Cath Barton discusses her short story ‘Goosey’, featured in Issue Twelve.
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ is the oft-quoted opening line of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. Before checking the quote I wrote it as ‘The past is another country’ and then found that I am far from being the first to make that mistake. Our memories are unreliable and apt to deceive us; indeed, they are remade every time we call them to mind, so multiplying the possibilities of distortion. In ‘Goosey’ I explore ways in which the past can hold us hostage and the means by which we can escape its tyranny. As befits the form of the short story, the dramas faced by my central character, Rodney, are small in scale, but none the less real or challenging: his mother has died and he has to sort through her affairs, including photographs of his life in the theatre, which evoke for him other loves and losses. ‘Goosey’ is the story of how he copes and finds ways to carry on.
Life is rarely a clear direction, never a single thread. Like Rodney, we come across many forks in the road and often our decisions about which way to go are impulsive. In story-telling, as in day-to-day life, the choices we make can lead us into the unknown, with the attendant possibilities of a multiplicity of emotions. Rodney’s spur-of-the-moment decision to adopt a kitten brings him easy comfort at a time when life has dealt him a harsh blow, but there is more to it than that. Rodney’s theatrical past is represented by an old wooden box – he has the key, but when he finds the box itself it is unlocked, and empty:
‘He would have liked to have found something. He put his nose to the box; it held the scent of something ineffable,
something he could never retrieve.
He went back downstairs. He had to carry on. He had a kitten to look after.’
When I was drafting the story I didn’t know just how significant taking on that kitten would be for Rodney, any more than he did himself.
I am ever fascinated by the non-linear nature of time – it is not a coincidence that the play in which Rodney’s new tenant has a part, and which they enjoy discussing together, is one of J B Priestley’s time plays. For all that we may strive to live in the present, we are profoundly influenced by what has gone before. At turning points in life like the death of someone close to us, we are bound to look back, but disentangling the strands of our past and how we feel about them is never straightforward. Clearing out his mother’s effects after her death, sorting through the ‘oddments of a life’, Rodney feels ‘slain’ by the past. His emotions threaten to submerge him, all the more so when tragedy strikes again, but as he tells the waitress in the cafe which, after his mother’s death, had become for him ‘a refuge from the oppression of the house and of the past’, he will carry on.
There is another thing which I enjoyed exploring in ‘Goosey’ and that is the poignancy of objects. Something that acquires the weight of the mixture of happiness and sadness that has swirled around it. So it is with the box in ‘Goosey’. It is a totem. And so, as Rodney carries on at the end of the story, is his new favourite type of coffee!
Everything in the story is grounded for me in place. The starting point for ‘Goosey’ was a house that I could see in my mind as I wrote about it, a real place where a friend had lived on one floor, her mother on another, a place I had visited. I always see my stories spooling out as if they are being filmed. And places are as potent as objects; symbolic of parts of our lives, internal as well as external. It was important to show Rodney going to the pantomime, alongside children for whom this would be their first taste of live theatre – it has something of the circularity, or is it spiralling? of our lives. Things come round, and so we all carry on.
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, now published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published in November 2020 by Louise Walters Books.
Image by Jo Mazelis.