Peter Finch has concerned himself with fiction for almost as long as he has concerned himself with poetry. The difference is in the level of output - more than twenty collections of poetry and only one, Between 35 & 42 (Alun Books), of short fiction. In the late seventies and early eighties he wrote a number of pieces for Radio 4's Morning Story but found the form - 2,200 words, regular plot, understandable by listeners usually engaged in some other activity (such as vacuuming or driving a car) - ultimately limiting. he has experimented with non-linear compositions, with visual structures as well as with stream of conciousness works. None of these, however are fully satisfying as fiction. Short stories tell tales. Something should happen.
The two stories here are recent compositions. Inside appeared in the Manchester fiction magazine Metropolitan while Rene Hits Back appears here for the first time.
You can click on the links here to read the stories on-line or download the whole page for reading later.
Short fiction, loosely based on fact, which appeared in Manchester's
The issue was edited by Elisabeth Baines & Ailsa Cox.
The issue was edited by Elisabeth Baines & Ailsa Cox.
INSIDE ISN'T MUCH. Already Frank has got pissed enough to have a tattoo on his forehead. It reads OIL HERE then there's a dot. Under that it says I LOVE WALES. They all thought that was a joke. Maybe it was. He tells everyone that half his brain cells are dead, drunk into pap, like the stuff you scrape out of U-bends. It's his excuse and he holds to it. He's writing to Pauline on Billy's instigation. Billy is his cell mate, in there for robbery. No guns, Billy didn't have one but he pretended. The guy in the store pressed a switch and that was that. History. They get on okay, him and Frank. Frank writes the letter, painfully, and Billy checks the spelling which is a laugh. Then they send it. It's better than getting eaten by regret or blown over by frustration.
SHE DOES turn out to be fat but not enormous. Flushed features and unruly hair held back savagely by large plastic grips but she smiles, she smiles. She tells Frank that she's never written to anyone before, which is actually not true. She has spent a lifetime doing it. She scours the lonely columns in the papers and responds to everything. Nothing ever worked. though. Either she'd send them her photo and get nothing or they'd meet her once and never call again. She'd even had guys see her waiting there with her red causation signal and take off running. Misery. Frank's different, the poor soul. He likes her. He stays with her and talks and smiles and she can act like a great big mother.
SHE HEARS next when she's sober and has a head throbbing like a car alarm that Frank made it back to the hostel before the curfew which surprises her but that he knocked the windows in and tried to bum the dayroom couches which doesn't.
SHE WRITES him a letter. She sits in reception at the Probation Office scratching at the paper they've loaned her. She doesn't really know what to say. Come back Frank. Drink all you want. Stay in the house and I'll care for you. This woman will. The fat woman wants you. 'You have taken a big part of me,' she writes and crosses it out. 'You have left a big hole,' she puts, 'which only you can fill.' She includes some more about her lonely life and then a bit about please, please, please, please and then 1 love you. She seals it up. The probation officer will forward it. He smiles at her. When she's gone he opens it, reads it, then marks it up for Portsmouth. 'If you are in favour of true love then pass this on,' he writes to the receiving officer.
IN THE CELL at Portsmouth Frank shreds the letter to illegible strips. Like they say in the songs, women make you to drink. You need the buzz to hide. The only way for it. Already he's decided to stay and had WALES on his forehead crossed out and replaced with ENGLAND. On his right fist he's had the word STUD scratched and is going to have FUCK IT done instead. He's not going to write again either. Shit no, writing's for pansies.
Rene might exist, who knows. Recent Peter Finch fiction published only in web form.
This was a good one. Round the crematorium yard at two am digging up mother. Not me, you understand. I don't get off on that stuff. But Rene, my big sister, she did in a big way. Things had been bad for years and although I'd kept a cap on it, tight you know, Rene had just not been able. Mum was all there had been for her, living together in the same small room with the tv and cooker in opposite corners and bunks up against the wall. I lived with dad such deprivations didn't bother me. Rene kept saying "You're okay with that rat-face. Me and mum we got nothing." A litany.
They hadn't either but what could I do? Marriages fail. This one had been down the pan for six years at least. I was still at school when the fighting got so bad that the neighbours stopped just complaining and sent in the police. Dad took off in his double-headlamped Cortina with the car fresh shaped like a tree hanging from the rear-view mirror and found himself another place. The old home got sold and us kids were split. I didn't mind. The peace that followed was worth anything. I could watch tv without the screaming and eat my meals without things getting smashed and hurled through windows. The old place was a wreck of cracked glass, split doors and plaster bust out of walls from hurled mugs.
