Book: The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories
Author: Alasdair Gray
Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it got under my skin. That in and of itself may not indicate oddness as normal books get under my skin from time to time but the magnificent story in the collection about a skin disease and the emotional and aesthetic satisfaction people get from peeling off scabs and bits of skin showed me this was no normal book.
Availability: Published by Cannongate Books in 2003, you can get a copy here:
Comments: About a year ago, a reader on this site sent me an e-mail praising me, telling me I reminded him of Elizabeth Young. I was unfamiliar with her and found an article about her on Dennis Cooper’s blog. Though I can see some superficial similarities – we both read difficult and transgressive writers – it’s hard to say there is really much I have in common with the late Ms Young. She seemed more learned and certainly more serious than me, and I can’t see her having the patience for the conspiracy theory that I so often find enthralling. But even though my fan clearly sees me in a different light than I see myself, the Google search did me some good. It reminded me I needed to read and discuss Dennis Cooper over here and am sort of surprised I have not already. It also led me to Alasdair Gray.
You see, while our approaches to The Word are different, Young and I have very similar tastes in fiction. Almost every woman I know wants to smack me in the face for loving A.M Homes’ The End of Alice, a book Young championed. Reading that she loved Nelson Algren sent a strange shiver up my spine – like Burroughs, I want to read him sober but I am almost afraid to do it, and, again, I can count on one hand the number of people I know who even know of him. The list of the writers Young championed was a list I recognized as part of my reading habits, with one sole exception: Alasdair Gray. I once had a copy of Gray’s Poor Things but I never read it and I could not find it after reading Cooper’s article about Young. So I ordered a couple of his books.
It was book love. In the middle of the first story in this collection, I fell into book love. I cannot believe I went this long without reading Alasdair Gray. I almost hate myself for it.
Some of the stories are sketches, like the first in the collection, the story of a man who encounters some tough youths and bests them as they try to manipulate him. But some are longer-form, traditional stories. Because I could very easily crank out 10,000 words about this 181 page collection, I will limit myself to my two favorite stories.
“No Bluebeard” is the tale of a man in his fourth serious relationship. His first three marriages failed for various reasons, mostly to do with his passivity and inability to read his wives, but his ability to remain passive and clueless is challenged when he meets the woman who becomes his fourth wife. He works at home, interacts little, and finds this new girl because she finds him. She is in an argument with another man, and attaches herself to the narrator, seizing his hand and telling him to lead the way. She’s a bit loopy.
I asked her name. She said, “Mattie or Tilda, take your pick.”
“That,” she said, emphatically, “is what they want me not to advertise. The less said about that the better you cunt.”
So her family dislikes her, she’s got a sort of obsession with a specific curse word, but he likes her posh accent and takes her home and has sex with her. She asks him to fetch her a snack and he promptly dresses and goes to get her food. When he comes back she is stricken, screaming, terrified that he was going to come back late, drunk and demanding sex. He assures her he is a sober computer programmer and has no intention of being a drunk demanding sex, and besides, his father had been a drunk.
Her response is so wonderful.
“Regarding the dad situation, ditto. Ditto but if disorder is confined to the family apartments others do not notice. And if you too detest alcohol and work at home like all sensible people it is possible, cunt, that you may be possible.”
And with that she moves in with the clothes on her back, bringing nothing, and behaves in a strangely passive manner. She has a posh family who, as we later learn, have despaired of her odd habits, not realizing her odd habits were a result of her stifled upbringing.
“Dinner was awful. We had to dress.”
“In tuxedos and black ties?”
“Tuxedos is an American word. We British say evening dress. Female evening wear is less uniform than male attire, but more taxing. Little hankies are an endless ordeal. I fidgeted with mine which is not the done thing, in fact utterly wrong, in fact a rotten way to carry on and I became quite impossible when I started (cunt) using (cunt) that word (cunt cunt).”
Tilda, if permitted to live according to her strengths, is strangely pleasant to have around.
The next day I arose later than usual, made breakfast, gave Tilda hers on a tray in bed and got down to business. At ten she came into the workroom wearing my dressing gown and sat on the floor with her back to the wall, placidly watching figures and images I manipulated on the screen. Shortly after eleven she announced that she wanted a coffee. I said, “Good idea. Make me one, too.”
