David Constantine (2012) Tea at the Midland: and other stories Comma Press, Manchester; 250 pp.; ISBN 978-1-9055-8349-2
David Constantine’s collection of sixteen short stories takes us into the world of outsiders and people whose lives are not going well. All of us are likely to be in such circumstances at some point, but we always hope that in the long run life will be kind. Yet learning how to cope with sadness, loss, loneliness and uncertainty is an important part of what gives us our humanity.
The title story, along with Fault and Doubles (no, there is no tennis fetish going on here) are vignettes of lovers drifting apart. They are at that stage when one side realises the limitations of the other and glimpses a freedom elsewhere that they need to grasp before it disappears, perhaps forever. The House by the Weir and the Way explores the same theme in more depth. Two women living together in a house near the Way of St James are getting old and, it seems, entering terminal decline. A young pilgrim stays with them and she re-kindles a flame of hope for the older of the two women, who then has to decide whether to go gently into that good night.
Goat tells of an old man living rough in freezing mid-winter when he is visited by a cleric and a young woman doing a soup run. Despite the cold and forbidding surroundings, they enjoy their short time together eating, drinking and dancing. There is a spark of warmth even in the darkest times. After the cleric leaves his job, and his wife leaves him, he visits the old man again but the situation has changed dramatically. The cleric’s attempts to cope with tragedy are ineffectual and we see this haunt him to the end of his days.
Constantine can be deeply lyrical in his descriptions of outsiders. In Alphonse he follows the life of a tramp in the south of France who is enjoying freedom after his family placed him in care in England where he staged an escape. In the longer story An Island, a former priest spends some months on an island far off the Cornish coast and writes to a woman he loved but could never bring himself to embrace. He is lonely but also attracted to silence and solitude. He understands that other people enjoy conviviality and the intimacy of relationships, but in the end he cannot throw himself into the fray of life. He knows he will always be alone and wandering, and does not have the will to be any other way. It is a powerful story with beautiful depictions of nature and the small world of island life.
Several of the stories glimmer with hope and we see people who have suffered begin to find a new way for their lives. In Asylum, a young woman who is profoundly traumatised and who expects to be in an institution for life is encouraged by a visitor with his own tragic past to write a story of hope. If she can help fictional others then she just might be able to save herself.
A lonely man who has an abiding obsession with poetry and not much else opens his world to a woman who calls at the door to conduct a survey. In Strong Enough to Help it takes a while but something connects between them and we sense that this might be his path to being part of a community again. In Mr Carlton the eponymous character has just attended his wife’s funeral. After stopping on a motorway he observes an old couple in their house which reinforces his sense of loss and sadness. A young woman stays with him. She is pregnant and fearful, but together they can give each other solace and strength for a short time.
Ev is living in an institution and after a setback at work is feeling down and withdrawn. She sets about restoring a graveyard near where she lives. Her work inspires others and gives meaning to her life, but near the end of Ev’s Garden the whole enterprise looks set to collapse. In the past you know that Ev would have retreated into herself at this point but her new friends rally round and Ev is ready to fight the good fight.
The closing story, Romantic, is about a woman who lives a settled life and her love for a man who is given to wandering off for extended periods. They appear too different to make a go of things, but their love persists and the woman finally comes to an understanding of how they might achieve intimacy.
David Constantine is well known as a poet and his imagery and choice of language give these stories profound sentiment and poignancy. He is sympathetic to a wide range of characters who are often ignored or invisible and hopefully reading these stories will encourage us to be more sympathetic too.
The restorative power of nature, of communing with nature, and a love of the natural environment come through strongly in many of these stories. Another theme is the importance of contemplation and solitude. Listening to our inner voice is fundamental to understanding who we are, even if this can lead us into the realm of despair as well as joy. This fine collection should be read slowly and savoured. The experience will be rich and rewarding .