This story has long been my favourite in this collection, although I could not recall which of them it was, when I first approached my reread of Runaway.
When Stratford appeared in the first story, I thought maybe my favourite was coming. But, no, “Runaway” was pure sorrow. There was no glimmer of something else.
So I thought, because I knew that some of the stories were linked, that perhaps it would be the next, but no. Not until nearly the end.
But it was worth the wait. And I read it, even this second time, like a story in Ellery Queen, unable to look away. Because, despite my fondness for it, I could not remember how things turned out for Robin.
My memory of the story stalled at the point when she disembarks from the train, heads to the theatre for “As You Like It”. So when I got to that point on my reread, my pace picked up. I reminded myself that it must matter which play was chosen for that journey, that I should recall what I knew of the story, but that instant was not enough, and I, too, was tricked. Again.
Some of my favourite passages (acute descriptions, philosophical musings, and symbolic scenes) are below, along with some notes that I’ve written to some of the characters.
Please do not read on if you want to avoid general spoilers, for the kind of ending that this story has becomes clear in the lines below.
“Very different from the only other bachelor premises Robin was familiar with—Willard Greig’s, which seemed more like a forlorn encampment established casually in the middle of his dead parents’ furniture.”
Dear Willard Greig,
It’s very kind of you to come over to play cards with the girls. I bet that Joanne can be tiresome, she would probably be even snippier if you didn’t visit as often as you do. And playing games sure passes the time in the summer’s heat. The lights went out the other night in a storm and I learned to play dominoes, a variation called Sniff All Fives, and it’s all that I’ve wanted to do since. When I am home alone, as Joanne is when Robin goes out, perhaps I will simply take turns and play against myself. You would think I would win more that way, but I know from experience that it works out much the same. I bet you could have followed Shakespeare just fine if you’d ever seen one of his plays.
“It was all spoiled in one day, in a couple of minutes, not by fits and starts, struggles, hopes and losses, in the long-drawn-out way that such things are more often spoiled. And if it’s true that things are usually spoiled, isn’t the quick way the easier way to bear?”
It wasn’t kind of you to say that Robin smelled of vomit when she returned from Stratford. I’m not convinced that red wine and goulash together would smell that rank anyway, but it was uncalled for. However, I’m sure Robin looked all holier-than-thou when she traipsed off to Stratford all those years, dressed to the nines and quietly declaring her separateness that one day each summer, not just from you but the whole town. And it’s not fair about your asthma, that you cannot go outside in the winter and cannot be left alone at night. That would make anyone bitter and mean. But I bet when Robin stepped out to the store, you tried on that green skirt and imagined yourself in the theatre. And I bet you knew that Robin belonged somewhere else, you just couldn’t bear to think of it. And I’m sure you never knew that Willard only meant to be kind when he let you win at rummy.
“She had something now to carry around with her all the time. She was aware of a shine on herself, on her body, on her voice and all her doings. It made her walk differently and smile for no reason and treat the patients with uncommon tenderness.”
I do not believe your temperament suits a job which includes an element of customer service, although I am certain you are a valuable asset in the workshop.
“Now the real winter has set in and the lake is frozen over almost all the way to the breakwater. The ice is rough, in some places it looks as if big waves had been frozen in place.”
Could you not have left a note on the door if you were going out?
“Nothing faded for her, however repetitive this program might be. Her memories, and the embroidery on her memories, just kept wearing a deeper groove.
It is important that we have met.
I have that certain kind of seriousness too, which you’ve talked about, so I feel like I understand some things about you. And because of that, I agree that it probably was a good thing that he decided there would be no letters because I’ve read other stories in which the women were just as you thought, waiting and waiting and waiting, and worrying when a letter did not come. But, in hindsight, I bet you wish he hadn’t come up with that stupid idea. How differently things might have gone. What a different kind of spiral you might have admired. But for all your rationalizing, I think you must be furious. There’s a hint of that, near the end. But I wonder if the sequel to your story wouldn’t have revealed you to be more angry and bitter than Joanne ever was. For all the unfairness of the situation. And I wonder how many stories would need to be written before you could think of Daniel’s dilemma. After all, he had all the same sadnesses, but all that waiting and waiting and waiting for the woman who never came. And he was out the price of the train fare too.
“But she always loves the part of the story where he describes how the spiral unzips and the two strands float apart. He shows her how, with such grace, such appreciative hands. Each strand setting out on its appointed journey to double itself according to its own instructions.”
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Runaway as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the second last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Powers”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.