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Economic prose and settings both foreign and familiar sell this oblique collection from Vicky Grut, long before circumstances sinister, touching and sudden muddy not-so-clear waters. I was lucky enough to read Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories a few days prior to most and can resoundingly say I’m still thinking about the intricacies of several of the collection’s fourteen stories even now. It’s fair to say that most tastes, so long as they are inclined to the literary, will be catered to at some point. I cannot say, hand on heart, that every single story was for me, but I can say I was never bored, never tempted to put the book down and come back later, only ever taking a break from Grut’s worlds to sip tea between stories.
The book is slim and the stories short enough to not outstay their welcome but long enough to make an impression. Each tale boasts a character or characters so immediately relatable they threaten to further blur that fictive line and spill out over into your living room. People fleshed out enough to be as wholly identifiable as the noses on our faces, effortlessly real and, more importantly, serving as great ballasts to the often oblique Hail Marys to come. Gently insistent with an edge, I came to think of them not as kitchen-sink tales – they often deal with domestic quarrels and denouements – but more as kitchen-sink tales with soapy-water enough to occlude up-facing knives. Close to home but with bite.
Take “Escape Artist”, the sixth story of Grut’s collection, a piece which explores relationship-dependence and idolisation in a couple who stand on opposite sides of the age and career fence: a young actress and an old playwright. Corazón is presented as ostensibly in decline and past her sell-by date while partner Robert slaves away at a resurrective piece specifically written for her that likely will never be completed. It is this “gift” he is working on that becomes a guilt-chain to Corazón, one which begins to impede her own ambitions. A simplified synopsis would be to call it a tale about Corazón accidentally winning a talking-part in an experimental response to The Tempest and the emotional and marital fallout of her accepting it. What was once teased at being a pastoral couple who consummated their mutual feelings through an idyllic kiss beside sunlit-skewered water with “poplar leaves tapping and clattering lightly overhead” segues into something else entirely when an angered Robert goes on a bender after hearing about her acceptance of the part – read: betrayal – and unknowingly(?) locks her inside their apartment. The story, as so often as they do in this book, slips sideways here, and becomes something else. Something madder, more meditative, offering a glimpse at the darker side of relationships. Cracking open a door to show just how rickety some are held together, with nothing but combative aural sleights and copious amounts of controlling disdain. Corazón, at least, seems to understand this at the last and, I hope, strive for something more freeing.
Another stand-out, and possibly my favourite of them all, is “An Unplanned Event”, a tale largely about misguided validation, and how, in the jealous Eric, this hinges upon a deep-seated ignorance towards knowledge offered by others in sufferance to his own posturing. Health and Safety? “What do you want to learn that for?” An ex-warehouse employee who’s stumbled into his career as a gardener for the well-off ex-headteacher Mrs McClusky, Eric appears to begrudge any and everyone around him with the sniff of the intellectual about them; none more so than the “smarty-pants foreign boy” Thomas, who comes calling to the grounds he tends one day. To call them antonyms wouldn’t be untrue. Eric is old, hands-smart and a foundling. Thomas is young, loved, and as bright as the many bulbs of a chandelier.
The location Grut paints is a simple one yet inherently tantalising: the ex-headteacher lives in a gated residence with a “metal grille over its front door” and lawns enough for daffodils, daylilies, white shasta daisies, with “lobelias and pansies for the borders”. I found it vaguely metropolitan-gothic with interrelational angst to boot in the introduction of a supremely gifted foreign student and his precocious ways. It is Thomas piercing a veil Eric has heretofore been uninvited to cross – the threshold of the house he hasn’t stepped beyond in over three years of employ – and Mrs McClusky forgetting to bring Eric his customary plateful of biscuits and a cup of tea one day that serves as the catalyst for this tale’s climactic wrinkle.
It is as explosive a moment as you’ll find in this collection, yet one which favours subtlety and what follows the outburst rather than the outburst itself. Storming a path towards the door with the grille and calling out to Mrs McClusky, Eric is primed to let loose his feelings of being hard-done by, disregarded and discarded – things that seem at this point to be cyclical grievances in his life. Mrs McClusky’s threshold, however, rebukes him by smarting a persistent ailment that has been plaguing him the last few weeks. His temperament and temperature having spiked in his anger. Eric collapses on the steps, a prize slice of meat for the achievement-hounds he so despises.
What comes next is a one of a handful of lasting denouements to feature throughout Live Show, Drinks Included, as Eric admits, albeit diagonally, to his shortcomings when his “ears are filled with the roaring sound” of misplaced happiness. After overhearing that, yes, he has passed tests and, yes, they are advanced, but not really registering the fact that they were only done when he was unconscious, prone and behind curtains that squeak when pulled on their curved rails. Needless to say, he is elated. Ecstatic to have passed a test, to be wanted – “Oh no, there’s no question of discharging him” – and to finally, finally be “on his way now”. Thomas who?
I know relatability is a buzzword and thrown around a lot nowadays, but everyone knows someone reeling from a breakup who can’t stop themselves trying to contact the person that hurt them, or a stranger intent on fracturing that most sacrosanct ignorance of “concentrated blankness” to be found on commutes, or an adored loved one at their last, scared to go off alone into that unwelcoming white. Grut populates her collection with people so close to us, so easy to read, it is as if they were the neighbours we’d spent a decade or so apologising to about the noise. Live Show, Drinks Included is not a mirror but rather a window above a kitchen sink where you just might catch a sun-distorted reflection of someone you know. At 173 pages, I just hope her next offering is a little thicker.
Live Show, Drink Included is published by Holland Park Press.