I was whizzing along the road out of Wensleydale through Low Thwaite beyond Naresby when I suddenly saw a woman at her cottage gate, waving at me gently like an old friend. In a lonely dale this is not very surprising, as I had found out. Several times I have met someone at a lane end flapping a letter that has missed the post in Kirby Thore or Hawes. ‘It’s me sister’s birthday tomorrow. I near forgot’ or ‘It’s the bill fort telephone. We’ll be cut off next thing. The curious thing about this figure, so still and watchful, was that it was standing there waving to me in the middle of the night.

The Stories of Jane Gardam Cover“A Spot of Gothic” is just that: and the slightly too aware (as though Gardam is being slightly apologetic for the genre she has slipped into; there’s a sense that she’s wiping her feet a little before stepping into the haunted house) foray into creepy territory belies the skill at which such a quick chilly blast is deployed. As though Gardam was itchy to try her hand at bleeding a little of the macabre and ghostly into her usual forte (the sure foundations of quotidian life lightly erupted and henceforth clearer but less solid). The story is a considerable success. Imagine Roald Dahl rewritten by Penelope Fitzgerald and you’re thereabouts.

We join our protagonist, once she has related her frightening glimpse of a waving woman on a post-midnight country road, as she first demolishes Northern stereotypes: relocated there as a war widow (her husband gone to Hong Kong, she not remotely interested in going as she “hates crowded places”). He has warned her that she will struggle to make friends near his army camp in Aldershot as “It’s the North . . . they take ten years to do more than wag their heads at you up here.” This haughty assumption is soon quashed. She’s rapidly accepted by the locals, who can’t seem to stop giving her beans or offering unsoliciting advice.

She accepts an invitation to dine with two local sisters, Gertie and Millicent (names from a long-dead age), who fill her with great wine and food and whiskey and more food and it’s whilst on her rather later-than-planned journey home that she spots a woman waving “in some sort of recognition.” Returning the day after, she parks her car up and walks down to the exact spot and sits on an old milk churn in the afternoon sun. She is soon startled by a face peering at her.

“Whatever time is it?” she said.

“About three o’clock.” I found I had stood up and turned to face her. For all the misery in the face there were the relics of unswervable good manners which demanded good manners back; as well as a quite curious sensation, quite without visible foundation, that this body, this dotty half-bemused memsahib had once commanded respect, inspired good sense.

“It’s just after three,” I said again.

“Oh good gracious — good gracious.” She turned with a funny, bent movement feeling for the wall to support her as she moved away. The face had not been an old woman’s but the stance, the tottering walk were ancient. The dreadful sense of loss, the melancholy, were so thick in the air that there was almost a smell, a sick smell of them.

She was gone, and utterly silently, as if I had slept for a moment in the sunshine and had a momentary dream.

She is then startled by a herd of sheep clattering past her before the local doctor introduces himself and mentions another upcoming dinner with Gertie and Millicent (“We’re both to go dining out at the good sisters’ in a week or so. I gather we’re not supposed to know it yet. We are both supposed to be lonely.”). He’s on his way to see the woman who has startled our protagonist. On her way back to her car, the doctor flashes past her in a “reckless” way in his Land Rover, before a Mrs Metcalfe, of the continual offerings of beans, meets her when she returns home. This time, along with the beans, she has news of “That daft woman up near Melbeck. She’s dead. The doctor’s just left her. Or I hear tell. She hanged herself.”

This leads to a bit of a disquisition upon Rose, the woman who has hanged herself, the woman peering strangely before vanishing “utterly silently”. She had, according to Gertie and Millicent at that next meal at which the doctor is also present, “fitted in round here as if country born.” Alas, the house in which she lived, “a queer place,” had taken Rose rather too much to itself: upon the end of her marriage, she had been seen less and less. Her and the house were inseparable.

She didn’t seem able to leave it in the end.

