"She felt a moment’s stabbing sorrow then. But she knew from past experience how to push that sorrow down and bury it"by Tessa Hadley / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
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Tessa Hadley is the award-winning author of six novels. Describing her exclusive new story, “Flight,” Hadley says: “The story began with the woman returning home on the flight—that strange otherworldliness of an aeroplane at night, the hush and the dim lights and the sense of hovering between worlds. I began imagining the story when I was on a flight myself. And then I felt Claire’s rootlessness, and her own belonging nowhere, and I began to wonder what she was running away from, and what her history was.”
Claire had to fly over from Philadelphia to the UK for a business meeting. The night before the night she flew, she made a stupid mistake, drank too much and went to bed with a man she didn’t know very well, didn’t even like all that much. Her plane left at six the following evening, flying against the setting sun. The alcohol was still toxic in her system, she wasn’t a great drinker and wasn’t used to it, hadn’t done anything stupid like that for a while. She didn’t want to eat anything and could only drink tonic water. When she took the fizzing glass she saw that her hand shook, and felt humiliated though no one else could have noticed; her pulse was fluttering and jumping. One of the flight attendants in business class, an Englishwoman with an eager, bony face, too elaborately made-up, probably in her early forties—Claire’s own age—wanted to make a fuss of her, admiring her coat, gushing over her handbag while she stowed it for her in the overhead lockers. She offered up that comedy of a greed for material things, designer goods, which was a currency between women. But Claire wasn’t in the mood for female solidarity, she cut her short and the attendant treated her after that with careful respect, no hint of resentment. Even this little display of her own power struck Claire bitterly, like a foretaste of England. If ever she was stand-offish at work her American colleagues held it against her, putting it down to British snootiness, probably believing she came from the British privileged classes.
After they’d served the meal, which she refused, the flight attendants tried to get everyone asleep for the short, false night. As the talk ceased and silence fell, they were all more aware of the plane forging forwards with such force, shuddering with the violence of its effort. Bodies were shrouded in their pale cotton quilts. A few passengers were reading, in cones of subdued light from overhead or the ghost-light from laptops or tablets. Claire could have been going through the background material on her new clients, but the thought of the dullness of those files stirred up traces of nausea, like silt in a pond. She could still feel the love-making in her body, not in a pleasant way but as a bruised, raw fatigue, as if her skin had been ground against her bones. As the time passed more detail came back to her, but she didn’t get used to what she’d done, it seemed more inexplicable and disastrously mistaken. Luckily she had put aside a whole day in London for shopping or sightseeing, before she began her meetings. As soon as she got to her hotel in the morning, she could run a hot bath, then block out the light and sleep, hibernating while the last toxins leached out of her. Her whole existence seemed only aimed at those hours ahead, of oblivion and privacy.
Waking in her hotel room in the afternoon, she felt much better. Bright light was pricking round the edges of the heavy curtains, and when she first opened her eyes she thought that there must be brilliant sunshine outside, a perfect day. All her usual energy had renewed itself while she slept. In fact when she opened the curtains the sun wasn’t shining, the city was only suffused in its familiar soft autumn light, pink and pearly grey. Even through the sealed windows the muffled noise of the perpetual traffic reached her, a clangour of building sites, the chiming of steel against steel. Her room was on the seventh floor, with a view of a busy small park and trees down below—she had chosen a hotel near Liverpool Street station because she needed to be in Chingford first thing in the morning. She showered again, then put on some of the clean clothes she had unpacked before she collapsed into bed, did her face quickly and skilfully at the dressing table. You had to dress right down in London, the classic good taste which worked in America looked dated here; but she ought to add some detail which was punky or striking. Until she’d walked around down there on the streets, she wouldn’t know quite what.
