Rosemary Jenkinson’s sharp, pulsing short story collection Catholic Boy fizzes with energy in its depiction of contemporary life in modern-day Belfast, where transitory lives brush up against each other, always looking for connections.
The stand out opening story, Revival, charts a fictional meeting between a young woman, Cara, and snooker legend Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.
How could anyone forget him from the TV screens in the seventies and eighties, hunched, swift, stalking, surveying the green-baize plain, his nostrils quivering, sensing he had an opponent. He was all lean muscle bristling under his suit, an edgy Belfast boy with barroom pallor and he’d strike – an explosive cue action, a punch winding the audience into tumultuous applause, the trademark whip through the air.
Far from his glory days, Higgins is now a ‘tiny, elderly man’ with a ‘pinched face’ who lives in a small messy flat, rolling joints and betting on horses. Cara turns down his sexual advances but at the last minute, captures a glimpse of the man he once was.
This is a Belfast full of glimpses of past triumphs. Jenkinson’s city is one of housing benefit and sick leave, temporary rooms in shared house, temporary jobs and even more temporary relationships. No one here has any permanence and Catholic Boy is filled with brief, casual and failing romances – with people trying to make connections in the only way they know how, through chance meetings and hook-ups in bars and on the streets.
In The Art of Mendacity, two housemates clash over cleanliness and casual hook-ups, while in Song for a Polish Stranger, a woman has an unexpected afternoon rendezvous with a one-armed man she meets by chance on the street.
In the title story, Ruth, a thirty seven-year old woman uses casual sex to fill a gap in her life. She meets Jarlath, who is eighteen years younger and she is initially buoyed by the relationship.
It was moments like these that made it worthwhile, the nights of touring bar after bar, searching, playing this ‘pass the parcel’ existence, unwrapping experience after experience and finding emptiness inside.
However, a chance encounter with Jarlath’s mother brings her emptiness right back into focus. These characters are, like Alex Higgins, trying to hold on to some kind of fading glory, or trying to search for a life that just does not exist anymore.
Two of the most powerful stories in this collection venture outside the City and feature characters who are still being affected by sectarian violence, either as victims, or as perpetrators.
The Lough is told from the viewpoint of Damien, a former prisoner at Long Kesh who no longer believes in the armed struggle he went to prison for. His incarceration has taken its toll on his marriage and his relationship with his son. Despite now working as a cross-community teacher, he is still paralysed by the guilt he feels over the part he played in the murder of a mother of three, one of the disappeared. He knows where she is buried and that knowledge is slowly crushing him.
He felt sick. A singing went through his head. The waste! The lies and the bullshit they fed you. Out of graves nothing springs but grass! He turned away and cast his eyes out to the flats and sea, encircling all in the net of his vision. A slender heron suddenly spread out great clumsy wings as though struggling into a heavy winter coat. The horror returned as his memory again rewrote the view with the black ink of that night.
In The Healing Field, Protestant farmers on the Armagh border are being intimidated off their land through damage, theft and eventually murder. One farmer, who also sells herbal cures, feels that the only option left is to leave with his family and start a new life in England. Will he be able to find a cure for his own ills? This well-crafted story reverberates with tension and unspoken fear, while also stressing the love of land, place and home.
Sectarianism raises its ugly head again in One City Two Tours, which starts off as an amusing look at two bus tour operators in Belfast who offer the Protestant or the Catholic experience.
One tour company was Prod and next door to it was Catholic and there was an invisible line between them as big as the peace wall they ferried tourists to and from every day… the tours were of two different cities, one seen through a pair of green eyes, one through a pair of blue.
As Glen, who works for one operator, starts to strike up a friendship with Finn, a woman who works at the competitor next door, the amusement turns to anger and Glen comes to realise the fragility of the truce in the city and sees the peace wall ‘trickling through the heart of the city like a line of poisonous lime’.
Rosemary Jenkinson is also an acclaimed playwright and she has a fantastic ear for dialogue, particularly from these sharp-witted urban characters. She also has a strong eye for the visual and her descriptive passages are by turns illuminating and amusing. A group of young women heading out for the night are ‘ like newborn foals, their bare legs fawn with fake tan and tipped with white shoes’ while a man suffering from a self-diagnosed case of anhedonia, is ‘tired of feeling like a car someone had joyridden and left burnt out at the side of the road.’
This is a portrait of contemporary Belfast, with its civil servants, restaurant workers and nights at the pub looking for sex but like the tour buses offering up the country’s troubled past for passive visitors, there is an undercurrent of tension and a yearning for connection in these sharp, funny and beautifully written stories.
About the Author:
Rosemary Jenkinson was born in Belfast and is an award-winning playwright and short story writer. She won the 2001 Black Hill Magazine Short Story Competition, third prize in the Brian Moore Short Story Awards and was shortlisted for the 2002 Hennessy Award for New Writing.
Her first collection of short stories, Contemporary Problems Nos. 53 & 54, was published in 2004 by Lapwing Press. Her second short story collection, Aphrodite’s Kiss & Further Stories, was published by Whittrick Press in 2016. She has won many General Artist’s Awards from the ACNI and has been Artist-in-Residence at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Her plays include Here Comes the Night, The Bonefire, May the Road Rise Up and most recently I Shall Wear Purple.
You can read an extract from Rosemary’s story Revival at Doire Press
A Q&A with Rosemary in The Irish News
I interviewed Rosemary for 746 Books last year and you can read her interview here
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