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In The Master Bedroom, Tessa Hadley takes a very typically English romance and pricks it so full of consciousness that familiarity falls away. There are no types in her tale, no characters whose minds are made up in advance. In that, they’re like us. They grope through their own domestic territory as if it had been assaulted by an earthquake – but there has been no earthquake. There is only the opacity of the future. If certain things happen, then other things are likely to result, but probability is not predestination. Three characters stand at the verge of the abandonments of love; only one – the youngest, the one with no experience – is willing to surrender to eros. The other two, middle-aged and unable to decide between the thrill and the folly of new-found passion, surrender to consequences.
In the middle of the novel, Kate Flynn, fortyish, just returned to her native Cardiff from a few days’ London junket with her senescent mother, Billie, wakes up from her nap on a daybed to find a young man staring at her. He is the seventeen year-old son of the best friend of her youth, a woman who killed herself when this adolescent was still a baby. He lives in the attic of his father’s house in Cardiff, dithering about studying for his A-levels. His combination of youthful charm, profoundly sweet disposition and generally unsocialized demeanor make him irresistible to the severely buttoned-down Kate, a handsome but not beautiful woman whose own good nature is stroked by good manners and inflected by a certain intellectual impatience that, in turn, excites Jamie. They have already had one encounter, after which Kate told Jamie never to come back to her mother’s house, to which she has returned only nominally to oversee the old lady’s decline.
He exhaled noisily. Kate stood up – shoelessly short again, like last time, and twisted herself closely against his boy’s warm shape, inside his arms, which closed around her raggedly, timidly; she pretended to herself that the difference in their mass – his overwhelming hers, making her tiny – blotted out other asymmetries. She pushed his hair away from his forehead with both her hands to smile up at him, framing his face, his eyes under their hooded lids stared back, unreadable. Out of her adult experience, she was in command; shed mustn’t let him know how powerful his reserves of youth were. She took him upstairs into the master bedroom. Billie wouldn’t come looking for them; she superstitiously never went in there. Kate had thought of that bed beforehand, but hadn’t made up with sheets in case she tempted bad luck, so they made love tangled in damp dusty scratchy blankets and a silk counterpane, naked on the old sour-smelling striped flock mattress.
Under reaching fingers at some point Kate found unexpectedly the polished hard convexities of the carved headboard, its cornucopia of spilled fruit. She had pulled up the blinds, and their shoulders and his long bac k were silvered sometimes by moonlight; the moon was huge, full, operatic, reflected in the lake. Jamie was somewhat better at it all this time, with her help; he made shy, touching efforts of concentration, and shed gratified him with little moans of pleasure.
— This has to be our secret, she made clear. This isn’t a relationship, in the daytime. I have to trust you that no one will ever know that this happened, even after I’m dead.
— You won’t be dead, he said reassuringly, as if he could promise that.
The Master Bedroom begins with a highway accident in which, although no one appears to be hurt, two women, known to one another but choosing to pretend to be strangers, are badly shaken. Kate is one of the women. She has burnt all her London bridges – taken sabbatical, sublet her flat - and returned to Cardiff, where the prospect of caring for her mother immediately seems unworkably quixotic. No sooner has she arrived than she considers bolting.
As yet the only sign of Kate’s arrival in the house, apart from Sim [her cat] was her handbag which she had put down on the oak chest before she went upstairs: very soft dark brown leather, roomy, Italian, with a tortoiseshell clasp. She felt tenderness toward her sophisticated professional self, who had known how to choose such a fine unconventional bag, how to carry it off strikingly. That self surely couldn’t come back and live in this crazy place, this nowhere. Wales, for God’s sake!
Kate actually sits in her car for a while, ready to drive back to London – her mother has barely registered her presence. It is the other woman who bolts. Suzie, gradually revealed to be Jamie’s step-mother, does not abandon her family all at once, but she keeps her husband, David, at a distance, and soon takes up with a pair of new-age hippies whose deadpan presence gives the novel a dryly comic aftertaste – Cardiff really is “this crazy place.” Suzie’s sudden disaffection with her life with David may be unfinished business, undoing the advantage that David took of Suzie years ago in Regent’s Park, when, desperately bad at parenting his toddler son, having lost his wife, Francesca, to suicide, David leapt at Suzie’s proffered help.
