‘Cell’ by Wendy Erskine

I suspect all Wendy Erskine’s stories will eventually be included in these personal anthologies, and some, like ‘Cell’, more than once. It’s hard to choose a favourite from her collections, but this one includes all her strengths as a writer: depth of characterisation, subtle layering of place and time, humanity, empathy, and – even in a story as dark as this one – humour.  It shows us Caro – Caroline – an isolated and vulnerable Irish student adrift in London who is “adopted” into a small and inept political group, and is then effectively held captive for almost twenty-five years. It doesn’t feel like a political story, rather one of sad personal tragedy, but it contains real insight into how people in cults behave. There is a terrible incident early on, when Caroline meets Bridget, the leader, for the first time and she effectively has her name stripped from her by the other woman who insists on calling her Caro. And Caro she remains from that point onwards, belittled and diminished. As a glimpse of how a ruthlessly cruel person can undermine the identity of a potential victim by renaming and misnaming her, it’s profound and subtle and so fleeting you’d almost miss it.

Collected in Dance Move, Stinging Fly, 2022

‘Gloria and Max’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine is one of my favourite writers, so it’s nigh on impossible to choose just one of her stories. Her style is kinetic and quirky, and her stories are almost always set in Belfast, where I now live. She takes seemingly mundane placesand situations and creates an enticing world for you to walk into. You are there in the room with her characters, sitting beside them.

In ‘Gloria and Max’, a visiting academic who has recently arrived in Belfast gives a woman a lift to a “so-called Christianfilm festival… in some godforsaken spot”. The trip turns into a traumatic event, and long afterwards he vividly remembers “a stained pink anorak, her hand on his arm”. I first read this story in the Stinging Fly, an Irish literary magazine, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. There’s a bluntness, an immediacy to the writing, and always a memory.

First published in the Stinging Fly, and then in Dance Move, published by Pan Macmillan, 2022 and available to read online here

‘To All Their Dues’ by Wendy Erskine

Erskine’s latest collection Dance Move has been garnering rave reviews from just about everywhere this year, and with some justification. She’s one of the best short story writers around and had to go in here somewhere, but I’ve decided to pick one from Sweet Home and have gone for the first one in the set. I remember sitting down with them for the first time and being hooked right from the off; even after the first couple of pages I thought, this reads like it’s going to be the fucking business, and so it proved. The story features three characters – Mo, who’s just set up her own beauty parlour; Kyle, a man with extremely questionable connections who’s running a protection racket on the street where Mo’s business is, and Grace, his wife. It’s a clever bit of work; each character has their own section where we find out a bit more about them and their past, but she manages to get a huge amount of depth into each, especially considering how short the pieces are. It’s almost like three stories in one, but as you read you see how they overlap to get a fuller picture, and she skilfully shows how three people’s lives can overlap even when they’re not all aware of it. 
As has already been made clear, I’m drawn to writers who can do dialogue well, and it’s an area in which she excels, capturing the dry humour and idioms of her character’s speech in a way that’s pitch-perfect. There’s always a grim humour at work too, like when Kyle visits a hypnotherapist and is told to imagine a happy place, and his first memory is him and his brother as boys aged thirteen and fourteen beating the shit out of their abusive, alcoholic father; he asked to focus on something to keep him there, a memory of something specific, and comes up with “the blood on the floor, way darker than you’d think”. That she can imbue her characters with so much humanity in so few words is hugely admirable; that she can do it over and over again is extremely impressive indeed. 

First published in Sweet Home, Picador, 2018

‘Memento Mori’ by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is the most consummate book of short stories I know. Just as there is no out-of-place word in each story, there is no weak story in the collection. I only singled out this one for the image of the hedge outside Gillian’s house and what people want it to mean. The temptation is to bang on and on about it, but anything other than Wendy’s telling is a waste of pixels.  

