Mavis Gallant’s “Sunday Afternoon”

As in “The Other Paris” and “The Cost of Living”, a nineteen-year-old woman’s dreams of romance in the city are feathering away in “Sunday Afternoon”.

Robert Capa Cafe de Flore 1962

“Veronica was a London girl. At first her dreams had been of Paris, but now they were about a south she had not yet seen.”

She has been living in Paris for about a year: long enough to begin to dream of elsewhere. And never so much as on Sunday afternoons is Veronica’s disappointment more clear.

“Jim Bertrand, whose flat this was, and Ahmed had not stopped talking about politics since lunch. Their talk was a wall. It shut out young girls and girlish questions.”

Jim is 26 and Ahmed is 23; they have a lot to say. A lot which does not include – or even refer to – Veronica or the world she represents.

“No, the difficulty for Veronica was always the same: when a man was alone he wanted her, but when there were two men she was in the way. The admiration of men, when she was the center of attention, could not make up for their indifference when they had something to say to each other. She resented the indifference more than any amount of notice taken of another woman. She could have made pudding of a rival girl.”

But, actually, Veronica has a lot of difficulties. Not least of which is unravelling the mystery of the coffee maker.

“The coffeepot was Italian and composed of four aluminum parts that looked as if they never would fit one inside the other. Jim had written instructions for her, and tacked the instructions above the stove, but she was as frightened by the four strange shapes as she had been at the start. Somehow she got them together and set the pot on the gas flame. She put it on upside down, which was the right way. When the water began to boil, you turned the pot right way up, and the boiling water dripped through the coffee. You knew when the water was boiling because a thread of steam emerged from the upside-down spout. That was the most important moment.”

It becomes a symbol of domestic discontent. All that Veronica cannot make the coffee-maker do. All that she cannot intuit.

But it wasn’t always like this between Veronica and Jim. In the beginning, there was still room for dreaming.

“They moved in the river of people down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and he put his arm round her so she would not be carried away. The Boul’Mich was like a North African bazaar now; it was not the Latin Quarter of Baudelaire. Jim had been here three months and was homesick.”

But now, things fall short. “His glasses were thumb-printed and steamed; all his talk was fog.”

In fact, they don’t even agree on how things did begin.

“He thought life began only after it was prepared, but Veronica thought it had to start with a miracle. That was the difference between them, and why the lovely beginning couldn’t last, and why he couldn’t remember what he had loved.”

This talk of love is foggy too. All murked in, with talk of being a girl, talk of being a wife.

“If they had been married, he would never have let her sell magazine subscriptions. They both knew it. She was not his wife but a girl in Paris. She was a girl, and although he would not have let her know it, almost his first.”

Veronica isn’t entirely sure how she is supposed to act, of how things are supposed to be, but she is more sure of how they are not supposed to be.

And her expectations of Sunday afternoons are at odds with Ahmed’s, clearly. At least, they are at odds with Veronica’s ideas of what Ahmed expects, and also at odds with her ideas about what Jim would expect if he were free from Ahmed’s influence (that is, as she imagines his influence).

“For Ahmed this was why women existed: to come occasionally with fresh coffee, to say pretty, harmless things. Bach sent spirals of music around the room, music that to the Tunisian still sounded like a coffee grinder. His idea of Paris was nearly just this – couples in winter rooms; coffee and coffee-grinder music on Sunday afternoon.”

Veronica believes that there is an important distinction to be made between Ahmed’s expectations and Jim’s, but ultimately they both believe that she is the one who should be making the coffee.

“Ahmed’s attitudes were not acquired, like Jim’s. They were as much part of him as his ears.”

It seems likely that Veronica’s ideas about Jim’s expectations are as far apart from Jim’s actual expectations as her ideas about romance in Paris are from her life in Paris.

Nonetheless, she is not resigned to her role. She demonstrates a quiet fierceness.

“’You both think you’re so clever,’ said the girl. ‘You haven’t even enough sense to draw the curtains.’ While they were still listening, she said, ‘It’s not my fault if you don’t like me. Both of you. I can’t help it if you wish I was something else. Why don’t you take better care of me?’”

There is so much percolating in Veronica’s frustration. That neither Ahmed nor Jim has a domestic instinct to adjust the window-coverings. That she resents having noticed that they should be shifted, somehow proving herself suitable for the care-taking role. That she yearns to be liked, and is eager to blame others for behaving unlikably. That she would like to be the one who is sitting and talking, but that she would never deign to do so either.

Here’s hoping that Veronica goes out for coffee next Sunday.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventh story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The Cost of Living. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.

2017-07-28T11:21:07+00:00

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