Authors: Tessa Hadley
Over five novels and two collections of stories Tessa Hadley has earned a reputation as a fiction writer of remarkable gifts, and been compared with Elizabeth Bowen and Alice Munro. In her new novel three sisters and a brother meet up in their grandparents' old house for three long, hot summer weeks. The house is full of memories of their childhood and their past â their mother took them there when she left their father â but now they may have to sell it. And under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.
Roland has come with his new wife and his sisters don't like her. Kasim, the twenty-year-old son of Alice's ex-boyfriend, makes plans to seduce Molly, Roland's teenage daughter. Fran's children uncover an ugly secret in a ruined cottage in the woods. Passion erupts where it's least expected, blasting the quiet self-possession of Harriet, the oldest sister. A way of life â bourgeois, literate, ritualised â winds down to its inevitable end.
With uncanny precision and extraordinary sympathy, Tessa Hadley charts the squalls of lust and envy disrupting this ill-assorted house party, as well as the consolations of memory and affection, the beauty of the natural world, the shifting of history under the social surface. From the first page the reader is absorbed and enthralled, watching a superb craftsman at work.
Tessa Hadley is the author five highly praised novels,
Accidents in the Home
, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award,
Everything Will Be All Right
The Master Bedroom
The London Train
, and two collections of stories,
. She lives in London and is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Her stories appear regularly in the
and other magazines.
ACCIDENTS IN THE HOME
EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT
SUNSTROKE AND OTHER STORIES
THE MASTER BEDROOM
THE LONDON TRAIN
ALICE WAS THE
first to arrive, but she discovered as she stood at the front door that she had forgotten her key. The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon, until their ears got used to other sounds: the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, a tickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses. At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another. Searching through her bag Alice put on a show of amusement and scatty self-deprecation. She was famously hopeless with keys. She had come with a young man who was her ex-boyfriend's son and on the train she had been preoccupied with the question of what stage of life she was at, whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child â though he wasn't either. Now he walked away from her around the house without saying anything, and she thought that this mishap with the keys had shrivelled her in his opinion, he was bored already. They were in the country, in the middle of nowhere, with no way back; the house was set behind a cluster of houses on a no through road where there was no cafÃ© or pub or even shop where they could pass the time.
Behind her smiles she raged at Kasim for a moment. She wished now that she hadn't brought him. It had been a careless suggestion in a moment of feeling bountiful, having this place to offer; she hadn't really expected him to take her up on it and had been flattered when he did. But if she had been alone the keys wouldn't have mattered. It would have been a kind of bliss, even, to be shut out from the responsibility of opening up the house and making it ready for the others. She could have dropped onto the grass in the sunshine. She could have let go her eternal vigilance and fallen deep down here, in this place, Kington, of all places, into sleep, the real thing, the sleep that she was always seeking for and could never quite get. Alice was forty-six, dark, soft, concentrated yet indefinite â she could look like a different person in different photographs. Her complex personality was diffuse, always flying away in different directions, like her fine hair, which a man had once described as prune-coloured; it was soft and brown like the inside of prunes, and she wore it curling loose on her shoulders.
The house was a white cube two storeys high, wrapped round on all four sides by garden, with French windows and a veranda at the back and a lawn sloping to a stream; the walls inside were mottled with brown damp, there was no central heating and the roof leaked. On the mossy roof slates, thick as pavings, you could see the chisel marks where the quarrymen had dressed them two hundred years ago. Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents' furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Paintings were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she'd lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.
Kasim didn't care about not getting inside; vaguely he was embarrassed because Alice had made a fool of herself. He wasn't sure how long he would stay anyway, and had only come to get away from his mother, who was anxious because he wasn't studying â at the end of his first year at university he was bored. He imagined he could smell the room's musty old age through the glass; the carpet was bleached and threadbare where the sun patched it. When he found a cheerfully shabby grey Renault parked on the cobbles beside the outhouses he called to Alice. Alice didn't drive and couldn't tell one car from another, but looking inside she knew it must belong to Harriet, her older sister. There was a box with maps in it on the back seat, and next to it on a folded newspaper a pair of shoes neatly side by side, with one striped sock tucked into the top of each. â I know exactly what she's done, she said. â Arrived here and left the car and gone straight off for a walk before the rest of us got here. She's that sort of person. She loves nature and communes with it, in a principled way. She thinks I'm frivolous.
