The following is from Anna Burns' novel, Milkman. In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She's pursued by a paramilitary known only by the milkman, and despite her efforts to avoid him, rumors spread and danger looms. Anna Burns is the author of two previous novels and one novella. Her novel No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Milkman.
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumor started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one. I knew his age, not because he got shot and it was given by the media, but because there had been talk before this, for months before the shooting, by these people of the rumour, that forty-one and eighteen was disgusting, that twenty-three years’ difference was disgusting, that he was married and not to be fooled by me for there were plenty of quiet, unnoticeable people who took a bit of watching. It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me. I did not like first brother-in-law either. In his compulsions he made things up about other people’s sexlives. About my sexlife. When I was younger, when I was twelve, when he appeared on my eldest sister’s rebound after her long-term boyfriend got dumped for cheating on her, this new man got her pregnant and they got married right away. He made lewd remarks about me to me from the first moment he met me—about my quainte, my tail, my contry, my box, my jar, my contrariness, my monosyllable—and he used words, words sexual, I did not understand. He knew I didn’t understand them but that I knew enough to grasp they were sexual. That was what gave him pleasure. He was thirty-five. Twelve and thirty-five. That was a twenty-three years’ difference too.
So he made his remarks and felt entitled to make his remarks and I did not speak because I did not know how to respond to this person. He never made his comments when my sister was in the room. Always, whenever she’d leave the room, it was a switch turned on inside him. On the plus side, I wasn’t physically frightened of him. In those days, in that place, violence was everybody’s main gauge for judging those around them and I could see at once he didn’t have it, that he didn’t come from that perspective. All the same, his predatory nature pushed me into frozenness every time. So he was a piece of dirt and she was in a bad way with being pregnant, with still loving her long-term man and not believing what he’d done to her, disbelieving he wasn’t missing her, for he wasn’t. He was off now with somebody else. She didn’t really see this man here, this older man she’d married but had been too young herself, and too unhappy, and too in love—just not with him—to have taken up with him. I stopped visiting even though she was sad because I could no longer take his words and facial expressions. Six years on, as he tried to work his way through me and my remaining elder sisters, with the three of us—directly, indirectly, politely, fuck off-ly—rejecting him, the milkman, also uninvited but much more frightening, much more dangerous, stepped from out of nowhere onto the scene.
I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me. I did not like first brother-in-law either. In his compulsions he made things up about other people’s sexlives. About my sexlife.
I didn’t know whose milkman he was. He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him. He didn’t ever deliver milk. Also, he didn’t drive a milk lorry. Instead he drove cars, different cars, often flash cars, though he himself was not flashy. For all this though, I only noticed him and his cars when he started putting himself in them in front of me. Then there was that van—small, white, nondescript, shapeshifting. From time to time he was seen at the wheel of that van too.
He appeared one day, driving up in one of his cars as I was walking along reading Ivanhoe. Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.
‘You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you? So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he? Your brothers, thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy, used to play in the hurley team, didn’t they? Hop in. I’ll give you a lift.’
This was said casually, the passenger door already opening. I was startled out of my reading. I had not heard this car drive up. Had not seen before either, this man at the wheel of it. He was leaning over, looking out at me, smiling and friendly by way of being obliging. But by now, by age eighteen, ‘smiling, friendly and obliging’ always had me straight on the alert. It was not the lift itself. People who had cars here often would stop and offer lifts to others going into and out of the area. Cars were not in abundance then and public transport, because of bombscares and hijackings, was intermittently withdrawn. Kerb-crawling too, may have been a term recognised, but it was not recognised as a practice. Certainly I had never come across it. Anyway, I did not want a lift. That was generally speaking. I liked walking—walking and reading, walking and thinking. Also specifically speaking, I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude. So I hesitated, or froze, which was rude. ‘I’m walking,’ I said. ‘I’m reading,’ and I held up the book, as if Ivanhoe should explain the walking, the necessity for walking. ‘You can read in the car,’ he said, and I don’t remember how I responded to that. Eventually he laughed and said, ‘No bother. Don’t you be worryin’. Enjoy your book there,’ and he closed the car door and drove away.
First time that was all that happened—and already a rumour started up. Eldest sister came round to see me because her husband, my now forty-one-year-old brother-in-law, had sent her round to see me. She was to apprise me and to warn me. She said I had been seen talking with this man.
‘Fuck off,’ I said. ‘What’s that mean—been seen? Who’s been seein’ me? Your husband?’
‘You’d better listen to me,’ she said. But I wouldn’t listen—because of him and his double standards, and because of her putting up with them. I didn’t know I was blaming her, had been blaming her, for his long-term remarks to me. Didn’t know I was blaming her for marrying him when she didn’t love him and couldn’t possibly respect him, for she must have known, how could she not, all the playing around he got up to himself.
