George Eliot said that the novel, ‘like crystalline masses … may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements – genuine observation, humour, and passion.’ I have always loved the way Eliot angles this image of crystal masses: the freedom it accords to the novelist. Her remark picks up my memory of schoolgirl experiments in the chemistry lab: we left a dish containing a solution of chemicals; when we came back a week later, it had branched into a multifaceted cluster of crystals, in a structure amazing to the imagination.
In 1856, when Eliot wrote about the crystalline masses, the short story was still a young form, about which I don’t think she commented. Maybe we could liken a short story to a single crystal. Telling little, short story implies much. Complex, nuanced and elusive, it displays multiple and surprising facets. In Chekhov’s ‘The Kiss’, Ryabovitch carries away the ghost of a kiss he receives from a stranger in a darkened room: ‘where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops’. I’m sure Chekhov meant this partly as a figure for short fiction itself. The tingle remains on Ryabovitch’s skin, light, perplexing, enigmatic. Short story, over in no time, lingers in a reader’s mind like an overheard conversation or a chance encounter. The form can focus on a moment, an apparently trivial and inconsequent episode that arouses the reader’s sense of a whole life; or it can condense an epic landscape, the world in a grain of sand.
My own interest in writing short story came late: as a novelist I’ve loved the complexity, magnitude and duration of the novel’s imaginative world. Sometimes episodes have broken away from a novel’s narrative and taken their own direction: I could neither use nor lose them. ‘Oud, 1942’ concerns expats in wartime Cairo and was dreamed up while writing my novel set in Egypt, Into Suez, as was ‘Red Earth, Cyrenaica’, the aftermath of a man’s wartime experience in the desert, and the anomalous love that has haunted him ever since. His wife knew nothing about it. Or did she? Short story thrives on small epiphanies, twists and divagations.
Looking through the tales that make up Arrest Me, For I Have Run Away, I notice that they are often concerned with magnitude and the infinitesimal. Perspective zooms in and out: the microscopic appears in close-up, in, for instance, the monologue ‘Pips’ in which an elderly widower in a dentist’s waiting room focuses on a pip lodged between his teeth. The pip is nothing and everything: he has taken his entire life along with him into that waiting room, as we do. In ‘Bead’, a child’s plastic bead becomes a figure for memory and its equivocations. In ‘Woman Recumbent’, Libby has fallen catastrophically and spends the night helplessly on the floor. Into her ken comes an ant, ‘the most minor of miracles. A creaturely presence’ which ‘no longer seemed as minuscule, but a companionate presence which she tacitly saluted. And there beside it, one human hair.’
Short story is fascinated by the microscopic, the microcosmic. It will get down on the floor to take an anomalous eyeline and confine itself to five minutes of time. When almost nothing happens, a minimal event magnifies to a world-view. Equally, short fiction is capable of the bird’s eye perspective on a culture, an epoch, an institution. The form, because it works with gaps and hiatuses, the tacit and the elliptical, can defy space and time, subverting expectations.
In ‘The World When We Abandon It’, Violet, joining a group of urban explorers, climbs the London Shard and the St Pancras Clock Tower; she descends into the Carlsbad Caverns and the disused stations of the London Underground, recalls climbing Kilimanjaro and ends at ground level, ‘the harder test’ where ‘one could so easily lose one’s footing’. At the deeper level, Violet’s treks are not really about climbing: they’re about running away, bad conscience, betrayal.
I can’t remember how my brief obsession with the Shard began. Maybe a newspaper article jogged my imagination. I took the train from Swansea and paid the fee to go up and look swooningly down from the Viewing Platform. Then I suppose ‘What if?’ set in. With my imagination teetering (I have no head for heights), I scrolled through urban explorers’ website photos. Sheer curiosity leads you to follow a trail that will take you god-knows-where, into areas about which you might have known little and cared less, until suddenly you’re snared. You’re up Kilimanjaro or down in the bowels of the earth. Just as precipitately, you drop the quest and move on to the next thing. Or you indulge your quirks and fancies. You had a weird thought in the night: what if someone’s backpack grew on to his back? This state of serial delirium becomes a way of life. The short story is a narrative of transient haunting that somehow changed your consciousness.
I will try to puzzle out in this part of the essay how I came to write the title story of Arrest Me, For I Have Run Away. It is set in first century Britain, Ancient Rome and a luxury villa in Campania: far, therefore, from home in the here-and-now. Or apparently remote. For the emotions and observations that surface in it have everything to do with my own lifetime, the personal that is for me the essence of the political.
During a heat wave in 2012, I visited the Roman remains in Caerleon and Caerwent in South East Wales in the company of my friend and colleague, the poet Nigel Jenkins. Caerwent was originally Venta Silurum, an administrative centre where the Romans governed the defeated Silurian warrior-tribe. Venta Silurum was built within a massive and still extant wall. As we started to walk the circumference of the wall, the sunlight was dazzling and the heat so intense that it felt like swimming against a strange element. I dropped behind, keeping Nigel in sight. On our right, the field swept gently up to a stand of trees. I was dimly aware of the dark coolness of this woodland as I waded through the quivering heat, over parched grass, glimpsing the trees almost out of the corner of my eye. There was a great stillness as we walked the circumference: we saw no one at all.