First published in Dance Move, Picador 2022

‘Nostalgie’ by Wendy Erskine

This story is taken from Dance Move, the smoking hot second collection by Wendy Erskine. As in many of her stories, it begins with a beguilingly simple premise. Drew Lord Haig, a one-hit wonder from the eighties – now just Drew Haig running a successful IT company – is asked by a battalion based in Belfast if he’ll come and sing at their centenary celebration. Unexpectedly, one of his B-sides, a “nihilistic affair” called ‘Nostalgie de la Boue’ – meaning the attraction to what is depraved or degrading – had become the battalion’s anthem. He is flattered, and after a cursory search of the battalion’s history on Wikipedia agrees to perform. Often in Erskine’s stories, it is these small moments of vanity or sentimentality which become the cracks that let in the pain and so it is here. The past – particularly Belfast’s troubled past – has a way of infecting the present. The performance hits a magnificent crescendo with the whole hall – “which resembles a downbeat high school prom” – singing along. They know every word; Drew is genuinely moved by the passion in the room. It is only afterwards, still buzzing as he drinks at the bar, that he learns the true dimension of his mistake. Erskine is the least sentimental of writers and she refuses to spare Drew his discomfort. His pretentious song title becomes self-fulfilling; our sympathy is limited. No one is writing better stories than Wendy Erskine.

First published in the Irish Times, Feb 17, 2022 and collected in Dance Move, Picador, 2022

‘Cell’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine’s two volumes of stories are both equally brilliant. I was tempted to include the superb ‘Inakeen’ from her debut collection Sweet Home, but finally chose the longest story from her second collection, Dance Move. ‘Cell’ tells the story of an impressionable and naïve young Belfast woman, Caro, who after graduating from UCL, comes under the controlling influence of a radical and cultish, left-wing group. Her circumstances appear to be close to modern slavery as she is isolated from the outside world, conditioned into accepting her subservient role as general dogsbody to domineering Bridget and Luis. The only other resident left in the house—others have long gone and established new lives, and original group leader Bill was killed in a road traffic accident—is the older and infirm Maurice, a principled and diffident intellectual, who was once Bill’s partner and is now too weak to leave his bedroom. Aside from the richness and vitality of the characters and the narrative—Wendy Erskine’s stories are full to bursting with life in all its various shades—what impresses most about this story is the deft handling of time. How it sways back and forth between the present and the past so effortlessly. What transpires is shocking and appalling and heart-rending, made more so by the ingenious way the intricate narrative is revealed, gradually and naturally, to the reader.

Collected in Dance Move, The Stinging Fly Press 2022, Picador 2022

‘Mathematics’ by Wendy Erskine

I liked this story from the opening line: “The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun: a small mother-of-pearl box, inlaid with gold, a lipstick that was a stripe of fuchsia, a lucky charm in the shape of a dollar sign.” Roberta is a cleaner for the properties owned by Mr Dalzell. “She got used to the sick and even the shit.” In one of them, as well as the remnants of a fairly scary-looking party, she finds a little girl of eight or nine, and takes the child home with her. Shimmering with unease, the story also has the irresistible allure of an unexpected gift.

First published in Dance Move, Picador 2022

‘Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine is like Vermeer, I think. In the same way that supposedly ordinary people and places are illuminated by Vermeer in a way that is technically flawless, but also imbued with something extra that can’t be extracted from the whole, or seen or replicated. I do think it is genius really, in the both of them.  
There is a moment in this story where Erskine makes a plant come to life. It suddenly bursts into bloom. It astonishes and delights a youth in a recreation room. It’s on the television, of course. In time-lapse. Ritchie, the character reporting this event is not moved by the miracle. Regarding the boy, he feels pity. “I thought you poor bastard. You stupid bastard.” 
The moment is about five lines long, and part of a genuinely beautiful story about a woman letting go of her comforting routines. I am highlighting it because Erskine doesn’t generally veer from the real and solid world, but always finds a place for some magical intervention to enter the space when required. The plant blooming is something we have all seen, but it is also honestly miraculous. The sweet pain of seeing it through the cynical eye of the narrator is sharpened to the point it makes you catch your breath. You stupid bastard. But you’re not stupid, you’re miraculous really. 

