Bracing Up by A. L. Kennedy, 1994

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by A. L. Kennedy, 1994

"Bracing Up" comes from A. L. Kennedy's second collection of short stories, Now That You're Back, which was published in 1994. It is a study of a young man, John Boyce Hughes, gifted as a puppet master but with wider ambitions, who has suffered bullying from his Welsh nationalist grandfather, his "Tad-cu" as he calls him, using the Welsh word for such a relation.

We meet Hughes in Paris, where he has been appearing on the stage in a performance of King Lear, although he is still carrying his puppet booth with him since puppetry is an act of which he alone of all the cast is also the master. It is the morning after he has slept with Martha, who had been a member of the audience. Hughes does not want to get out of bed, for he is reluctant for her to see that he does not have hair in all "the usual places," having shaved it off to get "that really clean feeling as if the skin was thinner and everything was that tiny bit closer; the touch of both so fresh." Having seen Martha off, he dresses and goes out to avoid two "practically bloody children" he has working with him as students.

Even in Paris, the memory of the bullying grandfather, "the words dripping down from under that old yellow rag of a moustache," cannot be exorcised. "Brace up, John, Brace up" still haunts him. As Tad-cu asserts, he is the boy with Welsh blood in him, even if he had been born out of place: "Dudley, Dudley, I ask you, why the bloody hell your mother ever came here and ruined herself…. Ruined you. Didn't think of that, though, did she, spoiling her own son."

But the real damage was caused by the grandfather. A holiday took the boy up a mountain to make him "fit and manly" and Welsh, and there was hope of talking to God: "There were other hills, higher than this where God would very likely be close enough to make something fire and cloudy happen—scare hell out of the poor bugger sheep—but this was as far as he could risk." When nothing happened, he reflected that "God didn't want him yet."

It was bad that Tad-cu still did. After the boy's first puppet show, when expected to give praise, Tad-cu gave young John a volley of abuse and a broken nose: "You'd been doing a Welshman, for Christsake…. My own flesh, my grandson, an Uncle Tom, a creature who would sell his own country." Tad-cu was obviously infected with that religion-inspired dislike of theatrical representation common among the middle class before World War II. In the end, however, things are evened up when Hughes visits Tad-cu in an old folks home and finds him helpless.

Kennedy's characters are usually little people who face up to their problems but cannot quite get the better of them. We leave Hughes walking to the theater for another performance as the fool in King Lear and talking to God again: "Two more weeks and this will be over, back to the booth and nothing but the booth, and I was hoping for something else because I did alright here, didn't I….Maybe if I'd spoken to you from a higher hill. You remember that time? Would you have heard me then… ? Not that there's any point in knowing now, it's just that I wonder. You understand?"

At least Kennedy's readers do. They are left with a curious sense of unease that is a characteristic of so many of her beautifully crafted anatomies of human failure.

—Maurice Lindsay