She had made up her mind about something while she slept. Her niece Amy, her sister Susan’s daughter, had a new baby and she ought to see it. This wasn’t straightforward because Claire and Susan had quarrelled, they hadn’t spoken for several years. This quarrel shadowed all Claire’s relations with her family at home: it was time now to dispel the shadows. She had to spend all day tomorrow in Chingford, and on Wednesday and Thursday she would be running training sessions in Northampton, for the technicians in the UK service office of the American company she worked for. But her return flight wasn’t till Saturday and when she was free—Thursday evening and Friday—she would catch a train north, go home and surprise them. She didn’t let herself think beyond this initial impulse, knowing how easy it would be to talk herself out of going. She’d made approaches to Susan before and been rebuffed, any efforts at reconciliation had always come from her side.
Instead she went out in search of presents for the baby. It was a boy, Calum. She was out of touch with English shops, so she asked for advice at the hotel reception, and they suggested various places to try: Claire was glad to have a focus for her shopping. She always liked her first hours in England, slipping in unnoticed among the crowd, at home in her own tribe, submerged among the English voices, southern ones and northern ones—and the foreign voices too which were now part of it. As the autumn day thickened into dusky evening, the white light from the shop windows seemed more seductive—the lovely things laid out so subtly, not blatantly, to tempt you inside. There was so much money in London now, everything was glossy with money and expensive taste. Streets had been pedestrianised and planted with young trees, their twiggy silhouettes strung with more white lights; a girl busker, probably from one of the music colleges, was playing classical music on the violin. The shoppers dawdled purposefully, with a subdued excitement. Eventually Claire chose a shawl for the baby, in very fine cream wool, as light as cobwebs: it cost a fortune but she couldn’t resist it, enjoyed watching the girl wrap it so deftly in tissue paper, securing it with pretty stickers, tying it with blue ribbon.
She bought perfume for Amy and a nice T-shirt for Ben, Amy’s boyfriend, the baby’s father—whom Claire hadn’t met. She remembered that she ought to buy a T-shirt for Ryan too, Susan’s youngest, who was still at home: they were all of them living piled in together somehow, in the old three-bedroomed terrace house where Claire and Susan had grown up. Then Claire spent ages looking for a silk scarf for Susan, picking up one after another, wondering about colours, testing the liquid fall of silk against her hand as if this choice were the problem, rather than anything between them in the past. In the end she went for a very full square in a tan and leaf-green paisley pattern, slightly retro—this would surely look nice in Leeds as well as in London. For herself she bought a little false fur tippet backed in yellow satin; it was colder here than in Philadelphia, and the tippet had just the touch of stylish irony she’d been in search of. Her face was piquant, framed in the soft fur in the shop mirror. She wasn’t too bad for her age—petite, very thin, very fine-boned, with a sharp nose and good jaw-line, deep-set hooded grey eyes. But she looked quickly away from her reflection, remembering the other night.
Claire didn’t call or text to let anyone know she was coming. She’d finished in Northampton by lunchtime on Thursday and arrived in Leeds around five, when it was beginning to get dark. Tactfully she left her suitcase at the station, and all she brought with her in the taxi was the carrier full of presents, as well as a few overnight things in a shoulder bag just in case she was invited. She told the driver to drop her at the end of her old street, which stretched out of sight in the gloom under the streetlights; this was one of a succession of Victorian working-class terraces running roughly parallel to one another, all built in a hurry at the end of the nineteenth century. There were no trees or front gardens and the front doors opened directly onto the pavement; the only relief in the brick façade was in the different colours of the doors, or if some house-fronts were rendered or pebble-dashed. The street was empty and Claire’s footsteps sounded eerily loud, the click-clack of her heels bouncing off the brick fronts. Uneasily she felt as though this moment of approaching her home could belong to any time in the past, it was so saturated with familiarity and the place was so unaltered—she might be coming home from school, or visiting from London when her parents were still alive.
