‘An Abduction’ by Tessa Hadley

Another opening story, with another superlative first line: “Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.” One of the truisms of short stories is that every word has to earn its keep, but Hadley – who is surely one of the finest short story writers living – takes this to new levels, forcing even her conjunctions to do a job of work. Look at her choice of “and” in this sentence, rather than the expected “but”: the “and” makes the lack of noticing just as great a crime as the abduction itself. It also implies a great deal about Jane’s circumstances, which Hadley brings vividly to life in just a few resonant sentences: it’s the 1960s, Jane is home (Surrey!) for the summer from boarding school, and the sun is relentlessly shining. “It wasn’t acceptable in Jane’s kind of family,” we’re told (note the passive tense, the use of “acceptable” and “kind of”, all of which are redolent with class associations) “to complain about good weather, yet the strain of it told on them, parents and children: they were remorselessly cheerful, while secretly they longed for rain.”
Bored, hot, listless and frustrated, when a car of university students pulls up beside her she agrees, almost unaccountably, to their offer of a lift. and passes a revelatory 24 hours with them, before slotting apparently seamlessly back into her own life. As she grows older, though, the seams begin to fray; the event that was accommodated at the time turns out to be too vast and jagged to be subsumed, and comes, in later years, to take on an almost totemic significance: to represent for her the possible other; the life unlived. It’s a painful scenario, plangently played out, but the real wallop comes in the final paragraphs, which reveal with lancing matter-of-factness that the boy to whom she lost her virginity that night “has no memory [of her] at all”. “He’s had too much happiness in his life since, too much experience,” the story concludes. “He’s lost that fine-tuning that could hold on to… the girl’s cold skin and her naivety, her extraordinary offer of herself without reserve, the curtains sweeping the floor in the morning light. It’s all just gone.” It’s a masterpiece, this one, almost too painful to tangle with. Loss and longing again, and not a word wasted.

First published in Bad Dreams and Other Stories, Vintage, 2018

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