Even if I hadn’t much cared for Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies (I liked it a lot), I’d have been grateful for the memories it dislodged from the quieter shelves of my mind.
From Findus Crispy Pancakes to the Magnum Centre, a once-giant, now-demolished leisure complex in Irvine on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast, O’Hagan’s sixth novel is cut from the fabric – places, tastes, sounds, language – of my teenage years.
As those came to a close in the summer of 1986, I was a student in Manchester, on the set of the first half of this tale of friendship between a group of Scots 18-20 year-old lads who’ve bussed it down for a weekend of music concerts and messy, matey mayhem.
As with the characters in the book, my friendships from then have endured and the texture of the time has stayed with me: nights out at the International on Anson Road like the one that features in the book but also the liberation of lunchtime drinking in carpeted pubs and the stimulation of solitary bus rides to city centre meet-ups. Time spent reading and rehearsing the conversations to come.
Still I was caught by surprise by some of the specifics that had slipped away from me and were reeled back in by O’Hagan’s recollection of a weekend headlined by the Smiths and New Order.
Given the time I spent there, I should have remembered the little Spudulike outlet in the southeastern corner of Piccadilly Gardens, a place the writer-narrator’s Ayrshire gang boisterously invade early in the book.
The serving staff indulge them with Mancunian wryness that O’Hagan has a good ear for. But my compatriots would have irritated me at the time. Spudulike was a place I went to for quiet talks with the mother of my eldest son, then just starting out in the world of work in a BT tower across the road. How could I have forgotten her enthusiasm for baked potatoes and beans piled high with cheese. How her particular metabolism made her ravenous if lunch was delayed much beyond 1pm?
Now, 15 years after her sudden death, stumbling over pages into a scene that evokes the cramped architecture of the place allows me to see us once more, sitting on the uncomfortable tram-like seats. Me with my back to the wall in denim jacket, black jeans and Doc Martens shoes. Listening.
Her in another uniform of the time: her first Next business suit: boxy jacket and three-quarter length skirt in dogtooth black and white checks. Talking. Telling me she’d booked the flights to Porto and back from Lisbon for our first holiday abroad, that September. Then rattling through that day’s would-you-believe-it litany of everyday sexism in the moustachioed office opposite. “Booked in on the datacoms systems course? Good girl!”
The capacity to trigger unsettling emotions is part of the dangerous beauty of books and grief can resurface as smoothly and silently as a seal. Yet, finishing “Mayflies” the same day I started it, I felt emotionally energised rather than exhausted.
The bespoke nostalgia trip helped of course, but my immediate reaction to Mayflies was more to do with the strength of the second half of the book.
In it, we’re catapulted forward to 2017 and Tully, the most charismatic of the veterans of the Manchester weekend, phones his friend Jimmy, the book’s narrator he calls Noodles, to tell him that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Now a writer, Noodles commits to helping his old friend chart the time he has left on his own terms: A marriage to his long-term partner is to be followed by a dignified death. “In Antony and Cleopatra there’s a line, Make death proud to take us, ” Noodles says. “I like that,” Tully replies.
As things turn out, the writer finds it easier to provide a script for his pledge than to deliver on it in the face of opposition from Tully’s wife, Anna. As this conflict plays out, gradually the meaning of Tully’s impending death reveals itself. “Him not being twenty means that none of us is twenty. Him dying means we all are.”