Written by Nigel Bird — Ray Spalding lives in a violent marriage. His wife Paula has anger management issues. One day it becomes too much and Ray leaves Paula, his home in Southside, Edinburgh, and his 12-year-old son Jesse. He heads to Belfast to start over, using his brother Cliff’s place as a base for a couple of months until he can find his feet again. Ray gets a job, but is also used by Cliff as an excuse to be out of the house. Cliff is a recent father and he has a mistress…
Unbeknownst to Ray, Paula decides enough is enough too and lets Jesse know she’s leaving by email. So poor Jesse wakes up the morning after the fight to find himself all alone. The flat is a mess. Besides the remnants of blood from the fight it hasn’t been cleaned and tidied for an age. This is where Jesse lives now, alone. The trouble is if he goes to the authorities, he’ll be taken into care, and he doesn’t want that. But how is he going to live? The rent is due, he needs to eat and go to school.
But Jesse has two crutches to get him through – first his friend, Archie Stevens. Archie is from the other side of the economic tracks and Paula has taken exception to him in the past, so they only see each other at school. Archie gives Jesse food, but can’t provide the £516 rent Jesse has to come up with in the next five days. So Jesse turns to his second crutch, his father’s 1950s record collection, some of which is extremely valuable. He goes to a pawn shop and gets the cash, but it has to be repaid soon and with interest…
The last description that could be applied to Southsiders is ‘happy’. This is a grim tale of love and eventual reconciliation for both Jesse and Ray. Paula is never truly present in the story – she’s a spectre that sits in the background, whose shadow looms over everyone and everything. Jesse soon realises he’s happier alone, without all the fights happening over his head, but he misses his father. Ray too doesn’t regret leaving Paula, but he feels lost without Jesse, quickly realising the grass isn’t greener in Belfast.
This isn’t a particularly long story of just over 30,000 words, yet the author manages to develop both the story and characters extremely well, the sign of a well rounded and practiced author. On the other hand I would have liked the novella to reach full length. Southsiders is tightly focused on the perils of the main protagonists – Jesse and Ray – with the remaining characters such as Archie supporting the pair through their ills and reconciliation. It is very well done. The description is taut and powerful, the dialogue sharp. Neither of the city backdrops, Belfast or Edinburgh, are anything more than grey and, dare I say it, depressing. But despite all this gritty stuff the result is a powerful and in the end happy tale.
Read our interview with Nigel Bird here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars