by Jean Roberta
Does It Show? By Paul Magrs (second in the “Phoenix Court” series) focuses on the residents of a housing estate in the actual town of Newton Aycliffe, northern England, in the 1980s. The story is a rollicking sit-com in print in which the locals call their children “bairns” and sometimes exaggerate their Geordie accent for effect. It’s a kind of northern Coronation Street with fairy dust and a 1980s soundtrack.
Here is the “Prologue:”
“Penny had always been a bright kid. She was born on the ninth anniversary of the first moon landing. Her father wrenched her from the incubator and ran to the steps outside, by the car park. It was a warm summer’s night.
He held her out to the moon, swaddling clothes draped down to his elbows. ‘You’re going there, Penny,’ he said, face shining. ‘You’re going to the moon, you are.’
And as the nurses came bustling through Reception to retrieve her, Penny glanced up at the moon, then witheringly at her father.
‘Fat chance,’ she said. ‘I know where I’m going.’”
This little scene contains the flavour of the whole saga: kitchen-sink realism with intrusions from a supernatural realm.
The first few chapters introduce the residents of Phoenix Court, the place where Penny arrives as a teenager with her apparent single mother, a diva named Liz. (Hint: Liz has a big secret.) Penny’s father seems to have disappeared, and her childhood has been punctuated by her arguments with teachers who tried to force her to scrub the black off her fingernails, not knowing it was permanent. Penny’s dreams show a certain clairvoyance which becomes clearer to the reader as the unknown people she has dreamt of appear in her life.
The narrative is told in a knowing third-person voice which includes the thoughts of the character under discussion. For long sections, Penny is kept in the background while the ongoing tensions within Phoenix Court are explained.
Penny, like all the adult characters, hopes to “fit in,” and she is the new girl in school. She meets Vince, another outsider who returned as the new English teacher to the purgatory of the school where he was bullied as a student by the physical-education teacher, who is still there. In due course, there is a satisfying confrontation between the two men.
Vince strikes up a friendship with Penny which is debatably inappropriate, but she is not the object of his lust. Penny’s companionship gives Vince the courage to reconnect with his first lover, Andy, who lives over a dusty shop full of dead, stuffed animals. As the two men agree, this is all very Victorian, especially since the shop owner is Andy’s benevolent relative, a taxidermist.
Liz’s abandonment of Penny for a romantic getaway with the local bus driver is debatably irresponsible, but as he reassures Liz, seventeen-year-old Penny can take care of herself.
The novel ends with an apparent non sequitor: an anecdote about an old woman on the estate who finds an actual pot of gold coins amongst second-hand donations to a charity shop. When she asks aloud how much the treasure is worth, she is answered by the ghost of a child on a hobby-horse who torments her with questions: Are the coins made of real gold? Would old Charlotte be safe if she kept this treasure for herself? If she took it to the bank, wouldn’t someone there be tempted to cheat her, or to turn her in?
Life is queer in this novel, and not only in a sexual sense. In the working-class world of Newton Aycliffe, the familiar tropes of childhood fairy tales don’t necessarily lead to happy endings, but the plot always thickens.
This novel is more-or-less self-contained, but since it is part of a series, I suspect everything in Volume 2 makes more sense to those who have read Volume 1.
The quirky inside-cover photo of the author as a thirtyish man smoking a cigarette suggests that he is already at work on the third novel in the series. It would be interesting to follow the lives of the whole cast of characters.