The little display of ordered privacy made Harriet seem vulnerable to Alice; it touched and irritated her.
â Perhaps your sister forgot her key too.
â Harriet's never forgotten anything in her life.
Because they couldn't get inside the house, Alice felt obliged to go on showing things to Kasim. She took him into the churchyard through a keyhole gap in a stone wall in the back garden. Her grandfather had been the minister here. The house and the church stood together on the rim of a bowl of air scooped deep between the surrounding hills, and buzzards floated on thermals in the air below them. The ancient stubby tower of the church, blind without windows, seemed sunk in the red earth; the nave was disproportionately all window by contrast, and the clear old quavering glass made its stone walls appear weightless â you saw straight through to the green of trees on the far side. In the churchyard the earth was upheaved as turbulently as a sea by all the burials in it, and overgrown at one end with tall hogweed and rusty dock. Her grandparents' grave, red granite, still looked shiny-new after a quarter of a century. Her grandfather had been very high church, Alice said: incense and the Authorised Version and real hell, or at least some complicated clever kind of hell.
â He was a very educated man, and a poet. A famous poet.
Kasim was studying economics, he didn't care about poetry â though he didn't care much about economics either. Loose-jointed, he ambled after Alice round the churchyard, hands in pockets, only half-interested, head cocked to listen to her. Alice always talked a lot. Kasim was very tall and much too thin, with brown skin and a big nose lean as a blade; his smudged-black eyes drooped eloquently at the corners, the lower lids purplish, fine-skinned; his blue-black hair was thick as a pelt. He was completely English and unmistakeably something else too â his paternal grandfather, a Punjabi judge, had been married briefly to an English novelist. Now Alice was worrying that he would find the country tedious; somehow this hadn't occurred to her when she'd invited him in London. What she loved best in Kington was doing nothing â reading or sleeping. It was obvious now they'd arrived that this wouldn't be enough for Kasim, and she sagged under her responsibility to entertain him. Because he was young and she was forty-six, she was afraid of failing to interest him; she would be crushed if he didn't like it here. Alice was painfully stalled by beginning to lose her looks. She had always believed that it was her personality and intelligence which gave her what power she had. Her looks she had taken for granted.
Fran â Alice's other sister, the youngest of the four siblings â arrived next with her children, Ivy and Arthur, nine and six. They'd had an awful journey, the traffic had been hell and Ivy had been carsick. She'd had to sit with a plastic bowl on her knees, and her face â thin, prim mouth and sharp points of nose and chin, high forehead â was drained theatrically white behind her freckles. Trailing into the back garden from the car, through the stone archway overgrown with an aged white rambler rose, the children looked like remnants from an old-fashioned play: Ivy was dressed in a long Victorian skirt of khaki silk with ruffles, and a pink-sequinned top. She was usually running some imaginary other world in her head. Her stories weren't dramas with plots and happenings, they were all ambience â and she loved Kington because here her inner life seemed to touch the outer world at every point. She advanced across the grass into her dream: the old house dozed in the sunshine, and its French windows under their little canopy of dun lead, burdened with clematis montana, might have opened onto any scene of royalty or poetry or tragic forbearance.
Arthur was wearing everyday shorts and a tee shirt but he was frail and exquisite, with translucent skin and blue veins at his temples; he looked more like a part in one of Ivy's stories than she ever did. Although Fran was resolutely not sentimental, she couldn't bear to cut Arthur's silky pale-gold hair, which had grown down below his shoulders. Fran herself was stocky and definite, freckled, tawny hair chopped off in a neat bob, her green top stretched tight across her breasts and stomach.
â Thank goodness you've come, cried Alice, arriving in the keyhole gap from the churchyard. â I've forgotten my keys!
â I was terribly sick, Ivy announced. â I had to have a bowl.
â You should have heard the fuss. You'd have thought it was terminal. Doesn't Harriet have keys? Her car's here.
