Roddy Doyle’s Stories of Life in Lockdown
Nothing much else happens except for his studying the boxes of pills he’s been given — “He picked up the biggest one. Rosuvastatin Teva Pharma. It sounded like a star or a planet. 40 milligrams. The maximum dose, the cardiologist had said. That fact had impressed him.” He falls asleep midday waiting for his wife to come home: “He turned, into whiteness and nothing — no thoughts or things.” When he wakes, she is sitting on the bed and they talk in the desultory way of long-married couples. At the end of the story, just when we think it will leave us in a predictable if not entirely contented place, he suddenly tells his wife he misses his kids and starts to cry, exposing the sorrow he has been feeling all along.
The title story is a complex weave of past and present, interlaced with the narrator’s wish to escape his circumstances. Alan, a Dubliner who feels he is a “62-year-old bachelor” married to a “60-year-old spinster,” has taken a trip to England for a couple of days (it’s not clear why), and although he’s dutifully in touch with his wife, Sinead, he’s tempted by the impulse to disappear: “Be the man with no children. No country. The man with nothing at all.” In an act of protest he throws his phone into a rubbish bin — “It’s the hardest thing he’s ever done” — and makes plans to call Sinead on his iPad and regale her with the details of his modest adventures. “He’ll tell her he lost his phone. He’ll tell her his new flight details. He’ll tell her what he’s seen and heard tonight.” And then, after a pint and slice of spicy pizza in the BrewDog pub, he’ll go home.
All the stories in “Life Without Children” have a quality of suspended animation, as though the music has suddenly stopped and the characters are left, each alone, on the dance floor — except for a piece called “Worms,” in which a couple are literally connected by the songs they listen to on a pair of shared headphones, “a bud each, like teenage girls, their heads resting against each other. They listened to a version of ‘The Happy Wanderer’ that had been in ‘The Sopranos,’ sung by Frankie Yankovic. Joe had never felt more at home, or excited. Leaning against this woman who he’d discovered he’d been married to for more than 30 years.”
My favorite of the lot is “The Charger,” which is also the longest and the most developed. (A few of the other stories have a slightly dashed-off quality and can veer into cutesy moments or slightly pasted-on endings.) Mick is “stuck in a world he doesn’t understand,” including the logistics of cellphones. “He was the last man he knew to get a mobile” and he worries: “Could a charger dangling in water kill him — when he went to lift it out?” Meanwhile, his wife, Mary, keeps buying him new phones, the latest with “seven apps he can use and 200 he’s never tried.” Mick has decided that, with his four daughters gone (although they return home during the first months of the pandemic), his parents dead and the house paid for, he’s not “essential”: “There’s no one who needs him. … There was nothing that needed doing, no one to look after.” When the last of his “aunties” dies because of the virus, he doesn’t really grasp how it happened, even “after hours, probably days of experts and diagrams.” We eventually find out that Mick was an unloved child whose mother rejected him and who slept on the floors in “rooms full of cousins who didn’t want him there.” His salvation is his wife, who predicts “decades of bliss” ahead of them and loves him even if he refuses to love himself. “He doesn’t exist without her,” Doyle writes. “She’ll be grand without him.” Except that, for some reason unbeknown to him and us, this is whom Mary has chosen to be with. “You’re my man, Mick,” she says.