"Your friend repeats the name of the disease and the number of its variant, but you can’t take it in"by Kate Clanchy / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
The novelist and memoirist Kate Clanchy won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2009. The story below, “Animal, Vegetable,” is taken from her new collection The Not-Dead and the Saved. It imagines a rivalrous friendship between two mothers. Clanchy says: “Surely all mothers of young children must at some point stand by a wailing pram in a gutter and ask themselves if they really have to do this bit? When I was such a mother, with such a pram, I was also teaching myself to write short stories, and exploring the fun you can have with the second person, ‘you.’ This story, ‘Animal, Vegetable’ is the result: it isn’t based on anyone I know; all my children are well; and I certainly don’t have an answer to the question I pose at the end.”
In this story, you have a particular friend. You’ve known her a long time—since college, at least, but probably even earlier. Maybe you both smoked Consulates out the window of the sixth-form common room. Maybe you went to primary school together, shared a desk, a pot of poster paint, an obsession with French plaits.
The point is, she’s your high-achieving friend, the one whose exam results were always that bit better than yours, distinctions to your merits, A* to hard-won A. She’s that bit more glamorous than you, too: a size down in jeans, hair naturally curly or naturally straight, whichever was in fashion the year you turned 17. No spots, no fillings. And this may have been hard to take, over the years, but no one could say she isn’t loyal. When she got asked to the school dance, or prom, depending on your generation, and you didn’t, by the boy you fancied, she insisted he took both of you, for instance, and that was kind, however badly it all turned out. And it was also nice that she wanted you to be her bridesmaid, even if weddings aren’t your thing, and maroon is nobody’s colour.
Anyway, by the time you are both 35, partnered up and pregnant, she has this really good job. The job is very important to the question you will be asked at the end of the story, so please, apply your imagination to it strenuously. The job has an excellent salary and very long hours, but it should only be in banking if that’s the sort of job you admire and are in yourself, the sort that you really approve of. Otherwise, make her the head of an important charity, fighting for civil rights, relieving famine, something like that. Or, if you’re the arty sort, have her succeed in the area you most admire: make her a film-maker of rare and glorious distinction, or a theatre director, the nation’s finest, something on that level. And give her husband the just-same sort of job, but 10 years senior and even more demanding and well paid. He’s her first boss: a very much top-drawer type, driven, bit distant, very trim and elegant. Your partner is your college boyfriend and he usually has egg on his trousers. He also has round shoulders, and enthusiasms so boundless you sometimes worry they are random. As for your job, I’m afraid you’ve just lost it. Yes. Redundant when pregnant—that old story, but cleverly done. Don’t even think you could sue.