Patrick McCabe, “Ships and shadows and invisible men”, in The Guardian (Sat. 4 Sept. 4, 2004).

Sub-heading: Voices overheard on the landing launched Patrick McCabe into a lonely private world.


I can remember an argument between my mother and father. It happened one night and the details are very vague. I would like to be able to say that I distinctly recall the sounds of sobbing. However, I don’t. There may or may not have been - that’s all I can say.
 But it was the loneliest thing in the world, standing up there on that landing, trying to decipher those muffled sounds, those heartbreaking, half-heard, stumbling exchanges. I know now that it is a landing and a scene that might have come from a Harold Pinter boarding house, but I didn’t know that then.
 There had been a fire in the house - a small one - some weeks before and this had caused great tension. The charred smell still lingered in the air. A number of our neighbours had turned out that night to give whatever assistance they could. I remember us all just standing there - waiting for flames that never came. There was just a smell of choking smoke and tiny black sputniks leisurely drifting in the starlit blue all along the length of the redbrick terrace.
 As I stood there on that landing, I thought of those sputniks - little black atoms of soot floating by - and longed to be one. At night over the town you could see all the stars - James Joyce’s heaventree heavily laden with the bluest of fruit.
 Everything, you felt, was clear out there. You could hear - pristine, perfect - every word that was spoken. Where I was standing was the opposite of bright space. It was a place I’d find later on in Dubliners - that smelt of old rotted plants and ash pits, orchestrated by sad ballads, semi-comatose; never finished. Where your head flopped backwards but your mouth stayed open - its mute cry frozen.
  Tenebrous is an epithet often applied to those stories. I didn’t move a muscle as I stood there waiting for a movement down below. When it came - a mere shifting of a foot followed by the slightest of coughs - it seemed perpetrated by a shadow and nothing more. It was as though they had both been robbed of flesh and form - the two people I loved and who, purportedly, loved me - and become as shades silent by a window, in some unearthly void - as Michel Houellebecq has written of Kakfa’s The Trial - in which no human contact seemed possible.
 Everyone lives in their own private world - I began to learn that soon after - which meant I could never tell my father what had happened. He was never to know I’d been watching them. If existence is a tiny crack of light between two eternities of darkness - and somewhere deep I felt it was - then it should come as no surprise that I should get to turning over in my mind the distressing possibility of the existence of a number - possibly infinite - of similar landings, all of them entirely separate and disconnected. But each one possessing its own unique gloom, where small boys in pyjamas had no option but to listen and, in an emotional state troublingly close to paralysis, do their best to untangle those knotted glottal cords of speech and define that penumbral, heart-saddening geometry.
 That was why I became invisible - very shortly after, say a couple of weeks. It might sound difficult, but not when you are seven. You could find out all you wanted in the pages of The Valiant, if you read Louis Crandell, who was at that time its best-known exponent. One chuck of electric wires and away you go, a claw of polished silver steel winding effortlessly up the town.
 Being invisible made you learn fast. Find out that, just as I’d suspected, every house had its landings. It didn’t seem so bad after I’d made that discovery once and for all - amassed incontrovertible empirical evidence, as Detective Inspector Paul Terhune of The Hornet might put it - and, shortly after that, I established my office - in a shed behind the doctor’s with paper and pens I’d borrowed from my father. My first story was “The Death of all Those Bastarding Shadows”, and while it wasn’t a major international success, it cheered me somewhat and brightened up the landing. There were many to follow after that, including “Louis Crandell vs The Minotaur” (I had this idea he was waiting for me after school) and a good few more concerning my family.
 But I won’t bother you with those.
 People have said to me: You know, I really admire your fiction for the way you champion the outcast and do it in the language of ordinary people - ordinary working-class people at that.
 Which means little to me, I’m afraid I have to say.
 But this does:
  “Literature is not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the overdog. It appeals to the secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.”
Thank you Mr Nabokov - I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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