We got the best deal, naturally. Bloody women always fuck up, Dad said. You watch for that. Sound advice, I have to tell you. Took him around three months to settle and it was a new world. He was off with a string of girl-friends. I was on my own. I'd get back in from school and he'd be up in his room with the door locked and music playing. It could go all evening like this. Sometimes he'd come down to the kitchen and we'd say hello over him making tea or yanking another beer from the fridge. And then he'd beat it back upstairs and that would be that. But for the calm who cares.
Rene's deal was different. She was thrown out of the big house with mum when that went to some guy who was going to turn it into flats. They moved to a bedsit, a temporary base until mum could see more clearly. That was the idea. They were there five years collecting shit and old papers. The place was a collapsing dump to start with and it fell even further while they were there. Mum couldn't hack it, Rene just watched. Eventually they took Mum into hospital. Womb cancer, much advanced. I didn't know. Neither did Rene. Dad did, he told me later, but he didn't want anyone to play on it with the break-up. Shit. He could have said, bastard. World's a mess, isn't it.
It was when Mum died that Rene finally flipped. She'd always been near the edge, I can see that now, looking back. Special schools, no job, no boyfriends, lots of sitting staring, and then gouts of screaming. Just like Mum really. What do you do with someone who just won't speak and won't get up. She didn't wash. She stank. The doctor said it was depression following the loss but it had to be more than that. I can remember her years ago going up to bus queues with her skirt up asking anyone, just anyone, if they wanted a sniff. I never told anyone but looking back I can see what it was all about.
With no stability around Rene just imploded. Couldn't manage anything. At least Mum kept food in the house and the toilet clean. Dad wasn't interested. "Clone of her mother," he told me. "Shit stuff." And with your father saying that what could be done? Rene got hauled off to the bin.
And now here we were, Rene on a day out, well a night out anyway, in the graveyard ripping soil up like a dog. "I need Mum. She's my mother." Rene wailing, showers of earth coming up like she got paid for doing it. "I want her now." Me, knowing there was little else I could do, just talking calmly, saying "Don't Rene. Come on now." and other ineffectual crap. How do you stop your big sister from digging her mother up. It was her mother. And Rene, jeez by now with the comfort eating and the milk they gave them she was bigger than big.
Eventually Rene hits paydirt and hauls the casket out. It's a box not a jar, little thing you couldn't hide a football in and she makes off up the path, hugging it, wailing "mum ah mum I love you" like that. She's over the far wall and into the night before I can work out what I should do and then the police arrive, too late as ever, and want to know what I, a decent, respectable-looking young man am doing grave-robbing in this South Wales suburban town in this day and golden age. Me nonplussed. One of the officers is sniffing in the hole Rene's left, switching his torch around like there might be something she might have missed. Rene's vanished and I'm taking the rap and my hands aren't even dirty. I show the officers, white palms up. "Wasn't me," I say. "We know you guys." one of them responds, "You wore gloves." Shit.
When they do catch up with Rene, after hauling me off to the station and putting me through it a bit and making all kinds of phone calls including one to Doctor Hubert at the bin and another to my father who at least manages to respond to them civily instead of slamming the phone back down, this being 4.00 am now, she's in the river. This is glorious. It's not a deep river but it's a river enough and Rene's in it splashing and whooping, floating mum's casket like it was a boat and shouting to everyone that they ought to come on in too. She's huge, Rene, and she's taken her clothes off and the sight for those police and Doctor Hubert plus his two white-clad male nurses must have been pretty gross. White whale prancing in fog. "This is my mother," Rene's yelling. "I can do with her what I want. You keep your hands off her." A male nurse in there seems to get a grip on one of the handles and the problem's solved, although later Rene says they actually got mum out with a net.
The bin, of course, is not an old style institution with bars and locked doors. It's open. That's what they tell the families when anyone gets admitted. That's what they told me. Dad didn't get told anything, he was sent a form to sign and asked to attend a patient review board. He didn't show, I went but as I was Rene's younger brother I had no status bar observer. They decided she had to kept quiet for a time, regularised they said, and given various new medications until they found one that would smooth her a bit and stop her from constantly leaping off the edge. Far as I know mum got returned and the earth patted back down. No one consulted me but what else would they do?
