‘An Abduction’ by Tessa Hadley
Sutton High Street, Surrey, c.1960
From The New Yorker:
Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed. This happened a long time ago, in Surrey, in the nineteen-sixties, when parents were more careless. She was home from boarding school for the summer, and day after day the sun rose into a cloudless sky, from which Jane couldn’t unfix the word “cerulean,” which she’d learned in the art room. (She wasn’t clever or literary, and was nervous of new words, which seemed to stick to her.) “Cerulean” was more of a blank, baking glare than mere merry blue. It prised its way each morning like a chisel through the crack between Jane’s flowered bedroom curtains and between the eyelids she squeezed tightly shut in an effort to stay inside her dreams. It wasn’t acceptable in Jane’s kind of family to complain about good weather, yet the strain of it told on them, parents and children: they were remorselessly cheerful, while secretly they longed for rain. Jane imagined herself curled up with a bag of licorice beside a streaming windowpane, reading about the Chalet School. But her mother said it was a crime to stay indoors while the sun shone, and Jane couldn’t read outside with the same absorption; there was always some strikingly perfect speckled insect falling onto your page like a reminder (of what? of itself), or a root nudging into your back, or stinging ants inside your shorts.
The morning of the abduction, Mrs. Allsop—dishevelled in a limp linen shirtdress—was wielding her secateurs up a ladder, pruning the climbing roses. She was immensely capable; tall and big-boned with a pink, pleasant face and dry yellow hair chopped sensibly short. Jane admired her mother greatly, especially when she transformed herself at night, for a concert in London or a Rotary Club dinner, with clip-on pearl earrings and lipstick and scent, a frilled taupe satin stole. Jane coveted this stole and tried it on when her mother was at the shops, making sultry faces at herself in the mirror—although sultry was the last thing her mother was, and everyone told Jane that she looked just like her. She certainly seemed to have her mother’s figure, with not much bust, no waist to speak of, and a broad flat behind.
“Why don’t you call up some of your old friends?” Mrs. Allsop suggested from the ladder top. “Invite them round to play Ping-Pong.”
Jane responded with evasive enthusiasm. (She didn’t know her old friends anymore; that was what happened when you were sent away to boarding school.) She said she was heading inside to find her Jokari set (a rubber ball attached by a long elastic string to a wooden base—you could hit the ball back and forth with a paddle all by yourself for hours on end). It was part of the family code that sport and physical exercise were meaningful ways of passing leisure time; without them, you risked dissipation, letting value slip away.