A story called "Afternoon in Summer" sounds like a perfect summer Sunday sort of read. Cannibalism? The story included cannibalism? How did I miss that? Must go back and skim. One moment please, I'll be right back.
Oh yeah. Now I remember. A young couple sits together--she's reading a book and he's just noticing her looking up from it with a look that says she's about to share something. The book she's reading (this story was published in 1972 by the way) is about murders in the past twenty years.
"Murder is an occupational risk for prostitutes."
"Hmmm, said he, clinging to the thread of his calculations. They grew so engrossing that when next she spoke it took him by surprise.
"And for wives, too--though not so much."
"Inwardly assenting, Willie asked, "What on earth are you reading now?"
Wait, though, it gets better.
"Are there any cases in your nice book about husbands who ate their wives? I'd like to know their sentences."
"Oh, Willie, are you hungry?"
Hah. This is Sylvia Townsend Warner we're talking about. Such a wacky and humorous conversation is par for the course in her writing. You see the pair are on summer vacation in cottage rental and all the food contained in the fridge consists of "a heel of cheese, some rye biscuit, on tomato." And upon further consideration she added salt. What sort of grocer closes on a Thursday? Apparently a grocer in a small town.
So the two set off on their bicycles to a pub where the plan is to have an enormous tea. One puncture later they arrive only to find the pub isn't yet open and on the door a big sign letting them know "no teas". Well, they are legally bound to open at six, Willie says? Is that true? Pubs in England being legally bound to open--ca. 1970!?
In any case, this is where the story really gets good. (In case that little exchange didn't get your attention). So, now a church is in order. Some place cool they can sit and pass the twenty minutes or so before they can have a proper tea. Okay, another perfect conversational exchange. I like Sally and Willie.
"I can't understand why people don't make more use of their churches."
"Sectarianism," said Willie. "I don't suppose anyone will come near this place till Harvest Festival."
"Which is phallic, isn't it?"
Hah. Don't answer that. Willie didn't get a chance in any case as just at that moment the couple is joined by a coffin and a crowd of "partially blackened mourners". I won't tell you what happens next, considering the very tongue-in-cheek representation of Sally and Willie. You may or may not guess. I will just say why does sex and death seem to always go together?
A little light comic release this weekend. Just what I needed. Nothing like a good story to elicit a nice guffaw or two.
I did read another story in The Music at Long Verney. "A Scent of Roses" come to think of it, was a perfect pairing. Another story from 1972 which is set, or rather begins, some time just after WWI. An only son who lives with his widowed mother. Surely that must have had an effect on his personality. Howard spends the better part of his adult years in a relationship with a, ah, um, a mistress? Okay, a lady of the evening who keeps slippers for her clientele. So when Howard spends time with her, out come his particular pair of slippers. Who can judge a relationship that works? He even buys her expensive gifts on their anniversaries. Sorry, have to share the last bit, if you don't want to know, turn away now.
Another, hah, moment. Why shouldn't a prostitute look to her future? And as a lady who is a cut above the rest (maybe even a cut above Howard!) it's something of a shock when she announces her retirement to France with her longstanding betrothed!
So, I gave into temptation and ordered Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden, which is a set of interlinked stories about the residents of Blackwell, Massachusetts over the course of centuries. I have not read much of Hoffman's work. Actually the only thing that comes to mind is another book of interlinked stories, which I really liked.
The first story is set in 1750 when Blackwell was first known as Bearsville when there "were nearly as many black bears in the woods then as there were pine trees." Blackwell might never have even been founded had it not been for a seventeen year old woman from England who married the first man who asked her (having been in the Americas for only a few months), and he turned out to be a ne'r do well.
Hallie Brady, an orphan in England, does what she needs to do to survive and save for a ticket to the new world where she can make a new start. A woman who would prefer to die trying to save herself than do nothing at all waiting for death to arrive. A small group of settlers, led by William Brady, makes the bad plan of setting out for a good place on the other side of the mountains to settle their small new town--a place where there is endless land and they can have it for free. But who has the bad sense to begin this journey in October?
I fear that while ultimately the stories may be good, they are going to be marked by hardship and tragedy, which is what happens in "The Bear's House" the first of more than a dozen stories. If this first one is anything to judge by, the stories are going to have Hoffman's trademark dash of magical realism. Circumstances might just challenge a reader's perceptions on reality and a little suspension of disbelief might be called for, but I think this is going to be a great collection.
The next story will jump about forty years ahead and has the curious title "Eight Nights of Love". Next up for Sylvia Townsend Warner is "Tebic" and "A Flying Start". Lots of good short story reading for my upcoming long weekend!