David Constantine, “Tea at the Midland” 2010 BBC National Short Story Award
David Constantine has said in an interview that he writes “the kind of stories that someone would write who is mainly writing poems.” He added: “I think that if you try to write poems it makes you very attentive to language. It also makes you quite impatient of language which is merely instrumental, which is just saying this happened, then that happened, to get you from this point to the next.”
So is Constantine’s “Tea at the Midland,” which won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award, the kind of story that someone would write who mainly writes poems?
The two most basic questions we ask about a story are: What happens in this story? And what is this story about? The answer to the first question for “Tea at the Midland” is, on the surface, quite simple. A man and a woman are having tea and scones and an argument in a hotel tearoom. They are having, or have been having, an affair; he is married; she is not. We don’t know how long the affair has been going on. An unknown narrator describes the event, largely from the perspective of the woman, although at certain points he seems to know what the man is thinking also.
The story opens with a sentence that establishes a contrast between the sporadic ferocious surges of the wind behind which the man and woman are “protected” in their stasis”: “The wind blew steadily hard with frequent surges of greater ferocity that shook the vast plate glass behind which a woman and a man were having tea.” The sea is seen as “breaking white” in shallow water far out, then leveling out with nothing “impeding” the waves until they are “expended” on the shore. The sky “was torn and holed by the wind and a troubled golden light flung down at all angles, abiding nowhere, flashing out and vanishing.” This rhythm of ferocity contrasted with stasis, suggested by “torn,” “holed,” “flung,” “flashing,” and then, the waves coming on shore, “vanishing,” establishes the emotional rhythm of the story.
The perspective shifts to surfers towed by kites: “And under the ceaselessly riven sky, riding the furrows and ridges of the sea, were a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites.” The phrase “ceaselessly riven,” suggests being torn apart and further sets up the emotional situation of the story. The rhythm of the language—“a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites”–insists that the language must be attended to here.
What is emphasized about the surfers is their control of the ferocity of the sky and waves: “In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best.” Although this observation is expressed by the nameless narrator, the next passage suggests that the perspective has shifted to the woman, confirmed by the admiring, even envious, observation that establishes the contrast between the woman’s emotional situation and the man’s:
To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air. How clean and clever that was! You throw up something like a handkerchief, you tether it and by its headlong wish to fly away, you are towed along. And not in the straight line of its choosing, no: you tack and swerve as you please and swing out wide around at least a hemisphere of centrifugence. Beautiful, she thought. Such versatile autonomy among the strict determinants and all that co-ordination of mind and body, fitness, practice, confidence, skill and execution, all for fun!
The first voice we hear in the story is the man’s voice, who repeats something he has said earlier, but which the woman is not thinking about: “A paedophile is a paedophile. That’s all there is to it.” This startles the woman from her attention on the surfers, and the man is annoyed even more by her being startled, for it makes him aware how “intact and absent” she had been. “Her eyes seemed to have to adjust to his different world.” She is annoyed that he is still harping on the pedophile subject and wants him just to let it be. But he cannot let it go; he is angry that he has not been able to “force an adjustment in her thinking.”
The woman has made the arrangements for their tea at the Midland hotel; she has brought him here because she hoped he would find it a romantic rendezvous and that they would come here some night and get a room with a big curved window and look out at the bay. However, he sees this not as an invitation but as a recrimination. They have obviously been arguing about the fact that Eric Gill did the frieze in the lobby; she has already lost interest in the specifics of the argument and has seen it as an indication of “his more general capacity for disappointing her.” Even though he sticks with the Eric Gill argument, she knows he just wants something to feed the “antagonisms that swarmed in him.” She, “malevolently” gives him what he wants, asking him if he would have liked the bas-relief if he had not known it was by Gill or if he had not known Gill had sex with his sisters and his daughters, and, he adds, “Don’t forget the dog.”
