“Journey Home”: a short story by Tessa Hadley

To open the New Statesman’s special section on summer fiction, the critically acclaimed author of Accidents in the Home offers a tale of missed connections, paradise lost and paradise regained.

His sister changed her relationship status on Facebook to single. Alec didn't do Facebook, but he checked on hers fairly often because there were only the two of them, no one else to look out for her (one parent dead and one a mess). It probably meant nothing; she was always falling out with this latest boyfriend. Alec thought the boyfriend was no good. He texted Emmie anyway.

All that morning, his faint consciousness of worry floated against the greenish Venice light. He was staying in a residential centre, a modern block attached to a monastery on San Giorgio; it had been raining for days, and he had to dry his wet clothes by hanging them along the lukewarm radiators in his room. Tourists in gondolas draped themselves under the blue tarpaulins, the front of St Mark's fumed, pavements were awash or greasy with salt spray; he had imagined that flood water must wash over out of the canals, but it seemed to seep out of the foundations of the buildings. The water in the Grand Canal flowed undulating and fast, glaucous green; the famous façades withdrew, forbidding, behind their winter veil of rain.

As Alec hurried under his umbrella, his writing about the paintings seemed a heat source inside him like the blood reds of the paint, less mental than visceral.

He switched his phone off while he was working in the archives in the Frari and turned it on again when he came out - startled, after receding so far inside the study room's velvety quiet, at being buffeted again by the weather in the bustling, splashy, narrow calle. The light smoked and was brownish, reflecting off the high walls in the rain. His Italian wasn't really good enough for deciphering the old documents; he was afraid he had wasted this morning, his last morning. And there was nothing on his phone from Em. Usually she was quick to get back to him; she spent too much time on her iPhone, hunkered angular on the floor in coloured thick tights and lace-up boots, presiding over the realm of her connections. Finely made, with narrow wrists and fingers, delicate ears, she was only twenty-two; once, when she was fifteen, she'd tried to kill herself. She was pretty like a doll, with black hair cut in a short bob and a strained, wide, eager smile. Alec had asked her what she saw in this latest guy. Sex, she'd said, deliberately to embarrass him and shut him up. Not everyone's an intellectual like you.

Alec was flying home next day; he wove through the crowds of umbrellas and slick waterproofs towards the Accademia, meaning to pay his farewell visit to Titian's Pietà, which was at the centre of his idea, and his book. But at the last minute he joined the press across the Rialto instead, went to his usual restaurant and ate risotto with peas and ham, drank a half-carafe of straw-coloured wine. The restaurant had all its lights on in the early afternoon, gloom had so thickened outside the windows; passers-by seemed to weave in an underground labyrinth. He could return to the Accademia after lunch: packing wouldn't take him half an hour; he had hardly colonised with his belongings his little cell, which despite its microwave and wireless connection was somehow appropriately monkish.

Its monkishness had suited him. He was beginning to think it might be his preference, his character, to be alone - with all the mixed package of banality and elevation that brought. It was banal, for instance, to be eating here alone, calculating how many euros he had left, feeling the faint dampness of his clothes that had never thoroughly dried out. There was a mismatch between the Renaissance magnificence of his inner life and this flat surface on which magnificence scarcely showed up. The forms that were his imagination's language seemed untranslatable into a contemporary idiom. Alec had chosen art history, or it had chosen him, ten years ago, inter-railing in his gap year, finding his own way to the galleries that didn't interest his friends. The Magdalene running, arm upraised, out of the Pietà had seemed to bring some message for him.

Now he hesitated over returning to it for a last renewal. He didn't want the painting to fail to shock him - its depth and timbre and huge occupation of actual space, which could not be carried away in any mental picture, nor reproduced in copy. Over his espresso, and then counting out euro notes on to the bill in its saucer, he hovered between obligations - not to miss the encounter, not to spoil it. The rain was falling now in earnest, blown against the walls in spasms like slaps from wet washing - the gallery would be full of sodden tour­ists with no interest in art. Perversely, that didn't make him head back to San Giorgio and a last session of endeavour on his laptop, or a few more hours' reading, wrapped up for warmth in his duvet.

