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NEW YORKER Stories

Tessa Hadley

"The Godchildren"

October 12, 2009

One is familiar with "the stream of consciousness." This story raises an opposing metaphor: the static of consciousness.

In a provincial English town, three middle-aged people gather at a scene of their youth, the house of their late godmother. Other than being the godchildren of Vivien, they are not related. But they used to meet at her house, all three at a time, when they were young. They knew each other only in connection with this unmarried woman who worked in London and was no longer close to their parents. Now she has died, and left them the contents of her house. Susan, a lawyer, would certainly have tossed the solicitor's letter of notification without responding to it, but Amanda, who was the beauty of the three (and still is) has corralled the others into a meeting, ostensibly to choose the things that they want. The male member of the trio, Chris, now a professor, shows up as if to observe some obscure propriety.

Nothing happens now, and nothing seems to have happened then, when they were young. The narrative climax of the story is the recollection, told in a voice that wavers between the collective memory of the three godchildren and the voice of an omniscient observer, of a summer night in their mid-teens. Perhaps it is unfair to say that nothing happened; Chris and Mandy indulged in a bit of carnal groping in Vivien's back garden. We're left with the suspended possibility that something similar might again now. On both occasions, Susan has taken herself off with a sort of generalized impatience. Nothing has changed, in other words, since the godchildrens' tastes and drives were formed in adolescence.

If anything did happen, it would disturb the vibrations of awkward consciousness that Ms Hadley captures with expertise. Her three legatees, linked through somewhat spurious bonds, don't know where they stand with one another. What is the nature of their connection? It is impossible to say which is why Susan and Chris almost immediately decide that it was a mistake to accept Amanda's invitation.

Susan was fishing in her handbag. "I'm going to call the cab back. This was a mistake. Sorry, Mandy. I've had a dreadful morning with my mother."

Amanda, focussing, took in properly for the first time that Susan's understated bag was made of leather as soft as cloth, and that her clothes were sumptuous, simple cream linen suit, cranberry-read cashmere cardigan over her shoulders.

"Actually, it's giving me the creeps, too," Chris said, looking nervously from one woman to the other. I could use a cab if you don't mind sharing, Susan?"

"Oh, no!" Amanda wailed. "You pigs! You can't leave me here on my own. It's not fair!"

Chris and Susan stared at this overflowing stranger, claiming them. Both felt an inappropriate anxiety that she might howl with tears, and they might be held, unjustly, to blame for it.

"Please," she said, softening. We can do the stickers later. We could go out in the garden; we could find a pub. But we can't just let one another go as easily as that, as if none of it meant anything. Can we?"

Chris was bewildered. "None of what?"

The story is told as if to thwart Amanda's hopes for a reunion. Amanda wants to celebrate something that never was; she wants to pretend that the three godchildren formed a group, that, in some meaningful way, they were and are "the same." The story insists that this daydream is sentimental and false. Ms Hadley might have made the easy point that each of the three children had a fully independent life: different friends, schools, and problems. Instead, she recollects their time together as overcast by an awareness that they were not even distant cousins. When Chris calls the lie "None of what?" we're obliged to accept that, in today's world at least, the very idea of godparenthood is bogus. As for the present, Ms Hadley brings her characters to life as people with no points of contact, or at least very few. And she refuses to leaven the lumpiness of the meeting with humorous sarcasm.

Vivien is brought to life, scrupulously, only as her godchildren remember her an indulgent fairy godmother dispensing treats to them as children; a "flinty" critic of modern deteriorations (tourists, trade unions). What Vivien must have made of her former friends' withdrawal, and their offering up instead the company of their children, is not even hinted. At the climax, such as it is, the three teenagers spy on Vivien as she sits on her bedroom balcony in the summer night. Vivien reads a book while she sips a drink. Then she runs "her hands luxuriantly down her nightdress" a single, strikingly sensuous gesture. After this, she goes indoors, and the spying is over. Without doing anything in the least extraordinary, Vivien has revealed an intimate, adult self to her godchildren. Tacit is a charged sense that, just as children must behave in front of adults, so must adults behave in front of children. This is something that lucky children do not learn until they are ready to be adults themselves, and even then, as here, the news comes with a silent shock.

The children couldn't move or speak, in case she heard them; they swallowed with dry throats. They didn't dare look at one another, for fear of spurting out with laughter.

Here is what happens in "The Godchildren": Tessa Hadley imprints the outline of the husk of a past drained of meaning on the walls of the reader's mind. It is a shapely form. 

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