I Wish I’d Never Had You
- This Is Not about Me by Janice Galloway
Granta, 341 pp, £16.99, September 2008, ISBN 978 1 84708 061 5
You may well, at some point, have known a girl like Cora: big, loud, gregarious, ‘full-on all over’; talented in smoke-rings, hand-jiving, arm-wrestling, withering looks; the one who always seems to know about make-up, pop stars, sex and contraception; with ‘a laugh like a sewer when the notion took her and no time to lose’. She’s sharp, unfocused, ‘within an ace of spontaneous combustion’, her restlessness requiring constant smoking, knitting and television, cryptic crosswords and four library books a week just to keep it half in check. There was a girl a bit like this up the road from me when I was a teenager, and still we discuss what might have become of her: so vivid and yet so unknowable, a blaze of glory bringing behind it an awful darkling storm. But for Janice Galloway, the wonder and the horror is that Cora is her very own big sister, 16 years her senior and already pregnant and off to Glasgow when Janice is barely born; only to flounce back home to Saltcoats, ‘clawed . . . free from motherhood and sprung like a steel trap’ in 1960, when Janice is nearly five.
There are good things about having such a sister, especially when she gets a job in an Italian ice-cream parlour, in West Kilbride, along the coast, ‘Tallies’ being, as Galloway says, one of very few cosmopolitan influences in the West of Scotland in the 1960s. Her frocks, her heels, her make-up routine are magnificent, her hair black anyway then dyed even blacker to look like Elvis, her mascara clarted on thick enough to block out the sun. She paints Janice’s nails for her, takes her out to the funfair – ‘We’re spending the lot. Race you.’ And she brings home wondrous gifts from her workplace – ‘chocolate pennies, Five Boys Bars, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs and Refreshers’. ‘High on adrenalin and ice-cream sauce I drank her in’: long before the so-called ‘chemical generation’ of the 1990s, femininity, it seems, was already largely compounded of sugars and lipids and alkaloids and esters. ‘Cora was glamorous, glamorous, glamorous and I loved her to death.’
But no one is ever simple, and especially not this person, who, when she doesn’t know anyone is watching, can be caught ‘staring, eyes rimmed with flaking liner, mind off the hook’, her eyes with ‘something frightening and sad about them’. Sometimes, she forces her little sister to sing at strangers out of the window: ‘What do you want to make those eyes at me for/When they don’t mean what they say?’ – beaming delightedly, then suddenly calling them ‘nosey bastards’, slamming the window shut. She belts Janice when she brings home Edna O’Brien from the library: ‘I can’t read this. She knows damn well.’ And then, she does something so nasty with an ice cream, it’s like a moment from a Tarantino movie, except that it trembles with the unsureness, uncertainty, reality, that prove it most likely was drawn from life.
Janice Galloway was born in 1955 and grew up in Saltcoats, Ayrshire. After studying English and music at the University of Glasgow, she worked in welfare rights and as a schoolteacher, gradually becoming, in the late 1980s, a full-time writer – much encouraged by James Kelman, who discovered her work in a short-story competition. She is known mainly for three novels: The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (1989), the tale of a young teacher’s emotional collapse; Foreign Parts (1994), in which Cassie and Rona, West of Scotland welfare rights workers, kvetch and fret their way round France; Clara (2002), based on the life of Clara Schumann, prodigy and virtuoso and heroically loyal wife. In Scotland she is also known for music criticism, for collaborations with the sculptor Anne Bevan and as the librettist to Sally Beamish’s opera Monster (2002). And she is also a committed practitioner of the short story: her main collections, Blood (1991) and Where You Find It (1996), relate subtle, sometimes frightening and often funny complexes of being, watching, thinking, as experienced by the educated postwar daughters of the West of Scotland working class – liberated, professional, rewarded, beyond anything their parents might have imagined, for better or for worse.
Janice had, apparently, a ‘Bad Start’ as a baby. Her mother claimed this was because the sister in the maternity home persuaded her to try breast-feeding – ‘It was horrible’ – but the problem was also that she was unexpected and largely unwanted. Her mother was 40 when she was born, with a teenage daughter already herself pregnant, and when symptoms of the impending arrival could no longer be avoided, attributed them to ‘the Change’. Throughout the book, the question of how much Janice might have been wanted, and/or loved, and/or enjoyed, is returned to, again and again. ‘Every time she said this, there was a pause. I knew what was next. So did she. If I’d known you were coming, she’d say eventually, if I’d found out.’ ‘Christ almighty, she said, her eyes filling suddenly, I wish. God forgive me I do. I wish I didn’t have this . . . I wish I’d never had you.’ Galloway never resolves the question: I guess she will never know the answer, and neither, really, did her mother. One of this book’s virtues is its willingness so to bridge and saddle fence after excruciatingly painful fence.