30 August 2021

Missing by Walter de la Mare

The only other Hesperus Modern Voices imprint I have read is David Garnett's Lady Into Fox.  I absolutely love this clever story all the way to the moon and back.  So when I spotted Missing for only $5 at a second-hand shop a couple of weeks ago I was hoping for another five star discovery.   The inside flap reads...

With London in the grip of a heatwave, a man takes refuge from the scorching sun in a teashop, only to share his table with a stranger who seems determined to make conversation.

I was on my way to the cash register and easily could have missed my latest happy find.  An eerie coincidence considering the short stories in this book involve serendipitous meetings.

Missing contains three short stories written in 1923, 1926 and 1929.   The title story features a gentleman in London, failing in his attempt to find bathing-drawers.  He decides to divert himself by stopping into a second-hand bookshop to buy a book he more than likely will not read, then enters a teashop where even the marble tables have been warmed by the heat of the day.  Straight away, he is drawn to a man, also on his own, wearing a pepper-and-salt tweed suit.   Within a short time, the well-suited gentleman gets up - but not to leave.   He pulls out a chair at the table of his fellow guest and engages him in conversation.  The tweed-suited man's name is Mr Bleet.  He confesses that his rare visits to London only occur when he is lonely.  He then delivers a narrative about a woman, Miss Dutton, who went missing from his house....it was in the papers.  

The innocent café guest at first believes he is being kind while listening to a lonely man's domestic woes but then small details lead to something more violent.  Mr Bleet seems to relish his ability to control the level of tension and his new companion's level of attentiveness.  After missing the #18 bus several times, numerous cups of coffee and a melting bowl of ice cream, the discussion takes a disagreeable turn.

The Almond Tree features a man referred to as the Count who shares the story of his childhood with a friend from his past.  Descriptions of an idyllic home and garden are darkened when we learn he was a child caught between warring parents.  His father was away from home more often than not and quite  frequently spent evenings playing cards with a friend on the other side of the heath.  This friend has a beautiful sister with a familiar name - Jane Grey. 

 As a little boy, the Count (whose name is Nicholas) only knows that his mother is sad and angry in turns.   He has also been told he will be beaten if he crosses the threshold of the house across the heath. Nicholas is completely innocent of what it means when a parent has an affair and the effect on his mother. 
There was a little summer-house, or arbour, in the garden, where she would sit alone, while the swallows coursed in the evening air.  Sometimes, too, she would take me for a long walk, listening distantly to my chatter, only, I think, that she might entertain the pleasure of supposing that my father might have returned home unforeseen, and be even now waiting to greet us.  But these fancies would forsake her.

The Almond Tree is a story that will stay with me forever for being devastatingly raw and beautiful in equal measure.

And last but not least Crewe in which a smallish man named Blake recounts the story of his past employment to a gentleman waiting to catch a train.  He had been a servant for Rev. William Somers, who hadn't cared for females in the house.  The Vicarage is bleakly described as....

A low old house, with lots of little windows and far too many doors; and, as I say, the trees too close up on one side, almost brushing the glass.  No wonder they said it was what they call haunted.

In the course of describing the atmosphere at the Vicarage, Blake reveals he had witnessed the gardener in a drunken state on several occasions, as well as helping himself to the Reverend's own wine stock.   But rather than handle the matter, Blake conspires with George, a meek helper, to do the reporting.  There are dire consequences when one of the characters is found dead, followed by the eerie appearance of a scarecrow bearing a likeness to the deceased.  Our character Blake grows more distasteful with each turn of the page as he excuses himself from all responsibility for certain mysterious and deadly outcomes.  

Walter de la Mare has been hiding in plain sight.  The stories in Missing are considered ghost stories, to lesser and greater degrees, so I pulled my copy of Everyman's Ghost Stories from the shelf and was thrilled to find de la Mare's The Quincunx included.  With the nights beginning to draw in, my advice is to flip through your short story collections in search of Walter de la Mare's writing.  Perfect for any time but especially good for fireside reading on a dark and chilly night.


"Boy Sitting at Window" by Christian Aigens (1870 - 1940)

2 comments:

  1. Gosh you make all of these sound so enticing, Darlene. I read his The Picnic and Other Stories last year, which was a bit variable but with some real highlights.

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    1. I was thinking of you while reading the first few pages of Missing because it felt like a story you would enjoy, Simon. A fair few of de la Mare's short stories are online if you don't mind reading that way....perfect for lunchtimes at work!

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