Friday, 24 April 2020

Repossession - Tessa Hadley's "Bad Dreams"

In Tessa Hadley's short story collection, Bad Dreams, several main characters explore a house already familiar to them: Marina to look after an old man whose big house she's been walking past since childhood (soon she's 'gone into every corner' of it); Claire to the house where she grew up (she waits for the rest of the family to go to bed before exploring); and a little girl who wakes from a nightmare about her book (wandering in her flat at night makes everything looks different).

A variation on the theme is when the house is unfamiliar and the owner's away. Sex is offered in these situations. In 'Experience' Laura, recovering from divorce, is house-sitting when she explores the owner's diary and attic - and the owner's married ex, Julian. In 'An abduction' Jane, 15, is given a lift to a house where she willingly loses her virginity to Daniel, then looks around the rooms alone.

In quests, heroes return home older and wiser after facing a challenge. These female protagonists, all in the throes of change, aren't seeking adulation, they just want to hold on to what they had - retracing their steps to their last known position, hoping to be found, the past part of their quest.

Alzheimer patients often say that they want to go home, even when that's where they are. All they want is a place where they feel safe, where everything's familiar. But what if it's changed in the meantime? It will need to be re-explored. A guide may be required, and that guide may help with the future as well as the past. Each of these females has access to an older or wiser female who knows more about the house than the protagonist - the old man's daughter, Wendy, pops in most days; Claire's sister Susan still lives there; the little girl's mother takes over the narrative later; Laura is phoned by the owner, Hana, about her ex; and student Fiona lives in the house where Jane has her adventure, lending Jane a swimsuit though Jane would swim for the boys without one.

Hadley admits to repeating themes. Are there repeated resolutions? Do all these protagonists in time-honoured fashion learn and change? Not obviously so. Marina in 'The Stain' seems unaffected, though she's scared by Wendy's son who doesn't let her out of a car until he's told her about the old man's unpleasant past. She turns down the house that the old man repeatedly offers. ‘I know what my father's like, once he fixes on something,’ Wendy says. Finally we read that Marina's husband knew how 'once Marina got an idea into her head there was no changing it'. Happy with life, she prefers to remain as she is.

Of Jane we're told that 'In a way, she never assimilated the experience disapproving of under-age sex, though to her therapist after her mid-fifties divorce her description of the 'real life' she feels she's missed out on sounds much like that wild night. She missed her chance to break free of her sheltered upbringing.

In the story 'Bad Dreams' the little girl has carefully upset the furniture. In the morning she stubbornly reads the book she's read many times before. Her mother's changed though - she thinks her moody husband upset things. She's 'exhilarated' by this insight into his childishness, 'she seemed to see the future with great clarity, looking forward through a long tunnel of antagonism.'

At the end of 'Flight' Claire 'felt a moment's stabbing sorrow for everything she'd lost and left behind. But she knew from past experience how to push that sorrow down and bury it'. Earlier she'd hidden a present for Susan in the most intimate of places - the bottom of her handbag. Claire later found it at the bottom of her own bag. How did it get there?

Laura's the only one who emerges with profit, claiming that 'after my evening with Julian I knew I came across as older and more experienced. People seemed to take me more seriously.'

So is a leap into the unknown better than a step back in the hope of taking two steps forward? Is it preferable to squat in somebody else's past rather than repossess one's own? After leaping into the unknown you can take what you want and run, leaving no mark - Laura changes nobody, and later in life Daniel doesn't even remember Jane, who had potentially the most life-changing incident. Claire arrives with the most baggage but takes it all away with her, changing nothing, letting the next generation enjoy the house without her.

If there is transformation in these stories, it's not often in the protagonist. When she resists change, there aren't always consequences. Hadley shows us that each house has many rooms, each family, happy or not, has its own dynamics, and each woman her own way of absorbing change.

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