Tag Archives: story

An Engagement Waylaid

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And Now For Something Completely Different: A Story Vignette of My Own.

Oliver and I descended the stairs at Market and Montgomery Streets down to the BART station underground. We wandered unfamiliar searching for the ticket machines so we could buy our tickets to Oakland for Stacie and Mark’s engagement party. As we stood at the machines with our dollar bills drooping at the ready, we were suddenly helped, (accosted rather), by two nefarious characters. The first, a young, scraggly 20-something guy who snatched our bills and explained incoherently what to buy and how to buy it as he wildly hit buttons and tapped the screen until our tickets popped out, rather miraculously. Then he pointed out that we should give him two dollars.

We were then left with one ticket of the proper amount for going to and from Oakland and one ticket that had five dollars more than we needed. Inexplicably, the second character popped up: a scraggly, 40-something, rather taciturn yet officious fellow who attempted to help us retrieve some of that extra cash on our ticket but in actuality only succeeded in giving himself two dollars. We do not say no to these people. Thus equipped, we toddled off to our train stop. Once aboard, the rather vacant train whisked us down underwater. A harrowing experience, if you are not used to it, which I never will be, as the old train screeches and scrapes its way through the decades old tunnel at the speed of light, 30-feet below the surface of the bay. At the deepest point, a nerve-crushing sound much like, perhaps, the Death Star scraping through a tight tunnel sent pulsating waves rattling to the core of my soul. I am reminded why I never take BART.

The train emerged above ground in a burst of stark, East Bay sunlight. The worst of the noise ended, and we rattled along on what now seemed rather tottery tracks, high above and over sun-blanched suburbs and empty, industrial buildings. We looked at each other with relief and promptly exchanged overly exuberant jokes in a compulsive fit of jollity. The bright sun moved across the gentrified interior, through the wide, bubbled, scratched windows and across our squinting brows, as the car wavered and turned on its tracks.

Two women sat across from us after the first stop. They could have sat anywhere in the empty compartment, as it  was Saturday and quite uncrowded, but sat across from us and ignored us, putting on their makeup as they chattered-on, their lips and eyes becoming wider and more expressive with each swathe of a pencil-like brush. When the train stopped again, the compartment doors parted with a deep swoosh. We could see through the open doors a brick wall bearing the MacArthur Street sign. “Ours is the next stop,” we agreed. And the doors remained open. We snickered to ourselves at a man who had fallen asleep with his mouth open. And the doors remained open and would not close. We laughed at this, too, in our spectacular ignorance, for this was our stop, in actuality.

However, we unwittingly got off at the wrong stop, the next one, which dropped us in East Oakland where we walked the long and winding way to Stacie and Mark’s place, through dusty neighborhoods that reeked of rancid soy-sauce and stale hamburgers, where the scant population shuffled in ratty clothes and thin-soled shoes, and where a hot wind blew a lone, crusty, fallen leaf down the sidewalk like a shrunken tumbleweed. Once, while peering at the screen of my phone, texting Stacie in the relentless sunshine, a poor soul walked up into my personal space and mumbled something I could not make out. He was too far-gone to incite fear, still, all I could think to say was “sorry,” and he wandered on his way.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

Falling in Love With The Short Stories of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas is probably best know for his poems of sublime beauty set amidst the simple, beloved people who live in the seaside village of Swansea in Wales. The poems ring clear and majestic, with a rhythmic zeal. Not surprisingly, the short stories of Dylan Thomas read much like his poetry. They are exquisite tales told with the same passion and Welsh cadences that evoke a mixture of exhilaration and simplicity, delight and tragedy, not unlike the stories of James Joyce, whom Thomas loved and revered.

After the Fair draws a parallel to Joyce’s oft-emulated story from the Dubliners, Araby. Indeed, Thomas’ story seems to begin where Joyce’s Araby leaves off: at the village fair after it has closed up for the night. Instead of a boy who stands in the open isles under the night sky, the main character is a little girl who appears to have no home. Somewhat dark and mysterious, the tale carries a sublime, fantastic air, as do many of Thomas’ stories. A girl who is brave but also scared, she makes her way through the shadows cast by the wooden horses.

“Once she stepped on the boards; the bells round a horse’s throat jingled and were still; she did not dare breathe again until all was quiet and the darkness had forgotten the noise of the bells.”

The Fat Man from his humble, lighted doorstep says into the night, “Who?” “Who?,” after the girl has knocked on his window and then hides. When she hears his thin voice, she laughs. The story is quick and playful with suspense and a merciful kindness.

