“Frances is loitering by a second-floor window of the high school in Hanratty, on an afternoon in early December. It is 1943.”
There is something unsanctioned about her presence there.
And, yet, she is a high-school teacher.
But she has no business being on the second floor.
Readers learn what she is wearing, down to the buttons, and then that she “never used to wear such clothes” that “any old sweater and skirt was good enough”. It’s easy to picture her standing at the window. It is an ordinary scene, but with an extraordinary element.
“This change has not gone unnoticed.”
Not unnoticed. But unexplained. Until now.
“Accident” is the explanation.
And what was unsanctioned? That, too.
From the second-floor, she considers the sounds and sights and scents of the school.
“And along with all this order and acquiescence there is a familiar pressure, of longing or foreboding, that strange lump of something you can feel sometimes in music or a landscape, barely withheld, promising to burst and reveal itself, but it doesn’t, it dissolves and goes away.”
It is barely withheld. But, no, actually it spills forth readily.
By the fourth page, the reader learns for certain that Frances is having an affair with Ted, the science teacher.
By the eighth page, the reader learns that, despite Frances’ attempt to conceal her involvement with a man, almost everybody is town already knows what she and Ted are up to.
It’s burst and revealed only a few pages into the story (which is 33 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition).
And it’s burst and revealed in the town, with a couple of notable exceptions.
There are many short, functional sentences in this story. “It is 1943.” “It was the secretary.” “But, before midnight, he died.”
But the language Frances uses when she thinks about Ted? It’s something else entirely.
“There was a peculiar code, a different feeling, for each time. The time in the science room like lightning and wet paint. The time in the car in the rain in the middle of the afternoon, with sleepy rhythms, so pleased and sleepy they were then that it seemed they could hardly be bothered to do the next thing.”
The sentences are long, breathy, inwardly repetitive and rhythmic.
“That time had a curved, smooth feeling for her, in memory, the curve came from the sheets of rainwater on the windshield, looking like looped-back curtains.”
That memory is fresh, when recalled in that 1943 scene, but “I guess nobody knows what can happen in a few years’ time”, another character in the story observes.
In 33 pages, the reader observes decades of Frances’ life unfold. Perhaps it is because Frances, too, is from Hanratty, but it’s hard not to notice similarities between Frances’ story and Rose’s in “Simon’s Luck” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” in Who Do You Think You Are (titled The Beggar Maid overseas).
What is accidental? What do we willfully create? What do we tell ourselves is accidental, because it’s easier to accept than a purposeful action that someone else (even our own selves) might find morally disturbing?
“Accident” is deliberately constructed, every word deliberate, every layer of the story feeling inevitable and irreversible.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, beginning with with Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You and Who Do You Think You Are? (The Beggar Maid). I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
The next in The Moons of Jupiter is “Bardon Bus”; one story will be discussed on each Thursday, so that “Labour Day Dinner” will fall on the Thursday before Labour Day weekend. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story.