But the present flooded back, as soon as Amy opened the front door to her. Behind the street’s façade, each house was its own burst of noise and colour, done up or not done up in its own style: the woodchip paper in Claire’s old hall had been painted over with a shocking pink—that was probably Amy’s choice, not Susan’s. Nothing was the same. Unfamiliar coats were laden on unfamiliar coat hooks, the narrow hallway was almost impassable with heaps of trainers and shoes and a buggy. A television was on in the back room; Amy was yelling something over her shoulder, then she turned to peer out doubtfully into the dusk. It was years since she had seen her aunt in person, though they were often in contact on Facebook or by Skype—anyway, Claire was supposed to be in America.
—Auntie Claire! Is that you? What are you doing here?
She sounded hostile, but Claire knew not to read too much into it. Being submerged in the voices and manner from her old home—so wary and flattening and grudging—was always a shock at first, before she got used to it again. That old way of being gripped her with mingled nostalgia and dread.
—I’ve come to see the baby, haven’t I? Can I come in? Is Susan here?
—She’s not back from work yet. I thought it was her when the bell went.
Amy had put on a lot of weight in her pregnancy—Claire had known that already from the pictures on Facebook—but she still had her sulky, sexy prettiness. Her blonde hair, dark at the roots, was scraped back tightly in a scrunchy and yesterday’s make-up was sooty under her eyes; there was a silver ring in her nose. She was wearing stretch tracksuit bottoms and socks and under her T-shirt her breasts were swollen and shapeless.
—D’you think Susan would mind it if I came in? I’ve brought a bottle of bubbly, I thought we could wet the baby’s head.
—It’s not my problem what Mum minds. The baby’s driving me nuts, Auntie Claire. He’s a nightmare, he doesn’t sleep. You can keep him if you like. Take him back to America with you. Following Amy down the hallway and into the back room, Claire thought she could smell that sweat of new motherhood she’d smelled on other women before—not quite unpleasant, milky and salty and frowsty. In spite of Amy’s complaining, Claire guessed from some new authority in her that she didn’t mean it: actually she seemed complacent in her slouchy, sloppy physical collapse—as if the baby had solved something for her, some problem about who she ought to be. Claire had last seen her niece when she was 16, mouthy and edgy and sprightly, very clever at school; then Susan had been so disappointed when she wouldn’t try for university. Instead she’d ended up working in Topshop—and now this.
The back room was hot, and entirely taken over by baby things: a Moses basket and a plastic changing mat and packs of disposable nappies, a bag full of changing kit, blankets and muslin cloths draped everywhere, a clothes dryer laden with baby clothes, one of those low-slung bouncy chairs. A big good-looking boy with dyed fair hair sprawled on the sofa, watching Family Guy on the huge television set, laughing loudly at it: this must be Ben. He too was wearing tracksuit bottoms and thick woolly slipper-socks—and no doubt the tom-cat marijuana-note emanated from him, part of the mix in the thick atmosphere. Claire got the impression that the young parents were passing their days quite happily in this cocoon of animal warmth and smells: as if they were playing house, everything changed and simplified, revolving around the new life—a tiny baby in a blue suit, asleep against his father’s naked, muscled brown chest, curled with his head down like a comma.
—You see this is the trouble: he sleeps like a dream all day, then keeps me up at night. Give him over, Ben. Make a cup of tea. This is my Auntie Claire.
—Hello Auntie Claire.
—Or we could open a bottle? Claire suggested.
—Give the baby to her, she needs a cuddle. I’m not supposed to drink anything fizzy, am I, in case it gives him wind.
Claire said that surely a few mouthfuls couldn’t do any harm.
—I’m not going on with this breastfeeding lark for long, whatever Mum thinks. I want to put him onto lovely formula, then Ben can get up with him in the night.
