This short story is an excellent from the Irish author Bernard MacLaverty. It is an examination of a young boy called Neil Fry who suffers from a skin condition called psoriasis and how the other characters react to, and interacts with him. My intentions for this essay are to examine how MacLaverty uses various settings to highlight different attitudes and explore the effects of such attitudes on the main character in this text. The story revolves around Neil – a young boy, whose mother is a single parent, who goes to spend part of his summer holiday with his friend Michael and his family.
Michael’s father is a doctor who has rented a Victorian terraced house in Scotland for the holiday. The holiday home is described as being full of collectables gathered from the owner’s travels to Africa and the Far East i. e., the cupboard of “black lacquer with a yellow inlay of exotic birds. ”Such items may make the reader think that the owner is well-travelled and open-minded but the rest of the house is neat and orderly with a place for everything and everything in its place as typical of those times.
This portrays an image of an inhibiting environment much more typical of Victorian attitudes and standards.
Importantly, the house does not belong to Michael’s family but is used to represent an image of the family. The garden which is ‘steep and terraced ” is also described as being equally well tended to. The house-owner, Mrs Wan, stays in a caravan at the bottom of the garden when the house is rented out.
This setting is described in stark contrast to the main home. It is untidy and unkempt. This lady lives in an apparently slovenly and unrestrictive environment which seems to present an image of open-mindedness.
Perhaps this lady has better things to do with her time than be preoccupied with trivia. The author maybe uses this contrast to highlight the various attitudes of the characters to Neil’s condition. The main character is Neil who suffers from severe psoriasis on his chest. He is ashamed and embarrassed by this ailment which is generally typified by inflamed patches of skin called “lesions” covered by silvery white scales. His outbreaks are described as: “a redness with an edge as irregular as a map”. Due to this skin condition, he will not go swimming with the rest of Michael’s family.
This causes them to ask questions because the weather is so warm: “I’m boiling already” states Michael. Neil does not confide in Michael the true reason why he will not bear his skin probably partly because he may never have done so before and because as a peer, he assumes that Michael would probably be less than understanding. However, the friends’ relationship changes due to Neil’s efforts to stay covered and we can see from Michael’s reactions: “I might as well have asked a girl to come on holiday… ” and “useless bloody mama’s boy” that Michael is frustrated.
Neil doesn’t explain why he isn’t joining in with all the activities so Michael presumes that he is dull and boring. Neil is used to being regarded as less sporty, less ‘macho and altogether less useful as a companion. Michael is obviously regretting bringing Neil on holiday which makes Neil feel misunderstood . Neil perhaps would like to tell Michael of his problem but is afraid of rejection just because he is different. It ,then distances the friends from each other.
“Neil’s fist bunched in the sand. is a physical representation of his own frustration. In his interactions with Michael’s mother, an element of humour is introduced as Neil puts all efforts into finding a valid excuse for not going swimming. “The fact is …… I’ve got my period”. This obviously echoes from his mother’s range of excuses but amuses the family as he clearly fails to understand the term. Michael’s mother, however, does not probe any further probably to save him any further embarrassment but maybe also because she has no interest in solving his problem.
Michael’s sister was obviously quite keen for him to join in the fun at the beach but she too loses interest in him when he refuses to participate in the fun. Neil is probably quite used to feeling treated in this way and also quite adept at hiding any feelings of self-pity, anger, embarrassment and loneliness. In fact, he may often prefer to be alone to save having to make excuses at all. Throughout the text, Neil’s own views reflect those of his absent mother and he imagines what her comments would be in many situations: “If there is one thing I cannot abide it’s a milk bottle on the table.
It seems that his mother’s views about his condition have also affected his own. When he suffered an inflammation which was apparent above his collar: “that week his mother had kept him off school”. The reasons for her actions could be numerous – perhaps she herself did not know how to deal with it; perhaps she understood the condition but felt those around him would not; perhaps she felt that they would be regarded as unclean and she already had the stigma and efforts of being a single parent to cope with.
Whatever her reasons, Neil’s ability to deal with his condition and form relationships is affected by her views. He is very reluctant to confide in anyone. He also behaves much like a stereotypical only child in many ways – very polite and good at casual conversation with adults. Neil’s life changes, however, when he encounters Mrs Wan for a second time. He has noticed that she seems different to those around him in that she wears baggy trousers, a turban-shaped hat and men’s garden gloves. She appears in real contrast to his own mother who is portrayed as neat, orderly, thrift and concerned about appearances.
Mrs Wan seems taken by Neil’s caring nature and mannerly disposition when he returns a stray kitten to her caravan – although he may just also be taking the animal back as a way of avoiding the attentions of Michael’s family and the whole “beach experience” at the time. Similarly, Neil also strikes her as very different from the other children such as Michael who habitually throws stones in her pond and who we suspect she has little time for because she mistakenly calls him Benjamin. The pair strike up a conversation and before he knows it, he has revealed his secret to her.
Everything about this woman is honest and apparent which seems to set the standard for their conversation: “this old woman seemed to demand the truth. ” He may have found it so easy to be honest with her because she was a stranger, because she was obviously quite worldly and little concerned with looks and because she seemed so approachable. She is unflinching when she examines his psoriasis and offers words of wisdom: “Watch that you don’t suffer from more than the disease”. He claims that he does not understand and she elaborates: It’s bad enough having it without being shy about it as well.
This reaction is completely new to Neil and this conversation is a turning point in his life. He seems stronger and more mature after his conversations with her. When Michael suddenly approaches, he does not hurriedly cover up as he may well have done previously although there is obvious surprise and shock in Michael’s voice on seeing the affected skin. Michael responds favourably as he appears to understand the reasons for Neil’s behaviour. The pair are re-united in friendship which is demonstrated by their late night swim.
Neil is able to take part in a regular boy experience for the first time – even if it is after dark. The short story therefore ends on a promising note. This boy who was so obviously troubled by his condition has been transformed and finds that through sharing his problem, he cements his friendships. Maybe he will find a popularity based on his own personality now rather than on his mother’s ability to provide passes to the cinema. Neil’s disease had consumed him and dictated his lifestyle. He seems to have learned that that did not have to be the case.