Before the narrator of ‘L0ND0N’ steps out into the road in front of an oncoming bus, thinking he has spotted the familiar head of a dead friend, he experiences the human sea as it flows around him:
“People streamed past in both directions, a blur of colour and a murmur of countless conversations leaking smells of burgers and sandwich fillings and astringent perfumes and cigarettes and Lynx and exhaust fumes and drifting from somewhere nearby the sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts. It seemed impossible to me that I should be able to see through all this and all the red buses and black cabs and white vans and all the cycle couriers and motorbikes and the corresponding streams of people…”
This is the flâneur navigating the streets of twenty-first century London, surrounded on all sides by traffic, crowds, and commerce. As Susan Buck-Morss wrote in her 1986 essay, The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore, “For the flaneur, it was traffic that did him in”, but luckily (spoiler alert), our narrator is smashed out of the way by a bike before the bus can reach him.
In this collection walking is often a sinister act. We follow characters who are themselves following or being followed around city streets, into flats or the interiors of art galleries and pubs — even when we are not sure who is doing the following, or when the characters themselves don’t seem to know. In ‘Trompe l’Oeil’, a writer at an arts magazine finds himself followed around galleries by a woman who precedes him in the visitors’ books. “I think she must be anticipating where I’m going next and making sure she gets there first.”
A preoccupation with mortality haunts these tales and within a couple of stories, the reader has been primed to expect a death, murder or suicide with the turn of the page. Death lurks palpably beneath each sentence and very often the suggestion remains buried (pun only subsequently noticed), so the reader is unsure who will die or even who is doing the killing. In ‘L NDON’ we are presented with four friends who meet regularly at Jan’s Bar and have the everyday, mundane conversations about weddings and invites, while the implied murders all take place offstage.
One of my favourite aspects of this collection is the attention paid to superficial details on the surface while what is really going on remains hidden: the idea of a story concealing the palimpsest of a story underneath. The precision of Royle’s sentences, the accurate description and meticulous attention to detail all keep us rooted in the real, which no doubt makes its uncanny elements feel all the more unsettling, while also lending the stories a tone often playful and comic. In the collection’s final story, ‘The Vote’, the details suggest it is a story about Brexit, though the word is never mentioned and all the reader sees is a man and wife holidaying for three nights at a hotel just outside of London.
Often the world of film and dreams intertwine with a story’s ‘reality’. Many characters live with the reality of a film or dream in their minds and they, like us, can’t quite distinguish what is real and what is fantasy. Dreams resemble life, which resembles film, which resembles dreams… When the narrator of ‘Empty Boxes’ isn’t walking the streets or adding to his maps of abandoned cinemas, he sits and watches the nightly show of trains from his rear window. “Each [train] was a movie, with a hundred different lead actors and a thousand narrative strands. From his magnificent vantage point, sitting by the window in his director’s chair, Simon felt in control.” Other stories — such as ‘Inside/Out’ and ‘Artefact’ interweave the language of screenplays, while ‘Train, Night’ is made up of intertextual references to Un soir, un train by Belgian film director André Delvaux.
Life and literature intertwine too. The author’s own preoccupations — with film and video, with Hitchcock, with death, trains, Belgian beer, the art world, walking and maps — are threaded through the collection like motifs and the narrators of these stories often appear to come close to the author, with many humorous hints at the writer blending his life with those of his characters. “He was my kind of writer,” says the editor for a small publisher in the story ‘L0ND0N’, “using a lot of real experience, then twisting his material so you didn’t really know where his story ended and his narrator’s began.”
As well as being a novelist and tutor at the Manchester Writing School, Nicholas Royle is one of the foremost enthusiasts and champions of the short story form, through his work as editor for Salt Publishing — compiling a yearly edition of the Best British Short Stories since 2011 — or his own Nightjar Press, for which he publishes single stories in the form of lovingly-made individual chapbooks. This collection evidences that Royle is not only a vital advocate of the short story, but is himself a master of the form.
Melissa Wan received the inaugural Crowdfunded BAME Writers’ Scholarship to study Creative Writing at UEA, and was 2019’s Northern Word Factory Apprentice. Her story ‘This Must Be Earth’ was published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press in 2021. She lives in Manchester, where she is working on her first collection.