Ben lifted the baby in one hand with easy confidence, supporting his lolling head as he handed him over, still sleeping, flushed with heat from his father’s chest. No wonder he had his T-shirt off, they had the central heating turned up very high, goodness knows what that was costing Susan. Claire dropped all her bags and took the damp live package of baby anxiously where she stood, putting all her effort into holding it safely—taking in the loose limbs like a doll’s, the tiny frowning face and liver-dark pursed lips, the curve of his eyeballs under the fine skin of his closed lids. His eyebrows were faint exquisite brushstrokes. He stirred and mewed against her and Claire thought he was going to cry. The helplessness of babies disturbed her—that anything so frail and unformed could have so much hopeful love invested in it.
—He’s beautiful, she exclaimed, not quite sincerely: she was half repelled by the smothering sour smell.
—Like I said, you can have him, Amy said. She came in with wine glasses from the little kitchen space at the back, more like a scullery. Although some of the walls in the house had been painted and there was a new Ikea sofa, Claire could see that the kitchen units were the same cheap wood veneer ones their mother had bought in the 1980s, when Claire and Susan were at school. A door was missing from one of the cupboards, exposing the piles of bowls and plates.
—My auntie’s come all this way just to have a look at his Lordship. Don’t you think she’ll be disappointed?
—He’s pretty boring, Ben said.
—He doesn’t do much. I was expecting more.
Claire thought he looked at her with curiosity: perhaps she wasn’t as he’d imagined Susan’s sister, if he’d imagined her at all. Susan was only three years older, but she’d stopped bothering with her appearance—Claire had seen the photographs. She cut her hair herself and hennaed it out of a packet, just like they did when they were teenagers; her face was sagging into lines of worry and her cheekbones were sharp knobs jutting out under the skin. Amy began hunting for pictures on her phone, of the baby in his football outfit. When Claire said that she could remember holding Amy when she was no bigger than Calum, that it seemed like yesterday, Amy was hardly interested—for her, clearly, the history of babies had begun all over again with this one, nothing that had happened before could compare with it.
—She’s grown a bit since then, Ben said.
She flicked at him with a tea towel, more interested in her photographs—there seemed to be hundreds of them, though the baby was only a few weeks old. Ben knew how to open champagne, he said he’d worked in bars. When it was poured they all chinked glasses and Claire sipped cautiously, then put her glass down—it was the first alcohol she’d touched since Saturday night. Anyway, she was intensely concentrated on the heated bundle in her arms, afraid of somehow dropping or hurting him. She thought that Ben had enjoyed showing off his skills to her, opening that bottle: he was a swaggering performer, full of flourishes, and she could just imagine him behind a bar. It was easy to see why Amy was attracted to him, and why Susan had been set against him at first: he was one of those boys who traded on their suggestive, languorous flirting. Claire knew from her calls with Amy that he’d been in trouble more than once—over some minor drug dealing, and then when he’d had an apprenticeship with a Ford dealer until they’d caught him selling spare parts on eBay. Susan had blamed him for Amy’s lack of ambition—but now he was living here with them, forgiven, part of the family. He didn’t have a job; presumably he was on benefits, staying at home with Amy to help with their new parenthood.
The baby began writhing in Claire’s arms, his tiny face scrunched up in petulance; then he gave a bleating, penetrating cry and she thought he intuited that she didn’t know how to make him happy. It was a relief to hand him back to Amy, who casually pulled up her top and tugged up her bra, offering him her swollen breast—this seemed too huge at first for him to find his way to the nipple, though he snuffled and gobbled for it desperately. Ben bent over the mother and child and made encouraging smacking noises with his lips. It was impossible to think of that breast now as having any part in sex or desire. Once the baby was happily settled into sucking, Claire topped up their glasses and chatted, almost as if she wanted to distract them from it.
She knew she was working hard to charm these young people; in a funny way, it was almost like a continuation of the last few days, putting herself across forcefully while giving an impression that she was making no effort at all—first in the board factory in Chingford, then with the service team in Northampton. The company she worked for made instruments for testing various materials—paper, plastic film and textiles, measuring thickness and tensile strength. Her role was in cultivating their long-term relationships with their clients, the manufacturers who used these instruments; she was good at coaxing people into doing what she knew would work best for them. Now here she was handling her own family using some of the same tactics. At just the right moment she handed out the presents she had brought: offhandedly, as if they’d only been a passing thought. She knew this world of her home, where everyone was so quick to take offence or feel condescended to; she mustn’t seem to be throwing her money around.
