Getting to Tombstone

Dinah Birch

  • ‘People for Lunch’ and ‘Spoilt’ by Georgina Hammick
    Vintage, 408 pp, £6.99, August 1996, ISBN 0 09 946381 4
  • The Arizona Game by Georgina Hammick
    Chatto, 285 pp, £14.99, August 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6214 7

Volumes of short stories do not get into the bestseller lists, but Georgina Hammick’s first collection. People for Lunch (1987), did so at once. It can hardly have been the subject-matter: the stories are not especially violent or sexually inventive, nor do they offer revisionary analyses of late 20th-century culture. Anything quite exceptional, magic or grotesque is not their business. Nor is romantic reassurance. The voice is usually middle-class, the perspective often that of a harassed woman, struggling with wayward adolescent children, remembering youth and beginning to sense advancing age. Drinking, smoking and dogs get a sympathetic mention. Her next collection, Spoilt (1992), continued in like vein, contemplating loyalty and betrayal, maternal anxiety, family secrets and jokes, dreadful parties. Hammick has sharp eyes and even sharper ears, and a remarkable ability to write as people speak, to themselves and to others. This can make her a very funny writer, with a rare facility for reproducing the private comedies which keep families going. More often, it makes her unsettling. Her fiction insists on confrontations with discomfort, unsoftened by glamour. She distrusts the consoling strategies of fantasy. To read her account of a dentist’s poisoned erotic fancies (‘Bad Taste’), or a bank clerk picturing the death of his wife (‘Deathcap’) is to be brought up hard against the clamorous needs of the imagination, and its power to corrupt. In ‘The Wheelchair Tennis Match’, a fearful mother (‘Bald tyres and a drunken or sleepy coach driver, an overweight coach driver all set to have a heart attack at the wheel ... Driving too fast, falling asleep’) paralyses her relations with her family with her excessive fretting. Not, the story bleakly suggests, that she worries without reason. No one in these stories is wholly right or entirely wrong; no one is blamed, elevated to heroism or granted the charisma of villainy. ‘Noble Rot’, a story about English social class, undermines preconceptions with unobtrusive relish. Cicely, a modern lady of the manor, impulsively rescues an elderly couple having a miserable picnic on a busy lay-by, and sweeps them away for an afternoon’s entertainment in her very sophisticated garden. Cicely is generous and cultivated: so is her family. Arnold and Gladys behave with the awkwardness that might be expected under such circumstances. The satire seems to be of a recognisable type. But complications and questions are deftly accumulated. Cicely’s teenage children reveal themselves to be polished incompetents. Arnold and Gladys are capable, solidly aware of their worth, unfazed by this sudden glimpse of wealth and style. Their grandchildren are creative, doing well; the heirs to the manor are going nowhere. Yet the writing acknowledges and admires the charity and grace that led to Cicely’s eccentric invitation.

The Arizona Game is Georgina Hammick’s first full-length novel, but the voice is practised, and immediately recognisable. Motherhood, the hidden currents of family history and the seductions and dangers of the imagination are as conspicuous here as in the stories. Hannah, 36 years old, has been brought up by her Aunt Hope. Her mother is in a long-term psychiatric institution, her father ran off years ago, her brother Ivo was killed in a road accident at the age of four. There has been, the novel begins by telling us, ‘a lot of sadness and madness’ in Hannah’s family. Unsurprisingly, her childhood was not altogether easy or happy. Nor is her life as an adult. Relations with her Irish lover Diarmid have fallen apart, and she cannot bring herself to love or even like her fat son, Finch. Seeing herself as the inadequate daughter of a defective mother, Hannah has eliminated the possibility of further defeat by repudiating her own child. In this novel, as elsewhere, Hammick steadily refuses to sentimentalise family politics. Finch is a deeply irritating and unlikable boy, and Hannah’s distaste often looks sensible. In a characteristic movement, however, we are brought to understand that Finch’s cruelty is formed by her rejection. As Hannah tries to make sense of her dislocated existence, the novel looks back over the half-remembered, half-concealed events that led to her alienation.

A good deal of Hannah’s difficulty has to do with language. Ashamed of her mother’s illness, at the age of eight she lies when asked what has happened:

I concentrate on the tattered alphabet frieze beneath the window running the width of the wall. Aa is for Alligator, Bb is for Baboon, Cc is for Centipede, Dd is for ... When I speak, I haven’t thought about my answer, the words just come out. ‘Because my mum’s dead,’ I say. ‘My mum was ill and she died.’

