Back in October, the Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story of motherhood, chance encounters and the randomness of life. It’s a superb piece – probably the standout in Caldwell’s remarkable collection of stories, Intimacies, published by Faber earlier this year – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
All eleven stories in Intimacies are concerned with motherhood, mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, while a few focus on pregnancy and mothers to be. Consequently, the collection has a feeling of interconnectedness, a sense of synergy or cumulative effect as the reader moves from one piece to the next.
Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true.
Some of the most memorable stories rest on ‘what if’ or ‘what might have been’ moments, opening up the possibility of multiple outcomes for these characters – glimpses perhaps of alternative futures, some of which seem exciting, while others appear terrifying or weighed down by guilt.
In Like This, a busy mother, with a toddler and baby in tow, stops at a café for a brief respite. When the toddler wants to use the toilet – too large for the baby buggy to squeeze into – a friendly lady at a nearby table offers to watch the young woman’s baby. While the mother hurries her toddler along in the cubicle, the foolishness of her actions hits hard. How could she have left the most ‘helpless, precious thing’ she owns with a complete stranger, albeit another mother? Of course, this other woman said she has children of her own; but even so, what sort of mother would take the risk?
When the young woman emerges from the toilet, she is relieved to see that the buggy is still there; the stranger and the baby, however, are nowhere to be seen. In the minutes that follow, Caldwell’s protagonist begins a panic-stricken search for her child as the horror of a future blighted by tragedy plays out in her mind…
The fear and devastation of loss are also detectable in The Children, a fascinating story where a breastfeeding mother finds a lump in her breast. It could be nothing; but then again, it could be something – it’s so hard to tell. As such, we follow the young mother as the lump is investigated, with Caldwell skilfully switching between her protagonist’s medical appointments and work-related preoccupations as she awaits the results. The young mother is researching a story on the social reformer and author Caroline Norton, who found herself trapped in an abusive marriage and assailed by traumatic dreams. Reading Norton’s letters, the protagonist is reminded of her own anxiety dreams and how much she stands to lose, should the lump turn out to be cancer.
Since they were born, I’ve dreamed of losing my babies too. I dream that I’ve left my daughter in a Left Luggage unit and there are hundreds of dully gleaming lockers and I don’t have a key. […] I am dying, and I’m scared, and they tell me to keep calm and hold the hands that reach out for me, and I do, and feel myself pulled from my body. A moment’s relief, then the agony of realising I will never hold my children again. (p. 92)
Fears of a different kind assail the protagonist in Mayday, in which a female student is using some pills procured on the internet to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. (The story is set in Northern Ireland where accessible termination services are still to be commissioned following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.) As she waits for the medication to work, the young woman experiences a mix of terror, sadness and relief – an overriding belief that she is making the right decision at this point in her life, despite the inherent risks.
She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. 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. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared. (pp. 19–20)
In interviews, Caldwell has described her interest in writing about liminal or ‘in-between spaces’ (e.g. cars, airports and planes), where ‘time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while’, where alternative outcomes or different life paths open up, albeit momentarily. This is particularly true of the prize-winning story, All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which a young mother is on a night flight from Vancouver to London – the journey home from her cousin’s funeral. She is accompanied by her daughter – a toddler too young to have her own seat but too old to sit comfortably on her mother’s lap. The story’s title comes from a book about Noah’s Ark, which the mother hates but reads to her daughter, giving in to the child’s need to be occupied during the flight.
As the night unfolds, the mother gets chatting to the man in the adjacent seat, a fifty-six-year-old divorcee with children of his own – now fully grown. The man is kind and helpful, sympathetic to the young mother’s situation, travelling on her own with a restless child in need of comfort and distraction.
This beautifully crafted story explores the gaps between who we are now and who we thought we would become, say ten or twenty ago. How our lives invariably turn out to be quite different from the futures we once imagined, often without clearly defined plans or conscious decisions on our part.
How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. (pp. 126–127)
You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes, even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick-rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? […] And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at twenty-nine, twenty-seven, or, yes, twenty-four (p. 124)
It’s also about the possibility of taking a different path in the future, how our lives can turn on the tiniest moments – split-second decisions that open up the possibility of excitement and desire alongside danger and guilt. There is a frisson of attraction between these two travellers, adding a degree of tension, a sense of will-they-or-won’t-they, to the scene when they should part.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this luminous collection of stories, but hopefully it’s given you a flavour of what to expect. Caldwell writes beautifully about motherhood, womanhood, life-changing moments and alternative futures. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.