Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “The Moon”
Short story Short: This is yet another story about the impossibly fierce, beautiful and unapproachable women living in the fictional Irish town of Glanbeigh.
Short story Long: This follows the example set by “Bait” in so far as it takes the basic gender dynamics explored in “The Clancy Kid” and deepens the analysis by exporting it to a slightly different relationship. The result is a surprisingly humane short story about the crisis of masculinity and how young women react to the collapse of male identities. It also touches on the idea of change and how making positive changes in one’s life often requires levels of energy that are drained by the very things that would make you want to make those changes in the first place.
When change is impossible one can only settle and “The Moon” is as much a story about a woman’s refusal to settle as it is about a man finding comfort and stability in the misery that surrounds him.
The story revolves around Valentine Neary, a bouncer at one of the pub/nightclubs that inevitably serve as set dressing for the stories in this collection. Val is a strong, confident man who has been around the block enough times to acquire a bit of wisdom and older man-swagger. Barrett establishes Val’s authority in an early encounter with some local girls:
‘Is busy-busy,’ said Boris, nodding, as the taxi pulled into the carpark. From it emerged four girls. Val and Boris took them in, the four barelegged, in miniskirts and heels and tops devised from impressively inadequate swatches of material. Val squared his shoulders and cleared his throat. Not one of them was near eighteen. As they approached the girls became quiet under the cool wattage of the bouncers’ gaze.
Val milks the encounter for all it’s worth, bantering with the girls and waiting for the prettiest one to react before pretending to reluctantly let them in. Val’s enactment of the ritual betrays not a hint of irony… he genuinely seems to revel in his ability to force conversation from a bunch of teenaged girls.
In Val’s head, the fact that the girls are underage gives him power over them and his decision to let them in reveals him as a bit of a scamp. You can almost imagine him checking himself out in the mirror and muttering ‘still got it’ as the girls slip from view and safely exchange rolled eyes and gagging gestures. Far from making him out to be a big man, this scene established Val as yet another loser who can only treat women as equals when they’re under-age and he has an entire institution to back him up.
From there, the story shifts to Val’s relationship with Martina Boren, youngest daughter of the club’s owner. Though glossed over, the patriarch is another pathetic figure who boasts about his successful daughters in front of a bunch of drink-cudgelled pensioners:
‘This one,’ he’d say, grabbing the girl by her shapeless shoulders, ‘is off to Trinity boys. Medicine!’
The girl (then sixteen) drags out some books and begins revising but the high-flying wannabe-doctor ignores her father’s wishes and winds up studying art somewhere in Galway. The middle-class reaction to this piece of information would be to assume that Martina failed to live up to her potential but a more relevant assessment would be to say that Martina’s dad wind up having no influence on where she chose to go to college.
When Martina returns, it is as one of those fierce young women:
Now nineteen, Martina had grown up and into herself. First night on the job she showed up sporting a pair of knee-high leather boots and strategically gouged pink tights, hair dyed to a high orange flame, and a murderous glint in her eye that said the dowdy teenaged bookworm of yesterday was dead and gone.
Instantly smitten, Val tries to seduce Martina only for her to shove her hand down the front of his trousers. Their affair exists for reasons that seem to completely elude Val. In fairness to him, the closest Barrett comes to explaining Martina’s attraction to a creepy aging doorman is that his much-rehearsed professional cynicism chimes with her outright hostility to the world of pubs and nightclubs:
From their elevated niche, the three watched as the last of the night’s crowd slowly dispersed. Girls huddled together rubbing their bare goosefleshed arms. Boys stood alone with their chests out, fists wadded into pockets, glowering at the dark with thwarted, bloodshot eyes. Other boys and girls leant into one another, tangling arms, laughing conspicuously. Numbers were being carefully fingered into mobiles. Girls lingered on the threshold of taxi doors as boys extorted a final kiss and hug, the accompanying grope – open palm grazing the curve of a buttock – so brief as to be plausibly inadvertent. And certain pairings had already slipped away alone together, leaving their friends to make their own way home.
