I was first struck by David Bowmore’s writing when reading his story ‘Sins of the Father’ which he submitted for publication to the Clarendon House anthology Vortex in 2018. The story went on to win the most votes from readers and earned David the chance to put together his own collection of tales, recently released as The Magic of Deben Market. It was a deserved opportunity and has resulted in a great collection, but I wanted to try to elucidate for you some of the reasons why I think the story was so successful.
‘Sins of the Father’ begins straightforwardly as a confession tale, effectively asking the reader’s permission to tell it: ‘I will tell you everything, but please let me tell it my own way. I won't leave anything out.’ It’s a subtle thing, I know, but the remark ‘I won’t leave anything out’ is a miniature attention-sucking vacuum: ‘What exactly is it,’ the reader thinks, ‘that might be left out?’ And so we are admitted into the story world, which turns out to be a fascinating glimpse of late-70’s Britain.
I’m what you might call a ‘natural reader’ of Bowmore’s fiction — I have a predilection for ‘70s Britain and stories which touch upon what was happening in the country at that time. So I quite easily settle into the framework of the tale as it unfolds, not expecting too much in the beginning. Indeed, as the story develops, one is led to believe that it’s going to be an entertaining anecdotal tale largely about the corruption and chicanery taking place behind the scenes in the British music industry as it progresses through the period in which ‘Punk Rock’ came to the fore, famously referred to by David Bowie as a ‘much-needed enema’ in the British music scene as a whole. But then we encounter one of Bowmore’s trademarks, the sign of a competent author: he takes us in a completely different direction, very swiftly, but without unsettling us as readers. Something happens — an accidental death — which results in the protagonist abruptly fleeing the scene completely. We are sent spinning away with him into unknown territory, and end up in Ireland. Through a credibly told process, we become entangled in the dark political machinations of the IRA. In one of my favourite passages in the tale, the protagonist, seeking the necessary paperwork to make a new life for himself, is compelled to meet someone in a lonely pub:
Pat made arrangements through some people who knew other people, who knew 'those kinds' of people. The price was arranged and I supplied him with a passport photo. Several weeks later, Pat took me to a pub way up in the hills. An old white building, which may once have been a farmhouse. It would be a drive for anyone to visit on a night out, so I doubt they were ever busy because I didn't see a single house within walking distance. Inside, the fire roared and, as I expected, it was empty of customers. Pat sat at one end of the bar, which was situated in the middle of a long, thin room, and picked up a Gaelic paper before telling me to sit as far away as possible at one of several small tables so he wouldn't be able to overhear.
Two men came in, and the barmaid made herself scarce. They sat opposite me, I wondered if I should offer them a drink.
'Ye the one?' asked the taller of the two. He was the only one who spoke. It seemed the other's sole purpose was to look menacing, although he really wasn't needed; the talker was clearly a man with whom not to tangle.
'The one what?'
'Five hundred pounds, have ye got it?'
'How do I know I can trust - '
'Stop right there, son, before someone is insulted. Do ye want this here passport or don't ye?'
'Yes, of course.' 'Five hundred pounds.' We exchanged envelopes, then the leader dropped his bombshell.
'That's only part payment, of course. What ye have in yer package there is a complete identity. A birth certificate, British passport and a National Insurance number, all of them the genuine article. A passport and birth certificate are easy enough to get hold of, but a National Insurance number takes a little more cunning, ye hear me?'
'Now hang on - '
'Yer to deliver something, and if ye don't, we'll find ye and put a bullet in yer thick English head.'
'I want nothing to do with it,' I tried to protest, but my throat was quickly drying up.
'Fine then. Give back the papers, we keep the money and yer man over there delivers for us instead. And ye still get the bullet. Certain individuals have taken risks to get us to this here point tonight. Now it's time to return the favour.'
'What? This is crazy.' 'Just who do ye think we are? The Sally Army? Now what's it to be?’
It’s the relationship between realistic detail — the pub, the paperwork — the description of totally believable behaviour — the barmaid disappearing, Pat removing himself as far away as possible, the menacing characters, the narrator’s natural responses — and the chilling dialogue — ‘Stop right there, son, before someone is insulted. Do ye want this here passport or don't ye?’ — which together conjures up an ambience: you feel as a reader as though you are there, sitting in the pub, smelling the beer and the stale carpet, yourself being threatened. It’s made all the more real by the known social backdrop of the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland and the IRA’s murderous activities throughout that period.
Again, off we go in an unexpected direction. The narrator struggles with the terror both of doing the deed he's asked to do and of not doing it — the moral choices intensifying our participation as readers — and then, in another unexpected twist, finds another totally different life mentored by a Roman Catholic priest, a vocation which eventually calls to him. But Bowmore hasn’t finished with us: the loose ends from the first part of the story catch up with our narrator and there’s a final scene of drama which brings the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion:
I held her head on my knees and tried to comfort her. Blood bubbled from her mouth and her legs started to shudder, the final vestiges of life draining away. Complete stillness soon followed. I'd like to say there was understanding or peace in her eyes at the end, but all I saw was malice.
It would have been easy to take the route offered to a lesser author and have some kind of emotional resolution at the end, but the narrator is left with a gaping wound that is both emotional and spiritual, and which we as readers experience vicariously.
I could see immediately that ‘Sins of the Father’ held the promise of many more masterful tales, and, in winning the contest in Vortex, it opened the door to the proof of such promise. The Magic of Deben Market utilises many of the themes and techniques of ‘Sins’, but takes them to a new level. It comes with strong recommendations.