Double header of short stories by Cally Phillips

I read these two small but powerful collections – almost – at a sitting; I started Voices in Ma Heid one night, and finished It Wisnae Me the following morning, with a short sleep in the middle. I find, with writing in Scots, that I have to ‘get my eye in’, although I suppose that might just as easily mean ‘getting my ear in’. Back in another life I was a Mediaevalist, and spent several years reading old Scots and old and middle English as well. All these forms of writing had such profound regional variations that you began to have a good idea what the writers might have sounded like. It was one of the joys of reading and studying this body of literature.

I found myself considering this when I was reading these two collections, because I think one of their many strengths lies in the fact that Cally Phillips is also a playwright, and playwrights must have a good ear for the voices in their own heads and for the ability to translate that onto page and stage. The result is that the Scots voices in which these stories are told seem so real, so contemporary and vivid that you slide very easily into hearing the voices in your own head too, so clearly that you are drawn into this fictional world with very little trouble. In short, the language enhances rather than obstructs.

Voices in Ma Heid, the first collection is an enticing mixture of the dark, the humorous and the moving.  If I had to single out two stories (and it’s difficult, because all are good in quite different ways) it would have to be The Stabbin O’ Rizzio, which was also featured at the recent Edinburgh ebook Festival, and a story called Telling Tails. As a writer I’m occasionally asked to lead short story workshops and  I’m always on the lookout for perfect stories to illustrate a key point about short story writing. Most beginning writers find themselves trying to squeeze a whole novel into this short form. Both these stories are textbook illustrations of how you can focus in closely on a few events which have whole life implications for the characters. It’s a little like throwing a stone into a still pool and watching the ripples spread outwards. And boy, do these ripples spread.

Cally’s stories are always vividly visual and The Stabbin O’ Rizzio is no exception. We feel with and for the narrator, who tells a hideously sad tale of exploitation, abuse and violence in an almost matter-of-fact tone which nevertheless grows in power until the devastating ending. This story, moreover has a curious quality to it. Because of the title, which recollects the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’s secretary, David Rizzio, in Holyrood Palace, stabbed many times in front of a heavily pregnant Mary, we have that story in our minds at some level of our consciousness, even while we’re reading. It’s nothing so overt as a simple parallel. It’s both more understated and more central than that. It’s as though the reference throws this contemporary tragedy into a sharp and almost heraldic relief: both original and admirable.

My favourite story of the whole collection though, is Telling Tails, about two men and a dog. Well, two dogs really, but they’re not in the story for long. The narrator is an ordinary guy living in Galloway and he meets Callum – who ‘hud cam doon frae the islands’ – in a pub. It’s a funny, sad, beautiful story about friendship and loss and revelation. About walking and talking. About the gifts people give to each other. About loss and sadness. It’s devastatingly subtle and subtly devastating. ‘Ma point is aboot this beginnin’ and endin’ stuff,’ says the narrator. ’This stuff that mak’s oor  individual experience in some sma’ way a kinda bigger hing. An’ I kinda hink ma story has a kinda big hing in there somewhere. I dinna ken if I ken whit it is bit. Mebbe I’m tae clase tae see it. ‘ Oh yes, there’s a big thing in there somewhere. Something so big, that it made me cry!

It Wisnae Me, the second collection, is more of a piece, although each story still stands alone. It’s essentially a series of stories about significant points in the young life of the narrator which begins with a seven year old girl in Dundee (and the sing song Dundee voice is so clear here) who manages to join the Cubs instead of the Brownies, who wants to play football and who wants to be Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, marching about with his uniform and his whistle.

We meet her again, joining the Guides, and indulging in a little light entrepreneurialism, and again when she moves to Edinburgh. By the end of the book we know her very well and like her very much. But I suppose one other reason why I loved this collection is that I identified strongly with so much of it. I too was a pixie in the Brownies, dancing round a despised toadstool. I too remember the Hare Krishna crowd in Edinburgh in their orange robes, ‘Bit even though they wis scary an’ ah didn’t want to tae be captured or brainwashed by them, they wis still that wee bitty exciting…’ And I remember what it felt like to be a growing girl, and what happens when you hit adolescence.

But perhaps most of all, these stories made me realise just how little that female experience, my own experience, is reflected in contemporary literary Scottish fiction of the traditionally published kind. I especially appreciated a story called Wha’s Feart O’ The Library, a story with dark and terrifying undercurrents which I’d like to bet far more women than men will recognise and identify with.

Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska 

Voices in Ma Heid available in Amazon Kindle format and Kobo epub format 

It Wisnae me available in Amazon Kindle format and Kobo epub format 

Find out more about Cally Phillips 

For an earlier set of reviews about Voices in Ma Heid (our 50th review slot) click HERE