The tenement has its being, its almost independent being, in a small Scottish town. Built of grey granite, more than a century ago, it stands four-square in space and time, the one fixed point in the febrile lives of the transient human beings whom it shelters. At the time of which Iain Crichton Smith writes, there are married couples in three of the flat; two widows and a widower occupy the others. All of them are living anxious lives of quiet desperation, which Mr Smith anatomises with cool and delicate understanding.
The Masons, Linda and John, are the youngest and perhaps the happiest house-hold, who can still look to the future with hope: he has quite a well-paid job in a freezer shop, she is expecting a child. Mr. Cooper’s role in life is humbler: he is a lavatory attendant, but can take an off pride in his work. The Camerons provide drama: the husbands, once a long distance lorry driver who was sacked for heavy drinking and now a casual labourer, is consumed with unreasoning hate of Catholics, and when drunk becomes a raging brute who batters and terrifies his wife. Trevor Porter, an ex-teacher who like to think of himself as a poet (unpublished), is destroying his marriage by his self-absorption, though after his wife has surprised him by dying of cancer he feel guilt-ridden. Mrs Floss is the tenement’s most colourful inhabitant: the widow of a local hotel owner, she still has money and can indulge in holiday cruises and foreign lovers. Mrs Miller, up on the top floor, is odd-woman-out even in this company of loners: since her husband was killed by lightening, crucified on the telephone wires he was repairing, she has become a slatternly recluse, who finds occasional drinking companions among the town’s down-and-outs.
The course of several of these lives reaches a startling crisis during the little party to celebrate the birth of the Masons’ child. But Iain Crichton Smith declines any easy resolution of events. His fascinatingly ill-assorted group of characters, brought together only by grey granite, are left to struggle on, with their own strengths and weaknesses.