‘The July Ghost’ by A.S. Byatt

The story I’ve selected for the summer personal anthology series is not cheerful or with a holiday aspect, so apologies in advance. But it is set in London, during a very hot summer, and here I am, in London, and it is turning out to be a very hot summer.  The story is about a terrible loss, and the emotional paralysis that comes with it: all the more painful because it is set against a ravishing backdrop – a large, almost paradisiacal garden:

It was a lovely place: a huge, hidden, walled South London garden, with old fruit trees at the end, a wildly waving disorderly buddleia, curving beds full of old roses, and a lawn of overgrown rye-grass.

A man, an academic trying to write a paper on Hardy’s poems, “on their curiously archaic vocabulary” rents some attic rooms from a woman he has no connection with; her husband is mostly away. The initial set-up leads one to expect a foregone conclusion, but what follows is profoundly unexpected. The man has recently been left by his lover: he is bereft. Sitting in the garden each day his mind begins to recompose itself: and soon he has a companion – a silent boy of about ten with brilliant blue eyes and an extraordinarily trusting smile, swinging from the apple tree, or lying in the grass beside him.

When he asks the woman who the boy might be, and describes him, right down to his Chelsea football shirt, he taps into a wild grief. The woman’s only child, he discovers, had been killed two years before, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon (Byatt’s own son died this way: there is a personal heaviness to the writing). The woman cannot see the boy: she longs to. Neither the man nor the woman believes in ghosts: they agree that they appear to have crossed over into each other’s emotional currents: whether they can find mutual comfort through this is debatable.

The story seems to me to be very Jamesian (both Henry and M.R.) especially as it is a retelling with omissions – the man recounts it to a young American woman he meets later at a party. It is less contrived and curlicued than much of Byatt’s writing: there is a sense of urgent reflection about it. In our family, too, there is a lost child, and although she died in her early 20s, it is – sentimentally or perhaps so as not to dwell on the suffering which took her from us – that as a child I choose most often to remember her, an eternal child in an everlasting summer garden.

From Sugar and Other Stories, 1987, and also collected in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990) Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Read Catherine’s Personal Anthology here

‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ by Angela Carter

‘It seemed December still possessed his garden. The ground was hard as iron, the skirts of the dark cypress moved on the chill wind with a mournful rustle and there were no green shoots on the roses as if, this year, they would not bloom. And not one light in any of the windows, only, in the topmost attic, the faintest smear of radiance on a pane, the thin ghost of a light on the verge of extinction’.

Not strictly a Christmas story, but for some reason fairy tales seem to have more resonance at this time of year. Angela Carter’s clever, sensual update of 18th-century French classic  ‘La Belle et La Bête’ from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber owes more to its (female) originators and popularisers than to any Disney adaptation. The story of the merchant (in Carter’s version, a debt-laden lawyer with a broken-down car) who steals the single white rose he promised his daughter from a mysterious wintry garden, incurring the wrath of its leonine owner, and a forfeit – a reluctant agreement that Beauty will become the companion of the Beast – has several troubling interpretations. In Carter’s hands, Beauty, rather than simply being a chattel of her father, responds to the strange, enchanted world of the dignified and passionate Beast and discovers her own emotional and sexual awakening in the process.

First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Vintage Chatto & Windus, 1995. Chosen by Catherine Taylor.

‘Deux Amis’ (‘Two Friends’) by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve gone for Maupassant as my first choice. probably because this is the first short story I remember really sticking in my mind, and it’s therefore acquired a kind of nostalgic perfection.  To my great satisfaction  I was the only member of sixth form to receive a detention (I misremember the reason) and was locked by my A-level French teacher alone in a classroom for two hours one Friday afternoon. Before escaping via the window, I read this deceptively simple, gallant story of two old friends who meet again by chance during the Franco-Prussian war and the 1871 Siege of Paris. Reminiscing about the fishing trips they used to take together, the men obtain leave to do so one more time. Their excursion is interrupted by four Prussian soldiers and what ensues,  despite the patina of propaganda and nationalistic pride, is a story of quiet bravery, the desperate losses of war on both sides and the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(First published 1883. Also published in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2004. Translated from French by Sian Miles)

‘The Bloody Chamber’, by Angela Carter

The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on Carter’s stories, had a big effect on me as teenager and led me to her writing. The opening salvo from her first short-story collection, published in 1979, is typical of her baroque, joyous subversion of the fairy tale – while also making significant points about the shifting balance of sexual power, desire, disgust and how the two often disturbingly collide. In this interpretation of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, a young ingenue is married off to a rich Maquis, who, after their wedding night, leaves her alone in his isolated castle on France’s  bleak Atlantic coast  with a set of golden keys and one proviso – do not open THAT door. The prose is gorgeous, full of a perverse longing and indefinable sorrow: ‘Time was his servant, too; it would trap me here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a winter morning’. This being Carter, the ingenue is not so innocent of course, and has a gun-toting vengeful mother to boot. All the better to eat you with, my dear…

(From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Vintage Classics, 1995)

‘The Lame Shall Enter First’, by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964  at the age  of 39; this story was published posthumously a year later in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.Like William Faulkner , Carson McCullers and a host of others, O’Connor wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition, populating her work with grotesque characters, violent incident  and moral debate. I also have lupus; on diagnosis I identified as a shadowy Flannery O’Connor, one without the writing talent or the peacocks (she famously kept many exotic birds), an atheist in thrall to O’Connor’s rhapsodic Catholicism. In this story, a father refuses to empathise with the grief of his young son who has recently lost his mother. Instead, he offers his charity to a manipulative homeless teenager, with tragic consequences for the child. It’s unsettling, unsentimental and never fails to make me weep and rage.

(In Complete Stories, Faber and Faber, 1990)

‘Errand’, by Raymond Carver

As a Chekhov devotee it might seem odd I should choose a story about, not by, Chekhov. But in truth, I prefer his plays, and this, about Chekhov’s final moments and death by champagne is classic Carver – or classic Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor), as we might now be led to believe. Regardless of that, it has all the precision, sobriety and exquisite timing of Carver’s best work with an added Russian flourish, and is the last story in Elephant, the collection published in the final year of Carver’s life. (Carver died aged 50 in 1988). My best friend, Sonia Misak, with whom I’ve been sharing stories both real and imagined  for most of our lives, gave me my copy of Elephant at New Year 1990. Carver was quite possibly already terminally ill when he wrote ‘Errand’, but in it he is exploring Chekhov the writer rather than Chekhov the dying man; and reading it calls to mind that great line of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘I meant to write about death, but life kept breaking in as usual.’

(Originally published in Elephant. Also in from Where I’m Calling From, Harvill, 1993)

‘A Little Night Music’, by Jeanette Turner Hospital

The Australian author Jeanette Turner Hospital’s  collection Isobars is uneven in places but its themes of unreliable memory, fugue states and global connections are persistent and powerful. (An isobar, in meteorology, is a line on a map where linked points have the same atmospheric pressure occurring at a given time). All anxieties about flying are fully indulged in this brief ghost story, written about an eleventh-hour passenger who boards a plane at the last minute. The narrator of the story, a woman, is highly apprehensive, with good reason: the previous night a flight on the same route had been blown up by a suicide bomber: there were no survivors. Her seat companion for this flight is a young man who speaks little English and appears distracted and tormented. The woman seeks to comfort him. After they both fall asleep she is ravaged by terrible dreams; when she wakes to daylight, the man has gone. Not to be read on long-haul, unless you’re  a complete masochist.

(From Isobars, Virago Press, 1990)