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Authors: Tessa Hadley

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Sunstroke and Other Stories

BOOK: Sunstroke and Other Stories
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CONTENTS

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Tessa Hadley

Dedication

Title Page

Sunstroke

Mother’s Son

Buckets of Blood

Phosphorescence

The Enemy

The Surrogate

Exchanges

A Card Trick

The Eggy Stone

Matrilineal

Copyright

About the Book

Everyday life crackles with the electricity sparking between men and women, between parents and children, between friends. A son confesses to his mother that he is cheating on his girlfriend; a student falls in love with her lecturer and embarks on an affair with a man in the pub who looks just like him. Young mothers, pent-up in childcare, dream treacherously of other possibilities; a boy becomes aware of the woman, a guest at his parent’s holiday home, who is pressing up too close against him on the beach.

Hidden away inside the present, the past is explosive; and the future can open unexpectedly out of any chance encounter. These stories about the interior dramas of family life are compelling, ferocious and dangerous.

About the Author

Tessa Hadley is the author of three highly praised novels,
Accidents in the Home
,
Everything Will Be All Right
and
The Master Bedroom
. She lives in Cardiff and teaches literature and creative writing at Bath Spa University. Her stories appear regularly in
The New Yorker
,
Granta
and other magazines.

ALSO BY TESSA HADLEY

Accidents in the Home

Everything Will Be All Right

The Master Bedroom

For Dad and Tom

Sunstroke and Other Stories
Tessa Hadley
SUNSTROKE

THE SEAFRONT REALLY
isn’t the sea but the Bristol Channel: Wales is a blue line of hills on the other side. The district council has brought sand from elsewhere and built a complicated ugly system of sea walls and rock groynes to keep it in and make the beach more beachlike, but the locals say it’ll be washed away at the first spring tide. Determined kids wade out a long way into soft brown silt to reach the tepid water, which barely has energy to gather itself into what you could call a wave. It’s hard to believe that the same boys and girls who have PlayStations and the Internet still care to go paddling with shrimping nets in the rock pools left behind when the tide recedes, but they do, absorbed in it for hours as children might have been decades and generations ago.

It’s a summer day with the same blue sky and unserious puffs of creamy cloud as on the postcards. The high street is festive with bunting and flowers; the toyshops have set out their metal baskets of buckets and spades and polythene flags; the cafés are doing good business selling cream teas and chips. There are a lot of people holidaying in Somerset this year. Pink-skinned in shorts and sunglasses, with troops of children, they buy locally made ice cream, they visit the steam railway kept open by enthusiasts, they change twenty-pound notes into piles of coins and lose them all in the machines in the amusement arcades. Not so long ago, these old seaside resorts seemed to have been passed over for ever,
left to the elderly by people rushing to take their vacations abroad; but now some people aren’t so keen to fly. These tourists are congratulating themselves: with this weather, who needs to go abroad, who wants to?

Across the road from the beach are the Jubilee Gardens (that’s Victoria’s Jubilee, not the recent one), where there’s a putting green and even a bandstand, though today there’s no band. Two young women have established a messy family camp of bags, cardigans, plastic water bottles, discarded children’s tops, half in and half out of the dappled shade of some kind of ornamental tree that neither can identify – although both, lying back on the grass, have stared dreamily up into the delicate lattice of its twigs and leaves, stirring against the light with an effect like glinting water. The children (they have three each) wheel in and out around their mothers’ centre, wanting drink, money, kisses, indignantly demanding justice. The women hardly interrupt their conversation to dole out what’s needed, to open up their purses, issue stern ultimatums. They talk, sometimes across the heads of the youngest ones, curled up hot and heavy in their laps, sticky tears pressing crumples into their summer dresses. The baby dozes in her pushchair, and later lies on a blanket blinking up into the tree, responding with little jerks of her arms and legs to the shifting patterns of light.

It’s easy to guess even from the outward appearance of these women and their assorted children that they’re not staying at any of the guest houses in this resort town, and certainly not at the refurbished holiday camp further along the front. They don’t look wealthy (the kids’ clothes are hand-me-downs, the purses are worn, and the women frown into them), but they look, if it still means anything, bohemian. Rachel’s curving calves and strong bare arms are defiantly untanned; her luxuriant, nearly black hair is pinned up untidily on her head. Janie, who went to art college, wears a short gauzy green dress with seventies-style pink paisley
patterns. Her hair, which is light brown and dead straight, is cut in some style that Rachel deplores and admires: ragged, uneven lengths, as if it had been chopped off at random. They are both in their early thirties, at that piquant moment of change when the outward accidents of flesh are beginning to be sharpened from inside by character and experience.

They have come to town just for the day. Rachel and her husband Sam have a cottage inland, where they spend their holidays; Janie and her partner Vince are visiting. Rachel and Janie have been best friends since school. They did their degrees together in Brighton and shared a house. When Rachel moved back to Bristol, where they grew up (Sam was working for the BBC there), Janie went to look for work in London and stayed. They’re not obviously alike: Rachel is impulsive and can sound bossy and loudly middle class; Janie’s more wary and ironic. But they tell each other everything, almost everything. During the long months between visits, they talk for hours on the phone. Both of them have other friends, but it’s not the same: there’s no one else to whom they can unfold their inner lives with the same freedom.

The two have been talking intensely today, ever since they woke up. First, Rachel came into Janie’s bedroom and sat on the bed in her pyjamas while Janie fed Lulu, and then they talked as they clambered on all fours to tidy the children’s mattresses, laid out end to end in the attic. Hours ago, they got the children dressed and drove into town; this was supposedly to do some shopping and get the kids out of the house so that Sam could get on with his writing, but all along they had in mind exactly the treat they are enjoying now – this lazy, delicious, stolen afternoon doing nothing, escaped from the men, talking on and on about them. They dip into their purses extravagantly, and the children sense the possibility of largesse. The older boys race off to the toyshop to buy guns for themselves, windmills for the little ones.

