“So what did you do?” she asked in the end.
He was leaning back still with his eyes closed.
“Got married I suppose.”
The dialogue exchange above is key, both in “Hetty Sleeping” and in terms of what I think Gardam is after generally. People, in her stories, often do things while they’re thinking about something else altogether. They’re never in one place: they’re daydreamers, yes, but something else is going on. They’re constantly bemused by absolutely everything, in particular, themselves and who on earth they actually are. They’re suggestible in every conceivable way and exist in a state of constant deliberation. As such, even those closest to them (often more than anyone else) can appear quite alien. So what did you do? I got married. Everything stripped down to a curious essential statement that tells us nothing beyond how lives pass quickly, and how their events glide across who we are like glances.
It’s part of Gardam’s brilliance that she manages to cast pretty much everything in an odd light: she removes the anomic anesthetic from the everyday and imbues supposedly matter-of-fact behavior with depth and strangeness. We peek, through her eloquent eye, behind the glossy exterior at the messy innards of lives, which she impels benevolent order upon, that the gulf between the two might be more negotiable.
Her characters seem to be experiencing or re-experiencing a period of clarity as to this central fact: life is not remotely run of the mill, she reminds us, and nor should it be. In its chaotic impurities lie a lot of its magic. The miraculous nature of what she’s doing is partially due, I think, to her insistence that everything is salvageable, that it’s OK to be fallible as we all are. The intoxicating, eternal elements that comprise a life’s experiences are not necessarily grand or linear or particularly, as they occur, comfortable, in Gardam’s fictional universe.
These tend to be characters constricted in some way: emotionally, spiritually, physically, socially. They are languishing, incomplete, none the wiser regardless of their age or experience, which tends to count for very little: each moment brings with it numerous obstacles that seem unvanquishable. And the act of the stories seems often to be to place them up against a situation in which other people seem to exacerbate their own alienation, and yet draw them out of it a little.
This is a world that’s all the more fun for it being disarmingly hopeful, whatever unfortunate truths have been dredged from beneath the surface. Gardam is belligerently persuasive as to the necessity for giving a positive spin its due, and therefore a delight to spend time with.
Hetty is a mother of two children, and they’re enjoying their holiday (immediately, of course: where’s dad?) on a Connemara beach when she notices someone familiar in the near distance: Heneker, her relationship with whom isn’t immediately obvious. Years have passed since they saw one another, and we will discover why.
She doubts it’s him, then realizes it is him, after all, but play-acts (or decides she doesn’t want it to be him — he is perhaps, despite her being disarmed at the sight of him, someone she wants to suppress and forget:
maybe a more interesting possibility) that it isn’t Heneker and can’t be.
“He was standing on a pale strip of sand near the sea, looking down into the cold water, quiet as he had always been, peaceful, unmistakable.
“How could it be?” she thought. “What nonsense! Of course it can’t be.”
Of course it is Heneker, but who is he, and what is his significance?
He observes the children, who “splash past him into the sea, fling themselves into it in fans of spray, shrieking” and it’s at this point that she casts aside all doubt. A wishfully framed moment on her part, establishing beyond any doubt not only his identity but someone who might’ve made up the missing familial element.
He eventually breaks the spell and walks straight up to her, dropping down beside her in the sand as she considers him now with a beard, which she doesn’t like, and yet he, donning one, “…looks all right. He always did look all right. Wherever he was.”
“Hello, Hetty,” he said. “It’s a long time.”
“It’s a funny place,” she said. He smiled, not looking away from her face. “To meet again,” she said, “It’s a long way from Earl’s Court. Connemara.”
“A holiday,” he said gently and began to take the sand and sift it through his fingers. Her heart started to lurch again seeing his fingers. “I know each nail,” she thought, “I know each line on them. Every half moon. Oh God!”
Everything has fallen away: intermittent years, geography, age, defenses. They are back where they were then, emotionally: they haven’t advanced. They have “moved on” but nothing has changed. Gardam isolates the uttered “A holiday” for a very good reason, and it’s a typical Gardam moment. Events, time, movement, all shrink to a single point: the reason for their both being on the same beach at the same time is an insignificant time marker up against their unforeseen reunion. Holidays, things people do and go on, actions, gestures, are not part of who they are or how they feel. Their carefully cultivated adult selves have melted in a moment.
But, of course, as fragile as a persona is, it’s easily reassembled, and a cinematic “shriek from the sea” punctures their swift re-entanglement as they resume their roles and Hetty rebuilds her defences by running through her post-Heneker biography. We get a brief mental glimpse of how her outward poise is struggling against inner turbulence – (This can’t be happening! We arrived yesterday. We’ve hardly been here ten minutes! Heneker!) – as Heneker imposes himself upon her: he holds her feet as she runs through her story, eventually letting go, as she tells him that her husband is:
“Do you know any bankers? Men with international work?”
