Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands. The wind pummels his body through his new anorak, deranges his thinning hair and brings tears to his eyes. It is summer and he was not expecting this. He has not been on a ferry since he was twelve, when he went abroad for the first time with his father. It was summer then too and the weather was just as rough so perhaps this should not be taking him by surprise.
His father took him to the ferry’s cinema. Futh does not remember what they saw. When they sat down, the lights were still up and there was no one else there. He remembers having a bucket of warm popcorn on his lap. His father, smelling of the lager he had drunk beforehand at the bar, turned to Futh to say, ‘Your mother sold popcorn.’
She had been gone for almost a year by then, by the time Futh and his father took this holiday together. Mostly, she was not mentioned, and Furth longed for his father or anybody to say, ‘Your mother…’ so that his heart would lift. But then, when she was spoken about, she would invariably be spoiled in some way and he would with that nothing had been said after all.
In those days,’ his father said, ‘the usherettes wore high heels a part of the uniform.’
Futh, shifting in his seat and burying his hand in his popcorn, hoped that the film or at least the trailers, even adverts, would start soon. Some people came in and sat down nearly, but his father went on just the same.
I was there on a date. The girl I was with didn’t want anything but I did. I went down the aisle to the front where your mother stood with her tray all lit up by the bulb inside. She sold me a bag of popcorn and agreed to meet me the following night.’
The lights went down and Futh, tensed in the dark auditorium, hoped that that would be it, that the story would end there.
From The Lighthouse, Salt
What do you want?
The front door is mostly glass, a pane as tall and wide as a man. In town, at night, the shopfront windows are protected with steel mesh screens and metal shutters. Even the churches have grilled over the stained-glass windows. This café is not in the town, though; it is in the village and the owner has nothing like that, just a lock on the wooden frame of this single-glazed door. It is not nighttime anyway; it is broad daylight, mid-morning. The doorframe is painted yellow, a warm, bright yellow like sunshine or pollen.
There is a handmade sign hanging on the door, behind the glass. It says, ‘WELCOME’, but the lettering is small and the greeting appears tentative. It is the sort of sign that is hung with strong and could be flipped around when your welcome was withdrawn. Underneath it, there is another, larger one saying, ‘NO DOGS’. It is not the sort that can be turned to say something different; it is stuck to the glass.
Sydney ties his dog’s lead to a drainpipe. The dog settles down on the slabs, sighing through her nostrils as she watches Sydney walk away.
Inside the café, only one of the tables is occupied, by a young woman breastfeeding a baby. Sydney slips off the rucksack he is carrying, pulls out a chair and sits down opposite her. ‘Hello,’ he says, smiling, showing his teeth. ‘ You’re Ruth.’
He has disturbed the baby, who is twisting around now, looking for the source of the deep voice, while the mother struggles to get the baby feeding again, her milk wasting.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I’m not.’
Sydney regards her while he considers this, and then excuses himself. He scrapes back his chair and stands, looking around. He is ravenous, his stomach growling like something at the zoo waiting to be thrown some meat. He wants a McDonald’s, or an all-you-can-eat buffet, but instead he is here. There is salad behind glass on the far side of the room.
He wanders over to the counter. Looking towards a doorway at the back of the café, he calls out, ‘Hello?’ The doorway is hung with a curtain of thin plastic strips. No one comes through. Sydney waits, looking at the plated salads, the mottled bananas, the Death by Chocolate on the blackboard. ‘Hello?’ he calls again. He has begin to move towards the hatch via which he could get behind the counter, when through the curtain comes a man in a floral apron, his arms opening wide for Sydney, his smile broad, although there is anxiety in the straining of the skin around his eyes. He says to Sydney, ‘So, you’re back, are you?’ Lowering his arms again, he leans his weight on the counter between them. ‘It’s changed a bit around here since you saw it, eh?’
From He Wants, Salt
Monica is approaching the check-in desk when her phone begins vibrating in the pocket of her shorts. She takes the call, rolling her eyes at Michael. “Dad,” she says, “stop worrying. We’ll be fine.” She listens briefly before saying, “I’ve got to go.”
She and her dad watched lost last night, watched Flight 815 break apart in his darkened living room. After switching off the television, he said to her, “What time’s your flight?”
He is worried about the engines failing, the wings falling off, about terrorists and aggressive passengers, about pilots having heart attacks or falling asleep in the cockpit.
Monica has spent this afternoon sweating into her wedding dress. Now in her holiday clothes, she’s a bit cold, and there are hours of in-flight air conditioning which must be endured before reaching the honeymoon destination.
On the far side of check-in, they find somewhere to sit and Monica tries not to think about the wings coming off. Her dad’s anxiety seems to be catching, like something she has just discovered growing in her skin, like the itchy ringworm she picked up after scrubbing an infected cage at the veterinary surgery. Her arm, bare between her rubber glove and the sleeve of her bottle-green uniform, must have touched the cage, or perhaps the invading fungal spores were airborne.
“What’s wrong with your legs?” says Michael, and Monica stands to look at the backs of her knees where she has been absent-mindedly scratching.
“What the hell?” she says, still raking her nails over the rash which has broken out.
“It could be the new car seat covers,” says Michael. “Some people are allergic to neoprene. I’ll see if I can get some antihistamines.” He wanders away. When he returns with a bag from the pharmacy, he says, “Our flight’s delayed.”
Monica swallows a tablet. Five minutes later, she says to Michael, “It’s not working.” After another five, she says, “If anything, it’s getting worse.” She is agitated.
Michael is restless too, impatient to be crossing the tarmac and strapping himself into his seat on the plane, to be accelerating down the runway, to be tens of thousands of feet in the air.
They listen to announcements they can’t decipher, and Michael goes to investigate. When he comes back and says to Monica that they won’t be flying out until the morning, she feels herself relaxing. But then, she thinks, if something dreadful is going to happen, it has only been postponed.
