This Train is For
“McGill’s deft handling of the way one’s past shadows the mundane offers some of the strongest moments of this collection.”
In This Train is For, Bernie McGill’s new collection of short stories, an old man takes the train to see his dying and estranged sister; a jaded woman comes back to Ireland to bury her long-dead brother, missing for forty-seven years; a heartbroken woman dogsits for a friend in Majorca; someone who has found herself susceptible to other people’s emotions like sicknesses goes to an art show…
There is a lot of pain here, often built up through silence (the estrangement is caused by a sister’s disgust at her brother’s ‘half-breed’ marriage to the daughter of an English policeman; the woman in Majorca is running from the shame of two pregnancies lost to miscarriage and the subsequent destruction of her relationship). Rather than offering moments of high passion or emotional release, these stories are revealed evenly, offered in tones made matter of fact by the passing of time. This is by no means a criticism: McGill’s deft handling of the way one’s past shadows the mundane offers some of the strongest moments of this collection. So we see a woman prepare herself for meeting the man who abused her as a child at her father’s funeral: ‘she plans her route through the wake and funeral with military precision so that there will be no surprises, no unanticipated emotion to ambush her in the days ahead’; elsewhere, in one of the most unsettling stories, a student dealing with the unexplained appearance of a small boy in her room remarks, ‘I meet my mother in the library café, my natural mother, the unnatural one’. Whole histories are folded into these moments of precise, ungiving language. Often the stories end in similar manners: ambiguity and uncertainty, rather than finality, are the dominant feelings. A woman on holiday goes home. The man’s sister dies. A woman – a model? – who floats in and out of people’s lives when she needs them disappears again.
Inevitably, some of the stories are more successful than others. In one story, which deals explicitly with the Covid-19 lockdown, the narrator is a young girl who wants to be an astronaut. This is one of the moments in the collection where the language is really allowed to open up to joy; even in her relation of her grandfather’s illness, the girl brings in fantasy. ‘Granda’s speed is very low but all the same, I watch him for signs of collision, in case the same thing happens to him that happened with the missing Martian moon.’ In a stark contrast, the final story – about a magician and his relationship with his daughter’s teacher – offers nothing but cynicism. The magic show is overshadowed by the ghost of a larger act; the teacher ‘knows it’s not real but … can’t figure out how it’s done’. The audience, largely cynical adults, enjoy the show: ‘for an hour or two, they remember what it is to be astonished.’ It is an achingly bittersweet portrayal of someone locked outside of delight.
Words: Alice Wickenden