The Sunlight on the Garden, by Francis King

Lessons from a master of the short, sharp shock
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The Independent Culture

Like their creator, now in his 83rd year, the people in Francis King's short stories are growing old. They sit in their cluttered Edwardian houses mourning long-dead wives and pondering the dusty artefacts in the loft. They lie propped up in hospital beds raging at the dying of the light and not getting on with the children come to offer succour.

Their memories are from long ago, of boats sailing home from India and sunshine dappling their mothers' forearms. Their current relationships are prone to fracture. King has never gone in for sentiment and it wasn't to be expected that his 38th work of fiction would disturb the pattern of a career in its seventh decade.

For all their framing in the modest vista of views from windows and the minute adjustments of old age, the dozen pieces here are remarkably free from stasis. In fact, The Sunlight on the Garden fairly seethes with incident. "Now You See It" finds a holidaying homosexual not bothering to investigate the shooting of his Egyptian pick-up. "The Interrogations" sees an elderly patient asphyxiated by his nurse as a conniving daughter sits meekly by. "The Sitting Tenant" reaches almost the same conclusion, with elderly Major Pomfrey suffocated by one of the two house-owners in whose attic he has clung on to life. Alas, a guilt-ridden remove to Tredegar Square - as ever, King is exact about his locales - reveals the same aged figure in striped pyjamas brooding at the pane.

The twitch on the supernatural thread - there is another one in "Now You See It" - is not King's natural milieu. He specialises in low-key intimations of disgust; fastidious, if not neurotic, characters laid low by the horror of sensation. The maimed fighter pilot in "Mouse" has hands "like the talons, stiff and striated with purple and black, of some dead bird of prey" from which, in repose, "minuscule grey flakes of skin" descend "like ash". It is the authentic King note. Leaving his charge for the last time, the pilot's put-upon carer stops to pick up a letter that has blown off the desk beneath the open window.

Several of the stories echo "Mouse"'s trials of psychological strength. The dying man of "The Interrogations", having first disliked his black nurse, abruptly changes his opinion and is a party to his own despatch. In the excellent title story, a distinguished retired diplomat, Maurice Ransome, offers his basement to the daughter of a Romanian woman with whom, 20 years before, he had an affair. His life re-organised, he discovers that he is merely being exploited. Inheritance diverted to his old college, Ransome feels "the hardness and coldness within him with a soaring sense of triumph".

The final moment of "Everybody is Nobody", on the other hand, wrests a faint hint of consolation from the mess preceding it: the pair of bereaved parents, bickering over a proposed trip to a café, in the end branch off "along the path that would take them there". The achievement of King's stories is that such destinations are rarely pre-ordained.

D J Taylor's 'On the Corinthian Spirit' is published this week by Yellow Jersey

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