Random library browsing brought me to Vanessa Gebbie's 'The Coward's Tale'. In November 2012 I wrote a review of 'Words from a Glass Bubble' and was so chuffed to get a visit and comment from Vanessa and reading some more of her writing has been high on the list of things to do. This book certainly did not disappoint. I was quite some way into the book before I recognised the voice and realised it is an extension of the story 'I can squash the King, Tommo' from 'Words from a Glass Bubble', taking the same imagined place and telling the stories of the other people who live there. It is narrated by Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, the town beggar who lives in the porch of an abandoned chapel, and who loiters in the town square and exchanges stories for coffee, sandwiches and toffees with the people queueing for the cinema. Young Laddy Merridew arrives on the bus to live with his gran while his parents untangle their marriage, he forms an unlikely bond with the beggar and he becomes something of the focus for Ianto's story telling. The stories are all very cleverly tied in together, tracing the bonds within the community, and all focussed on the long ago tragedy of the accident at the 'Kindly Light' pit, the legacy of which has lingered down the generations. It is a book about secrets, how people keep them and how things are often not what they seem. It is a story about a mining community and how the pit dominates their lives as well as their livelihood, when it closes it is impossible for some to imagine another life. It is a story about sadness, people who lives were changed by the accident and who never recover. The only thing about it that was missing for me was the lack of women's voices. They are all stories of men; the woodwork teacher, the undertaker, the deputy librarian, the piano tuner, the gas meter emptier, the window cleaner. The women are there, bearing babies and scrubbing shirts, serving drinks and selling cinema tickets, mourning their men, but they have no voice. The community exists to hew coal, so inevitably women only have a supporting role, there in the background but not really heard. Having said that the stories are so exquisitely put together it would be churlish to criticise the book on that or any basis.
Quote time now; this from The Halfwit's Tale and the Deputy Bank Manager's Tale, the deft contrast between the experience of the two men, one fiercely denying any relation to the other:
"Half Harris will catch hold of the pram and rock it like it holds a sleeping child. Then Ianto Jenkins will look up at the windows of the Savings Bank where the Deputy Manager, Matthew 'Matty' Harris, no relation of Half's, may not yet have left for home - instead, he will be standing at the window as his Clerk Tommo Price puts on his coat and says, 'That's it for today then.'
Matty Harris, no relation, will have straightened and straightened his papers that need no straightening at all. He'll have opened and closed the drawers of his desk to hear the small sounds of their importance." (p.33-4)
Sometimes the men in the cinema queue abuse him, but Ianto Jenkins plays something of a role of secret keeper for the town, or perhaps more like a conscience. He seems to bear the weight of the blame and the responsibility for all the consequences of the tragedy, as if he is the Kindly Light incarnate. Throughout the book we also get snippets of his story, his place in the events that have shaped the town, so secondly is the description of Ianto acquiring the boots of a deceased neighbour, boots that will enable him to go down the mine:
"There was no arguing with Divine Intervention either. Divine Intervention was worse than Da. And I had my fingers crossed behind my back that Divine Intervention would please please please give those boots to Geraint Jones so I would not have to go ...
But oh it was gloomy in that kitchen. It all smelled of embrocation and polish and dust, like Ebenezer Chapel on a Sunday when the minister had a chest. I kept thinking that the house was still ringing with the last air breathed out by Mr Ellis. That had me thinking about the world being full of the last air of everyone who had lived, and trying to work out where new air might come from, and whether ..." (p.105)
I loved that because breathing somehow becomes a metaphor for history, that the air from people's breath is like the consequences of their actions, always there inescapably affecting people down the years.
Here the Piano Tuner, Nathan Bartholomew, is tending to the old piano in The Cat pub, lovely description of both him and the place:
"He sits on a wooden chair for the piano stool is lost a long time ago, ridden on its three wheels for a bet down the hill once, late at night. He sits on the edge of that chair as though he might stand up and leave, but the sounds keep bringing him back as he taps at a key as yellow and pitted as a last tooth. Tapping the same key with the forefinger of his right hand over and over again, feeling it stick against the next where there have been pints and half pints spilled into the dust over the years. His left hand in its cotton glove resting on his knee. The front panel of the piano is against the wall, propped on a carpet the colour of cigarettes. And behind a coat of cobwebs, strings that are as rusted as the barbed wire round Kindly Light pit shudder as he touches the keys. And he hums the note as it should be, and talks low, poetry, hymns. Then he puts a gloved finger up to the strings and holds them, feeling them trembling almost against his skin." (p.174)
This final snippet, taken from The Clerk's Tale, a retelling of Tommo Price and Batty Annie's story, nothing to do with the story, just the most wonderful simile ever:
"But of course there are no boys in chimneys, or in tunnels, and Tommo Price goes home to his wife Sarah Price, who makes white fish for tea with white buttered bread and serves it silent. Lardy-faced, she is, and secrets slide from her like dropped bullseyes on a frozen puddle." (p.251)
There is something that reminds me of 'Under Milk Wood' about this book, the sense of community and the way all the characters' lives are bound tight together, and in fact what I want is Richard Burton to do an audiobook of this and I would listen to it over and over. Go buy, read, now.