‘The Basement Room’ by Graham Greene

Childhood…

All his seven nursery years vibrated with the strange, the new experience…

When his parents set off for a fortnight’s holiday, seven-year-old Philip Lane is left at home in the care of the butler and housekeeper, Mr and Mrs Baines. Philip takes the absence of his parents in his stride. He is giddy with his new-found freedom and more than happy to exchange the familiar confines of his nursery of the for the strange new world of the Baines’s titular basement room. Indeed, throughout this story Philip seems to be on a quest to expand his experience even further and explore the world beyond the walls of his parents’ “great Belgravia house.” (“This is life,” he tells himself again and again, the phrase running throughout the story like, well, like a stick of Brighton rock.)

But as Philip pushes against the boundaries of his childhood he discovers that life beyond the nursery is beset with incomprehensible adult concerns. And Philip soon becomes unwittingly entangled in Mr Baines’ extramarital affair – something that has terrible consequences for all concerned; consequences that go far further than the realisation that Philip’s beloved Mr Baines has feet of clay; consequences, indeed, that will reverberate down the years, and colour Philip’s own adult life. (And colour, perhaps, L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which seems to be a development and expansion of Greene’s brilliantly compact short story.) 

First published in Town & Country, 1936. Collected in Nineteen Stories, William Heinemann 1947 and Collected Stories, Penguin 1986

‘A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story was read to me at that same boarding school by our Headmaster, Mr Gilbert Wheat. In both my home world and my school world, I had already noticed that appalling tragedy was often greeted with jokes and laughter. These strange emotional distortions made the world difficult to navigate. But in this story Graham Greene seemed to take these contradictions and celebrate them. How could he move so smoothly from laughter to pain? Forty years later, Greene remains one of my favourite writers and I continue to admire his ability to use shifts in tone to devastating effect.  

First published in May We Borrow Your Husband?, The Bodley Head, 1967; Collected in Collected Stories, The Bodley Head, 1973 and now Penguin Classics, 2000

A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story is about a boy whose father is killed when a pig falls on top of him and who then spends the rest of his life trying to tell people about the tragedy without making them laugh.

I probably first read this when I was a teenager, around the time my father died.

There is probably no short story in existence I have thought about more often than this one.

First published in May We Borrow Your Husband?, The Bodley Head, 1967; Collected in Collected Stories, The Bodley Head, 1973 and now Penguin Classics, 2000

‘A Shocking Accident’ by Graham Greene

This story is brilliant for the concept at its core – that a tragedy (the death of a parent) can have about it an inherent comedy (method of dispatch) such that it haunts the offspring left behind in a uniquely undignified way. I first read it in an anthology of the same name, and sadly it set the bar so high that most of the other stories couldn’t compete. It also has a great opening. Like David Copperfield summoned to the headmaster’s office on his birthday, expecting a hamper and receiving instead news of his mother’s death, Jerome sits opposite his housemaster without fear, for he is an ‘approved, reliable’ boy, destined ‘for Marlborough or Rugby’. Rather, the housemaster appears a little afraid of Jerome. What does he have to tell him? The news is delivered, and a guilty smile spreads across the reader’s face. Perhaps there is also a snort, or a hoot, at the gift of this awful, wonderful image. So many short stories are dark, it is true, and this one in a way is no exception. But it is also exceptionally funny.

In A Shocking Accident: stories with a twist in the tail, ed. Sara Corrin, Walker Books, 2003; available online here