But the moment she is asked to step outside of that which she knows well, Tilda becomes quite snotty. She informs him she cannot make coffee. He gives her an explanation of how one goes about making instant coffee.
She stamped out of the room and shortly returned with a mug she slammed down defiantly on my worktop. It contained lukewarm water with brown grains floating on top. When I complained she said, “I told you can’t make coffee.
I found that Tilda could wash and dress herself, eat and drink politely, talk clearly and truthfully and also (though I didn’t know how she learned it) fuck with astonishing ease. Everything else had been done for her so she stubbornly refused to learn anything else.
But even though Tilda refuses to learn anything new, she is reasonably easy for the protagonist to live with.
Despite our first weeks together we were very happy. She added little to my housework. Former wives had insisted on making meals or being taken out for them. Tilda ate what I served without a word of complaint, nor did she litter the rooms with cosmetic tubes, powders, lotions, toilet tissues, fashion magazines and bags of shopping. She hated shopping and refused to handle money. I gathered that “her people” had never given her any, paying the caravan rent and Red Fox food bills by bank order. She brought to my house only the clothes she wore, clothes passed to her by someone of similar size, I think an older sister. By threatening to chuck her out unless she accompanied me and by ordering a taxi I got her into the women’s department of Marks and Spencer.
While I delighted in Tilda’s eccentricities, the purpose of this story is to show how a reasonably nice but sort of pig-headed man keeps ruining his relationships. In his case, he never understood when he disrespecting the needs of his wives until it was far too late. His first wife desperately wanted to be a housewife and to have a baby. He denied her this by using condoms, so she decided to go out and work and forced him to split housework with her. Since he only did a third of the housework, she put two-thirds of her paycheck into a private account. Eventually she had an affair and became pregnant and left him. His third wife had a slovenly flat that he cleaned and refurbished to the point that he emotionally forced her out. She showed her discontent passively and it came as a surprise to him when she left him.
Tilda is not a woman given to subterfuge. She does not manipulate and she does not really fight with him. But as he tries to force her into a role he thinks more appropriate – like making her shop for clothes she does not want or care about – he comes to understand that her passivity is not a ploy. He realizes the woman who fucks with ease is really as disengaged from sex as she is from shopping, though he doesn’t have to threaten to throw her out to make her acquiesce to sex. One gets the feeling that anything she does not have to leave the house to do she is fine enough just enduring in her disembodied sort of way.
He slowly begins to understand her because her constant nearness forces him to. She hates being apart from him, even when he takes a daily walk. Their days took on a near-boring sameness for him, but not for her. She sat at the floor and watched him work, ate the meals he cooked and did little else.
I asked if she would like a television set? A Walkman radio? Magazines? She said, “A properly furnished mind cunt is its own feast cunt and does not need such expensive and foolish extravagances.”
God, I loved Tilda completely after reading that sentence. The narrator tells us she stops using the word “cunt” so much as their time together went on, but he still had a hard time knowing what was going on in her properly furnished mind.
…when she saw an arresting image on my screen sometimes asked about it. I always answered fully and without technical jargon. Sometimes she heard me out and said, “Right”, sometimes cut me short with a crisp “Enough said” , so I never knew how much she understood. When someone speaks with the accent and idiom of British cabinet ministers and bank managers and company directors it is hard not to suspect them of intelligence.
When Tilda’s mother tracks her down and informs her that she needs to marry the protagonist because they don’t want her anymore and this is her only chance at security, Tilda shuts down. She doesn’t speak, she stares at the wall. She wets the bed. And she makes him understand that if he marries her, it will be better.
But it isn’t. Not really. He is forced to sleep away from her because she no longer wants sex from him and her rejection causes him finally to see himself for what he is.
I lay weeping for my whole past and could not stop for I suddenly saw what I had never before suspected: that I had lost three splendid women because I had been constantly mean and ungenerous, cold and calculating. Even my lovemaking, I suspected, had not been much more generous than my many acts of solitary masturbation between the marriages, I wept harder than ever.
He falls to the ground and begs Tilda to let him hold her hand for a while.
