The London Trainby Tessa Hadley
"Hadleyis a lovely, subtly teasing writer." —New York Times Book ReviewLong-listed forthe Orange Prize
Twolives, stretched between two cities, converge in a chance meeting withimmediate and far-reaching consequences in this compelling, sophisticated talefrom acclaimed New Yorker writer Tessa Hadley, author of/em>/strong>/p>/em>… See more details below
"Hadleyis a lovely, subtly teasing writer." —New York Times Book ReviewLong-listed forthe Orange Prize
Twolives, stretched between two cities, converge in a chance meeting withimmediate and far-reaching consequences in this compelling, sophisticated talefrom acclaimed New Yorker writer Tessa Hadley, author of Accidents inthe Home and The Master Bedroom. As father struggles to reestablisha relationship with his estranged daughter in London, surrendering himself toan underground life of illegal squats and counterculture friendships, a wifedecides she must flee her suffocating marriage to return to Wales, where inCardiff she may rediscover the passions that once fueled her life. Embracingchange and facing loss, in a story evocative of Alice Munro’s Runaway andJulia Glass’ I See You Everywhere, Hadley’s powerful charactersilluminate the furthest reaches of love, hope, and determination.
Welsh novelist and short-story writer Hadley (Sunstroke, 2007, etc.), combines forms in these two subtle, subtly related stories, one about a man whose life goes into free fall as a father and husband, the second about his barely remembered lover who has let idealized memory dangerously impact her life.
Literary critic Paul lives on a Welsh farm with his aristocratic but earthy second wife Elise and their little girls. Shortly after his English working-class mother dies, Paul's first wife calls to say their daughter Pia has dropped out of college in London and disappeared. Paul secretly tracks down Pia, pregnant and living with a charismatic Polish immigrant and his sexy sister. After a fight with Elise, Paul moves in with Pia and her lover. He returns to Elise contrite, but she has her own secrets and is less than wholehearted in her welcoming.When Pia leaves the Poles and comes to Wales to face her pregnancy more squarely, Paul and Elise begin to find their way back to each other. At some point, passing mention is made of Paul's brief adultery years earlier with a "girl" in Cardiff; that "girl" is Cora. Cora has recently moved from London back to Cardiff and separated from her much older husband Robert after 12 years of marriage. For years, she and Robert, a well-placed official in the Home Office, tried without success to have a baby until she made the false assumption that Robert was only humoring her. Three years ago, while renovating her parents' Cardiff house after their deaths, she met Paul on the London train and carried on a passionate affair that Paul ended unaware she was pregnant. When she miscarried, she again misread (and underestimated) Robert, who guessed the baby was not his. Guilt and continuing obsession with Paul keep Cora away from Robert until he goes missing himself. Ultimately, Cora and Robert, like Paul and Elise, must decide what really matters.
Hadley exposes all the pitfalls inherent in relationships, yet miraculously leaves the reader buoyant with hope.
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The London Train
By Tessa Hadley
Harper PerennialCopyright © 2011 Tessa Hadley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBy the time Paul got to the Home, the undertakers
had already removed his mother's body.
He protested at this, it seemed done in indecent
haste. He had set out as soon as they telephoned him;
surely they could have waited the three or four hours
it had taken him to get there (the traffic had been heavy
on the M5). Mrs Phipps, the owner of the Home, guided
him into her office, where whatever scene he might make
wouldn't upset the other residents. She was petite, vivacious,
brown-skinned, with traces of a South African
accent; he didn't dislike her, he thought she ran the
Home to a good standard of care, his mother had seemed
to resign herself gratefully to her efficiency and brisk
baby-talk. Even at this moment, however, there was no
sign that the taut, bright mask of Mrs Phipps's good
humour, respectfully muted in the circumstances, ever
gave way to any impulse of authentic feeling. Her room
was pleasant; an open sash window let in the afternoon
spring sunshine from the garden. On the wall behind
her desk was pinned a colourful year planner, almost
every square scribbled over with busyness and responsibility:
he imagined a space on the planner where his
mother's occupation of her room abutted abruptly onto
If he wanted to see his mother, Mrs Phipps said,
putting the right nuance of sorrowful tact into her voice,
she could telephone the undertakers, he could go to see
her there. Paul was aware of the hours ahead as requiring
scrupulous vigilance; he must be so careful to do the
right thing, but it wasn't clear what the right thing might
be. He said he would take the undertakers' address and
number, and Mrs Phipps gave it to him.
I ought to let you know, she added because I
wouldn't want you to find out in any roundabout
way, that Evelyn made another of her bids for freedom
Bids for freedom?
