The bulky figure coming towards me on the path has a stick in one hand, a small bag in the other, but I can’t make out his face because the dappled light that filters through the trees in the wood is playing with his features. As with most people, my mind drifts when I go for long walks and I forget about my surroundings until something like the cackle of a crow or a breaking twig or the heavy tread of somebody approaching, snaps me out of my reverie and, for a nanosecond, I am in the grip of a timeless uncertainty. I think of bandits, pilgrims, squires and ploughmen but, by the time we are a few yards from each other, I see the pleasant face of what turns out to be a maths teacher on a weekend break. His rucksack contains a plastic bottle of water, which he finishes off in a few gulps, and his stick is one of those Nordic walking poles.
From across the Atlantic, I’m helplessly, compulsively watching videos on the BBC and other news sites. It’s early February 2014, and an unusually powerful storm—in truth a sequence of fierce winter gales—has been raking the south coast of Devon, like a wave of marauding bombers. The storm has conspired with the moon and spring tides (nothing seasonal in the term—these “spring forth” each lunar month), to batter a path of old stone and brick known as the Goat Walk. The path runs south from the small town of Topsham and along the bank of the River Exe, a distinguishing feature here for generations.
I once read somewhere that all stories are ghost stories, so here’s one.
It begins when I’m about sixteen or seventeen and still living in my hometown. There are many English towns just like it: rural, obscenely sentimentalized, a place where fox hunting enjoys popular support, but immigration does not. A few of us had spent an afternoon sitting on the disintegrating wall of the town’s 11th–century castle: a major tourist pull that we’d often appropriate for our own ends. On this day we were drinking home-brewed cider, a cloudy ochre liquid shared out from a large plastic demijohn, swiped from someone’s dad’s, or maybe uncle’s, annual batch. It tasted like disinfectant: unpleasant and sour, but hygienic. I remember feeling very grown up, like it was undoing all the unsophisticated parts of myself. A reminder that time would eventually pass, and that one day I would be out of here, living a different life entirely.
I grew up in graveyards. We had one at the bottom of our farm drive and on weekdays I would walk through it to catch the bus to school and then back again on the way home. On Saturdays I would be sent on a mission to rake through the piles of recently discarded wreaths to retrieve the plastic ribbons. Anyone receiving a wrapped gift from our family could, if they looked carefully, have spotted the faint marks from the rusted wires and the creases from previously tied bows.
I was looking for a light blue raincoat. The bulbs were dim and the ceilings low. At Heathrow Airport’s Passport Control Center, the line of my fellow arrivals amassed in clumps, passengers slouching and scratching away the hours of cramped flight, fingering their cell phones and sleepily eyeing watches. There were browns, blues and starched whites—sweaters, jerseys, overcoats and t-shirts. But no light blues. Not a raincoat in sight.
A novel’s content is inextricable from the experience of its presentation: the order of events, what the reader knows about characters, whether the reader is looking ahead toward consequence or backward for explanation. In Tessa Hadley’s Orange Prize-longlisted The London Train, by the time that Cora, the estranged wife of a high-ranking British civil servant, experiences the “physical closeness” of her seatmate between Cardiff and Paddington Station, “mingled with her awareness of herself, as if there’d been brandy in the coffee they drank,” Cora’s is not the only awareness which Hadley has altered.
Initially, The London Train may strike readers of domestic realism as known territory. Paul, a literary critic who would have preferred to be known as a novelist, has received news of his mother’s death. He arrives at her nursing home too late to view her body, a fumble that will come to seem characteristic as the funeral and aftermath illuminate him and his family through their response to crisis. The funeral also occasions contact with Paul’s ex-wife, who is concerned about their elder daughter, who has left university and will divulge only that she is safe and has moved in with friends.