But in that decisive hour, Suzie’s uncomplicated openness had seemed to David like a door out of the dark maze of his troubles.
David and Suzie have had two children of their own, and David has left medicine for public health. He, too, hails from Cardiff, and he has been living there for years when Kate shows up. They meet at a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Jephtha, which disgusts the philistine Suzie so much that she leaves after the second act, advising him to catch a ride home with Kate, whom she has seen from her seat. (Kate’s closest friend in Cardiff, Carol, is David’s older sister). When the music is over, David all but pretends to be surprised to run into Kate. He proposes a drink, but he is thinking beyond drinks.
David was all of a sudden reckless, as if Suzie’s leaving him scalding with justified indignation had handed him a new freedom to go after what he wanted. He wanted a friend; he was imagining a companionship like cool air, a mingling of intelligences. He had been afraid of Kate’s intelligence once. She had seemed sophisticated and sarcastic when he was a studious tongue-tied boy studying sciences at school.
But does David remember, Kate wonders when they go back to her mother’s house for a drink, a mortifying episode in which, at one of her wild, teen-aged parties, Kate rather narcissistically offered herself to the earnest young David, only to be rejected by his hot, burning indignation? We’re not told. We’re allowed to suppose that David misread the maneuver: he had good reason to believe that, had had responded with pleasure, he would have been mercilessly teased and shamed. Rather than quote from it, I shall ask you to take my word for it that the flashback has all of the power that Ian McEwan would have given it.
Some time later, Kate runs into Jamie at a sweet shop. She figures that it must be he - she sees his mother's face in his - and he is flat and almost sullen about having been identified by a friend of his father’s until he learns that Kate knew his mother. Then, he lights up with interest: he wants to know more about Francesca than anyone will tell him, as if he were still too young to cope with her suicide. Kate is amused by his coltish seriousness, his contempt for the opinions of his friends (all of whom adore him for precisely this). But before she sees Jamie again, his father pays a surprise visit one afternoon, as she is shepherding her mother home from a walk by the lake in front of the villa. It's as much a surprise to David as it is to Kate.
He had never been any good at talking: Suzie complained of it, even his mother teased him for it. During the short time he was married to Francesca, he had kept a young man's silence like a seal across his lips. At work of course he talked, but there it had consequences and was about substantial things. He didn't know where this urge to spill his private thoughts had sprung from, sharp and precise as other appetites.
As David, Kate and Billie share a pot of tea, nothing at all happens outwardly, but, closing the door on her departing visitor, Kate groans in disbelief. "Oh, no, not this."
She had watched David make his way down the path to the gate, hunching his shoulders under his coat against the rain. If she made and effort she could still just imagine seeing him impartially, casually: good-looking enough, absorbed in himself in a way that didn't promise well, limited, earnest. He didn't turn around to wave at the gate. Probably in a crisis, confronted with raw emotion, with anything improper, he would react with caution; he would show a superficial kindness and underneath it deep distaste. There were bolts of killing disapproval locked up under the thick pelt of his hair and in the brown steady gaze that followed her conversation with only the slightest hint of lumbering. He was dangerous to her. She must use all her experience to guard herself against him, against the cold look of disassociation he was capable of turning on her at any time.
Kate doesn't realize, yet, that she has caught David on the rebound from Suzie's deepening, and increasingly inexplicable, rejection; for now it is bad enough to sense that he needs her somehow. It would be crude to say that Kate needs to be needed, but it's clear that she doesn't know what she does need. That's why, when Jamie comes to her and all but forces himself upon her, however gently, the Kate who is so formidable by daylight yields without resistance. Even though she knows that what she is doing is "wrong," in that it would upset every relationship that she has in Cardiff, she cannot say no to pressing need. The only question is whether David's need will ever be pressing enough for him to try to claim Jamie's space for himself, or whether he will wait for the sign from Kate that makes him draw back from the abyss in relief. David, Poised would have made a very good title for this novel, because the richness of the novel is so intimately bound up with David's discovery that he has grown into a middle-age that is ringed by menacing disappointment. Although Kate's return to Cardiff - a transitional stop, bound to end when her mother's health finally fails - occupies the foreground action, but the quietly intense drama is all in the threat that she poses to David's self-respect at a time when his own life is between morphologies. To those readers for whom spoilers are not a problem, I offer Ms Hadley's portrait of David at the end, his adventure safely bypassed.