Rene took to it okay. On my visits she seemed calm if vague and wanted me to bring in things from home. Bits of wool, a particular plate and then a set of blunt pencils she kept in a box under her bed. By all appearances she had managed, despite a staying still and laying down for loads of time, to keep up the food intake. She looked like a hammer head cloud obscuring the sun. There were lots of others in there in similar situations. On my visits I'd see them sitting about being normal or not as the mood took them. Occasionally one would call out. "Got any fags pal" or "Spare a bit for some tea". Just like town.
The big thing here was the phone. Rene found that she could reverse charge me and, afraid of hearing death or disaster, I'd always accept. She was on the phone to me non-stop. What we talked about I cannot tell you. At first I listened to her slow mumble about mum and the ward and the awful food and Doctor Hubert's medication but after a time I just let it wash. She didn't seem to want me to respond just to listen and this I did. Once in the middle of some long ramble about losing her tea cup I caught the name Howard.
"So who's Howard," I ask.
Howard turned out to be a big load of pink blubber with bright pin-sized blue eyes and hair shaved like a convict. He had a mix of tattoos and scribble all over his arms. When I first saw him he had these around Rene. You could tell Howard was a big guy. He could reach. His case, it turned out, was worse than Rene's. He'd actually hurt people, including himself. In one fit of putting the world to rights Howard had sliced his nipples off and gone bare, bleeding chested into Tescos. Nobody knew what he was trying to do but he managed to frighten a fair number and got blood all over the mangoes by climbing into the display and saying he was never coming out.
By now the dope had mostly worked on him and he was soft as a baby and his taking up with Rene seemed to improve her too. Steadily things got brighter, the calls to me lessened and then on one visit Dr Hubert told me they thought that things had moved on enough to try Rene cold for a bit. No pills. It was all she could talk about when we met. She'd shaved her head, too, and looked more institutionalised than I'd ever know her. She imagined she looked hard and streetwise, I guess. The two of them took to zooming around the grounds on Howard's shining Kawasaki. Rene had "Big Dick" scrawled on the back of her hand. Fake not so good tattoo. I was sent to visit his brother who lived nearby to borrow two sets of leathers. Red and black padded stuff. Howard's spare fitted Rene like an oven glove.
One day I got in for a visit to find the ward sister blocking my path.
When Rene came round and we got to talk it was all "sodding bastard Howard" and how he kept his conquest's nipples in a box. Like some sort of Welsh Nam vet with his necklace of Geek ears only here it was breast ends like shrivelled grapes. "He rattled the box at me," complained Rene. "Made me do it." I looked at her, bandages under her robe and her arms covered with the slash marks of numerous suicide attempts. Never deep enough to die but plenty enough to bleed. What is it with blood? Code of the age. She stretched a hand out and I could see she'd added a drawing below the text. I took it and held it for a while.
In the pub later, trying to get the pain and depression out of me all I could see were tattoos. The scrolls and hearts on the arms of the drinkers. The snake above the wrist of the bar-man. The LOVE and HATE on the fingers on the guy selling scratch-cards. I imagined them all getting out of there and cutting off bits of each other for souvenirs or signals of manhood or as a ritual to say they were here, now, alive on this earth, half drunk, pissed, fucked, drugged, what the hell else.
A week later I get a call from Rene, light as a flower in her voice, all is great. The medication's been dropped, she's doing well. She's met John, so sensitive a man, into God and peace. Howard can go fuck himself with his Kawasaki. The tattoos are gone, she says when I ask her. Only ink. John washed them away with holy water. That and Vim. She's in love, aren't I glad. I think about this for a moment then I tell her of course, yes.
Outside it's raining. I can imagine the two of them in front of the ward tv with afternoon warm pap flowing everywhere pawing at each other and the crosses they've now got hung around their necks and the light of God shining in through the high window. Christ. She's my big sister, damn it, I ought to do something about this, say something but what the hell. Let god take the strain a while. "Okay," I say "Good luck. I have to go."
The pub is full of bright people wearing suits and white shirts. No bikers. I buy a pint and drink it slowly. I smile and notice others are smiling too. A guy from the Salvation Army is selling The Watchtower and I buy a copy. "God'll Sort It Out" runs the head line. Did too. I finish my pint and go to the bar and order another.