The sparse dialog somehow creates the impression of a great deal of communication between the girl and the Fat Man. They innocently become fast friends as they toast bread inside his tiny, mirthful hut. At the end of the story, there is the ever-present epiphany, which Joyce invented and Thomas developed in his own style.

In all of the Collected Stories, there is the feeling of lines being blurred between fantasy and reality, of dream-recollection or heightened imagination. With Brember, from Thomas’ Early Stories, the theme from Joyce’s Araby emerges in the shadows of the rooms in an old house. As if the boy in Araby had returned as a grown man to the house of that earlier story.

Shadows flickering above the man’s taper candle and the pale moonlight coming in through the windows, a sad pathos imbues the room and the man’s memories:

There were tears in his eyes, a great longing for something he had known and had forgotten, loved but had lost.

It is a ghostly story, animating inanimate things, which is part of Thomas’ poetic brilliance. Many of his stories are autobiographical: about a boy and the quirky, loveable and often complex people living in Swansea. The stories are highly crafted, blending the ghostly and the suspenseful; the humorous and the tragic; and pathos with enchantment. The tales involving a boy are comparable to Joyce’s Dubliners, they cling to the drama and innocence of childhood, the enlargement of life that Thomas sang of in so much of his poetry.

As, In the Garden, the boy loves the garden but is afraid of it at night. He imagines the dark trees talking to one another. And he hates the nighttime summer bugs that fly into the kitchen, especially, the great grey moths that blundered round the room, for he knew they were in league with the things in the garden outside.

Here, in the garden, the trees and the groping shadows take on an animated life in the boy’s imagination. His racing mind invents a fantastical world of looming darkness, mystery and treasures. The boy really feels the effects of his imaginings:

… he was more afraid than he thought he could ever be. The garden writhed about him, and the walls and the trees shot upward so that he could not see the sky. The pointed roof of the summerhouse shot up the dark like a steeple hat.

These earlier tales are often ghost stories with a sublime ending, while the stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which are clearly dedicated to James Joyce, are most often comedies. As with The PeachesA bitter-sweet tale of class and strife, addressing friendship, religion and sexuality told with Thomas’ distinctive Welsh humor.

At the end of the Collection are what I would call The Beautiful Tales and his most beloved tales, as Quite Early One Morning and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which Thomas broadcast via the BBC as well as to audiences in America. Like Dickens, Thomas read his own work to an adoring fan-base. Listening to recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry is to better understand his meaning. It is a very moving experience. He read with eloquent passion and a glory to life and living that is welcome today more than ever.

After hearing some of the poems by Thomas in his own melodious and burly Welsh tongue, you can hear his voice in reading his stories. The lilting accent, the magical, textured language soaring down through the years as if from a cathedral. It is the simple, common scenes animated to life with rhythmic word play and clever personification that endear us most, as in The Followers:

The thin, dingy rain spat and drizzled past the lighted street lamps. The pavements shone long and yellow. In squeaking galoshes, with mackintosh collars up and bowlers and trilbies weeping, youngish men from the offices bundled home against the thistly wind –

In another paragraph, the word hollow or hallowed is used four times. Instead of sounding too repetitive, this lends a unique drama. As with his poetry, such poetic devices as repetition and elegiac sound-patterns enhance the writer’s artistry. If the poems evoke the pathos Thomas intended, then his stories will inspire a deep love for his mastery of invention and story-telling craft.

pembrokeshire Dorian Spencer

Painting of a Welsh coastal village much like Swansea by Dorian Spencer.

Charles Dickens: “A Letter From Little Dorrit” ~ from the novel, Little Dorrit

I hope you sometimes, in a quiet moment, have a thought for me… I have been afraid that you may think of me in a new light, or a new character. Don’t do that, I could not bear that – it would make me more unhappy than you can suppose. It would break my heart to believe that you thought of me in any way that would make me stranger to you, than I was when you were so good to me. What I have to pray and entreat of you is, that you will never think of me as the daughter of a rich person; that you will never think of me as dressing any better, or living any better, than when you first knew me. That you will remember me only as the little shabby girl you protected with so much tenderness, from whose threadbare dress you have kept away the rain, and whose wet feet you have dried at your fire. That you will think of me (when you think of me at all), and of my true affection and devoted gratitude, always, without change, as of
Your poor child,
Little Dorrit.