I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude.
She tried to persist in advising me to behave myself, in warning me that I was doing myself no favours, that of all the men to take up with—But that was enough. I became incensed and cursed some more because she didn’t like cursing so that was the only way to get her out of a room. I then shouted out the window after her that if that coward had anything to say to me then he was to come round and say it to me himself. That was a mistake: to have been emotional, to have been seen and heard to be emotional, shouting out the window, over the street, allowing myself to be pulled into the momentum. Usually I managed not to fall into that. But I was angry. I had just so much anger—at her, for being the wee wife, for doing always exactly what he told her to, and at him, for trying to put his own contemptibleness over onto me. Already I could feel my stubbornness, my ‘mind your own business’ arising. Unfortunately whenever that happened, I’d pretty much turn perverse, refuse to learn from experience and cut off my nose to spite my face. As for the rumour of me and the milkman, I dismissed it without considering it. Intense nosiness about everybody had always existed in the area. Gossip washed in, washed out, came, went, moved on to the next target. So I didn’t pay attention to this love affair with the milkman. Then he appeared again—this time on foot as I was running in the parks with the lower and upper waterworks.
I was alone and not reading this time, for I never read while running. And there he was, again out of nowhere, this time falling into step beside me where he’d never been before. Instantly we were running together and it looked as if always we were running together and again I was startled, as I would be startled by every encounter, except the last, I was to have with this man. At first he didn’t speak, and I could not speak. Then he did and his talk was mid-conversation as if too, always we were mid-conversation. His words were brief and a little strained because of my pace of running, and it was of my place of work that he spoke. He knew my work—where it was, what I did there, the hours, the days and the twenty-past-eight bus I caught every morning when it wasn’t being hijacked to get me into town to it. Also he made the pronouncement that I never caught this bus home. This was true. Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book. This would be a nineteenth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century. I suppose now, looking back, this milkman knew all of that as well.
I then shouted out the window after her that if that coward had anything to say to me then he was to come round and say it to me himself. That was a mistake: to have been emotional, to have been seen and heard to be emotional, shouting out the window, over the street, allowing myself to be pulled into the momentum.
So he spoke his words as we were going along one of the sides of the top-end reservoir. There was a smaller reservoir near the child’s playground down at the bottom end. He looked ahead, this man, as he spoke to me, not once turning towards me. Throughout this second meeting he didn’t ask one question of me. Nor did he seem to want any response. Not that I could have given one. I was still at the part of ‘where did he come from?’ Also, why was he acting as if he knew me, as if we knew each other, when we did not know each other? Why was he presuming I didn’t mind him beside me when I did mind him beside me? Why could I just not stop this running and tell this man to leave me alone? Apart from ‘where did he come from?’ I didn’t have those other thoughts until later, and I don’t mean an hour later. I mean twenty years later. At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hairtrigger society where the ground rules were—if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near. Best I could manage in those days was to hope the person concerned would hurry up and say whatever it was he or she thought they were being friendly and obliging by saying, then for them to go away; or else to go away myself, politely and quickly, the very moment I could.
I knew by this second meeting that the milkman was attracted to me, that he was making some move on me. I knew I didn’t like him being attracted and that I did not feel the same way towards him myself. But he uttered no direct words by way of forwarding on this attraction. Still too, he asked nothing of me. Nor was he physically touching me. Not once so far in this second meeting had he even looked at me. Plus he was older than me, far older, so could it be, I wondered, that I was getting this wrong, that the situation was not as I imagined? As for the running, we were in a public place. This was two conjoined large parks during the day, a sinister environment at night, though during the day also it was sinister. People didn’t like to admit to the day section being sinister because everyone wanted at least one place where they could go. I didn’t own this territory so that meant he was allowed to run in it just as much as I was allowed to run in it, just as much as children in the Seventies felt entitled to drink their alcohol in it, just as slightly older children would later in the Eighties feel justified sniffing their glue in it, just as older people again in the Nineties would come to inject themselves with heroin in it, just as at present the state forces were hiding in it to photograph renouncers-of-the-state. They also photographed renouncers’ known and unknown associates, which was what then happened just at this point. An audible ‘click’ sounded as the milkman and I ran by a bush and this was a bush I’d run by lots of times without clicks coming out of it. I knew it had happened this time because of the milkman and his involvement, and by ‘involvement’ I mean connected, and by ‘connected’ I mean active rebellion, and by ‘active rebellion’ I mean state-enemy renouncer owing to the political problems that existed in this place. So now I was to be on file somewhere, in a photograph somewhere, as a once unknown, but now certainly known associate. This milkman himself made no reference to the click even though it was impossible he had not heard it. I dealt with it by picking up my pace to get this run over with, also by pretending I had not heard the click myself.