In order to earn this day in the sunshine with their beautiful children running around them, how many toiling domesticated days haven’t these young mothers put in? Both of them do a token amount of work outside the home – Janie does a few hours of art therapy with special-needs children, Rachel does a bit of copy-editing – but truly for years they have been, half involuntarily, absorbed into the warm vegetable soup of motherhood, which surprisingly resembles their own mothers’ lives, thirty years ago. They don’t know quite how this happened; before the children were born, their relationships had shown every sign of being modern ones, built around the equal importance of two careers and the sharing of housework.

Neither is exactly unhappy, but what has built up in them instead is a sense of surplus, of life unlived. Somewhere else, while they are absorbed in pushchairs and fish fingers and wiping bottoms, there must be another world of intense experiences for grown-ups. They feel as if, through their perpetual preoccupation with infantile things, they, too, have become infants; as if their adult selves were ripening and sweetening all in vain, wasted. You can see this sensual surplus in them. It glistens on their skin and in their eyes, like cream rising to the top of the milk (though neither of them is fat: Rachel is tall and muscular, Janie slight and boyish, only her breasts rounded because she’s breastfeeding). They half know this about themselves, how visibly they exude their sexual readiness. They know that they make a picture, spread out there under the trees in their summer dresses, with their brood gambolling around them.

The children press home their opportunity and clamour for ice cream.

—Pretty please, Mummy, pretty please.

—It’ll keep us happy for much longer. You won’t have to worry about us.

The guns the boys have bought were made in Germany,
and, on the packages, inside the bright orange explosion where it says
Bang Bang
in English it also says
Toller Knall
, which is presumably the German equivalent. The children point the guns at one another’s heads, shouting,
Toller Knall, Toller Knall
, then laugh delightedly at how unthreatening it sounds.

—You know I can’t bear that, Rachel says.—I have a thing about guns pointing at heads.

—Mum, they’re only plastic toys, Joshua explains patiently. —It would probably be more dangerous to poke him with my finger.

But the boys give way cheerfully and aim at imaginary rabbits in the grass instead, squinting along their sights.

—Sam actually encourages it, Rachel says sotto voce to Janie. —He wants to take Joshua to join a gun club. He came out with all this stuff about teaching him respect for weapons.

—But didn’t he used to fulminate against the arms trade?

—Oh, probably at some point. But for me it’s not his principles that are the problem: have you ever seen him trying to put up shelves? It’s not Joshua I’m worried for. Sam shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a gun.

Melia, Janie’s middle child (much more difficult than the charming boys), pretends to get upset about the rabbits and ends up bursting into real tears. Rachel sometimes wonders whether Melia wouldn’t respond better to a little less understanding, but she preserves a diplomatic silence while Janie comforts and negotiates. Rachel thinks that she has taken more naturally to motherhood than Janie has; Janie is dreamier and misses her solitude painfully.

—Maybe ice cream would be a good idea, Janie decides.

The children plant their coloured plastic windmills in the grass and run to queue at the yellow-and-white painted café. Rachel is telling Janie about a man, Kieran, a friend of Sam’s in London, who she thinks she might have some
sort of a thing going with. Janie knows Kieran, too, though not well.

—It’s really nothing, it’s probably nothing, Rachel says. —You’ll think I’m making it all up. Only it’s funny that he turned up one evening last month, while he was back in Bristol visiting his parents. I’m sure he knew that Sam was going to be out. I had Sukey and Dom in the bath, I had my sleeves rolled up, I was in my foulest old clothes, my hair was just pulled into this elastic band, I’m sure I hadn’t brushed it since I got up in the morning.

—Maybe he goes for that, Janie says.—You know how some men have this idea of domesticated women that really turns them on – only the ones who aren’t living with them, needless to say.

—Joshua answered the doorbell or I wouldn’t have even bothered. And then I thought he’d just leave because Sam wasn’t there, but he came into the bathroom and he helped me out with the kids and actually it was really nice – we just got on so well. He cleaned the bath out afterwards while I was reading to them; I didn’t even realise that till later. Sam would never, ever think of cleaning out the bath unless I asked him to. I always thought Kieran was such a serious sort of intellectual – you know, only interested in talking about Habermas or Adorno or something. But we were joking away, and then he was telling me about his sister’s children. Dom was splashing us with his plastic ducks, we were completely soaked, and I was so apologetic, only Kieran said he loved it. ‘I love it,’ he said. And then I thought afterwards, What was he trying to say? What exactly did he love? Only perhaps I’m taking it the wrong way.

Janie thinks that Rachel is dangerously susceptible to men; she thinks that her own sceptical suspicion of them makes her much shrewder in her assessments of their motivations and characters. Also, she doesn’t know how Rachel can put up with Sam’s moods. She has her own problems
with Vince, but she would never allow anyone to domineer over her life the way Sam does over Rachel’s, with his black looks and his silences and his stormings.

—I almost dialled Kieran’s number the other night, Rachel says.—The week before we came to the cottage. I did dial it, but I put the phone down before it even rang. I pretended to myself that calling him was just a natural friendly thing to do. I was only going to complain to him – you know, make a funny story out of the sort of day I’d had. Perhaps I should have. And I was going to say that he should come and spend a few days with us in the country.

BOOK: Sunstroke and Other Stories
11.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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