Jan Carson

Belfast based novelist and short story writer. Magic realist

Born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. Based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK

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Jan Carson is a writer and community arts officer based in Belfast. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears was published by Liberties Press in 2014, followed by a short story collection, Children’s Children in 2016. A flash fiction pamphlet, Postcard Stories, is forthcoming from the Emma Press in 2017.

Her stories have appeared in journals such as Storm Cellar, Banshee and The Honest Ulsterman.

In 2014 she received an Arts Council NI Artist’s Career Enhancement Bursary. She was longlisted for the Sean O’Faolain short story prize in 2015 and won the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition in 2016. 

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Postcard Stories, 2017, Emma Press

Settling in The Glass Shore Anthology of Female Northern Irish Prose Writers (editor Sinead Gleeson), 2016, New Island Press

Children's Children, 2016, Liberties Press

Malcolm Orange Disappears, 2014 Liberties Press

Extract: 'Proper Order'

This morning’s letter contains the last of the diamonds from my grandmother’s engagement ring.

We were expecting a diamond. We have been expecting six in total, and a ruby. After the first arrived, tucked inside last Tuesday’s package with paperclips and a cocktail umbrella, we knew the other five would follow in sequence: one, two, three, four, five, six tiny diamonds and then a larger ruby, which usually sits in the centre of Gramma’s ring like a tight, red pimple. My grandmother is hoaking the diamonds out with a pair of eyebrow tweezers, progressing round the ring’s edge at a rate of one jewel per day.

My grandmother is a great believer in proper order.

Two years ago she read sixty four Agatha Christie’s one after the other, sticking to the order in which they had been written. “Why stop at sixty four?” my mother asked her, “there’s only sixty six books all together. Same number as the Bible.” But my grandmother had heard that Poirot died in the sixty fifth book and decided there was quite enough sadness in her life without losing an old friend on purpose. Shortly afterwards she forgot how to read. She’d hold a book in her hands like it was an object only meant for holding. She didn’t seem to understand which way up the words should go. Later she would mistake my cousins for their parents, and their parents for the characters from her favourite soap opera. She would eventually become sadder and thinner, like a tree in winter.

We watched my grandmother evaporate. Her mind went slowly, then sharply. Then all of a sudden, in a rush, unlearning its own rules. The word for windows became the word for doors. Things which were not edible found their way into her mouth and were eaten. Pyjamas went with Wellington boots, and not just around the house. The saucepans boiled themselves dry on the stove. In the end my grandmother could not live safely in her own home. She did not want to live with any of her children. The word for this was burden. She had not lost this word in the slide. Neither did she want to live in a care facility. The word for this was a kind of smell which made her stomach fold in upon itself every time she thought of it.

Gramma had to live somewhere so my father and his siblings gathered around the kitchen table and conspired. “Look at this lovely hotel,” they said. “Wouldn’t you like to stay there for a while Mum?” There were brochures, which they showed her, with photographs of peach coloured bedrooms and a garden with a bench. My grandmother -who has always enjoyed the well-ordered aspects of hotel living- replied, “why not? Just for the summer.” This was how my aunts and uncles tricked her into becoming safe. The word for this is relief but when my father says it, down the telephone to one of his sisters or his brother on the Mainland, it sounds very similar to guilt.

My grandmother is still a great one for proper order. She stacks items which do not belong together in piles: soap, books, tea bags, the fire exit sign from above her bedroom door. She underlines words in the Bible, unimportant words like ‘so’ and ‘thus,’ and picks the different colours out of her dinner, separating orange carrots from green peas, from white potatoes and chicken. She will not wear outdoor shoes inside. “There’s no harm in it,” says her care worker, “no sense either. Her mind’s not working the way it used to.”

My grandmother has been in the nursing home for over a year now and still believes it to be a hotel. She often complains about the food and the lack of spa facilities. “It’s not exactly the Hilton, is it?” she is fond of saying, every time we visit. This phrase has now become a thing we say in our family whenever a situation is not as good as it could be. “It’s not exactly the Hilton, is it?” when the only milk left in the fridge is beginning to turn, or there’s nothing but CSI repeats on TV, or the cat has pissed under the kitchen table and someone’s put their foot in it.

My grandmother is not particularly happy in the nursing home, but she has finally stopped trying to pay the staff to drive her home. It is entirely possible that she no longer knows what a home is. It might be a concept to her now like sadness or falling, or perhaps the word home is a picture of a very definite place: Buckingham Palace or the little, white-washed cottage her mother was raised in, just outside Ahoghill. She certainly doesn’t remember where her own house is. Once, last April, she tried to walk there from the nursing home. She was wearing her slippers at the time. The staff found her in the toilet paper aisle of all night Tesco’s, lost and grinning like a startled pony.

Lately, my grandmother has come to suspect that the cleaners are stealing her belongings. The cleaners are not stealing her belongings. My father has made enquiries. It was not a pleasant process for him. Tentative accusations were made. The cleaners became upset, visibly so, and accused him of various awful things such as snobbery and racism. My father does not like to upset anyone. Anxiety brings him out in a rash, all up his arms and over his shoulders. He cannot keep himself from scratching.

