In the Night Supermarket by James Burt
This neat vignette, on the surface chronicling Ellen’s visits to the night supermarket, does several things at once. Most obviously it satirises the 24/7 consumer driven lifestyle of the modern world, with Ellen and the other characters buying products for which they have little real use, simply because they can, as a form of displacement activity verging on addiction. It also, by inference, addresses the loneliness of modern life – Ellen and all the others wandering the aisles like zombies are solitary figures, here because they have no-one to go home to, an emotional vacuity in their lives that the supermarket fills. And there’s the suggestion of something supernatural in the works – the fact that the supermarket thrives despite its isolated site, the fact that nothing Ellen buys at the supermarket ever goes off – so that in a way the supermarket almost seems like some manifestation of the afterlife, a hellish vision of limbo. And finally there are the nightmares, the reason Ellen visits the supermarket in the first place, because shopping keeps them at bay, but now when she dreams it is of the others consumers, the people just like herself, her subconscious recognising that life itself has become the nightmare which shopping allows her to escape, the two inextricably linked in a feedback loop.
Shades of Blue by Catherine MacLeod
While it has a nasty sting in the tail, this story is about beauty, or rather its lack, and appropriately enough it is beautifully written, with words that convey sensory impressions in the most vivid terms. It’s the story of Clara, who loves beautiful prose, for whom words come alive on the page, but Clara herself is not beautiful, or at least believes such to be the case, and feels herself to be isolated, alone, unwanted. A moment of epiphany comes when she buys a beautiful purse – ‘it had actually been plain until someone sewed the fabric over it, stitching it into a touchable mosaic’. Taking to heart the philosophy of her seamstress mother, who believed that ‘everything could be fixed with needle and thread’, Clara sets to work to fix her own plainness. Beautifully written but a sad story, that of an ugly duckling who transforms into a swan at a terrible cost, but feels the cost is worth it for the momentary pleasure afforded. And perhaps also a subtext about our obsession with superficiality and what it drives some to, and at a stretch a comment on the vanity and futility of cosmetic surgery.
This Is Mung by Christine Emmett
The most repellent story of the Campaign so far, as regards subject matter, but to fully ‘appreciate’ it you need to know what mung is. Emmett adds an extra element of vileness, in that not only do her criminal gangs dig up corpses, they first create them, raping and murdering women. At its heart the story is a powerful indictment of the gap between the haves and the have nots, who are empowered to commit any atrocity by their outsider status, and it’s also about denial, seen in the false machismo of the young man who acts tough when told of mung even though he feels sick inside, and the people who do not come to help when a victim is cornered by the gangs because they fear for themselves. But there’s more to it than that, with a double meaning in the opening sentence of the story – ‘It took me some time to understand what mung is.’ The young man is followed home by a gang and imagines himself as their victim, and it’s only through this act of imaginative substitution that he can truly appreciate the horror. And the story’s closing image brings home another difference between the haves and the have nots. The young man reaches the safety of his home, a gated compound with an electric fence, and yet standing behind the barricades he doesn’t feel safe. Rather his situation seems like that of an animal, tethered and trapped, waiting to be slaughtered.
The Price by Jennifer Williams
A story of folk magic and urban legend, set on an estate where lawlessness can run rife if it is not checked and the locals have no faith in the ability of the police to keep them safe. When a pensioner is murdered the people turn to Daniel’s Nan, a witch in all but name, who usually deals with minor illnesses and emotional problems, but can be called on for more serious matters when the need arises. Nan will help, but she tells them the price will be dear. A sacrifice is made in an underground car park at midnight, ferocious dogs turned loose on a ‘tiny thing on the gritty floor’. We are not told what the sacrifice is, but next morning distraught parents from another neighbourhood are on the TV appealing for help in finding their missing child, and a thug with a knife in his pocket turns away from the estate and goes off to somewhere else. As Nan states ‘”The Price is too high”‘. A key note here is the very ordinariness of what is taking place for these people, crystallised in the opening image of ‘pig fetuses in the deep freeze, next to a side of beef and a tub of Neapolitan’. The story marks the lack of faith in authority and increasing insularity of modern urban communities, offering up a grittily real and disturbing dramatisation of the ‘not in my back yard’ philosophy, with the people of the estate not caring what happens elsewhere or who has to die as long as they’re safe.