First published by Tangerine Press, 2021. Collected in Dance Move, Picador/Stinging Fly, Feb 2022

‘77 Pop Facts (You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney)’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine talks about meeting people in Belfast who insist they knew the real man she’s writing about, or his mother, or his music. Maybe’s it’s the comforting familiarity of the mode of writing, or the delicate precision of the detail; or maybe it’s just her profoundly humane imagination, and her love of the that particular side of Belfast, one that’s never been written about enough. Until Erskine came along, that is; and now, I doubt it’ll ever be written about better.

Published in the collection Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019. Available online here

‘Mathematics’ by Wendy Erskine

Erskine’s protagonist is used to clearing up after other people. One day in the course of her work as a cleaner she finds a young girl alone in a house after a party. Deciding she has no choice, she takes the child home, hoping to locate her mother. But as the story progresses we come to suspect the mess she’s attempting to fix was made long ago, somewhere else entirely. I wondered if Dance Move, the soon-to-be-published collection which this story opens, could possibly surpass Erskine’s debut Sweet Home. It does: by the end of ‘Mathematics’ my eyes were wet. Like all twelve of my choices it made me feel, as Shirley Hazzard writes in one of her several perfect stories, “a momentary sensation that the world had come right; that some instant of perfect harmony had been achieved by two minds meeting.”

First published in Dance Move, Picador, 2022

‘To All Their Dues’ by Wendy Erskine

In ‘To All Their Dues’, Mo has opened her own beauty treatment room, precariously starting out and trying to make ends meet, before finding out there’s a hidden cost she hasn’t bargained for. A wonderful starting point, but the story becomes so much deeper, as Mo runs through in her memory the previous version of herself she is striking out to escape from: working in a call centre giving “mystical advice” in sometimes heart-breaking circumstances, only one step away from answering the sex lines. And the same goes for the next characters we encounter. Everyone in the story is trying to run away from what haunts them, no matter how weirdly violent or utterly straightforward they seem. I loved that. 

First published in Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019 and available online here

‘Observation’ by Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine’s humane and wonderfully funny stories are set in Belfast, a city of church-run coffee shops, DIY superstores, hairdressing salons and community centres. Her characters are ordinary people doing their best to cope under pressure, but bizarre and fantastical things are never too far away. This particular story focuses on teenager Cath and her friend Lauren. The girls meet regularly in a café called ChipShop. On the day the story begins, they’re in there with a crowd of boys who are “occupied with downloading porn ringtones to their phones” and then ringing each other “so that they could hear the elaborate crescendo of female gasping”. Lauren’s mum, Kim Cassells, is beautiful, bad tempered and exhaustingly sexy. Kim Cassells goes on adults-only holidays and has lots of boyfriends. Lauren confesses to Cath that the current boyfriend Stuart is only twenty-six and has kissed her in passing on the stairs. Cath’s knowledge of guys is “pretty theoretical” but here is a real live sexual drama playing out right under her nose. She starts dropping in to see Lauren on various pretexts and finding reasons to stay overnight, sleeping on the floor of Lauren’s room. She regards Kim Cassells with a mixture of horror and fascination, and she can hardly take her eyes off Stuart. The claustrophobia of small houses where you can hear people getting up to go to the toilet yards away from you is beautifully evoked. The story captures the intensity and the boredom of teen years in a small town. 

First published in Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018, Picador, 2019

‘Inakeen’ by Wendy Erskine

This collection blew me away by how observation of the parochial can be so simply amplified into a bigger picture, resonating with the world as it is. This story, of loneliness, imagination and the power of the other to fascinate us, is funny sad, and being written in a minor key allows us to expand on it, bringing our imagination to bear on hers…

In Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019