Her alarmed look gave way to puzzlement. She withdrew a hand from under the bedclothes and offered it almost shyly. I took it between mine, being careful not to press it very hard, then her eyes opened wider as if she was only now clearly seeing me and she muttered, “Don’t go away. Always be there.”
Then I saw that she needed me, would need nobody but me while our lives lasted. With great thankfulness and great contentment, holding her hand, I fell asleep on the floor.
This is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read. Peculiar and dissatisfying, it lays out clearly how it is we get so many chances to fix that which is wrong and sometimes our only real redemption can come when we finally have a mirror to show us how broken we are.
The second story in this collection, “Job’s Skin Game,” appealed to me not just because it was detailed and utterly disgusting, but because I seldom encounter stories so relevant to my interests. I am that person who will gladly pop a zit on your back or peel off strips of crusty, sunburned skin from your shoulders. I am also a person with a syndrome that causes my skin to erupt into nasty plaques that deny me the pleasures of itching, scratching and peeling. (I have Sweet’s Syndrome and every couple of years, if I am lucky and it doesn’t happen more often, my arms, hands and neck will erupt into nasty little plaques. They look like blisters but they are not. They are solid, and both itch and burn so any attempt to scratch leaves me in fire-hot pain. When they heal, they sort of deflate and I long to scratch them but to do so will make them come back, sometimes even worse. At any rate, due to being a sort of picker and being a person whose skin condition making picking a horrific painfest, this story really resonated with me.)
The Job in this story is a man who sits on the board of a company his father created. His father sent him to what we in the USA call private schools, but he skipped college and learned the building contracting business inside out by actually doing construction work. Later he went to night school to learn to manage the business. He marries a woman, he has children, he educates them well, he sells the main part of his business and his wife invests much of their money in a dot com “pension scheme.” They lose their money, his sons die on 9/11, and he can hardly imagine life getting much worse.
Years ago I enjoyed a television comedy called It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum about a British army unit stationed in Burma or Malaya. There was a bearded sage who spouted proverbs representing the Wisdom of the East. One was, “When a man loses all his wealth after contracting leprosy and hearing that his wife has absconded with his best friend, that is no reason for the ceiling not falling on his head.”
The ceiling falls on the protagonist’s head in the form of a repellent skin disease. Oh, dear reader, I am letting you into my id as I tell you how this story thrilled me. Do your best not to judge me too harshly.
Job of the Skin Terrors begins thusly:
After a bath one morning I was towelling myself dry in one of these low beams of sunlight that illuminate tiny specks floating in the air. It let me see, something like smoke drifting up from the leg I was rubbing and a shower of tiny white flakes drifting down to the carpet.
Not too alarming yet, but there’s more.
Looking closer I saw the lower layer of skin was more obvious than usual. It reminded me of the sky at night with a few big red far-apart spots like planets, and clusters of smaller ones between them like constellations, and areas of cloudy pinkness which, peered at closely, were made by hundreds of tiny little spots like stars in the Milky Way.
But this is where it gets really good.
Then came the itching and scratching. The first is widely supposed to cause the second but in my experience this is only partly true. The first itch was so tiny that a quick stab with a needle would have stopped it had I known the exact point to stab. But this was impossible, so I scratched the general area which itched even more the harder, the more widely and wildly I scratched. This crescendo of itching and scratching grew so fiercely ecstatic that I only stopped when my nails had torn bloody gashes in that leg and the delight changed to pain.
Perhaps I felt such a kinship to this story because I envied the man’s ability to scratch and because, like me, there is shit-all he can do about his skin.
After a thing called A Patch Test my doctor explained that the disease was due to an inherited defect in the immune system defending my skin. A mainly serene and prosperous life had not strained it but now, weakened by recent emotional shocks, I was allergic to forms of dust that nobody could avoid. The origin of the allergy, being genetic, was incurable, but medication could combat the symptoms.
But as anyone who has ever had to take a lot of steroids or apply steroid cream to the skin knows, they eventually stop working and start causing physical damage. As the remedies fail him, he waits for a long time to see a specialist because he doesn’t want to undermine the health care system in Great Britain and because he is a cheap bastard. As he waits, he eventually sees a homeopathic doctor. He is told to stop eating meat and drinking booze, the latter a problem since he drinks heavily in order to sleep. The teas he is told to drink are repellent and his wife refuses to make them for him and he ends up ruining two pans so he just stops altogether when he gets his appointment with a specialist and is given stronger steroids.
