From age two up to my early teens we lived round the corner from Mr and Mrs J and their three lads, a family who were notorious in the area.
Mrs J did not dress like the other mums, whose style choices tended towards vaguely shapeless dresses, comfy shoes and headscarves – this was the early 1970s. Mrs J would sashay around in tight jeans, skimpy tops and stilettos, immaculately made-up and painted, with hair so extravagantly ‘done’ that even the name of the style seemed to be straight from a story-book: Beehive, Fishtail, Alice Band.
The J’s notoriety, though, was due less to Mrs J’s sartorial otherness than the fact that the middle brother, let’s call him Frankie, was the well-known local ‘hard knock’. Frankie was behind every petty misdemeanour in the area – stripping the lead from the school roof, breaking into the G’s house late at night while the family slept and raiding the kitchen, going on a joy ride on my dad’s motorbike then setting the fuel tank on fire, ransacking the corner newspaper ‘hut’ – or, if not him, we all believed it was, which was much the same thing.
The J’s rear garden backed onto ours, separated only by a low picket-type fence. At some stage Frankie decided this would make a good get-away route. I’d be playing ball on the front lawn and suddenly Frankie would duck down our path, climb the wall separating the front garden from the back, vault the fence and be safely home by the back door. Mrs J didn’t even know he’d left the house, or so she’d swear. (‘He’s been here the whole time, Officer.’) My mum discovered a love of rambling roses, and spent many hours training thorny stems up the dividing wall.
Strange as it might sound, nobody ever confronted Frankie or reported him. If ever a policeman had asked, then I’d have seen nothing, heard nothing, known nothing. I was schooled from an early age in the shared community understanding that no-one likes a clat-tale. If you want to survive this place, best make like the Three Wise Monkeys.
Besides, although Frankie was a ‘scallywag’, he was one of ‘us’. He and his mates fought the scallys from the K Estate two blocks away, which was a no-go zone for us. I could ride my bike as far as A Avenue, which marked the ‘border’ but on no account was I to go any further. Better the devil you know, my mum would say. If not Frankie, what other demons might fall upon us?
So, my mother’s rose-obsession aside, Frankie was tolerated, even protected. Or he was, until the day he did something beyond the pale: he stabbed the milkman.
The way the story came out afterwards, it was a mugging gone wrong. Frankie had waylaid the milkman at the end of his round, thinking a knife would scare him into handing over his takings, but there was a tussle and Frankie panicked and, well, that was it. Thankfully, the milkman survived. Frankie, in a sense, didn’t. His knife had shredded the communal code of silence. When he was arrested later that day GBH topped a very long charge sheet.
Although I left that life behind decades ago, it came flooding back when I read Anna Burns’ Milkman, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2018.
Burns conjures a world were communities are tight, the-right-sort-of violence is normalised, people are afforded protection as long as they are not ‘beyond the pales’, and the threats that carry the most menace are those that remain unsaid.
The narrator is middle sister, a teenage girl, who attracts the unwanted attention of Milkman – not a real milkman, but a high-ranking, married, local thug. Cue life getting smaller and smaller, as she becomes too scared to see maybe-boyfriend, or jog with third brother-in-law.
Middle sister’s increasing sense of personal suffocation plays out against, and mirrors, the societal strangulation brought about by rigid enforcement of a tribal identity: “matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community and their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well…television programmes…food and drink…bus-stops.”
You might have gathered by now that Burns shuns conventional names, for both people and places. In addition to the characters I’ve already mentioned there are wee sisters, longest friend, the pious women, the issues women, tablets girl…I could go on. Oh, and there is even a real milkman, who is shot.
Ostensibly, Milkman is set during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. But Burns’ naming (or no-naming) convention ensures the story transcends the boundaries of nation and time: it could as easily be set in a totalitarian state or a dystopian future…or a 1970s council estate. As devices go, it is simple yet brilliantly effective.
Another masterstroke is the narration. Middle sister’s language is simple and direct, yet the first person perspective raises the possibility of – one of my favourite things – an unreliable narrator. Because what teenage girl understands everything, even if she thinks she does?
Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year.
[PS. Mrs J once invited me into their house and let me watch her preparing one of her wigs. Her real hair, unlike the head-turning hairstyles, was cropped and wispy.]