern Ireland. The story is alive, crackling with tension, and Lucy Caldwell’s writing is underpinned by a sense of longing, of how things might have been different. Like Wendy Erskine, Lucy Caldwell was born and grew up in Belfast. Her writing holds a recurring theme of women being vigilant to threats, both the physical and the psychological. ‘But they have ways of finding these things out: and somewhere, etched onto the internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account, what she did.’

Lucy Caldwell won the BBC Short Story Award last year, for ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ from the same collection. I love the way she writes about women, their internal lives, their longings and dilemmas.

First published in The Glass Shore, ed. by Sinéad Gleeson, 2016 and then in Intimacies, published by Faber, 2021 and available to read online here

‘All the People Were Mean and Bad’ by Lucy Caldwell

Caldwell said of this story, “I wanted to write about the distance between where we come from and where we end up; between who we think we are and who we turn out to be. Between what we dream, and what we do”. The narrator, travelling home from her cousin’s funeral, taking a night flight with her toddler, has an existential crisis at “thirty-however many thousand feet… hurtling onwards at hundreds of miles an hour”. The man sitting next to her is kind and helpful and they bond.

“You think of the books that you and your cousin loved, the ones with multiple pathways through, and dozens of endings. You’d read them lying on your stomachs, heads pressed together, holding various pages, options, open. You’d always be careful, trying to make it through, and she’d choose the most reckless routes possible, just to see what might happen.”

I saved the link to this BBC National Short Story Award winner, and next to it I’ve written, “stunning; exactly the sort of story I wish I could write”.

First published in Intimacies, Faber & Faber, 2021. Available online on the Guardian website here, and audio via the BBC

‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell

  • Picked by Pragya Agarwal

I love the line “It is the best summer of our lives”: summer, when everything seems possible, surmountable, within our reach. There is a feeling of time rushing past but also slowing down that Lucy captures so masterfully, and the claustrophobic nostalgia of moments that were filled with possibility but also out of reach. This story captures perfectly in such a few words the summer of young love that was filled with so much happiness but also pain, and an acute observation of how we stigmatise love in many forms that do not fit our norms, and what it does to young people, and the weight that people have to carry all their lives of what could have been, and never was because of societal expectations. Everytime I read it, I expect it to turn out differently- I hope it would- and then it stays with me for many days and nights.

First published in Granta 135, 2016, and available to read online here. Collected in Multitudes, Faber, 2016)

Pragya Agarwal is the author of (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a womanSWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias and Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking With Children About Race

‘Words for Things’ by Lucy Caldwell

There are some writers who are just excruciatingly brilliant. And Lucy Caldwell is one of them. I first came across this story at an event, in which I was reading after Caldwell. Suffice to say that after hearing the first few pages of this story, I was mortified for whatever I was about to read. Later, having got hold of the full story in print-out (courtesy of my co-reader), I read ‘Words for Things’ on the train back to Norwich. Two mum friends, right after coming out of their babies’ swimming class, begin talking about Monica Lewinsky in a hotel lobby. It was the first time I felt a story being both deeply feminine and incredibly powerful. 

After I finished the story, I gripped the printout and looked outside the window, and I realised that my outlook as a writer had been somehow shifted. I had always only wanted to write like a writer, but at that moment I knew that I actually wanted to write like a woman writer. 

First published in The Stinging Fly, February 2021, and available to read here. Collected in Intimacies, Faber, 2021

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ by Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell is a rising star of Irish literature and Intimacies is her second collection, following Multitudes (2016). The eleven stories in this collection are moving, quiet and full of empathy and compassion. Her stories aren’t about dramatic historical events or the seismic effects of war, peace or migration. Her focus in many of these stories is on the young mother, the bewilderment of being responsible for a new life and the compromises that need to be made as she suppresses her own individual dreams and needs. The language of her stories reflects the interior lives of her characters as they go about the mundane, dreary tasks of feeding, changing nappies and entertaining a child whose unending needs overwhelms them and leaves them gasping for air. As a mother, I could relate to the description of sleepless nights, the infantilazation of one’s brain and the dreary repetition of routine. In each of these stories, small children play a pivotal role in unhinging the mother, their primary caregiver. 

In ‘All the People Were Mean and Bad,’ which won the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award, a young mother flies home after the funeral of her female cousin in Canada. On the plane, a kind older man helps her to care for her toddler. They both strike a rapport and understanding in the surreal intimacy of an aeroplane cabin. The story reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation, where the main protagonist has a fleeting glimpse of a different life she could have led. 

But the hollow feeling at your centre, the ache in your solar plexus, voids all hunger, and it feels somehow right to be at a light-headed remove from the world, this sense of being vague, and insubstantial, as if you could just drift on, indefinitely; as if you don’t really exist, or need to. Sometimes, you think, your daughter is the only person who feels real, because the immediacy of her needs is so urgently, incontrovertibly so.

First published in Intimacies, Faber, 2021. Also available in the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 anthology, Comma Press, 2021. Listen to the story here

‘All The People Were Mean and Bad’ by Lucy Caldwell

Everytime I read anything that Lucy Caldwell has written, I just sigh from the beauty of it. Impossible to choose from the whole collection but this one, about a woman flying home after her cousin’s funeral with her toddler, sitting next to a man, a complete stranger, who shows her kindness, and whom she briefly, irrationally considers going home with, just knocked the breath out of me. I find it devastatingly sad, and beautiful and believable. It captures for me exactly what a short story is about; a moment in time, a choice you must make; the haunting wonder of what if, what else might have happened if you chose differently. 

First published in Intimacies, Faber, 2021; winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, listen to it being read here

‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell

This is a longer short story that retrospectively charts a queer relationship between two teenage girls in a homophobic environment. The prose is taut and concise, capturing all the same adolescent intensity, confusion and heartache as Call Me by Your Name, within a short space. Without giving any spoilers, I’ll just add that it’s a powerful study in how queer love stories are silenced and suppressed. 

First published in Granta 135: New Irish Writing, April 2016, and available online to subscribers here. Collected in Multitudes, Faber, 2016