Having been brought up in a hairtrigger society where the ground rules were—if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there?
He slowed the run down though, right down, until we were walking. This was not because he was unfit generally but because he was no runner. He had no interest in running. All that running along the reservoirs where I had not ever seen him run had never been about running. All that running, I knew, was about me. He implied it was because of pacing, that he was slowing the run because of pacing, but I knew pacing and for me, walking during running was not that. I could not say so, however, for I could not be fitter than this man, could not be more knowledgeable about my own regime than this man, because the conditioning of males and females here would never have allowed that. This was the ‘I’m male and you’re female’ territory. This was what you could say if you were a girl to a boy, or a woman to a man, or a girl to a man, and what you were not—least not officially, least not in public, least not often—permitted to say. This was certain girls not being tolerated if it was deemed they did not defer to males, did not acknowledge the superiority of males, might even go so far as almost to contradict males, basically, the female wayward, a species insolent and far too sure of herself. Not all boys and men though, were like that. Some laughed and found the affronted men funny. Those ones I liked—and maybe-boyfriend was one of that lot. He laughed and said, ‘You’re having me on. Can’t be that bad, is it that bad?’ when I mentioned boys I knew who loathed each other yet united in rage at the loudness of Barbra Streisand; boys incensed at Sigourney Weaver for killing the creature in that new film when none of the men in that film had been able to kill the creature; boys reacting against Kate Bush for being catlike, cats for being female-like, though I didn’t tell about cats being found dead and mutilated up entries to the point where there weren’t many of them left in my area anymore. Instead I ended on Freddie Mercury still to be admired just as long as it could be denied he was in any way fruity, which had maybe-boyfriend setting down his coffee pot—only he and his friend, chef, out of everybody I knew had coffee pots—then sitting down himself and laughing all over again.
This was my ‘almost one year so far maybe-boyfriend’ whom I met up with on Tuesday nights, now and again on a Thursday night, most Friday nights into Saturday, then all Saturday nights into Sunday. Sometimes this seemed steady dating. Other times not at all dating. A few over his way saw us as a proper couple. Most though, saw us as one of those non-couple couples, the type who might meet regularly but who couldn’t be designated a proper pairing for all that. I would have liked to have been a proper pairing and to have been officially dating and said so at one point to maybe-boyfriend, but he said no, that that wasn’t true, that I must have forgot and so he’d remind me. He said that once we tried—with him being my steady boy and me being his steady girl, with us meeting and arranging and seemingly moving, as did proper couples, towards some future end. He said I went peculiar. He said he also went peculiar, but that never had he seen me with so much fear in me before. Vaguely, as he spoke, I remembered something of what he was recounting. Another part of me though, was thinking, is he making this up? He said he’d suggested, for the sake of whatever it was we did have, that we split up as steady girl and steady boy which, in his opinion, had just been me anyway attempting that ‘talking about feelings’ which, given my freakout when we did, given too, I spoke of feelings even less than he spoke of feelings, I mustn’t have believed in any of that all along. Instead he put forward that we go back to the maybe territory of not knowing whether or not we were dating. So we did and he said I calmed down and that he calmed down as well.
As for that official ‘male and female’ territory, and what females could say and what they could never say, I said nothing when the milkman curbed, then slowed, then stopped my run. Once again, least not intentionally, he didn’t seem rude, so I couldn’t be rude and keep on running. Instead I let him slow me, this man I didn’t want near me, and it was at that point he said something about all the walking I did whenever I wasn’t running and these were words I wished he hadn’t spoken or else that I hadn’t heard at all. He said he was concerned, that he wasn’t sure, and all the while still he did not look at me. ‘Not sure,’ he said, ‘about this arunning, about all of that awalking. Too much arunning and awalking.’ With that, and without another word, he went round a corner at the edge of the parks and disappeared. As with last time with the flashy car, this time too—with the sudden appearance, the proximity, the presumption, the click of the camera, his judgement upon my running and walking then once again that abrupt departure—there was confusion, too much of being startled. It seemed a shock, yes, but shock over something that must be too small, unimportant, even too normal to be really truly shocked over. Because of it though, it was only hours later when back home that I was able to take in he knew about my work. I didn’t remember how I got home either because after he left, at first I attempted running again, trying to resume my schedule, to pretend his appearance had not happened or at least had not meant anything. Then, because I was lapsing in attention, because I was confused, because I wasn’t being truthful, I slipped on glossy pages that had worked loose from some discarded magazine. They were a double-page spread of a woman with long dark, unruly hair, wearing stockings, suspenders, something too, black and lacy. She was smiling out at me, leaning back and opening up for me, which was when I skidded and lost balance, catching full view of her monosyllable as I fell down on the path.
From Milkman. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2018 by Anna Burns.