“No, thank God. ‘Men with international work.’ Do you know any painters still?”
“No,” she said.
“Do you do any painting?”
After a long time she said no.”
A problem for the reviewer: it’s very much all on the page during dialogue exchanges. Gardam simply does a whole lot more with dialogue than most writers. The characters, not the omniscient narrator, reveal most about themselves, entirely fitting with Gardam’s regard for them. She is enthused by them and trusts them: she has no interest in admonishing or caricaturing them. They are left to their own devices and any upbraiding is done during conversations or inner-monologues.
So skillfully hewn is this study of two former lovers who have gone their separate ways that I’m aware I run the risk of stating in diminished terms what Gardam has so precisely and quickly established: in three pages we understand that Hetty has made a decision to vanquish one kind of life for another and that Heneker’s reappearance has posed her a question she’s struggling to answer with much conviction, both verbally and mentally. She’s anguished by the reunion and yet it excites her: because her new life is calm and secure, not thrilling, in comparison and this collision has reignited something dormant and smothered. She is happy and much more in control of her life now, her weakness for Heneker, a mercurial figure, had been abated, until now. Just how staunch, ultimately, her defences will be against Heneker form the compelling element of the remainder of the story.
From that initial reintroduction Hetty flees the beach, alarmed at her rapid susceptibility to Heneker’s mere presence.
“She thought, “He ought to be picked out in jewels he’s so beautiful. He’s wicked as ever. Oh God, I love him.”
Despite Hetty’s endangered quick getaway Heneker charmingly inveigles himself into their lives later, further imposing himself with nonchalant propinquity, delighting the children with juvenile ingratiations, helping out, an importunate visitor hardly repelled with much urgency. They ultimately, as they must, go over what brought their old lives together to an end.
“It might have been like this,” he said at last. She felt her heart begin to thump and hung on to the chair. (This is Heneker. Heneker I have thought of every day.)
“No,” she said.
He said, “Yes. Oh God!”
“You never asked me,” she said. “Not once.”
“Well you know why.”
“I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know why. I never knew why. I couldn’t ask you. All that year. That room…The bed made out of ropes. The roof like a greenhouse and the curtain over the corner.”
“Where our clothes were.”
It’s difficult to say, ultimately, what exactly prevented their relationship from moving beyond a kind of wistful, bohemian cliché, two heedless artists on the periphery. Other, perhaps, than that very fact: Hetty — the one who left, we learn — wanted something more recognizably adult or substantial: a rich banker, children, solidity. The romantic thrill wasn’t enough, then. But the potent connection they share is intact, even if their chances of a life together were aborted by Hetty, who is helpless to the now accomplished artist who has returned to turn her head.
They are trapped inexorably in each other’s orbit soon enough, following a gradual rekindling: he sketches her and they reminisce further each evening, until a moment arrives beyond which there will be no return. She shakes herself free of what seemed inevitable but there are other evenings ahead, and another date is made. He is late: she falls asleep, only to reawaken to his titular comment.
“You’ve never been as late as this.” She heard her voice, high, accusing. Oh God! Like a wife. Like then. It’s no different.”
The fantasy is dented somewhat by her recollection not of how great it was or could have been but how often it wasn’t: how it had become. Yet, still, shortly thereafter:
“Sleep with me, Hetty,” he said and she said, “Of course.”
Between them on the banister the telephone began to ring.
“It can’t! It doesn’t!”
“Well, it is.”
And it’s the soon-to-be-arrived husband making a timely intercession. The moment has passed permanently: back to how it was. Her reassuringly unexciting partner, Charles, restores equilibrium, much to Heneker’s despair. He implores her: “There was never anyone but you, Het,” before leaving, thwarted. And before morning arrives, has run off with a barmaid. Ouch!
The final moment involves Charles picking up Heneker’s sketch of Hetty.
“I say, what’s this? ‘Hetty Sleeping’.”
“Give me that.”
“No. Let me look. It’s lovely. Wonderful.”
“It’s mine. Charles – give it me. Give it me. Give it me.”
He won’t: he examines it and places it “delicately” down.
Pouring tea for her he said, “Sweet Hetty, wake up soon.”
“Hetty Sleeping” is moving and bittersweet and plentifully both due to Gardam’s brilliance at leaving just enough in to make everything unequivocal (apart from the central character) and just enough out that you fill in the emotional blanks and lend the economical, precise, evocative prose enough of yourself to bind the story into something extremely affecting and personal and indelible. In 20 pages we’ve dipped in and out of a vividly teetering life and we’re all the better for it, even if Hetty has finally (re)discovered little, if anything, beyond her own aching ambivalence. Anyway, she gets it right, twice, in a roundabout way, chastened by a near disaster, presumably grateful but, as a fascinating, very human character, probably likely to succumb, should Hetty and Heneker find themselves yoked together by fate once again.