The title story of Tea at the Midland is very short but gives us all we need to know about an adulterous couple in the process of breaking up. They sit beside a plate-glass window in the restaurant of the Midland Hotel. Isolated from the ferociously windy day outside, the sky "torn and holed by the wind", their urgent and bitter talk contrasts with the sheer physical joy and freedom of the wind surfers on the sea. In miniature, the story encapsulates the themes that distinguish David Constantine's fourth collection of stories.
Love and old age, entrapped lives and desperate escapes, tales within tales, are embedded in acutely realised physical worlds. Perhaps the finest is "The House by the Weir and the Way". In the south of France, two elderly lovers, Odile and Sabela, live in a decaying house where "years of evaded anxieties" have suddenly become "in focus and adamant". Odile falls and breaks her hip; Sabela nurses her back to limited mobility. Both the river and the weir in the grounds are invoked in Constantine's astonishing, almost ecstatic depiction of the natural world.
If Odile and Sabela are locked in their past, "Alphonse" is a mordantly funny account of Norman's escape, from the old people's home to which his family have consigned him, to a sunset life of women and senescent hippiedom. Expulsion is the theme of "Leaving Frideswide", also among the finest of all these fine stories. Frideswide's school and workshops, where the elderly and disabled make wooden toys, are closing. The acres of gardens full of fruit and flowers have fallen into decay, and the last residents are waiting for the buses that will take them away to miserable and meaningless exile. Ending too is the life of Mr James, who in his spare time translates Sophocles: an extract from Oedipus at Colonus is an almost unbearable evocation of their lost paradise.
This is a superb collection of stories: Constantine's writing is rare today, unafraid to be rich and allusive and unashamedly moving.
William Palmer's novel, 'The Devil Is White', is published next month by Jonathan CapeReuse content