I tackled my second volume of short stories with Bill Gaston’s A Mariner’s Guide to Self Sabotage. It was a little easier for me—Gaston’s short stories remind me of living on Vancouver Island. Even the cover of the book reminds me of the water there, the way on a fall day the water vanishes into the skyline, all of it blurred by rain.
Gaston isn’t focussing on the lighter side of life. His tales aren’t ones of triumph over life: they’re more about how life destroys us. One, for me anyway, sticks out.
I cannot begin to tell you how entirely creeped out I was by ‘The Return of Count Flatula.’ Oh sure, it sounds like it will be a funny story. It’s not funny.
A woman, (a successful, smart woman) gets a phone call from a man she dated decades ago before she took off for Europe. Connie barely remembers Michael—and he remembers everything. Each little detail. Conversations they had. He jokes that he’s outside her house. He slides in some insults about her political career. He knows plenty about her (found on the Internet) and shares nothing about himself. He lets enough show to make her feel sorry for him. To keep her on the phone. To find out enough about her husband’s good paying job (because women under threat tend to use the men in their lives as shields and blather about their accomplishments).
And then he hits her with what he wants. Money. The money he gave her after high school for her plane ticket to Europe. She’s happy to repay him. She’ll write him a cheque immediately.
No. He wants the cost of the flight, plus inflation and interest. He wants $27,000. He tells her to talk to her husband about it.
The story finishes with the phone call ending and an insult.
The story’s creep factor is exacerbated by the knowledge that in real life, the phone call Connie gets could just be the first. Things could escalate. Michael could show up. He could be desperate enough to do whatever he thinks is necessary to get what he needs. What he’s owed. In real life, a pattern of harassment could develop. Or Michael could try to ruin Connie’s chances of successfully running for public office. Or … It’s the precipice that Gaston leaves the reader on that amps up the tension. The knowledge that more, and worse, is entirely possible.
Bill Gaston was at Events 54 (How This Story Began) and 92 (The Afternoon Tea) of the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.