What’s Keeping Watch Over The Sheep all about?:
Keeping Watch Over The Sheep is about a father who is desperate to see his child in her first nativity at school. However, he is thwarted by the teachers who claim an injunction brought against him by the child’s mother.
What did I think?:
The stories that I’ve read so far in this collection have all moved me in some way and I’m always a bit excited when this book rolls round again in my Short Stories Challenge. Keeping Watch Over The Sheep is one of his shorter stories out of the bunch so didn’t take me long to read at all but I was surprised just how much it made me think. It jumps straight into the action with the first line: “They told him he wasn’t allowed on the school premises.” Of course I was instantly intrigued. Our unnamed narrator in the story is a father who is attempting to gain entry to his daughter’s school in order to see her in her first nativity play. However, he finds his way barred by a teacher, Mr Carson, who politely informs him that his presence on the grounds is forbidden before physically blocking his way. Our narrator tries to reason with the teacher, desperate not to miss the chance to see his daughter but the man is immovable.
We learn that there has been an injunction taken out against the father by the mother and our narrator mentions “sessions,” where he has learned the importance of so-called conciliatory gestures like holding up his hands in surrender as he leaves the school building. He is not finished though. By walking through the school playing field he realises he can get close to the hall and may even be able to hear his daughter, certain that he will know her voice even if he doesn’t have a clue of what part she is playing. He makes several comments about the mother that suggest a lot of bitterness and are even fairly creepy:
“He didn’t know if Rachel’s mother would be in there. She’d have a prime seat at the front, if she was. Guaranteed. He hadn’t seen her going in the whole time he’d been waiting up the road from the main entrance. But she’d got pretty good at sneaking around in the last few months. Since the injunction.”
Quickly, his mindset seems to change and tugging at the heart-strings of the reader, he tells us that all he wants is to see Rachel’s little face lighting up – just sometimes. He begins to reminisce about his relationship with the mother, suggesting that there were faults upon both sides but following it up with:
“Maybe there were some things he probably shouldn’t have said, or done. Or broken. Breaking things had never helped. But sometimes it was hard to know what else to do. When she said those things. When she purposefully misunderstood what he was trying to say.”
All this just kept me wondering, Jon McGregor – whose side are we supposed to be on?! It was fantastic the way he managed to mess with my thoughts and emotions that kept me reading and wanting more. There is so much in this story that is left unsaid. Unfortunately for our narrator, the evening does not end well with the furious Mr Carson striding towards him having ferreted out his hiding place, although he vows to return and get some answers that he feels he is due (I won’t mention why). And right at the end, we find out the reason for the title of the story – Rachel was a sheep.
This story is a work of genius and had me all riled up for all the right reasons. We never learn exactly what Rachel’s father has done or why an injunction was held against him which is frustrating but I love that the author leaves a lot for the reader to muddle through alone. And yes, I was definitely muddling with this one. Is he a “baddie” or is he a “goodie?” The beauty is that this story is just a few pages yet the author manages to write things in that short space that had me tearing my hair out. Finally, he manages to write characters with such a distinctive voice that you feel that you instantly know them and understand what they are going through. I don’t know how he did it but all hail Jon McGregor, the new king of the short story. Absolutely brilliant.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: The Archduchess by Daphne du Maurier from the collection The Breaking Point