Amy accepted the fine wool shawl as a fitting tribute to the miracle of the baby—although it looked out of keeping with all the bright-coloured equipment and convenient, machine-washable baby clothes. Feeling its quality appreciatively, still holding the baby to her breast, she said it would be perfect for the christening.
—Mum’s getting us the christening gown.
—He’s going to be christened?
—It’s a nice occasion, isn’t it? Anyway, you know what Mum’s like.
—She’d be worrying about his eternal soul or something.
Claire was careful not to sound too surprised.
—Susan used to be dead set against anything to do with the church.
—Maybe she used to be.
Amy grew evasive then, as if she didn’t want to talk about her mother—although when she Skyped Claire in America it was usually to complain over some conflict with Susan. But it was different talking here, in this house. And she’d never mentioned before that Susan had found religion.
—She changed, didn’t she, after Nanny died.
—That makes sense, Claire said.
—She has to have something to hold onto.
—She works too hard, Ben said.
—They take advantage of her at that place. They take the piss, seriously.
Susan worked as a carer, visiting elderly and disabled people in their homes, helping them with washing and dressing—naturally they all loved her and thought she was a marvel. Something made Claire uneasy in how Amy and Ben spoke about her sister, turning her into some kind of saint: worn down, put upon, patient and endlessly giving. She recognised a tone of voice in which people had once talked about their own mother, hers and Susan’s: they had reacted against that tone when they were teenagers, hating something sanctimonious in it, dreading that they would have to become this kind of woman in their turn, if they wanted to live up to their mother’s example. Now it seemed as though Susan were turning into her. Ben and Amy explained indignantly how, because of the government’s austerity cuts, funding for social care had been cut to the bone—the carers were only allowed 15 minutes for each visit, and weren’t even paid for the time it took to drive from one appointment to the next. But Ben was strong and young and capable; if only he had been contributing to the household income, Claire thought, then Susan could have cut back on her hours, if she was working too much. Everyone loaded all this long-suffering virtue on to their mother-figure, to save themselves having to be good, or to try any harder.
Ryan arrived back from the sixth-form college, where he was studying for his A-Levels; Claire saw how he exchanged quick glances with Amy as soon as he saw her, and took his cue from his sister—they acted as if there had never been any dreadful falling out, and it was the most natural thing in the world that their aunt was sitting here at home with them. Ryan was a sweet-natured, odd-looking boy—his face still the big, open child’s face Claire remembered, but attached now to a man-sized body. He and Ben were both pleased with the T-shirts she had brought—she had guessed from his pictures that Ryan needed extra-large. Amy liked her perfume. When Ben was going to go out in the garden to smoke, he pretended to wrap himself up in the baby’s new shawl for warmth, and she was outraged.
—I don’t want him stinking of fucking weed at his christening.
—Swear-box, swear-box, said Ryan reproachfully.
Amy explained that the swear-box was going towards Calum’s education; Ben said he’d be able to afford fucking Eton, at this rate. Ryan lifted the baby expertly onto his shoulder, patting its back to bring up wind, putting on a comical posh voice to talk to it.
—I say, Ponsonby-Warner old chap, how was dinner?
When the baby delivered a satisfying burp they laughed with delight.
Claire thought warmly then how good they all were—her family—at this baby business. So many of her middle-class friends, in England and America, made such a meal of it: they bought all the baby books and knew all the good advice but the arrival of babies was somehow ruinous in their lives: they grew nagging and crabbed, resentful of the loss of all their fun. Their young children gained the wrong kind of dominion over them, needing to be endlessly coaxed and negotiated with, ferried backwards and forwards to their ballet classes and violin lessons. But Amy had been so inspired and so quick when she was a tiny girl, entertaining the family with her naughty Spice Girls imitations, dressed up in a tacky pink fairy outfit at the Muni—the Municipal Club, where they used to go because Claire and Susan’s father was big in the rail union.
