NEA Literature Fellowships

Susan McCallum-Smith

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "High Rise"

She gets herself ready in the same thirteenth floor high rise flat that appears in her dreams, passed on to her by the council when her granny died. Malky had promised to buy her a new house in Bearsden, but he never managed it before he was arrested. Allison's sister comes round to wash the windows when they're needing done, because Allison is so afraid of heights she won't go within one foot of any of them, never even lifts the blinds. She's on the waiting list for a council house at ground level, but because she's no kids, Scotland will have won the World Cup by the time she gets it.

She plasters concealer over the bags under her eyes. Her tummy is swollen and taut like a balloon. She slaps on one of those sticky heating pads, then pings her knickers over it to keep it secure. Gordon arrives just as she's leaving, carrying his toolbox, to install the new taps in the bathroom.

Anything you want me to tell him, she says, pulling her gloves on, avoiding his eyes.

No. Well, say hello and that.

When the lift comes, there's a puddle in the corner. She stands well away from it. As likely to be rainwater as piss but you can't risk it. The doors are closing when someone yells, Hold on! 

It's Sorry from down the corridor. At least, that's what everyone calls him; she's clueless about his real name.

Oh, sorry, hen, he says, as Allison holds the doors open. Didn't mean to keep you back.

Sorry pushes a nicked Co-op supermarket trolley ahead of him into the lift. The council has evicted him for failing to pay his rent, and he's moving his stuff to his boyfriend's flat. Plastic bags of clothes plug the bottom of the trolley, and he wraps his arms over a huge aquarium balanced on the top, empty of water but filled with pretend plants and a miniature Disney castle.

Sorry, Allison, I didn't mash yer toes, did I? He glances up at her, sideways. You look smashing, by the way. Visiting day, is it?

Thanks, aye.

I'm knackered, so I am.

You must be done by now.

Near enough.

Allison peers into the aquarium. Is Clooney in there? she says. I canny see him.

Aye, sorry about that. He's hiding. He hates moving house. He's that stressed but, I'll no get him to eat for days.

Is it no gerbils you feed snakes?

Sorry's eyes widen like an owl.

I just give him chicken. He likes the Markies shredded stuff, with a bit of salt and Branston on it. And he's daft for tablet. I'm sorry to say that's why he's nay teeth left.

So, he's a gummy snake? 

Like the sweeties, aye.

Carol-Anne had lent Allison her new black Burberry raincoat, and she knots its belt tightly before stepping into the wind tunnel between the flats. A gust snatches her brolly and she spins around and slams her shoulder against it to keep it upright, then staggers across the car-park in her best black stilettos, dodging the puddles and the boys in hoodie jerseys playing keepie-uppie with a deflated ball, oblivious to the teeming rain. Under a bus shelter tattooed with graffiti, Allison puts her brolly down, and pats her newly-washed and now ruined hair. Don't know why I bloody bother, she thinks. The number 23 will arrive in a tick, hiding inside the next convoy, as if the very buses get lonely, as if the very buses are feart to cross the city on their own.


On a wet day like today, the visitors' hall in the Victorian wing of Barlinnie Prison reminds Allison of the public swimming baths. The bottom third of the walls are tiled in the same peely-wally green, before switching over to a dirty white paint up to its arched roof, scrolled over with some fancy plasterwork she can barely see. The long windows are opaque so she can't pretend to look at the view when the conversation lags. It's just the M8 motorway out there, but, and she hears the cars whiz past. Must drive the inmates spare, she thinks, hearing people accelerating off someplace else. At the beginning of the visits everyone whispers, trying to keep their business private from the other eleven tables sharing the hall, then they end up yelling at one another because it's like the ceiling steals the voices -- does a runner with them like a shoplifter.

The tiles sweat with damp. It's clammy inside and out and Allison feels clammy too, with the heating pad plonked against her stomach. It's only ten past three but it could be the middle of the night under these florescent lights, she's yon sleepy way she used to get at school during double-maths. She tugs her black skirt over her knees and crosses her legs. Her tights are mud-spattered and a ladder has started inside one shoe. She can feel the punctured nylon strangling her wee toe.

So, how's work? Malky says.

No bad. Carol-Anne's covering for me the day.

Speak up, hen, I canny hear you.

It's this room. Drives me nuts, Allison says. It's not Malky's fault the hall has the acoustics of a railway station, but she's all riled up inside.

It's like my sentences come out long-ways as normal, she says. And then get sucked up. It's a big Hoover in here, so it is.

She calms down and tries again. Work's same as usual.

Work's not the same as usual, but there's no point telling Malky that. As a cook in the local primary school, she used to take turns at serving the lunches, but now she stays in the back, not minding about having to do more of the heavy work -- heaving great platters of lasagna and mince pie in and out of the big ovens and chiseling it into slices. She can't stand being around the kids anymore. The wee ones, the primary ones and twos scare her the most, the four and five year olds -- if one gives her a funny look over his plate of corned beef and chips, she's frightened she'll snatch him and run, and keep running, to the high rise, to the airport, to Florida, the moon. She'll morph into one of they monsters you read about in the paper, who steal other women's weans, and everyone will think she's a sick perv, when her sickness is only the wanting.  

A guard leans against a wall behind Allison with his eyes shut and his hands in his pockets. Another stands behind Malky by the door to the prisoners' wing, playing with a handheld computer toy.

It's the waiting I can't stand, says Allison.

You don't need to tell me about that, hen, says Malky.

("High Rise" was first published in Slipping the Moorings: Stories, Entasis Press, 2009).

Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings (Entasis Press, 2009), a collection of stories set across various landscapes, including present-day Glasgow, post-revolutionary Yucatan, Blitz-torn London, and gilded-age New York. Her memoir essay, "The Watermark," was selected for the Pushcart Prize (2011). She has received a fellowship from Yaddo, and her short fiction, essays, and literary reviews have appeared in Urbanite, the Gettysburg Review, the Southern Review, the Baltimore Review, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Scottish Review of Books, and in the anthologies City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, 2010) and Confessions: Fact or Fiction (Chrysalis, 2011). After graduating from the University of Glasgow, she worked in the fashion industry for several years before turning to prose. She received her MA from Johns Hopkins University and her MFA from Bennington College. She was born and raised in Scotland.

Photo by Jason Okutake

Author's Statement

I've heard that many writers abandon a first novel; perhaps it is a rite of passage. I know I did. A few years ago I wrote one half of a book then tossed it away. It wasn't right; I wasn't ready. I went to college to study craft and gained sound advice and invaluable mentors, and then, just after my story collection was published, I felt ready.

But writing a novel is a long, difficult, and maybe daft, odyssey through a dark, dank forest alone, with no guarantee anyone waits willing to read your scribbles if and when you stumble out the other side, and by now our children were born, making my days extraordinarily enriched, but more fractured and busy. A normal life, in other words, not an artist's life, whatever the heck I thought that was.

So I almost abandoned this second novel, too. Even though its characters pestered me in the wee small hours with their loves and enmities, or prattled on, plotting in their distinct dialects while I waited at traffic lights or changed diapers. Still, to secure the solitude necessary to get them off my back and onto the page seemed like self-indulgence. When asked about my profession, I never felt I'd earned the right to say, "I'm a writer."

For me this award represents a profound gesture of solidarity from an esteemed jury -- an affirmation that my persistent yearning to tell stories may not be (entirely) folly, tethered to the suggestion that I stop dithering about and get going. I feel both gratitude and a deep sense of responsibility toward the National Endowment for the Arts, and I'm humbled to be included in the astonishing roster of writers who are benefiting from this year's fellowships, and with all those who came before.