One reads the first two stories in Sally Vickers's first collection with a slight uneasiness. "Mrs Radinsky" and "Join Me For Christmas" are perfectly tailored, with witty twists at the ends, but are a bit too pat for our present taste for stories which are open-ended, non-judgemental, and still doggedly post-Chekhovian. Vickers's stories seem to hark back to an older tradition; the tale, the ghost story, the love story.
The prose is elegant, witty and slightly aloof: a young woman is described as having "the easy-going kindness of the young, before time has had too much of a go at them". That is what happens in these stories: time has a go at the characters. The couple in "Aphrodite's Hat" meet and fall in love as students, then have a more complicated affair in later life. Married men take up with younger women, as in "The Dragon's Bones", where poor Joseph is counting his pennies while trying to keep up with his extravagant mistress in Venice.
The stories are filled with women who are not sure why they married their husbands and husbands who have run out of anything to say to their wives. The women come off better under the assault of time, though their fate is to be haunted by memories of lost love and, sometimes, its actual ghosts.
In "The Return", Sophie – or rather the ghost of Sophie – revisits the hotel in Rome where she first stayed with Greg. In a few pages, Vickers constructs a moving and complex story of memory and death. Rebecca, in the very fine "The Fall of the Sparrow", begins an affair with her English tutor. She makes him agree he will not leave his wife until his children are old enough. But how old do they have to be? Too many years later, the tutor is still with his family and the affair ends.
In despair, Rebecca flies to Rome. She visits Keats's grave. As she shelters from the rain under a pine tree a young man holds his coat "of old-fashioned cloth and cut" over her head, his "dark eyes in his thin face... brightly enquiring" as they talk. When she looks away, then turns back, she finds herself alone. It takes a very subtle gift to introduce the ghost of John Keats, or to show Shakespeare at work, as in "The Indian Child". But Salley Vickers is at her best when most imaginative and daring.