Hannah thinks of this moment as an irrevocable calamity. She has killed her mother. Further deceptions follow, leading to a tangle of unease in her thinking about herself, and about words. Unluckily for her, Aunt Hope is an English teacher who believes in words, and in truth. Hannah’s nervous resistance to her aunt’s attempts to encourage literacy drives both to distraction, and opens up a gap between them which is never bridged. Hope weighs the value of people only by their intelligence, which leads her to make damaging mistakes. Still more limitingly, she believes that intelligence can only be measured in words. But words function as insulation rather than communication in Hope’s own life. Truth-teller that she is, she has retreated from telling her niece Hannah the truth about the guilt that has bound their lives together. Hope quotes habitually, obsessively – lines of talismanic poetry that are never explained or identified to her unwordy niece. The grown-up Hannah is left with a bundle of floating words and phrases that can only shut her out. ‘Break, break, break’, ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections’, ‘nothing comes from nothing.’ Hannah broods on the scraps of a literature she will never share:

They’re like that last piece of chocolate you’ve got your eye on which, just as you’re about to eat it, someone else pops into their mouth, leaving your tongue, your saliva glands, your stomach, all of which were expecting chocolate, cheated and dissatisfied. If I knew who wrote these bits of poems and where they came from, they might go away, but with one or two exceptions, I’ve no idea.

Hannah’s clever and unkind lover is a writer – another piece of bad luck. Inevitably, Hope gets on with him better than Hannah does. Her ungainly child also grows up to be a prodigious wordsmith:

My son Finch learned to read and write when he was three. Nobody taught him; he taught himself, or just picked it up. At six he was reading parts of the newspaper on a daily basis, little paragraphs with stimulating headlines about helicopter crashes and murders. At seven he was reading the leader and the political and business pages, the home news and the foreign news. Aunt Hope thought this wonderful, and that Finch himself was wonderful.

Again and again, words seem to exclude Hannah from affection and belonging. That doesn’t stop language from rooting itself in her mind, forming patterns that she might use to understand and finally to accept the recalcitrant puzzles of her life. Newly widowed, Hope moves into a farmhouse oddly called Arizona with her friend, Jocelyn. It had been owned by another unhappy outsider, who had made a foreign territory of his home. ‘Arizona. Ariz. Or (with zip code) AZ.’ The dingy walls of his neglected house were covered with images of another world. ‘Posters, maps, diagrams, photographs, articles cut from magazines: his obsession collared us in every downstairs room. Gunmen and lawmen, bandits and bounty hunters, bootleggers and cardsharpers. Boom towns and ghost towns. Canyons and creeks.’

Hannah instantly identifies with this solitary passion. The Old West collection is appropriated: ‘Light from the little window above my head illuminated the collaged heads and moustaches and stick-up collars and broad-cloth shoulders of the Earp brothers: Wyatt, James, Virgil, Morgan and Warren. Turning my head a little, I would find myself in Red Rock Country, surveying from the top of the world “the crimsons and blood reds and ochres of Sedona’s sandstone spires”.’ She plans a board-game based on this new territory – the Arizona game. It is to be logical and comprehensible, based on clear moral choices with just and inevitable consequences. Everything, in short, that her life has failed to be. The players are to be firmly divided into Goodies and Baddies, each trying to move cattle from Chicago to Tombstone, Arizona. But she is not the game’s only designer, and the compromise that emerges from the unwelcome intervention of Jocelyn is not at all what she had wanted.

There was no logic to her version. There was no skill required to play. And I saw that her game would be almost impossible to win because the ‘snakes’ outnumbered the ‘ladders’ to a farcical degree. Another thing: in order to escape jail – or a lynch mob or a scalping – players were going to be made to pay out the sort of sums they were un-likely to own.

The Arizona game turns out to be all too like life. No one can win. ‘Jocelyn said that was the whole point. That was why she had developed all those delaying tactics. “It was Hannah who was set on Tombstone; she pooh-poohed all my alternative suggestions. So I thought, OK Corral, if you must; but I’m going to make damn sure we don’t get there in a hurry.” ’ Everyone gets to Tombstone in the end, no matter how unjust or wearisome the diversions along the way.

Like the Arizona game, Hammick’s novel is designed for digression rather than wholeness. She has not relinquished all the tactics of her earlier short fiction. Many stories are included within Hannah’s narrative – her philandering Uncle Ber, who is finally killed by his unreliable heart; the exotic schoolfriend who teaches Hannah about sex and malevolence; her unpleasantly heroic neighbours coping with the two disabled children they have adopted. Some of these sketches are fully resolved, some left open on the page. The complexities of the novel are too much like life to provide the gratifications of escape into a more orderly experience and this, too is the point of the game Hammick plays with her readers.