He went straight through the galleries to the Pietà, for once not looking right or left at what tempted him from every wall, and found room on the bench in front of it. The murmuring, damp, texting, flirting teenagers crowding him in impersonal intimacy (one group Spanish, one American) hardly spared the painting's murky browns and blacks a second glance, but they weren't a distraction; in an emptier room his emotions might have been less concentrated. His friends (and Emmie) imagined that art was good for you, elevating and purifying like yoga or cutting down alcohol; they envied its virtue vaguely, and put off getting round to it. And his throb of recognition in front of the painting was pleasure: it was sensual, stronger than drink. But it wasn't consolation. In the archive he had been reading about how after Titian's death and the death of his son in the plague of 1576, the house where they had worked and lived like princes was ransacked in the general chaos, the paintings dispersed. The Pietà seemed to be news from such a world: the running Magdalene, Christ's body dead-white across his mother's lap, Jerome an old man naked and crawling. Worse is always possible past the worst thing you're afraid of.

He had to change at Paris for his flight to Aberdeen. It had been foggy in the early morning when they took off from Marco Polo, but there had been no warning of problems ahead. In Paris, however, it was snowing, and their onward flight had been postponed. Still he'd had no contact from Emmie. He texted her again, letting her know he was delayed. Then he texted Maggie, a mutual friend of theirs: "Have you seen Em? Is she OK?" A bald, shallow snow-light reflected on to the airport building's in­terior surfaces, equalising them so the spaces seemed dimensionless. Everyone was drawn to look out through the glass to where more snow was falling, so thickly that at times you couldn't see through it; when it thinned, the shapes of planes loomed oversized, clumsily innocent in motionlessness. Nothing was taking off.

Alec had brought Gell's Art and Agency in his hand luggage and he tried to read it, but mostly it was impossible to concentrate. He was washed through with a succession of reactions - exasperation, resignation, panic. Maggie texted him that she had seen Em at the weekend with Aaron (the boyfriend) and that she had seemed fine. Alec could have asked Maggie to go round and check on her (Maggie knew about Em's history), but felt shame at this fussing over his sister, almost uxorious. He also felt fatalistic, an atom dropped arbitrarily in the vast stalled machinery of travel: what could he effect? It was half a relief. The airport wasn't quieter than usual, but he caught himself listening for what was missing - the perpetual machine-room hum of purposive forward motion, whose absence was scarcely perceptible and yet altered everything, tipping it into doubt.

He began to get to know the little group of his fellow passengers for Aberdeen. He and a couple of other men took turns to keep each other's places while they went scouting for information and to stretch their legs. People were getting hungry; beyond where they had all come through security, there were only snack-food outlets selling coffee and croissants. Then came news that their flight was cancelled; they had to queue for tickets for alternative flights, either to Aberdeen next day or to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The two young women assigned to oversee the process were thin and tired-looking, heavily made-up. They did their best to placate the frustrated travellers, but their English was limited to a few stock phrases and they were overruled by a man with a morose face like crumpled leather, who made a languid im­portance out of keeping all information to himself; in their blue uniforms, cut tight around the breasts and knees, they were somehow at his mercy.

A Romanian couple, too neat in their best clothes, travelling for the first time to visit their daughter, couldn't speak a word of French or English; Alec talked on their phone to the daughter in Aberdeen and she translated to her parents what he explained. In the mid-afternoon the snowfall stopped and the sky flaunted itself again, a surprising blue. There was activity outside, men with snowploughs conferring and gesticulating, and an impression of flights being called in far-flung other limbs of the airport. Then daylight was extinguished beyond the windows - orange, indigo, purple showily reflected on the deep snowfall. Darkness changed the passengers' mood, bring­ing dread. A girl travelling home with her boyfriend began storming and sobbing, cursing. She was tall and heavy with sensible short hair and a stuffed toy pinned into one pocket of her rucksack - the resentment of the whole group seemed gathered up for a moment in her Scots righteousness, like a tight skin full to bursting.

The official would only respond in French, not looking directly at the flushed, plain girl but addressing the whole group, as if with a rage of disdain he'd been constrained to hold in until now. He had been patient and made efforts on their behalf, but now their rudeness had changed everything; they would not be issued with tickets for any further flights. "No more tickets!" he shouted suddenly in English. The passengers got the gist of it and responded in an opening scatter of indignant protest.

