Zenga Longmore

Golden oldies

Text settings

Reality, Reality

Jackie Kay

Picador, pp. 239, £

Jackie Kay, one of Scotland’s most celebrated living writers, is a woman of many voices. In her latest collection of short stories the voices mainly belong to women of middle to old age. Many are lonely, some are caring for barmy relatives, some are barmy relatives. Reality Reality’s most successful tales glow with a quiet radiance, touched as they are by the warmth of their creator’s heart.

In ‘These Are Not My Clothes’, Margaret, a resident of an old people’s home, lives in fear of a sadistic matron who pinches and mocks her. Drifting in and out of reality, Margaret spends her time secretly plotting to ask the only kind nurse in the home to buy her a ‘tomato soup coloured cardigan’. A bleakness which only British old folks’ homes can boast is uncannily captured:

After dinner, I’m parked in front of the television. Peggy is asked what she wants to watch because Peggy always says I don’t mind and then the Matron says, well let me choose for you, and so we all watch Matron’s programmes.

There are Kafka-esque voices. In ‘Mind Away’, elderly Nora attempts to explain her befuddled state of mind. ‘It’s not that my thoughts are running away with me, more like they’ve run off with somebody else,’ she explains to her daughter. Eventually she decides her thoughts have escaped to the mind of a young, handsome doctor. Nora’s daughter reluctantly agrees to humour her mother and track down the doctor. Meanwhile, Dr Mahmoud suddenly starts blurting out Nora’s batty, random thoughts during consultations. ‘I’m finding I don’t like wearing tights any more. It’s a hassle pulling them up over my ankles, my knees,’ he inexplicably informs a wide-eyed patient. ‘Mind Away’ is Kay at her most lively and imaginative.

Much later, we are introduced to Vadnie, the Jamaican nurse from Margaret’s nursing home. Astonishingly, Vadnie inhabits a complete fantasy world, her only true friend is Margaret. Margaret’s ‘tomato soup coloured cardigan’ plays on Vadnie’s mind, mingling with vaporous imaginings of a loving husband and dutiful children.  

Occasionally a story creeps in which gives the reader the uneasy sensation of being trapped in an experimental women’s workshop at the Camden Fringe Festival during the 1980s. ‘First Lady of Song’ features a shape-shifting woman who embodies dozens of female singers throughout the ages — she is 300 years old, her life never ends and neither, it seems, does her pretentious tale.

‘Grace and Rose’ details the pride of newly-weds who become the first lesbian couple to marry in Shetland. The result reads like a self-satisfied round-robin letter.  ‘Rose makes me feel like the first woman on the moon,’ gushes Grace. By the end of the story I felt as if I’d been dipped in melted chocolate and coated with sugar.

When on form, Kay’s gift for portraying the quirky inner lives of older women can be compared to Jean Rhys or Fay Weldon. If we are able to skim the occasional ‘womanist’ guff in this patchy collection of stories, there are gems of genuine pathos awaiting discovery.