Tea at the Midland and Other Stories, by David Constantine, Comma Press, RRP£9.99, 250 pages
Peculiarity is wrapped into the heart of David Constantine’s fourth short story collection; in its characters and their fragile lives. A canon experiences a ruinous revelation of pagan joy by visiting a garrulous recluse on Christmas Eve; an ex-monk lives in a shed on an island, feigning normality. This is a book heavy with lost faith, improvised dwellings, and stark depression – whether in a psychiatric patient, a disappointed lover or a lonely hospital clerk. Constantine offers his characters scant, uncertain hope. His keenest interest is psychological evasion – of truth, pain and reality – and, as a consequence, the narratives divert and often refuse comprehension.
In “Strong Enough To Help”, single, 50-ish Arthur Barlow works as a hospital clerk, destroying the files of those dead longer than eight years, but is about to undergo social erasure himself through his enforced redundancy. A stranger, Gladys, knocks at his door to inquire about his cultural habits for a government survey. His habit, he answers, is to read poetry, wearing a suit: “when I apply myself to poetry I put it on because it’s the best I’ve got and I do think a person should dress up when he reads poetry or even tries to write some.” This is a hint, perhaps, of the respect that Constantine feels we should show when attending to others’ fictions. Gladys returns to Arthur at the story’s close, extending a friendly offer to read aloud his poetry books with him. By contrast to some other stories, this is a happy ending.
There are echoes between the tales; the name “Arthur” has a connection to the titular character of “Alphonse”, in which a man with dementia, Norman, supposedly flees his care home for France. It is unclear whether the flight actually takes place, but whichever way it’s seen, this is the story of the splitting of Norman’s mind, away from his room’s inglorious view of rubbish bins.
Water is a motif throughout Tea at the Midland and inevitably present in “An Island”, the longest, perhaps most unsettling of these stories and set on an unloved island. A group of birders, looking for “rare vagrants” seem to be the only ones to derive any excitement from this lonely place. The story is told through letters to an unknown recipient, perhaps one who doesn’t exist, from an ex-monk who describes his cold, miserable existence on the island (he sleeps in a shed) and the unsatisfying social interactions that spring from his menial job at a hotel.
The accounts of his life seem stultifying, but Constantine is preparing the reader for a jolt. One day, the ex-monk sees a man building a stone arch across a stream; he is excited by the idea the arch might hold. “I prayed a prayer such as I hardly ever prayed in all my time with the monks, that his keystone would hold and the two half-arches, so needing one another, so incapable of any life without, would by their meeting and their obedience to gravity (their suicidal wish to fall) over the void would hold ...”
When he passes again the arch has fallen. Something balanced and logical has collapsed, and the letter writer begins to divest his possessions. Are his letters an extended suicide note? Constantine does not give clear answers; he is committed to ambiguity that is rife, sometimes frustratingly so, in this collection.