They are going to be put up overnight, says Michael, in an airport hotel.
“Oh well,” says Monica, “that might be nice.”
They pick up their hand luggage and make their way to the assembly point, from where they and dozens of others will be taken by bus to the hotel.
From 'Overnight Stop', The Pre-War House & Other Stories, Salt
Alison Moore's short fiction has been included in various anthologies including Best British Short Stories, Best British Horror and the Spectral Book of Horror Stories. A selection from her debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra, and the title story won the New Writer Novella Prize. Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was published in 2012 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. Her new novel, Death and the Seaside, will be published in 2016. Born in Manchester in 1971, Alison lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband and son and is an honorary lecturer in the School of English at Nottingham University.
What are you currently working on?
I'm tweaking my third novel, which will be published by Salt in 2016. I'm also working on a couple of short stories that I've been invited to write for forthcoming anthologies.
The FT called The Lighthouse 'queasy brilliance' as a response to the work's sharp and unsettling qualities. You've a clear interest in that unsettling, both for your characters and your reader.
An earlier review referred to my short story When the Door Closed, It Was Dark as 'terrifically disorienting' - unsettling and disorienting does seem to be a territory in which I enjoy working. I like to explore the moments in which everything changes, sometimes with almost imperceptible shifts.
In Overnight Stop you plant an anxiety about flying then work that anxiety through the piece with acutely visual details (Stanley, a man with a carton of milk between his thighs). It's a hugely mischievous piece with an ending that promises much trouble.
Mischievous is a great word to use - I had fun writing this one. Stanley just felt like trouble right from the start, but perhaps he would have proved to be harmless really, just lonely and a bit annoying, except that the action that Monica takes to keep him at bay means that when, at the end, on the plane, she is asked, 'Is that your friend?' the question is loaded.
As a writer do you have a notebook filled with of events, ideas for pieces of mischief, things you come across which you store for your work? Or do these events and elements emerge once you start developing the writing?
I do scribble down ideas and snippets all the time, although I use random pieces of paper rather than a notebook, and then I transfer my notes to the relevant story doc, or hold on to them for future use. But most of a story's elements emerge in the writing. I love how stories can come at you when you're just going about your business - I was driving to B&Q recently and some weird pigeon behaviour gave me the starting point for a short story, and when I got to the B&Q car park I started writing notes on the A4 paper that's always in the car because my son loves to draw. I stopped again on the way home to write a bit more, and got back with the whole story sketched out, and some sealant.
In your novels your central figures are men who are sidelined, one way or another. In He Wants, Lewis, a retired, widowed teacher, has lived a life of deferral, to a father, wife, daughter. Futh, similarly, is recently single at the start of The Lighthouse. Again, his journey is largely one of reflection, and circular, repeating abandonments and elements from his childhood and his marriage.
We enter both these stories at a point when the protagonists are at a crossroads in their lives: Futh, in middle-age, is newly separated from his wife, and Lewis is recently widowed and retired. I think there's a key difference though in that where Futh has been damaged by the past and is stuck on a particular path, Lewis has had a good enough life, but those English phrases - 'good enough', 'perfectly all right', 'happy enough' are rattling around. Lewis made a particular choice when he was younger out of fear or uncertainty, and the novel looks at whether he can still explore this option now or whether he will, in his retirement, let sleeping dogs lie.
These men are meticulously constructed, and while they are presented as ordinary, perhaps boring, they are thwarted and aggravated by doubt, possibility, and loss. There's a cyclical pattern to what happens in the narrative, as if there is a terminal weakness they just haven't answered.
My stories often seem to explore the earthquakes in, as you say, quite ordinary lives. I think I am particularly interested in the dynamic between this quiet, private, unassuming type and a disrupter. I can see that this kind of tension interests me as a reader too, for example in the story of the reclusive Merricat in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
You've spoken about the absence of mothers in your writing - which is key to both of the novels. You also began writing in earnest after your mother's death.
I wasn't really conscious of the pattern until I started being asked about it. There are a lot of missing mothers in my stories. I was always interested in writing - and my mum was very supportive of that, and encouraged me to submit to competitions and to subscribe to a writing magazine and took me to a workshop at the local university perhaps in my mid-teens - but it is true that all my collected stories date from a few years after Mum died; there was sort of a rush of them.
Your plotting is very subtle, how does this work through different drafts. Do you continually step it back, or is it something that you work from, knowing the exact amount of pressure you want?
I edit as I go along, so a lot of reworking is tucked away inside the manuscript I am clutching when I emerge from The Chaos, as opposed to having a rough first draft to which I then take a red pen. I do like a small, tensed world in which you will notice small things, small changes. That question of the right degree of pressure is something I judge, I suppose, by inhabiting my protagonists and feeling my way through the world of the story.
Reviewers comment on the pared and unsettling prose. Form fits content in your writing. You drop revelations and surprises with considerable control. Again, how do you measure this - do you try alternatives, have readers, editors... or is this something you can pitch yourself without trouble?
It's a balance between writing what I see within the story world and deciding to introduce this or that into the narrative. Sometimes it just feels right, and sometimes it needs some reworking, which is either me realising what's wrong and making changes accordingly, or it's editing in response to feedback from my two first readers/editors: Nicholas Royle (who's my agent as well as my editor at Salt) and my husband Dan - they are both excellent close readers.
You've written about Vonnegut and how his history intersected with the darker elements in his work.
Yes, I wrote about how Vonnegut used humour and the absurd in writing about unbearable experiences. In addition to his novels, his letters are fascinating (Letters, Delacorte Press).
Alison Moore website
'Overnight Stop', The Lampeter Review, issue 7
UK publisher, Salt Publishing