Last year, I was very impressed by Claire Keegan’s short story The Forester’s Daughter published in a single volume as part of Faber Stories – a wonderful series of short books devoted to either a single story or a couple of them by an author. I wanted to read more of her work and the striking cover (a detail from the Bruegel painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’) on Small Things Like These gave me the impetus I need to crack open its pages.
Small Things Like These is a quiet, haunting, atmospheric tale that dwells on how kindness can make a difference in people’s lives and how having a purpose can instill a sense of meaning or fulfillment.
This novella is set in a small Irish town and the year is 1985. We are introduced to our protagonist Bill Furlong, a respected coal and timber merchant and a decent man. Bill’s business provides comfortably for him and his family, but the work is physically demanding. Particularly, during the depths of winter, when the demand for coal and wood is at its peak, Bill makes most of the deliveries himself including cutting and splitting the felled trees which the farmers bring in.
Bill has much to be thankful for. His business generates a steady stream of income and he finds joy in his family and their cosy home – he loves his wife Eileen and takes great pride in how wonderfully his five daughters are shaping up, they are intelligent and doing well in school.
And yet there is something that agitates him, a formless feeling that he can’t quite put his finger on. Some of it is rooted in his past which continues to haunt him. We learn that Bill is an illegitimate child. His mother becomes pregnant with him at the tender age of sixteen while working as a domestic for Mrs Wilson, a Protestant widow with a big house a few miles outside their town. Conservative Irish society would have shunned them, but Mrs Wilson does nothing of the kind. Bill and his mother find sanctuary in her home and she continues to treat them well. Bill has no idea who his father is and his mother never reveals his father’s identity, but he yearns to know just the same, even hoping as a child that Santa would fulfill that one wish for Christmas.
Meanwhile, back in the present, a slew of developments take place that marks a shift in Bill’s perception of his present circumstances, of how he has been living his life. During one of his coal deliveries to the Convent, by chance he comes across a group of women working hard at scrubbing the floor, one of whom walks up to him and implores him to rescue her. The arrival of a nun restores the scene to what it was, but that one fleeting moment unsettles Bill greatly.
That incident having formed an impression on his mind, he is once again confronted with another scene some days later when making his routine deliveries to the Convent. There he comes across an abject woman in the shed where the coal is stored, a woman whose newly born baby has just been taken away from her. She is clueless about her baby’s whereabouts and requests him to find out. Bill again finds it difficult to act given that he is a part of a society that discourages association with these so called “fallen” women but he remains tormented.
A discussion with Eileen on this encounter shows how both respond differently to it. Bill can’t help thinking about his girls and what would happen should they too meet the same fate. But Eileen refuses to consider the possibility, however remote, of such a fate ever befalling her girls.
‘Isn’t it a good job Mrs Wilson didn’t share your ideas?’ Furlong looked at her. ‘Where would my mother have gone? Where would I be now?’
‘Weren’t Mrs Wilson’s cares far from any of ours?’ Eileen said. ‘Sitting in that big house with her pension and a farm of land and your mother and Ned working under her was she not one of the few women on this earth who could do as she pleased?’
The developments at the Convent form the central story arc of this novella and are modeled on the horrific Magdalen laundries that sprung up in Ireland till the late 20th century.
Indeed, at the very beginning Claire Keegan’s dedication reads as follows – This story is dedicated to the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and bay homes and Magdalen laundries.
As per Wikipedia, the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland, also known as Magdalen asylums, were institutions usually run by Roman Catholic orders, which operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They were run ostensibly to house “fallen women”, an estimated 30,000 of whom were confined in these institutions in Ireland. In 1993, unmarked graves of 155 women were uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries.
It is a grim reminder of the unholy nexus between the powerful Church and these institutions, and the terrible treatment meted out to women – pregnant single mothers and children born out of wedlock were shunned by society and exploited for profits (these women were used as a ready source of free labour for these expanding laundry businesses), while the men escaped scot-free without a taint on their reputation and bore no responsibility. The burden fell solely on the women and with it came the shame and ostracization.
There was other talk, too, about the place. Some said that the training school girls, as they were known, weren’t students of anything, but girls of low character who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty lines, that they worked from dawn til night. Others claimed that it was the nuns themselves who worked their fingers to the bone, knitting Aran jumpers and threading rosary beads for export, that they had hearts of gold and problems with their eyes, and weren’t allowed to speak, only to pray, that some were fed no more than bread and butter for half the day but were allowed a hot dinner in the evenings, once their work was done.
Others swore the place was no better than a mother-and-baby home where common, unmarried girls went into be hidden away after they had given birth, saying it was their own people who had put them in there after their illegitimates had been adopted out to rich Americans, or sent off to Australia, that the nuns got good money by placing these babies out foreign, that it was industry they had going.
The other dominant theme of this novella is how a bit of kindness and quiet acts of heroism can go a long way in altering a person’s circumstances. Bill can’t ever forget Mrs Wilson’s kindness, her ready willingness to accept him and his mother, without which both would have possibly sunk to the lowest of lows. Can Bill in some way pay that kindness or good deed forward?
This novella also paints a picture of the feeling of emptiness that can creep up on you when you find yourself without a meaningful purpose. Bill is often beset by moments of anguish. His achievements are no mean feat but there are times he can’t help wondering if his work as a coal merchant is all that he is destined for. Is it the only thing to look forward to for days on end?
What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and going to the yard, making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing , yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? Lately he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.
Small Things Like These is also a miniature portrait of a marriage – how the personalities of Bill and Eileen are starkly dissimilar. Eileen is a practical woman, lives in the present, and believes in getting on with the job at hand. For her, there’s no time for reminisces or regrets. Bill, on the other hand, is a man prone to always thinking about the future or revisiting his past.
In a nutshell, Small Things Like These is a compact gem, a timely reminder of how simple gestures of kindness and empathy are crucial in communities, especially at a time when we live in an increasingly fraught and polarized world. Heroism is not always about bigshots or rich, powerful people changing how we view the world. The change can come from ordinary, unsung heroes whose revolutionary thinking can make communities inclusive and worth living in.