“They invented a place” is my favourite opening sentence to a story. Constantine’s ill-fated couple create a shared imaginary space to visit alone when they can’t be together. Their shieling is high up a valley. Sparsely furnishing it, they take time to clearly imagine concrete details for every necessary thing, revelling in their shared invention. They keep a small library and have a rule that when one book is added another must be taken away. They leave each other notes and make small improvements. Their delight in imagining this place makes it so real that the discovery of the ruins of a shieling in the real world holds unspeakable sadness.
First published in The Liberal, issue 9 and available online to subscribers. Collected in The Shieling, Comma Press, 2009
So I’ve saved what I believe to be the very best until very end. I should get down on my knees to type this final entry. It was almost impossible for me to pick just one of David Constantine’s flawless stories, published beautifully, always with stunning covers, by Comma Press. Thanks to Mike Harrison‘s recommending – possibly via one of his addictive blog posts – I bought a copy of The Shieling. I was blown away. I went out and bought Under the Dam as a present for someone else, but promptly read it myself, cover to cover. A year or so later, I was given Tea at the Midland and, oh my goodness me, like the previous collections, it is unbelievably brilliant. With every one of his stories, when I reach the end I go straight back to the beginning. His work is always deeply pleasurable and immensely satisfying, and you can never quite pin down how he’s pulled it off. His work is mysterious, genuine, technically perfect and aesthetically awesome.
So why did I choose this one? Well, it was a tight contest between this and ‘Memorial’, which is in The Shieling, and which I adore and have read at least a dozen times. Both stories pop into my head all the time. I came down in favour of this one because it is linked to my enduring fascination with horses. As a little teaser, I give you the opening two sentences: ‘That horse makes me nervous,’ Judith said. ‘I don’t like him being here.’
from Under the Dam and Other Stories, Comma Press, 2005
Although it is set in winter, David Constantine’s superlative ‘Tea at the Midland’ always reminds me of the beaches of north Cornwall where, as a child, I spent two weeks every summer. I have read the first six sentences so many times I’d like to think I could recite them. Take the fifth: “And under that ceaselessly riven sky, riding the furrows and ridges of the sea, were a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites.” Every time I stand on a sandy British beach nowadays, I think again of this story and I try to remember the way it darts at unexpected angles repeatedly right to the very end. It is almost sinister, it is almost very funny: “So he said again, A paedophile is a paedophile. That’s all there is to it.” You might gasp, but the story keeps turning. The couple are having an affair. They are having cream tea. They are having an argument. It is banal and it is British and it is brilliant. The world shifts. You start again.
Winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, 2010. Collected in Tea at the Midland, Comma Press, 2012) Chosen by Lara Pawson
“Why should you hurry even through ugliness? You should come among beauties very gradually. I like climbing rivers at their vilest, to see where they began.”
Constantine’s stories offer a tender documentation of tiny unquenchable moments of compassion, in all its many intangible forms. He speaks of humanity’s capacity for kindness amidst cruelty, of the symbiosis of care and survival. ‘Romantic’ is the only story that makes me cry. It describes the ebb and flow of Ruth and Morgan’s relationship as they both strive to accommodate his tides; Ruth lets her troubled lover come and go, knowing that he needs to be on his own, walking the rivers, with faith he’ll come back – “It’s not a promise that binds me to you”. I love this story for its portrayal of the subtleties of mental health and of the prevailing power of faith in human connection, both between the two protagonists and between Morgan and strangers he encounters on his walks: “They tell me their life stories, they look at me as though I know what they should do next. They only tell me things because I’m passing through… nothing they say, however intimate, is binding.” It is about the pilgrimages we make with one another and the implicit rules we create and subscribe to, no matter how absurd they might seem to others. There are so many tonal layers to this story and my respect for it deepens with every read.
In Tea at the Midland (Comma Press, 2012)