July 16: “Phosphorescence” by Tessa Hadley

Happy Saturday, Story366! Another day in Chicago, one that brings with it high expectations. Today, Karen and I will head into the city, where I will sell beer at Wrigley and after, we will read as part of Wit Rabbit Weekend #5 at a pub called Township. While I’m pushing beers on Cub fans, Karen will dick around, doing God-knows-what, loose in the third-largest city in America. She’ll have upwards of six hours, a 2006 Honda Civic, and a satchel full of poems. I only hope she can stay out of trouble long enough to pick me up and get me to the reading. Good luck.

I’ve never been to Township, but it looks like a swell joint, and the Wit Rabbit series is becoming rather legendary. I’m honored to be a part of it and am looking forward to hearing the other readers—Karen, Diddle Knabb, and Allison Shoemaker—read their work. I’ve done a lot of readings at a lot of different venues, and without question, my favorites are always bar readings, especially those that are part of a reading series. I’ve done most of the series in Chicago and always enjoy discovering new places, meeting and hearing new writers, sipping weird hipster drinks. A Cub game and a bar reading in the same day? Sign me up.

For today’s post, I read from Tessa Hadley’s collection Sunstroke, out from Picador. It’s a very summery book, perfect for July in Chicago, even though Hadley is Welsch and these stories take place across Great Britain, which, I’m told, has summer, too. Hadley has earned a lot of acclaim and has either won or been a finalist for a lot of prizes in Great Britain, but has also garnered that acclaim in the States, placing a lot of the stories from this book in The New Yorker. I enjoyed these stories, another author I’m glad to have come across in this project.

I read a few stories from Sunstroke, including the title story, which is about two couples vacationing at the beach with their children. Hadley uses this premise to develop the characters, particularly the four adults, utilizing a roving POV. All is well until one of the women’s ex-boyfriends shows up, who is the former fourth member of this party and still the other woman’s husband’s best friend. It’s a fifth-wheel story, one that focuses on subtle reactions, subtle dialogue, and timely descriptions, a very interesting tale.

In today’s story focus, “Phospherescence,” Hadley again puts two families on vacation, this time in a cottage. The story is from the point of view of one of the family’s young sons, Graham, fourteen and infatuated with the mom from the other family. Her name is Claudia, she is much younger than Graham’s mom, not traditionally beautiful, but alluring to Graham nonetheless. In fact, it’s Claudia who first makes eyes at Graham, who hadn’t even noticed her before. Once Graham finds her eyes upon him, he becomes obsessed, taking every opportunity over the following days to be with her, to talk with her, to brush his skin across hers.

Claudia, the mother of three and a family friend, continues to encourage Graham, their interaction reaching its peak in a rowboat out on the lake. Claudia’s daughters are along for the ride, yet Graham and Claudia got at rubbing each others feet and legs against each other, working themselves up quite a bit. Graham, because he’s fourteen and Claudia’s breasts are stretching her shirt out and she’s willingly and enthusiastically touching him, will never stop this boat ride, not until his brothers call out for him to come back, to stop hogging the boat. It’s an abbreviated encounter, and the families part ways soon after, but it leaves an indelible mark on Graham’s life.
Hadley makes a bold move and jumps ahead twenty-five years, Graham a professor at a small college. Lo and behold, Claudia, gray and grandmotherly, walks by his office on an open house day, checking out one of his course listings posted on a bulletin board. Immediately, Graham is transported back to that afternoon in the rowboat, to young Claudia’s lingering stares, her intentional reaches across the table in his direction. He has a wife and kids of his own now, but still, seeing Claudia sends him into a boyish fever, his silly crush turned inappropriate groping all he can think of. He’s so deluded, he even tells his wife about what happens at the cottage, on the lake, and to his surprise, she’s all like, Hey, that’s gross. It’s statutory rape. Yuck! Graham wisely decides not to tell his wife that he saw Claudia again that day, twenty-five years later, and he still has a major boner for this woman, a woman he met once, for a few days when he was a boy, a woman who did, in fact, molest him. Claudia, if caught, would have been knocking on neighborhood doors, introducing herself as the local sex offender. Graham doesn’t see it that way, however, even with the perspective of an adult. Stupidly, he hunts near-elderly Claudia down, tracking her to her home.

I won’t reveal what happens when Graham gets to Claudia’s house, as that would be ruining it, but it’s a wonderful, surprising, and satisfying ending, Hadley taking me to a place I didn’t think she’d go, using a route I didn’t expect. This ending really highlights the themes of the story, which include the loss of innocence, but also how we form ideals, how impressionable we can be, how one incident can form us, shape who we become. I really like the chances that Hadley takes in this story, not so much the one involving this illegal and creepy encounter, but the structure. That jump ahead twenty-five years for the second half of the story is bold, something I can’t recall before in a story (okay, maybe “Rip Van Winkle”). That move is needed, though, to accentuate those themes, that impression Claudia makes on young Graham. I liked this so much, I chose to write about “Phosphorescence” instead of the title story, and I almost always write about the title story. “Phosphorescence” is the one that really stuck, though, the obvious choice for Story366 today.

After reading these two stories, I read another, just because I liked those, but also to see if every story in Sunstroke was about two couples getting together for a holiday, a holiday interrupted by an uncomfortable interaction. No, as “The Eggy Stone” doesn’t have that set up (though some of the themes overlap); Tessa Hadley has as diversified bag of tricks. I enjoyed her work very much, yet another great Story366 discovery.