David only saw Kate Flynn once more before she left Cardiff. He knew that she was selling Firenze and leaving, because Carold told him so. When he went with his mother to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Millennium Centre, he did wonder if Kate would be there. He hadn't bought tickets, just in case, but Betty bought them, and then he thought, It's a huge place, the odds are against Kate's coming, but even if she does, we'll miss each other. He tried not to think about Kate at all; it was as if he kept a heavy door shut against what he knew, against what had happened. Whatever he had imagined, sitting outside Firenze hat night in his car, he must keep at bay. It was the kind of mess that women like Kate made: better not to know too much, better that the boy had gone to his grandmother's for a while. Apparently Jane was helping him make his university applications. Probably Jamie had had a crush on Kate; they must have met through Carol. David was lucky to have got out of such a tangle. He remembered sitting there in the car, and Kate coming out in to the garden, in the dark, in the wind, to look for him; he had been determined not to make a move, not if she wouldn't come over to him, to explain, to make everything all right again. He tried not to see it all: what an idiot he must have looked, what a puritan, stuck like a dummy in the driver's seat, weltering in his judgment against her. But he couldn't change what he was. He was lucky, really, that it had all come to nothing. His life with Suzie had resumed. They were companionable again; she had moved back into their double bed; he was relieved and grateful.
David went to look for the interval drinks he'd ordered. As he claimed their tray, he looked down over the balcony, behind the great front of the building with his carved-out lines of poetry, to the level below, and saw Kate with a gang of friends, all laughing and noisily declamatory. he recognized the blond American he'd seen at Kate's party, and Ann the viola player. None of them looked up to see him.
David was shocked; he'd somehow pictured Kate as left behind, sad and alone in the old house, mourning. When he 'd worried about bumping in to her at the opera, he'd imagined her here by herself; instead, she was sitting while the others stood around her as if she were holding court; she threw back her head at someone's joke and clasped her hands at her knees where her legs were crossed in some kind of dramatic silver and black skirt. Light flashed off her angular modern jewelry; her bony shoulders were bare. They were all drinking beer from bottles; relaxed, they made the place their party, so that everyone outside it seemed stiffly polite. One of the crowd sang: exuberantly, badly. Kate sang back; more laughter; then the blond men demonstrated something musical, marking greet swoops and patting tiny tensions in the air with his hands. If they irritated David, he couldn't tell himself it was because they were uncultured, or too self-admiringly fashionable; if anything, from his angle on the balcony above, they were collectively interestingly ugly. Kate had had her hair cut, she'd had something else done to it that David didn't like, although he could see that it worked, it was striking: more streaks were added among the dark hairs to her authentic white ones, so that their effect was lost, or multiplied.
This must all do him good, David thought. He had been deluded, imagining he could have ever had any place in this life of Kate's. Her friends were the clever, stylish kind of people he couldn't possibly have kept up with, didn't even like.
On the bench, Figaro and the woman who seemed to be the Countess kissed and cuddled, driving the Count into a frenzy. David found himself drawn in, despite himself, to the familiar twists and turns of misapprehension; the secrets, concealments, longings, devices, trickery, notes fastened with a pin; the promise of joys. Where else did the music come from? The women in their disguises flitted with rustling skirts between he bemused men, their masters. When it was over and the characters hurried away out of the back of the set, hand in hand in pairs as if they escaped into the unseen dark garden, he was bereft. Coming back to take the applause, they were only singers and actors. David felt himself shut out and left behind.
Like The Marriage of Figaro, The Master Bedroom is a comedy of manners that is not really very comic. And, again like the opera, it is a work of transcendent satisfaction. (October 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press