I love the work of Shena Mackay – if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times. But what is it that makes her work so modern, so appealing? This is the first in a Shena Mackay marathon, reviewing her novels in order of appearance.
Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger/ Toddler on the Run
Shena Mackay’s first book was actually 2 novellas in one: ‘Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger’ and ‘Toddler on the Run’, beautifully packaged in topsy-turvy fashion: read one and then flip the book round to read the other – both in hardback (above) and paperback (below). Published in 1964 when Mackay was 19 and living in London, these stories are as fresh, funny and laced with mordant humour as I remember. If there is one thing which does surprise is just how fully fledged Mackay was as a writer, her themes and attitudes all present and correct even at such an early age.
Eugene Schlumberger, unemployed winner of an architectural prize, meets a girl at a party, ‘Abigail and she was sixteen and thin with long red hair with sparks of gold in it.’ whom he frees from the bonds of school and together they create their own world and set out on an adventure so fuelled by fantasy that it can only end in tragedy.
Both stories bear the hallmarks of the 1960s youthquake: youth on the run from the old guard, breaking rules, mocking
‘They had the compartment to themselves. Few people entered or left the train at the first four stations, but at London Bridge a woman got in. She had very short white hair with pinkish scalp, and sat down in a corner, crossing her thin and freckled but somehow floppy legs. Her long feet wore custard-yellow ankle socks and weather-beaten shoes. She began to read and they saw that it was a prayer-book and began to laugh moderately then helplessly, Abigail aware of her stupid laughing face.’
and yet Mackay’s youth have leaden feet: there is a forlornness existing at the heart of these characters, a sadness which inhabits life itself,
The saddest thing I ever saw,’ said Abigail, ‘was at Charing Cross Underground. There was this exhibition of mentally handicapped children. You now, photographs of well-integrated Mongol children making sandcastles and spastics climbing trees. I was walking around this exhibition when music started coming through a loudspeaker. It was children’s voices high and husky singing ‘Golden Slumbers’. You know:
‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise,
Sleep pretty darlings, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.’
And, as always, nature is never far away, always on hand to exert its power and remind us of the fragility of life:
‘Eugene got out of the car and quenched his cigarette. There was a bright hot stain under the front wheel. A still brown rag of fur lay between the front wheels.
‘God it’s still alive. Abby, help me quick.’
Eugene lifted gently, with sickness in his mouth, the rabbit and laid him in Abigail’s lap. The stain spread to her skirt. He lay with his soft ears laid back, watching out of troubled eyes.
For a minute his head turned backwards and he jerked, heartbeats jarring his warm body. Then his eyes glazed. He slid gently and so neatly into death. Death fitted him like a glove.’
Another character featuring so heavily here is London itself, not the London of postcards and glossy films, but that of the backstreets, of Soho and peepshows and the London nobody knows…
‘They were back on Frith Street, drifting, when they saw three women. The central one wore a white trenchcoat and hamburger legs terminating in beetle-crusher shoes. The other two had short hair and hook noses. One of them carried a tartan shopping bag and an apron peeped from the other’s coat.
‘Housewife lesbians,’ said Rosemarie. ‘The big one’s King of all the Lesbians. She presides at their orgies and has several concubines. They call her Big Daddy.’
The ballad of Eugene and Abigail can only end in sadness, but it is a journey of the blackest humour and wickedest wit which takes us there.
Morris is not a toddler at all, but an adult burgler whose restricted growth sees he described thus in police descriptions. Morris is also a magnet to women, attracted to his ‘lovely little body’. There is Elaine, a married woman whose husband’s frustration boils over into violence…and school-girl Leda with whom he goes on the run, in search of a new life…’
‘Toddler on the Run’ is a darker book than ‘Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger’ but deals with much the same theme: outsiders on the run to a better life. Here it plays out like a song by the Shangri Las, those mermidons of melodrama whose heroines would yell and scream and cry for their forbidden teen hunks from whom they were separated by death or disaster (or both).
While the driving force of the novel is the escape of Morris and Leda, through Morris we also get glimpses of other possibilities: there is depressed school girl Deirdre who comes across Morris in the park, thinking him a little boy being attacked by a dog and – literally – picks him up. Jilted and depressed, Deirdre eventually finds herself looking at a display of books and magazines outside a shop in Soho. Fingering ‘Painful Pleasures’, she is approached by a young man who makes her an offer she can’t refuse and which lifts her spirits:
”Are you interested in Photography? No? Well, we’re photographers and I think you would have a very photogenic face. yes – especially from the back.’
Meanwhile, Elaine, prisoner in a stifling and depressing marriage to arrogant Daniel, finds solice in her flowers and her dog while her husband’s frustrations mount to a terrible crescendo:
‘Daniel felt hunger filling his stomach, flowing along his arms and legs and pounding in his brain. He grabbed Elaine and pushed her to the floor, and holding her with his knees opened her head like a tin of peas.’
Eventually Morris and Leda find themselves at the seaside, but as with all Shena Mackay, nature is neither maternal spirit nor safe harbour.
Oh the wonder of these witty, sharp novels which capture the strange hyper realities of youth: when possibilities aren’t marred by the tawdry cares of the adult world, emotions are untempered by experience and deceptive appearances hide sensibilities as tough as old leather and often twice as ugly.