Our protagonist suggests she might’ve been “the last person to have seen her alive.” This is met with initial indulgent doubt. There is a polite and slightly uncomfortable suggestion to the contrary from the doctor that begins the final passage of the story.

“I wonder,” he said, “if that could be true.” Gertie and Millcent were busy with coffee cups. They turned away.

“’Could be true?’ But it is certainly true. I know exactly when. She asked me the time that afternoon. I told her. It was just after three. She seemed very — bewildered about it. You called upon her hardly a quarter of an hour later. She’d hardly been back in the house a quarter of an hour.”

“She’d been in it longer than that,” he said. “When I found her she’d been dead nearly three weeks. Maybe since hay-time.”

I went to Hong Kong.

How many writers can provoke a laugh as they chill?

Gardam’s stories are full of people who don’t quite fit in but cast the lives around them into a marginally more hopeful, potentialized state. Here, that rewarding sense of accommodating another’s askew perspective is withdrawn. Rose drew and stayed inward and nobody sought her out. The potential for revelation, implicit in all Gardam’s work, is, though, realized. It’s the nature of it that delivers the delicious afterburn and prompts such a memorable payoff. It’s a rare walk beyond the treeline of Gardamville, a welcome one that showcases a rare adroitness with a kind of wry macabre wit. The story is a masterclass of deft little narrative steps that walk right up to you before diving behind and whispering in your ear. You get the joke and you shiver. You also understand the further emphasis of that which is so prevalent in these stories: how easily people can isolate themselves. There’s a particular Englishness to the forgotten hermit at the heart of this story. Even when dead she reeks of a kind of festering decorum. No doubt the house in which she was found hanged was otherwise spotless, speaking well of her — (“She was well-liked”) to those discovering her decomposing corpse.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2015-01-29T23:32:32-04:00January 30th, 2015|Categories: Jane Gardam|Tags: |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Lori Feathers January 30, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Lee, thanks for giving me one more reason to add Gardam to my “must read” list. I’ve had her novels in my sights for a while (especially “Old Filth” for the quirky reason that the main character and I share the same unusual surname), and it’s good to know that she is skilled in crafting short stories as well. Do you prefer her short stories over her novels? Do you have Gardam favorites?

  2. Lee Monks January 30, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Lori: no problem! I really urge you to try this story collection. I think the shorter form – as much as I enjoy Gardam’s novels – suits her a little more. She can fathom a world in a few paragraphs: there’s a feeling for me that’s basically ‘why lengthen this? It’s all there’. She doesn’t need many pages to work her magic, ultimately. The stories are luxury items, succulent bon-bons, really.

    I think (right at this moment) The Sidmouth Letters is my favourite. I can see it being anthologised for a long time.

  3. Lee Monks January 30, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Oh and, Lori: surely you’ve read Nights at the Circus? :-)

  4. lori feathers February 3, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    Lee: Sadly no. Is it another Gardam short story? In which story collection can I find it?

  5. Lee Monks February 3, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Lori: it’s an Angela Carter book. You’ll like it – well, you’ll like what the central character is called, hopefully! :-)

  6. Lori Feathers February 3, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Now I’m certainly intrigued. Thanks for the recommendation, Lee.

  7. Lee Monks February 3, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    No problem!

  8. Arsen November 15, 2015 at 1:58 am

    What a great ending to this story. Here she thought she was getting along so well in the countryside and you come to find perhaps the loneliness is driving her a bit mad. Gardam sneaks up on you with the little details.
    I disagree that Gardam realizes are writing gifts best in the short form. As much as I like these stories, I don’t think they compare to what she achieved in Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. In those books she seemed to capture whole lives. In the stories she shows us a sliver that might illuminate a life, but does not truly capture it.

  9. Lee Monks November 16, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I may eventually agree with you on that point – I need to become more acquainted with long-form Gardam first. As it stands, I like how deftly Gardam builds a replete glimpse of a world and a life in such a short space – a skill I imagine is more difficult than doing so over 200+ pages.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.