â The car was here when we arrived. She must have gone off for a walk.
â Oh well, at least there's you â I could do with a hand unpacking all this shopping. You're looking nice. How slim you are! I'm jealous.
She admired Alice's white dress patterned with blue flowers, her tan, painted toenails, clever sandals. â I wish I had the time to spare for all of that.
Alice said she felt terrible that Fran had had to do the shopping. But she couldn't have brought it on the train, and they somehow couldn't have asked Roland to shop, could they, as they hadn't met his new wife yet? And Harriet would have been too abstemious. Fran reassured her that she hadn't been abstemious at all; Harriet would be horrified when they divvied the costs up later. Kneeling on the tufty rough grass, Alice hugged the children: Ivy holding herself stiffly, convalescent, and Arthur leaning into the kiss, liking the perfumed soft warmth of women. The grass had been cut for their coming by the neighbour who kept up the garden for them, and the grass cuttings strewn all around them were turning to dead straw, smelling sweetly rotten. Fran remembered there were spare keys in one of the outhouses anyway.
â Oh well, it didn't matter. We've been in the churchyard together, visiting graves.
â Who's we?
She was so sure she'd mentioned bringing Kasim. â Dani's son. You'll really like him. I left him meditating on a tomb or something.
â But Alice! You're the one who said only family.
â He's almost family! You met him â don't you remember? â when he was a beautiful little boy, just about yesterday. Now he's a beautiful young man â isn't it frightening?
â You didn't mention it, Fran said.
â And where's Jeff?
Standing over her sister on the lawn, laden with plastic carriers, Fran paused for a dramatic effect that was very like her daughter. She was forceful where Alice was diffuse; her eyes had distinctive shallow lids which made her look as if all her awareness was out on the surface, with nothing hidden. â Guess what. At the last minute, Jeff couldn't make it.
â Fran, you're kidding? I thought he'd really promised this time.
â He really did promise. But he's crap.
Jeff pretended he'd forgotten all about the holiday, Fran said, though it had been arranged for months. He'd booked in gigs for the whole time they were supposed to be away, without telling her; he said might be able to clear some time to come down for a few days. She had told him not to bother. Alice exclaimed and commiserated, though warily, because sometimes when she'd criticised Jeff, Fran had taken offence and begun defending him. And Alice liked him anyway, she was sorry he hadn't come. This really was the last straw, Fran insisted, keeping her voice low to spare the children. It was all over between her and Jeff, she'd had enough. Alice had heard that before as well.
Fran unlocked the front door and the sisters stood hesitating on the brink of the interior for a moment, preparing themselves, recognising what they had forgotten while they were away from it â the under-earth smell of imprisoned air, something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it. Fran began unpacking the shopping in the kitchen, which was the least nice room of the house, unchanged since the nineteen seventies when their grandmother in a fit of modernisation had put in wood veneer wall cabinets and a sink unit and linoleum and an electric stove â at least she had preserved the old dresser built along one wall. Pans and basins left in certain cupboards grew black mould and were sticky with cobwebs, and there were always mouse droppings. Because the kitchen was between the dining room at the front of the house, and the long sitting room which ran all the way across the south-facing back, it was dark, with a neon strip light, and its side window looked out onto a scullery and outhouses.
Their brother Roland's previous wife, Valerie â she had been his second â had seemed to spend all her time in Kington describing her plans for improving it, although she was always reassuring them how much she loved the place. They should make a new kitchen which opened into the garden, she said; put in central heating and more bathrooms. Everyone agreed with her but nothing was changed. There was no money to change anything anyway.
Ivy settled beside Kasim where he lay flat among the plumy grasses in the churchyard with his eyes closed. She stretched out her legs alongside his, arranging her long skirt carefully so that only her patent leather shoes poked out, two upright black exclamations, from under its hem. Propped on one elbow, leaning earnestly over him, she ran through her usual repertoire of topics â school, Arthur, the Victorians, food she hated â testing to see what might amuse him. Without opening his eyes Kasim felt for cigarettes in his trouser pockets and then for a lighter. She followed the ritual application of the flame and the first deep-drawn inhalation with respectful interest.