Tessa Hadley: The Stain

11/04/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 7, 2011.

I haven’t liked a Tessa Hadley story yet — not “Honor,” not “The Trojan Prince,” and especially not “Clever Girl” — but I’ve never had a problem with her writing, only with her characters and situations. Her latest is far easier to relate to, dealing with the relationship between a rich old immigrant and the local woman, Marina, hired to be his caretaker. “He wasn’t incapacitated,” explains Hadley, but he is “depressed because he was bored,” and Marina imagines “how hard it was for a man who must once have been so vigorous to accept this diminished life, using a cane to get around, with no one to command except her.” As for Marina, she’s described as “reliable and thoughtful, an oddball who kept herself apart from the other mothers,” so although the old man never seems difficult to manage whatsoever, I’m willing to accept that Marina overwhelms him with the same sort of easygoing charm that the old man himself uses, and in fact, the story’s conclusion emphasizes one trait the two share above all else: “Once Marina got an idea into her head there was no changing it.”

Hadley’s story is so unassuming that it succeeds in surprising the reader several times along the way. Warning signs, like the lack of love given him by his children — especially Wendy, “a dumpy little woman, nervous and punctilious, with the same wide-apart eyes and flattened cheekbones as the old man” — are glossed over from Marina’s point of view; the old man’s reluctance to record his memoirs is brushed off as a joke: “Better not,” he says, “Better to keep it all in here where it’s safe”; and everything we know about his past is subtly assumed: “Because he talked about the vines he’d tended in South Africa, and because he was so deeply tanned, his skin like tough yellow leather, Marina thought he must have been a farmer and spent his days outdoors.” He’s also seen, time and again, as a sweet old man whose worst insult is to keep offering Marina additional funds — which she politely declines — and at one point, as such: “The flame of her love for her child lapped for that moment around the lonely old man, too: the baggy, age-spotted hands cupped around the child’s tiny, unspoiled, tender ones.”

It’s an innocent description, but another way to read this may be — given the foreboding title — is that the old man’s hands are spoiled and are not tender. This much is confirmed by Anthony, the old man’s youngest grandson; when he takes Marina out, somewhat unwillingly, for a drive, we are meant to assume the worst — that he will rape her — or at the very least, hurt her in order to scare her off from the estate that she threatens to snatch away from them in the old man’s dotage. Instead, “he told her what the old man had been involved in, in the seventies and eighties, working in special operations for the South African Defense Force.” The next day, “everything she looked at had seemed unclean, had revealed a leering, repulsive side she’d never seen before.” Life is all about perception; stories are a lens that sharpen one particular facet of a view, and this is the moment when we realize (1) that we’ve been duped and (2) that we almost wish we hadn’t. Why do things have to change, once we find out there are peas hidden in our mashed potatoes, so to speak?

If there’s a flaw in Hadley’s story, aside from the overabundance of description (which is a matter of personal taste), it’s that the story ends without any confrontation. Unable to care for the old man any longer, she marches off to Wendy’s home, intending to explain the situation and perhaps get some answers — and as it turns out, the old man has died in his sleep: “Almost peacefully.” Marina is left the house, as he has promised, and she turns it down, as she has promised, and that’s more or less it, save for the reminder that the old man and Marina are not all that different in attitude, and that perhaps the only real difference between them was a matter of circumstances: the world he was born into, and the one she lived in. I’m not sure there needs to be any more to it than that.


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