‘Gobshites,’ Martina said.
In the opening section, Val plays the role of the doormen who doesn’t let in underage punters only to respond to a smile and a bit of banter by playing the equally stereotypical role of the bouncer who is actually okay once you get to know him. His cynicism about the niceties of human pair-bonding rituals is affected whereas Martina’s is real.
Martina invites Val for a drink and ambushes him with him with his relationship problems. She’s dating a bloke back in Galway but he’s too nice… too clingy… too desperate and he won’t leave her alone.
‘He’s so excitable. Laps at my neck, like a dog. Pants,’ Martina said, sticking out her tongue and going hah hah hah.
Sat in the dimming twilight, Martina says that Glanbeigh reminds her of a place in Holland where she once went on holiday with some friends. Every night, the group would take a load of mushrooms and wait for an old bloke to pedal past on his bike. Martina refers to the man as Old Father Time and her description makes him sound like some sort of alien:
He’d never stop or say anything, just give us the same wide-eyed spooky stare he’d always give us. He had a dog, a dinky little Jack Russell that’d come trotting along after him. The dog had a leash clipped to the collar around its neck, and it used to chase after the bike carrying the end of the leash bundled up between its jaws.
Barrett’s reference to the dog cannot be accidental. Martina scorns her boyfriend because he acts like a dog but she responds with a combination of respect and awe to a weird old man who is chased by a dog. On a very crude level, Martina recognises that you’re better off being Father Time than the dog chasing him.
Her ambivalence towards Val is a reflection of the fact that Val seems trapped between two different states: He is old enough and clued-in enough to be the isolated individual and yet he keeps choosing the behave like a dog. Martina gives Val the chance to be a grown-up and relate to her as an equal but he struggles to do so. The penny finally drops:
‘You like this place, don’t you, Val? You like everything about it,’ said Martina.
‘That sounds like an accusation.’
‘Not at all. Someone has to stay put, hold the fort.’
‘You’re not going anywhere that far.’
‘Galway’s not that far,’ said Martina, ‘but it might as well be the moon for people like you’.
Martina returns to Galway and Val is left to his life of bantering with girls and man-handling drunken boys. Realising that something special might well have slipped through his fingers, he sends Martina a ridiculous text message despite possessing enough nous and self-awareness to realise that it’ll do nothing more than annoy her and establish him as yet another pitiful dog:
The text he eventually sent Martina was so long, he had to dispatch it in four separate messages. He didn’t think it likely that Martina would reply, or reply in any meaningful way. Still he asked her how she was, was Galway as lively as ever, was she intent on dumping the drummer or was she going to give the lad another shot. Val said that he was sitting in his kecks in the kitchen at four in the morning with nothing but the usual shite having gone down at the Peacock, no change there and there likely never would be, and that no matter what had or had not happened between them he was looking forward to seeing her next time she made it back from the moon.
Val is pathetic and knows he’s pathetic but lacks the energy to do anything about it. His self-awareness makes him different to the male characters at the centre of “The Clancy Kid” and “Bait” but self-awareness really isn’t going to be enough to save him.
Martina is an interesting figure as she is the first woman to appear in the collection who has reacted to the decrepitude of Glanbeigh by getting the fuck out of dodge. The opening stories in this collection are about amazingly fierce young women and yet the implication is that these amazingly fierce young women will make the best of a bad scene and attach themselves to the town’s horrendously mediocre men.
Moving forward, I would like Barrett to look at a slightly older cast of characters as it would be really interesting to see how these environmental psychopathologies play out over time and through the generations. Was it ever thus and must it forever be?
I am still enjoying the ideas and the imagery of this collection, but I am also aware that the first three stories in Young Skins are almost identical except with more or less degenerate protagonists. Hmm.