With this haunting collection of short stories, which vacillate back and fore between Anglesey and the remotenesses of Canada, Tristan Hughes stakes a claim as a veritable laureate of loneliness. His characters, stranded within icy relationships, or trapped in neolithic burial chambers, or set adrift in empty northern landscapes which are actually frozen down to a dangerous chill, all ache with longing. Many propose variations on the theme of hiraeth but one that is no quiet nostalgia but rather a sense of absence that threaten to overwhelm or erode self-belief. That is certainly true for the central character in the superb tale called ‘Long Distance.’
He arranges to meet a lover from Boston at a place half way between their two homes – being a white-washed cottage on Ynys Môn – in order to iron out the problems in their two year-old relationship. The place is characterful and fully lives up to the brochure’s promise, crammed with old-world-charm and curios, including walls covered in antique posters of Canada. One shows a farmer and his team of horses, another the same man and his wife tending the land and the third mapping out the prairies and labelled ‘The Flour Barrel of the World.’ Here he imagines what his girlfriend is up to, as it slowly dawns on the reader that she isn’t coming, maybe never was.t
We join him as he hopefully listens to the plangent drops of rain ‘falling on the slates and cascading over the eaves. For a confused moment, I thought these might be the plump, electronic drips of incoming Skype messages.’ He kills time by searching for the black guillemots that nest nearby and by repeatedly phoning Glyn the owner of the property, as if just to hear another voice and telling him that ‘maybe oceans and intervening miles and missing and yearning and fearing were a kind of kink or fetish.’
He watches the hands of the clock turn slowly even as his mind’s eye maps out his lover’s body, imagining another man lying beside her and we notice that he doesn’t get replies to his messages to her. By the time he voyeuristically ponders the Google Earth image of the outside of her apartment the sense of emptiness is almost palpable. Here is a man on an island, for sure, and so very stranded.
In one of the most haunting stories in the collection, ‘ENE,’ which takes its title from the compass point, an inveterate keeper of journals for more than fifty years sets out for Montreal to try to sell them, having already sold the sled and horses. Times are hard. He leaves behind his wife he knows most intimately, their relationship captured achingly well:
‘The door behind him creaks open. There is no need to turn around. Her footsteps are soft and quiet. He knows them without having to hear them.
I am like the Barren Lands, Charlotte, he jokes. All cracked stone and moss.
Don’t forget the snow, she says.
His hair has turned nearly completely white. He still wears it in the style of the fur trade, cut straight over his forehead.’
The old trapper sets off on his journey, befriending a young boy on the way. We realise that he might well be the old man in the posters as these stories interconnect and splice, bridging continents and spanning time, sometimes explicitly, sometimes tentatively. We leave him as he heads for home in wild weather, abandoning the life story contained in the diaries as if he is leaving behind life itself, traversing land in the expectation of meeting ghosts.
Tristan Hughes has always been an accomplished artist with a deft and sure touch and the nine tales here arrayed show that very much at work, as he paints entire landscapes in series of judicious phrases. A road trip to Lake Superior is a series of watery relevations and ‘as each new expanse of water had revealed itself, so the land that edged it became harder and more spare; the earth thin, the vegetation impoverished, the glacier-scoured outcrops of rock jutting out like the beached scales of stone-aged fish.’ Back in Wales the audible movements of the tide are ‘long ravening exhalations, the ghastly slurping and sucking. A giantess masticating a bone.’
But just as accomplished as his renderings of landscape are the mappings of his character’s inner lands, those lonely terrains. In the opening story Magda and Joshua stay in a campsite remote enough for caribou to wander through where they find they are sexually hopelessly mismatched, in a story with a true shock of an ending. The following story, ‘The Giantess’s Apron’ opens in the same vein as we find ‘Judith’s boyfriend, Thomas, was crying inside the barrow’s chamber and she could think of no way to get him out of it.’
If the writing wasn’t so assured and spot-on this would perhaps be a sad volume to read, but Hughes’ beautiful employment of language to both probe and illuminate his characters’ lives is ultimately affirmative. This is a writer who examines life’s stuff with honesty and clarity and ‘Shattercone’ reaffirms his confident and ready gifts. It’s a volume I, for one, will surely return to, safe in the belief that a second reading of these lucent stories will reap its own rewards, making even more connections.
Shattercone is published by Parthian and can be bought here.