Lisa at ANZ Litlovers announced Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, and I selected a short story at random from Ocean of Story. A Harmless Affair takes a look at the ambiguous relationship between the happily married Lydia and a journalist/author/soldier, Paul Charteris. Lydia, married to Tom, is in a strange mood, aware of spring, aware of love, when she is invited to a party full of “distinguished people who had all arrived at their destinations.” Lydia meets Charteris, she owns all of his books, and invites him to meet her husband sometime. He makes a comment that he didn’t know that she was married and that he has ‘no luck.’
A week later, Charteris phones and asks if he can visit sometime. He’s given an open invitation, and a month later, he rings again and says he’s coming over. Tom and Charteris appear to like each other, and gradually a relationship forms–mainly between the two men–although there’s something in the air between Charteris and Lydia. Charteris says things to Lydia that he doesn’t say to Tom, he sends Lydia these “rare golden smiles.” How is Lydia to interpret the things Charteris says, the looks he sends her?
Lydia and Tom move to another state for two years, but they return to New York and run into Charteris again. There’s something doomed about this man. He seems in a downward spiral, tired, and unkempt. The absence and the reunion forces Lydia to consider that “this is the man I nearly lost my head over,” but the inexplicable enchantment Charteris weaved over Lydia before, begins again.
This twenty-five page story is disturbing, and yet there’s nothing ostensibly that should disturb any reader. Perhaps it’s the way that Stead conveys how Charteris, obviously a damaged soul, burrows under Lydia’s skin. She thinks she’s in love, but is she really? The title “A Harmless Affair” is, like the story, somewhat ambiguous. We are left with the idea that Charteris irrevocably alters Lydia’s life, but is this for the better or for the worst? How much of all this germinates in Lydia or her projection? Stead argues that just a few looks, a few words casually thrown out, can lead to unsettling consequences that have no closure. Anyway, a strangely unsettling story. …