What Came Between
 by Patrick Cullen

2009, Paperback
First collection

"Sarah laughed. She lay back in the water and he saw how they had taken his wife's breast. A scar ran from her armpit, curving round to the middle of her chest, the scar tissue a crimson arc on her pale skin. Her other breast moved freely about on the surface of the water. She drifted on her back until another wave passed, then they were both beneath the water again."

Reviewed by Diane Becker

This collection of inter-connected stories is set in Newcastle, Australia. I say Australia, for the benefit of those (like me) who didn’t know that Australia had a Newcastle. The two cities have a history of coal production, both are northern cities and shipping ports. The inhabitants face similar economic and social pressures, but here the similarities end.

Cullen’s stories centre around the inhabitants of three terraced houses on Laman Street. The collection follows a linear narrative that opens with Aftershocks, in which Sarah and Paul return home in the aftermath of the 1989 earthquake, and concludes with The Birth of Unknowing, that coincides with closure of the steelworks.

These stories are about ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary street, though Cullen sculpts the "ordinariness" to accentuate the cracks, hinting at things or people that are lost or have vanished, revealing the fissures in the mundane and everyday.

The Ground Beneath (the second story in the collection),  reveals little details about Sarah and Paul that show tensions arising; "her pale stockings caught on the edges of the floorboards, and a sound like static trailed after her..." and "first pouring a little of the coffee into Paul’s cup to clear the grounds from the spout, she filled her own cup and drank."

Cullen’s prose is often beautiful, and meticulously crafted. Each gesture, action and interaction is measured out as if by seismograph; the characters’ outer and inner lives revealed in close up detail (from The Ground Beneath);
"Sarah walked home from the supermarket in the heat of the afternoon. She carried white plastic bags; the handles, drawn thin by the weight of groceries, had begun to cut into her fingers and she was losing her grip.[…] She put the bags down on the litter of leaves, pulled her straight black hair around to sit over her shoulder and ran first one hand and then the other over the back of her neck. Her palms glistened. She wiped them where her white cotton dress caught on her hips and she stood there beneath the trees, flecked with light; opening and closing her fingers she waited for the feeling to return."
Much of the drama, which includes three miscarriages, a suicide and a familial estrangement, take place off camera. What Cullen is interested in are the aftershocks which he orchestrates with a subtle hand, studding the stories with symbols - falling figs, flying bats, stranded whales, a child’s shoe - that refer back to these events or point out to the wider world.

I particularly liked The Long Drive Home in which the lives of Lucas and his grandmother, Elsie, overlap and flow across each other like shifting tectonic plates. Many of the stories (such as And?) have themes of revelations and concealment; in The Comet, Cate queues all night outside a gallery to buy a study of Halley’s Comet, a link to her father who "…took off with some woman at the same time as the comet passed us by."

Dust shifts literally and metaphorically through the heart of the collection (Dust and Where Things Belong) and clears to the imminent closure of the steelworks, personal closure and the approaching millenium or "end of the world".

In the final story, The Birth of Unknowing, the inhabitants of Laman Street are drawn together on New Year's Eve as their shared drain is breached by a fig tree's roots, flooding their back yards:
"The women came home to find the three men perched on the rear verandah watching the excavator raise broken lengths of pipe from the deep trench. 'We've decided,' Pam announced, 'that since none of us has anything much planned for tonight we should all do nothing together.' Nobody disagreed."
Aside from the dialogue, which at times lacks the spark essential to a short story, What Came Between is an affectionate, ambitious, multi-layered and realistic portrait of suburban Australian lives.

Diane Becker is pretty flawed. Nevertheless, she has short stories/poetry in The Pygmy Giant, 6S, 6S Vol2, Metazen, flashquake and Ink, Sweat and Tears. She was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010 and is deputy editor of The Short Review.

Diane's other Short Reviews: Cliff Garstang "In An Uncharted Country"

Susan Wicks "Roll Up for the Arabian Derby"

Andrew Hurley "The Unusual Death of Julie Christie"

Matt Bell "How They Were Found"
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Patrick Cullen's short stories have appeared in many anthologies including Best Australian Stories and Sleepers Almanac, and been broadcast on ABC Radio National. He lives in Newcastle, New South Wales, with his wife and two children.

Read an interview with Patrick Cullen