He thought that she was using an odd euphemism for
dying, but she went on to explain that his mother had
got out of bed at some point in the evening, and gone
into the garden in her nightdress. There was a place they
always looked when they couldn't find her: Evelyn's
little den in the shrubbery.
I'm sorry that it happened. But I did warn you that
we simply aren't able to provide twenty-four hour
supervision of residents when they fall ill. The girls were
in and out of her room all evening, checking on her.
That was how we realized she had got out. To be frank
with you, she was so weak none of us had imagined she
was even capable of getting out of bed. She can only
have been out there for ten to fifteen minutes before we
found her. Twenty at the most.
They had brought her inside and put her back to bed.
She had had a good night; she only deteriorated after
breakfast this morning.
Mrs Phipps was worrying that he might make a
complaint, Paul realized.
It's all right. If that's what she wanted to do, then
I'm glad she was able to get out.
She was relieved, although she didn't understand his
point. Of course we were worried about her body
temperature, these spring nights are treacherous. We
wrapped her up warmly and made her a hot drink, we
kept an eye on her all through the night.
Paul asked if he could sit in his mother's room for a
while. They had already stripped her bed and pulled up
over the mattress a clean counterpane in the standard
flowered material that was everywhere in the Home:
there were no signs he could see of what had taken place
in here. Mrs Phipps had reassured him that his mother
had 'gone very peacefully', but he took this as no more
than a form of words. He sat for a while in his mother's
armchair, looking round at her things: the last condensed
residue of the possessions that had accompanied her from
her home to her small flat in sheltered accommodation
and then to this room. He recognized some of them only
because he had moved them for her each time; others
were familiar from his childhood and youth: a majolica
fruit bowl, a blue glass girl who had once been fixed on
the side of a vase for flowers, the red Formica coffee table
that always stood beside her chair, with its built-in ashtray
on a chrome stem.
When Paul left the Home, he drove to the undertakers
and sat in his car in their small forecourt car park. He
had to go inside and talk to them about arrangements
for the funeral; but there was also the issue of seeing his
mother's body. He was his parents' only child. Evelyn
had absorbed the brunt of his father's death twenty years
ago, when Paul was in his twenties: now all the lines
met in him. Of course his wife would be sorry, and his
children too; however, because for the last few years
Evelyn's mind had wandered farther and farther, she had
become a distant figure to the girls, and he had only
brought them to visit her every so often. She still recognized
them, but if they went into the garden to play, or
even if they went to the toilet, or moved round to the
other side of her chair, she would forget she had already
seen them; each time they returned she would greet them
again, her face lighting up with the same delight.
His father had died in hospital after a heart attack;
Evelyn was with him, Paul had been living in Paris at
the time and had not arrived until the next day. The
possibility of seeing the body had not arisen; in his
concentration then on his mother's bereavement, it probably
hadn't seemed important. Now he did not know
whether this was important or not. He peered into the
undertakers' shop window with its kitsch discretion, urns
and pleated silks and artificial flowers. When eventually
he got out of his car to go inside, he realized it was past
six o'clock. There was a closed sign hanging on the shop
door, with a number to contact in case of emergency,
which he didn't write down. He would come back in
He had got into the habit of using the Travelodge, if
ever he needed to stay overnight in Birmingham when
he came to visit his mother; conveniently, there was one
only ten minutes' drive from the Home. He unpacked
his few things, a clean shirt and socks, toothbrush, a
notebook, the two books of poetry he was reviewing
he had not known when he set out in the morning how
long he would need to stay. Then he telephoned Elise.
She'd gone by the time I got there, he said.
Oh, poor Evelyn.
Mrs Phipps said she went very peacefully.
Oh, Paul. I'm so sorry. Are you all right? Where
are you? Do you need me to come up? I'm sure I could
get someone to have the girls.
He reassured her that he was all right. He didn't want
to eat, but walked around the streets until he found a
pub where he drank two pints, and browsed a copy of
the Birmingham Mail that was lying on a table. His
mind locked into the words, he read each page exhaustively,
taking in without any inward commentary every
least detail: crime, entertainment, in memoriam. He had
a dread of being overtaken by some paroxysm of grief
in a public place. Back in his room, he did not want to
read either of the poetry books; when he had undressed
he looked in the drawer of the bedside table for a Bible,
but it was a New International Version, no good to him.