For that day we inhabited the Roman Empire. We admired the remains of houses, the forum basilica and the temple, and Nigel, who was an antiquarian of rare gifts, shed light on all that we saw. When we came home, I became obsessed with Pliny and Cicero; I bought a book to help me dredge up my schoolgirl Latin and I reread Virgil’s Aeneid, Pliny’s Letters. But oddly, my memory of Caerwent continued to be of a fort encircled by that area outside the walls which may be termed ‘Not-Venta-Silurum’: the glimpse of the sloping field leading to the impenetrable stand of trees. Short story favours the subversive view from the corner of the eye: obliquity, the hidden, the skewed. I read around in studies like Charlotte Higgins’ Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, to inform myself on British archaeology. But it was in Robert Knapp’s Invisible Romans, with its glimpses of the lives of prostitutes, outlaws, slaves, gladiators, that I took up imaginative lodging.
Walking round the wall, one still felt after so many centuries the menace of its monumentality and the fear that crouched within it. A wall is two-faced. The Romans, having subdued most of the Silurian tribe of South-East Wales, gathered them in to a township, separating them from those Celtic ‘barbarians’ still in revolt. The Silurians had powerfully resisted Roman domination. The wall’s use was to keep out those who had not been pacified. Raiding parties might have hidden amongst trees such as those I had seen at Caerwent. Who were they, I wondered, the freedom-fighters? What was their fate and that of their culture and civilisation, about which we know tantalisingly little?
At the same time, in my reading I’d stumbled upon the picture of a Roman slave collar, which would be soldered round the neck of a slave, so that, if he or she should run away, the human property could be returned expeditiously to the Roman owner who would extort the brutal penalty for rebellion. A formula on such a collar might read, roughly translated, ‘Arrest Me, For I Have Run Away’.
Slavery is an eternally contemporary theme; sexual slavery, such as that experienced by the characters in ‘Arrest Me’, has a twofold resonance. The slave collar speaks to our own time, when women are trafficked, bereft of identity in a world that values them as chattel. The two girl slaves who are the subjects of my story are renamed by their Roman owners:
I was the third: accordingly they named me Tertia. She was the fifth: Quinta. In Venta Silurum, slave girls were sexual meat but, transported to Rome, our use and value increased. By then the fifth had flown.
Who is the savage, the ‘barbarian’ here? Slaves are not persons, they are livestock. While Tertia, a Silurian, has been captured from the district around Venta Silurum, Quinta is ‘a foreigner among us Silurians – a Caledonian, tall and red-blonde’:
Decades after Rome’s deportation of our last great leader, Caradog, Silurian bands hunkered in the hills and swept down under cover of night to take sheep and garotte the guard. When the legion caught Quinta, she was exhibited around Venta Silurum, a feral, freakish laughing stock with a pelt like a vixen’s – and stinking like one too.
Quinta wore a bronze band around her forehead. Those ignoramuses had no clue what that meant.
To Tertia and Quinta, the Romans are disdained as ‘those ignoramuses’, ‘the evil-doers’.
As I stand back now from the tale, I think that I confided two areas of my experience and concern. A tale of resistance and revenge against oppressors allowed me an epigrammatic statement of lifelong feminism, conceived in terms of the ancient, matriarchal religions of Mother Earth: ‘What is done to a woman,’ says Tertia, ‘is never the measure of the woman. We are standing stones. The roundhouses burn down, our way of life is extinguished, and still we stand.’ Bound up with this is the tender bond of love that links the two women, in life and death. I am interested in kinds of love not often celebrated, for which perhaps there exists no formal category. On such love society has neither conferred a certificate nor legislated:
When I slept, it was against Quinta’s comforting warmth; when I woke, it was to her eyes, green-grey, the hue of sage. In time the mud floor yielded to our bodies. I wonder if it’s still there, the dint that records us. But having someone to lose brought no peace of mind; rather the reverse. I took to sacrificing to any and every deity, including the Roman Ceres, for hadn’t the corn goddess lost a daughter and in her agony cursed the earth?
When Tertia wonders if ‘the dint that records us’ is still there in the mud floor, she is thinking about the perpetuation of signs of presence. The theme is echoed in the record the two girls leave at Venta Silurum, in the form of footprints in the damp clay of a roof tile. While Quinta is illiterate, the canny Tertia has taught herself Latin script. ‘Inside my footprint I wrote my true name. You whispered yours and I wrote that too. Yours is a princely name, meaning heather. I shall not betray it here …’
The Romans had a big thing about names and memory. It was important for your name to be remembered and celebrated for the manly deeds that were synonymous with virtue. Reputation was immortality. Slaves were denamed. And when slaves were manumitted, or given their freedom, they took the names of their past owners. In ‘Arrest Me’ the girls’ true names accrue a kind of magic, unrevealed until very late. And the narrator is Nemesis incarnate. Any writer of fiction knows the power of naming in creating character. Short story encourages a writer not only to reveal information but to hide it; to stint the reader into curiosity and to bring the marginal, the ‘Not-Venta-Silurum’ to the centre. To answer back.
Arrest Me, For I Have Run Away is published by Parthian. Issue Nine of The Lonely Crowd features ‘Eclipse’, a brand new story by Stevie Davies. Stevie will be reading ‘Eclipse’ at the Swansea launch of Issue Nine at Noah’s Yard, 15/05/18.
© Stevie Davies, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.