This novella is suited to our fevered times. Scheduled to coincide with the Swindon spring festival of literature, now cancelled, it reflects the way we are now living. Inspired by the collective imagination of a Swindon book group, Alice Jolly has written a prophetic story.
The narrator is Janey, married to the older Phil and running Hunter’s Grove, a B&B in the Swindon suburbs. Phil is an impediment: ‘Retirement — twice as much husband and half as much money.’ Tuesday afternoons mean tea and sex with Len the builder — ‘Tea with Len, Cider with Rosie, what’s the difference?’ Other than that, Janey is visited by her girl friends, among whom is Carmen, who claims to be a modern-day illuminatus, a confusion of religious thought.
The book is set in 2035 and looks back five years, to ‘past days, plump and loud’, now a lost world ‘seen at some great distance’. A lone wanderer turns up at Hunter’s Grove. He wants isolation, negotiates extra meals, which are left outside his room and requests books by Hardy, Dostoevsky and Kafka to be fetched from the local library. The stranger becomes a recluse, a cult figure, whose laundered clothes, delivered to his door, seem to have the odour of sanctity. Carmen detects a heavenly smell from his clean socks but Janey corrects her:‘That’s the pine fabric conditioner I use.’
The summer heat intensifies and society begins to disintegrate; cars and trains stop running. Order is maintained by the state in an apocalyptic scenario. Carmen reports the arrival of four horsemen at the end of the road. Again, Janey corrects her: ‘They were police horses.’
At the end of this existential crisis, the lodger leaves without notice. Carmen takes up a staff (in fact a garden rake) and leads her disciples away. The remaining circle of friends is left with a long reading list. Janey is convinced you have to read between the lines — ‘that’s the joy of novels’. You learn about the world: ‘You lose interest in dystopia when it’s on your doorstep.’