He turned out the light and lay under the sheet, because
the heating was stuffy and airless and you could not
open the windows more than a crack. Through the crack
the fine spring night sent its smells of greenness and
growth, mingled with petrol fumes from the road outside
that never stilled or grew quiet, however late it was. He
was relieved, he thought. What had happened was merely
the ordinary, expected, common thing: the death of an
elderly parent, the release from a burden of care. He had
not wanted her life prolonged, in the form it had taken
recently. He had not visited her as often as he should.
He had been bored, when he did visit.
When he closed his eyes there came an unwanted
image of his mother out in the dark garden of the Home
in her nightdress, so precise that he sat up in bed
abruptly. She seemed so close at hand that he looked
around for her: he had the confused but strong idea
that this present moment could be folded closely enough
to touch against a moment last night, that short time
ago when she was still alive. He saw not the bent old
lady she had become, but the mature woman of his
teenage years: her dark hair in the plait she had long
ago cut off, the thick-lensed black-rimmed glasses of
those days, her awkward tall strength and limbs full of
power. When she was still alive it had been difficult
sometimes for him to remember her past selves, and he
had been afraid he had lost them for ever, but this recall
was vivid and total. He switched on the light, got out
of bed, turned on the television and watched the news,
images of the war in Iraq.
Lying stretched out again in the dark on his back,
naked, covered with the sheet, he couldn't sleep. He
wished he could remember better those passages in The
Aeneid where Anchises in the Underworld explains to
his son how the dead are gradually cleansed in the afterlife
of all the thick filth and encrusting shadows that
have accumulated through their mortal involvement,
their living; when after aeons they are restored to pure
spirit, they long, they eagerly aspire, to return to life
and the world and begin again. Paul thought that there
was no contemporary language adequate to describe the
blow of his mother's vanishing. A past in which a
language of such dignity as Virgil's was possible seemed
to him itself sometimes only a dream.
The next morning when he went back to the undertakers
he told himself in advance that he must ask to see
her body. However, once he was involved in making the
arrangements for the funeral, he found it difficult to
speak at all, even to give his minimal consent to whatever
was proposed: his dumbness did not come from
deep emotion, but its opposite, a familiar frozen aversion
that seized him whenever he had to transact these
false relations with the external world. He imagined the
young man he spoke with had been trained to watch for
the slips and give-away confusions of grieving family
members, and so he tried to make himself coldly impenetrable.
Elise should have been there to help him, she
was gifted at managing this side of life. He could not
bring himself to expose to the youth's solicitude any
intimate need to touch his mother a last time; and perhaps
anyway he didn't want to touch her.
Afterward he went to the Home as he had arranged,
to deal with paperwork and to clear his mother's belongings
from her room, although Mrs Phipps had insisted
there was no hurry, he was welcome to leave things as
they were until after the funeral. He sat again in Evelyn's
armchair. The room was really quite small; but on the
occasion they had come here first to look at it, there
had been someone playing a piano downstairs, and he
had allowed this to convince him that the Home was a
humane place, that it would be possible to have a full
life here. He had not often heard the piano afterward.
When he had packed a few things into boxes he asked
Mrs Phipps to dispose of the rest, and also to show him
what she had called his mother's 'den' in the garden; he
saw her wonder whether he was going to make
difficulties after all.
In the garden the noise of traffic wasn't insistent. The
sun was shining, the bland neat garden, designed for
easy upkeep, was full of birdsong: chaffinch and blackbird
the broody rumble of the collared doves. Mrs
Phipps's high-heeled beige suede shoes grew dark from
the grass still wet with dew as they crossed the lawn,
her heels sinking in the turf, and he saw that she was
annoyed by this, but would not say anything. The Home
had been a late Victorian rectory, built on a small rise:
at the far end of the garden she showed him that, if you
pushed through the bushes to where the old stone wall
curved round, there was a little trodden space of bare
earth, a twiggy hollow, room enough in it to stand
upright. The wall was too high for an old lady to sit on
or climb over, but she could have leaned on it and looked
over at the view, she could have watched for anyone
coming. When Evelyn was a child, when there was still
a rector in the rectory, everything beyond this point
would have been fields and woods: now it was built up
as far as the eye could see. Paul pushed inside the hollow
himself and looked out, while Mrs Phipps waited,
politely impatient to get back to her day's business. He
could see from there the sprawling necropolis of the
remains of Longbridge, where Evelyn's brothers had
worked on the track in the Fifties and Sixties, building
Austin Princesses and Rileys and Minis. At night this
great post-industrial expanse of housing development
and shopping complexes and scrapyards was mysterious
behind its myriad lights; by day it looked vacant, as if
the traffic flowed around nowhere.
Excerpted from The London Train by Tessa Hadley Copyright © 2011 by Tessa Hadley. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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