‘Peter and Jane’ by Niamh Prior

I like a short story with a structural thorn in its side, some kind of constraint. Peter and Jane, formerly of the Ladybird series teaching children how to read, are now grown up, and living adult lives with precarity, depression, loneliness, and grief. The only words Prior uses in the story are from the list of 300 which Ladybird compiled, the 300 most commonly used words in spoken English.

“‘Do It To Me One More Time’ was on and I had nothing on. All at once the man I work for was under the bed. It looked to me like a game, so I put my hand on my privates and said, ‘Come back up here. I’m so wet, I’m so wet for you!’ Then I saw that his Mrs had walked in. ‘It is not what it looks like, Dear,’ he said from under the bed. Well, that was fun. How could it not be what it looked like?”

In her author’s note accompanying the story, Prior explains some of the challenges of using this form:

“For instance, the only emotion is love—there is no happy or sad. No feel or feeling. There is black, white, blue, red, green, and that’s it. No yellow. Nor does the word colour exist. Numbers are limited from one to five. Though there is man and woman, there are men but no women.”

Perhaps it’s this omission that gives the story such a deep melancholy, the omission along with the jarring naivety of the voices. The Keywords predetermined Peter and Jane’s fate, and as Prior says, “It’s no wonder they got so messed up.”

First published in The Stinging Fly, 2021