But by then, he does not mind so much because he has, as he puts it, turned his bad skin into a hobby.
And this is where some of you may think things are quite gross. The narrator creates very graphic descriptions for what ails him because the word “scab” just doesn’t cover all the skin eruptions he takes such extreme pleasure picking at.
Cakes and Crumbs. Black or brown lumps that form in the deepest scratches. Dried blood is a main ingredient. I try not to touch these because, picked off too soon, they leave a hole into which fresh blood wells up before clotting.
Hats. A cake or crumb may grow a crisp white border, as much part of it as a brim is part of a hat. The brim overlaps the surrounding skin in such a way that the tip of a fingernail, slid beneath, easily lifts off the whole hat uncovering a moist but shallow and unbleeding wound…
Bee-wing. Pale grey and gauzy. It has white lines like veins on wings of bees, wasps and house flies, but more random looking. Minute red or brown spots sometimes suggest wings of more exotic insects. Bee-wing is so transparent that if laid on a printed page words can be read through it.
Parchment. Pale yellowish-brown, not gauzy, yet as transparent as bee-wing. It seems made by the drying of moisture exuded from raw skin beneath. I remove it by pressing a fingertip into the skin on each side and pulling them apart.
Moss. This yellowish-grey furriness seems an intruder, like the mould on rotten fruit. It grows in circular holes and narrow grooves made by accidental scratches in swollen, inflamed skin, but is so far below the skin’s level that fingernails cannot reach it without doing more damage. I use fine-pointed tweezers to grip an edge of such growths and, since their roots must be intertwined, easily lift out the whole mossy mat or strip.
Paper. A splendid example of this lost me control of my remaining firm.
Oh, and it is splendid, but it’s hard to buy that the paper lost him control of the firm. He went into the bathroom to peel the paper from his body, returned to the room knowing full well his peers had probably taken a sniff of the “clear liquid in the tumbler” he had left on the table. But the scene of pulling off the paper was marvelous.
One afternoon, halfway through a meeting, I sensed that my left arm was in a very interesting state. I excused myself, went to lavatory, sat on pan, rolled up shirtsleeve. A big expanse of skin inside the elbow joint had withered into dry white paperiness, paperiness so brittle that it had cracked into little four-sided lozenges like an area of neatly laid marquetry. And it was NOT ALIVE. My first impulse was to set fingernails of my right hand in line and use them to take that dead paper off with two or three sweeping strokes. It would have left an area of raw underskin with bleeding gashes in it and many wee triangular paper scraps standing up and not easy to nip off. So with the tweezers I delicately prized off each paper tile and placed it between the pages of my pocket book, leaving a raw but undamaged area on which spread an ointment prescribed by the specialist – Betnovate or Trimovate or Eumovate, I forget which. Then I rolled down my sleeve, washed hands, returned to meeting. While performing that delicate operation I was perfectly happy.
This sort of transformation of turning suffering into a form of happiness is almost religious in tone. He does, in fact, experience ecstasy as he submerges himself into the management of his nasty skin. It becomes more and more the center of his life, and it has a specific meaning to his existence. But he finds salvation from his suffering in a very worldly way – a therapist helps him.
“Does it not occur to you that this narcissistic sado-masochism (as you agree to call it), this fast or slow slaying of your epidermis – is a kind of self-punishment? What do you punish yourself for? Where lies your subconscious guilt?” I could not tell him so he told me.
Does it help, this therapy? Does he get better? I won’t spoil this story but the ending made me very happy. I just wish I could scratch the hell out of my skin the next time I have an outbreak. I loved this story because I wish I could just take a hand-rake to my arms as they itch. Scab envy. I have it.
Though I only discussed two stories, there are 11 others that could appeal to your id as much as Gray appealed to mine. I definitely recommend you read this book and find the story that means something to you. I intend to read as much Gray as I can this year. I may not have much in common with Elizabeth Young, but I definitely agree with her taste in books and especially with her affection for Gray.