“The cleaners aren’t stealing your things,” we explain to Gramma over and over again. We write this on Post-It notes and stick them to her mirror so she can see them first thing in the morning morning. Now she suspects the cleaners are leaving notes on her mirror. She has forgotten who to trust. She has forgotten what a good person looks like but still believes in my father, the favourite of her seven living children. She has begun to post him individual items for safekeeping. This is the latest example of my grandmother’s prevailing order. There is, as far as we can see, no meaning nor particular value in any of the objects we’ve received over the last month. The only common link between socks and hair grips, cotton hankies and Spanish pesetas is their ability to fit inside an envelope. However, we have come to understand that these items are precious to my grandmother. There is an order to the way she is emptying out her own life.

“Don’t worry Gramma,” we say, every time we visit, “we’re keeping all your stuff safe for you.”

“I do appreciate that,” she says. Sometimes she winks at my mother and lets her voice drop down to a whisper, “you really can’t trust the cleaners in here, you know.” She looks at my sister furtively, like she might be a cleaner.

Before opening this morning’s envelope my father holds it up to the kitchen light. This has become a habit of his since Gramma started sending her letters. He is worried about the possibility of razor blades or something poisonous. Against the light the envelopes turn transparent. They are like an x-ray exposing keys, pencils, teaspoons and once, the whispered imprint of a dead moth. This morning there is nothing to be seen but a large, flat object rectangling itself across the whole envelope. This will turn out to be two slices of cooked ham and a photograph of my late grandfather, squinting into the sun on Portstewart Strand.

Before opening the envelope my father goes pinching round the corners, feeling for a tiny piece of jewel grit. “That’s the sixth diamond,” he cries when his fingers find it hiding behind the Second Class stamp. Squishing the edges of the envelope wrecks havoc on the cooked ham. When my father finally opens the letter he discovers mushed, pink meat and a thin sheen of brine filming over the photograph. My late grandfather looks like he’s staring at us through fog or staged smoke.

“Yuck,” says my father, scooping the whole soggy mess out of the envelope, “she’s never sent meat before.” The ham sits damply on the kitchen table, like a severed tongue. No one wants to touch it.

“Maybe we need to have a word with Gramma’s care worker,” says my mother as she begins wiping at the photograph with a spit-damp tissue. “She shouldn’t have access to refrigerated food. She could make herself really sick.”

My mother keeps swiping at the photograph but it’s no good. The cooked ham has already begun to react with the old-fashioned chemicals. On the back of the photograph where my grandmother has written, ‘Michael, Portstewart, 1953,’ in her thin, spidery hand, the ink has bled, drifting into a dull spectrum of colours: blue, black, brown and purple. They are leaking across the paper in proper bruisey order.

On the front of the photograph my poor grandfather- dead at fifty seven from cancer of the lungs and throat- has lost his hands. He poses awkwardly for the camera in swimming trunks and tennis shoes, arms cocked like a body builder, though he is not a well-built man. I note, the soft sheeped face with its long nose which will skip a generation, reappearing on the infant faces of my six male cousins. Note, my father’s watery smile, and my Aunt Catherine’s eyebrows and take good note of that thick cloud of hair which will not thin nor fade even after several rounds of chemo. Even in the brute flush of youth my grandfather is not a handsome man. But it is possible to recognise the kindness in him. It is there in the way his eyes crisp and his shoulders lean towards the photographer as if his whole body is pitched towards her, and listening intently.

It is a dreadful pity about my grandfather’s hands. They have smudged in the cooked ham brine and are only the absence of hands now. My eye cannot keep itself from catching on that butter, white smear where they should be. I lift the photo from the table and hold it close to my face, remembering how his fingers would flick my school pencils against a razor blade until the points came up; the way those same fingers could dance up the back of my grandmother’s hair when Grampa was sentimental, or drunk, or sometimes both; the smell of them, just-washed for dinner: sheep feed and strong soap, mixing with the potato steam; the black brown crescents of muck crowning each of his nails and the wedding band sunk deep into the flesh just below his knuckle so it would not shift nor turn so much as a half inch, even with soap.

“Was this before or after they got married?” I ask, turning the photo and holding it under my father’s nose so he can read the date.

“Just after, I think. But before your Uncle Adam came along,” he replies.

“We’d know for certain if his hands hadn’t rubbed off. We could see his wedding ring.”

“I can ask one of the girls. They’re much better on dates than me. It’d be easy enough to find out.”

“It’s not important,” I say, but really it is. The proper order is upside down and shifting. My grandmother can no longer tell a precious thing from a waste. If cooked ham is as dear to her as a ring diamond as my grandfather, holding his own against the tide, what does this mean for the rest of us? Perhaps we are to be shuffled out of order too; children and children’s children replaced with strangers as Gramma works out a new order for all the people in her world. Perhaps, in the end, when all her thoughts settle, we will not be precious to her at all. Perhaps we will be forgotten.

Commissions & Articles

Family Circle

Jan Carson's short story 'Family Circle' is the first new writing to emerge from the International Literature Showcase's 'Crossing Borders' series.