She pushes the argument further, ostensibly making it an issue of art for art’s sake vs. art for social purposes, asking him to hypothesize: What if Gill had made peace in the Middle East? to which he replies, making peace is “useful,” and to which she retorts scornfully, “And making beauty isn’t.”
the man says that he has no idea why she has
told him this story and upbraids
her for crying about imaginary people
In the next paragraph, the woman pushes the Gill argument into wider generalities about the difference between the way she sees the world and their relationship and the way he does. She says if she took his view, she would not be able to enjoy watching the surfers unless she knew that none was a rapist or a member of the British National Party. Or she would have to hate the sea itself because in 2004 at Morecambe Bay twenty-one Chinese workers collecting cockles were drowned when an incoming tide cut them off from the shore. He denies this, but she says the way he thinks and the way he wants her to think is to join everything together so that she cannot concentrate on one thing without bringing in everything else. She says, for example, that when they make love and she cries out for joy and pleasure, according to his view she must keep in mind that some woman somewhere is screaming in pain. She says he should write on his forehead the lie he told his wife to make this tea possible so that whenever he looked at her kindly, she would have to remember that lie and thus spoil the moment.
When he sarcastically tells her to stay and look at the clouds, for he is leaving, she talks about the background to the frieze—saying Odysseus was a horrible man, that he did not deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her parents, for she knows the horrible things Odysseus has done and the horrible things he will do when he gets home and kills the suitors to his wife Penelope. But she says in spite of that context, at the moment Gill chose to capture him in the frieze, he is naked and helpless. She asks the man, “Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments.”
When the man says he has not read the Odyssey, she says she must have been a fool to think that she would have read passages of the book to him if they got one of “those rooms with a view of the sea and of the mountains across the bay that would have snow on them.” At seeing the tears in her eyes, the man looks more closely at her. “He felt she might be near to appealing to him, helping him out of it, so that they could get back to somewhere earlier and go a different way.” But this time, at least for the moment, it has gone too far.
Then she tells him about the fifty-two young men who row Odysseus back to Ithaca and how on the way back, Poseidon, who hated Odysseus, turned the men and their ship into stone and sent them to the bottom of the sea. The man says he has no idea why she has told him this story and upbraids her for crying about imaginary people in a book and never crying about him, to which she asserts that he never will see her cry for him and their relationship.
The penultimate paragraph needs quoting in full, for it captures a moment of resolution that needs no explanation:
The sun was near to setting and golden light came through in floods from under the ragged cover of weltering cloud. The wind shook furiously at the glass. And the surfers skied like angels enjoying the feel of the waters of the earth, they skimmed, at times they lifted off and flew, they landed with a dash of spray. She watched till the light began to fail and one by one the strange black figures paddled ashore with their boards and sails packed small and weighing next to nothing.
But there is one final paragraph, a kind of coda that sums up the woman’s sense of isolation. A tall man is kneeling in the lobby by the frieze explaining to a little girl, probably his daughter, what the sculpture depicts. He tells her it is about welcome, for every stranger was sacred to the people of the island, concluding, the lady admitted she would have liked to marry him but he already had a wife at home. So they rowed him home.
The story is about the loss of love, about
the difference between the romantic and the realistic.
What is the story about? It is about two people who have reached a point of divergence. There is no specific cause that has brought them to this point; it is certainly not that they disagree about what to think of Eric Gill and his bas relief. And now that they have reached this point, there is nothing that can be said or done to bring back what they perhaps once had.
The basic difference between the woman and the man is that the woman is still trying to hold on to the romantic sense of the moment set apart from the everyday world, a moment of beauty, of freedom, or art for art’s sake, love for love’s sake; there is nothing “useful” about being in love; it just is. She watches the surfers and longs for their detachment, their control of their own transcendent moment. She admires Gill’s bas-relief because Gill has caught Odysseus at just the moment when he is vulnerable and helpless and the young woman reaches out to him and he is saved. And that moment has nothing to do with what Odysseus has done in the past or will do in the future.
Similarly, Eric Gill’s private life has nothing to do with his capturing that transcendent moment. And you cannot hold the sea accountable for the death of the cockle pickers; it is nonetheless beautiful for all that. The story is about the loss of love, about the difference between the romantic and the realistic. At the end, the woman watches the father explain the frieze to the little girl, knowing that, like Odysseus, the man she was with has gone home to his wife, and she is left alone, with no husband, with no child–with only the image of the strange black figures like angels weighing next to nothing paddling ashore.
It is a Keatsean moment of beauty and the only truth that one can have—the truth of the much desired, but always evasive, transcendent moment elevated out of space and time—all you know and all you need to know…
Prof. Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author/editor of ten books, including ‘Short Story Theories’, ‘New Short Story Theories, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice’, ‘I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies’, and over 200 articles and reviews on the short story. He publishes weekly essays on the blog Reading the Short Story.