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)