—Can I have another cuddle? Claire said.
—I don’t get enough of this.
Tenderly Ryan handed him over, putting him up on her shoulder where he slumped, content.
—Mind he doesn’t flob all down you, Ben said; he tucked a muslin cloth solicitously under the baby’s head and into the neck of her dress at the back and she felt his fingers faintly—inoffensively—flirty and caressing. Probably the champagne had gone to her head, just the least little bit. While they were all still laughing, they didn’t hear Susan come in through the front door. Then she was calling out to her grandson in the midst of all their laughter, while she was hanging up her coat in the hall—they couldn’t see her yet, she couldn’t see them. For an uncanny moment Claire seemed to hear her mother’s old sing-song voice, performing her old role.
—Who’s my bestest bestest boy in the whole wide world then?
—That was me, once, Ryan drily said.
—Who’s Nanny’s little darling? Has he been a very good boy today, has he?
When Susan came into the room she was already reaching out her arms to scoop up the baby. Then she saw that Claire was there, that she was holding him: Susan stopped still, her arms dropped by her sides, and the smiles on her face all shut down.
What had happened was this. When Susan’s husband left her she’d moved back with her four children into this house, which their parents owned—their father had worked all his life on the railway, and had saved enough out of his wages to put down a deposit and then pay off a mortgage over the years. They had always been proud to own a house, in a street where most of the properties were rented. Then Susan had nursed both their parents through their last illnesses—Claire was still living in London then, and helped out when she could, but of course Susan took the brunt of it. After their mother died, Susan took it for granted that she could go on living in the family home, although in their parents’ wills it had been left to both daughters equally. She had never paid any rent, in all those years. Claire had wanted the money to put down on a flat in London—the one she still owned, and had sub-let while she was living in the US—and she suggested that Susan could raise a mortgage on the house, to buy her out of her half. Actually she hadn’t even asked for half, she’d asked for a lot less. And Susan had done this, but had stopped speaking to her.
When Susan saw Claire, she turned round without even looking at the baby or anyone, and went upstairs to shut herself in her bedroom, slamming the door.
—I’d better go, Claire said.
—Don’t be daft. Amy was righteous.
—You stay. It’s her problem. I don’t know why she’s being such a cow.
—It was all my fault.
—It was years ago, Ryan said.
—She ought to get over it.
—I’ve tried again and again to say I was sorry. You know I wanted to pay her the money back, and she wouldn’t take it?
Embarrassed, they didn’t want to hear about the money.
—You’re not going anywhere, Amy said. —We’re going to talk her round. This is an opportunity. —I thought if she just came in and found me here, it might be all right.
Even as Claire explained in her reasonable calm voice, ripe with regret, she was aware of trying to win them over. This version of what had happened wasn’t in the least how Susan saw any of it—or saw her. Susan thought there was something monstrous in Claire’s selfishness: to turn her back on her family, go south in pursuit of her career and leave her sister to the whole work of nursing their mam and daddy—and then, when they were gone, to demand her share of the property! But Claire was convinced that it had been reasonable, in fact, for her to ask for her share. She needed a home, too; she had worked very hard to get on in the life she’d chosen, and that inheritance, small as it was, had been her only opportunity to start on the property ladder in London. Perhaps there had been something manic, though, in how she’d insisted on her rights at that time when they were both of them raw from the loss of their mother.
She also knew that however she succeeded in charming Susan’s children, and however indignant they grew over Susan’s stubbornness, deep down their loyalty to her was tribal—Claire could never wheedle her way round it. They thought they knew Susan. But Claire knew her better: this bitter old fight, not at…