Our Bridging Literary Divides programme is proud to showcase our mentee Ryan McMullan and his incredible novella Just One. He was mentored by experienced writer Matthew Azoulay.
Just One is a social realist novella about a queer disabled person’s coming of age experiences in Edinburgh. Sean, the protagonist, has a severe speech impairment and physical impairments. The novella reveals snap shots of Sean’s everyday life interactions with others. His impairments are not explicitly explained, but throughout the story the reader gradually and organically learns about Sean’s struggles in the context of his social life. This is centered around the lively Edinburgh nightlife of the 2000s, a comprehensive love of music and the gay dating scene of this period. Sean moves to Edinburgh to study but decides to settle. The timeframe of the novella is 2002 to 2019.
We join Sean on seven different days of the week spread over the course of twenty years; this is presented as seven different chapters. The chapters are not ordered according to the chronological order of the events they contain. This gives the reader perspective on how Sean grows from a naive nineteen year old into an adult. A growth mirrored by the introduction of online ‘hook-up’ apps that some gay and bisexual men often use; although the assumption is that the apps are used purely for sex, the fact that Sean has a speech impairment means that he finds that they are an equalizer, as he is able to speak and communicate with people the way he wants to.
Just One also explores the friendships that Sean makes in Edinburgh, and the power dynamics that many people experience within circles of friends. Each of the seven chapters surrounds an arranged social occasion, be it in a pub, nightclub, at a dinner party or wedding – apart from one chapter which involves an interaction in a flat. It is clear that Sean is desperate for a sense of belonging and there is often a sense that he is not entirely comfortable in the body/voice that he has been given. We see him push boundaries with the actions he takes and the reader is exposed to this unpredictable nature.
More broadly Just One tracks the changing of societal attitudes towards disabled people and the LGBTI community in the early twenty-first century. The disabled experience is normalised in that the novella’s social realist depiction of friendships show that disabled people have to negotiate the same social dynamics that their non disabled peers experience. The reader is also presented with dilemmas regarding consent, power and vulnerability, but true to life, clarity is not always provided on these issues.
Here is an extended extract:
Three empty half pint glasses and dropped crisps on the table signaled the end of Sean’s Friday night out. He fiddled with his coat zip for a few minutes to stop the cold, he envied when he saw other people do it in seconds. Sometimes he didn’t want to draw attention to this struggle and would leave his coat unzipped. It was November and every year Sean was shocked at how cold Edinburgh got. He didn’t want to feel the uncomfortable chill on his chest during the ten-minute walk.
He pushed through the old wooden double doors with Victorian glazing advertising whisky that was probably still in production. He made sure his exit was swift as he knew everyone hated the cold being let in. After the door quickly closed itself after him there was a silence, interjected with the cars and taxis rushing up Broughton Street with dipped headlights. He went up along the alleyway between Broughton Street and Union Street. He didn’t know what it was called but knew it was a short cut. The alleyway was finished with the centuries-old cobbles that can still be found on some Edinburgh streets; it was always in the back of Sean’s mind that they were a trip hazard for many people like him. While most residents appreciated the charm and character they brought to the streets, they were also unpopular with some, but for ruining suspension on vehicles rather than being inaccessible.
As he walked past The Outhouse pub halfway along the lane, a group of men a few years older were coming out just behind him. Sean figured that they were going on elsewhere to have some food. They were advancing in Sean’s direction, discussing between themselves what they were going to eat in Jolly’s, a popular cheap and cheerful Italian, nearby on Elm Row. It was the only restaurant he knew that boasted that a fire engine had mistakenly driven into it, smashing its front windows. The photographs and news articles from 1994 about the accident proudly hung on the walls and always made Sean laugh, the absurdity of it. He didn’t feel bad as no one was physically hurt.
Sean felt uncomfortable as he knew the men would be watching him up ahead, he didn’t like to be watched walking as he knew he looked unusual. As one of the group, Douglas, was talking of how he wanted a half/half: a portion of pasta with half a pizza, Sean tripped. He put out his left hand and caught himself on the wall of the stone archway, stopping his fall. He heard:
– You alright pal, one too many pal?
There was an awkward collective laugh, Sean joined the laughing and said:
It was dark in the archway, but Sean looked down to check his hand which was a little sore, there was a scratch and a wee bit of blood. He was fine. He was pleased that he didn’t need a plaster because putting one on using the same hand was an absolute nightmare. Douglas came jogging up to Sean and grabbed Sean’s arm and said:
– Sorry mate. Where have you been?
Sean found himself being led out of the archway by Douglas. An invasion of his personal space; he found that many people thought that this was okay when interacting with him. He despised the way he reacted when he was touched without permission.
Sean got the general vibe that Douglas was a bit of a dick but wasn’t a threat. He went along with the manhandling which he didn’t want or need. Once they were away from the cobbles Douglas let go of Sean’s arm. Sean said:
– The Barony
– The Barony
– Oh, aye Mather’s.
Sean gave in and replied:
– That’s a nice place, I prefer The Barony though.
Sean smiled to himself and asked:
– Did you enjoy the Outhouse?
– Eh? Well, where are you off to? We’re going for some grub over at Jolly’s.
Sean was pointing over in the general direction of Montgomery Street and said:
– Thank you
He was careful not to allow for any misinterpretation and waved a bye. Douglas was looking smug at his act of charity, with some of the others in the group looking a bit embarrassed. He said:
– You take care pal… I’m Douglas.
– Nice to meet you Ben, see you around.
Sean heard one of the group say in a disgruntled fashion:
– He said his name is Sean.
Followed by a whispered:
– You twat Doug.
Sean smiled and thought of saying ‘enjoy your meal’ but felt it wasn’t worth it. He then walked down Elm Row, down Montgomery Street, when the sudden urge to pee came on.
Look out in the coming months for the publication of Ryan McMullan’s ground-breaking novella Just One.