Alec stood up and tried to negotiate with the man, doing his best in French. He explained that all they asked was to be kept informed and comfortable; they were hungry. At least the decent long coat he'd bought last winter gave him gravitas; no one could mistake him these days for a student. After a short wait, trays of sandwiches arrived with coffee and bottles of water. He found himself informally a bit of a hero in the little group; people asked him for his opinion on the situation, or shared theirs with him.

No more flights left that night. It began to snow again. Mattresses were given out, so thin that Alec decided he was better off in his seat. Impulsively, late, he decided to ask Maggie after all to go round to check on Emmie; he stood by the window to make the call, where the stale light of the airport abutted on to blackness beyond. But Maggie didn't pick up - probably she'd already gone to bed. Alec touched his forehead against the cold of the glass. His phone battery was running out and the charger was packed in his suitcase.

All the next day they waited. In the morning it snowed; in the afternoon blue sky showed itself again and the snowploughs went out, but apparently to no effect. Tedium bulked substantial as a wall across the hours. From time to time a flare of anticipation roused that flights were imminent - then sank again. As daylight faded, they were told they would be accommodated in hotels for this second night; they queued for coaches. Feeling drawn ever more deeply aside out of their real lives, they travelled for an hour in the dark, along roads deep in mysterious snow.

They were dropped in Disneyland, at a hotel like a chateau cut out in plastic; in the foyer an inflatable Mickey Mouse strained upwards from where it was anchored, its rictus of merriment not reflected in the faces of the staff at the desk below. Along the identical empty corridors, oversized Snow Whites and Donald Ducks were set at intervals. It was a huge relief, to shower and be alone. Alec wondered what it meant, this exchange of his cell in Venice for another one whose essential ingredients - warmth, bed, bathroom - were hardly different? Perhaps the existence of this non-place made the other one nothing, too. He lost his conviction that things could be themselves and not simply copies of other things. He tried to call Em again, from the handset beside the bed, but she didn't answer.

Next morning, after doughnuts and croissants in a half-timbered bar, the coach returned them to the airport; it was snowing again and their wait resumed. Then late that afternoon, with no advance warning or any obvious change in the weather, a flight to Aberdeen was called and Alec got on it, along with most of those who'd waited with him. They were subduedly jubilant, doubting their luck until the very moment the plane was in the air. The journey took only two hours; at the Aberdeen end there was no fuss, they were used to snow. Needless to say, his suitcase with his clothes and his notes and several expensive books from the university library packed in it didn't arrive with him - he hadn't seriously expected it and queued to fill out lost luggage forms.

He got the taxi to drop him off at Em's place. It wasn't actually snowing but it was a shock after the sealed atmosphere of the airport to find himself out alone in the deep mess of trodden snow and the raw cold. He didn't have the right shoes on, nor scarf and gloves. Em lived in a housing association flat in Rosemount behind Union Street; she didn't answer the door, and when he picked his way round to the back of the block he saw there were no lights on. He supposed he had better go home; he should have kept his taxi - he lived in the old university town, too far to walk under these conditions. Heading for Union Street, he remembered the Lemon Tree, where there was music in the bar on Friday nights - it might be worth looking in there, sometimes Em took her fiddle down to play with that crowd. She might only have mislaid her phone somewhere. Everything might be all right.

He could hear the reel uncoiling from out-side on the street; upstairs the place was full to bursting. Feeling conspicuous in his sombre coat with his laptop and briefcase, he pushed through to the inner bar, where it was the custom that the musicians simply sat around a table as part of the crowd. They didn't have any fixed programme for performing, either; someone started up and the others joined in when they were ready. Coming into the warmth from the frozen street, Alec was overwhelmed; he was no great enthusiast for traditional music, but tonight its intricate co-operations and skirl of desiring counteracted poignantly the nothingness of his lost days. Squeezing past the drinkers in the doorway,
he saw Emmie at once, sawing away, bobbed hair flying against her hot cheeks, mouth settled in concentration, eyes on the others, following their lead. The reel was winding up, tighter and tighter.

What had he been afraid of? It was years since Em had done anything stupid. He had a moment's painterly vision of himself - more Caravaggio than Titian, picked out by yellow light in the crowded room, set apart as if he'd come back from the dead. Then the reel ended and Emmie lowered her bow; she saw him across the room and waved excitedly, smiling, beckoning him over.

Tessa Hadley's latest novel, "The London Train", is published by Jonathan Cape (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule