What haunts you? Sitting there late at night, in the silence, while that beer on the table gets warmer, and the rollback of the years flashes before your eyes? In many ways, the tales in Alan Beard’s superb collection feel like ghost stories. Not in the traditional sense — no white spectres wandering the halls or loud rappings on the walls from unseen hands. Rather, the citizens of the council flats in and around Birmingham are all haunted by their own past. What could they have been? Or how could their lives have been better?
With razor sharp prose, a dry British wit, and fearless dedication to not pulling any punches on his characters, Alan Beard gives you the West Midlands in all its grim glory. Akin to great Japanese writers, Beard cuts his prose to the bone, not bothering to waste any words on showing off his writing skills. It’s important, as that style gives the stories much more character as well as imbuing them with that superb reserved understatement that is born and bred in citizens of the Midlands.
As for those citizens, in Beard’s world, things just didn’t go their way, or at least not the way they had expected. In the better tales — “Saturday in the ‘Sac,” “Come See About Me,” “Country Life,” and of course the title story — we encounter locals who sat still as the world moved past them. For the father in “Saturday in the ‘Sac” the neighborhood is just not what it used to be. For the husband in “Taking Doreen Out of the Sky,” he’s just come nose-to-nose with the brick wall of his life. At times, Beard deals the harsh realities as they are, never-overstating the point or beating us over the head with the outcome. It is what it is. At other times, he lets a wry sense of humor punch things up, as with “Country Life” where a born-again cuckold is confronted by the other man (and both find they have more in common than expected). In all, the characters are haunted by what could have been — that other woman or the better gig or the doors that slammed shut in their faces years ago.
Beard, superbly confident in his prose, pulls no punches but still loves his characters enough to give them great heart, even if they fall flat on their faces. The stories are honest and sad, but most importantly, they ring true. You almost want to buy the characters a pint for their troubles — anything to relieve the burden of their own lives. The sad fact is that this great collection is now out-of-print, so you’ll have to dig to find a copy. Still, the effort is worth every line.