Walter is just a kid, in comparison to the elderly widows with whom he spends most of his time. And perhaps when he’s driving his sporty little Singer, he’s not thinking about ending things. But in quiet moments, despair sneaks up on him.
“The great age of the winter society Walter Henderson frequents on the French Riviera makes him seem young to himself and a stripling to his friends. In a world of elderly widows his relative youth appears a virtue, his existence as a bachelor a precious state.”
“If your life isn’t exactly the way you want it to be by the time you are forty-five,” said Walter’s father, whom he admired, “not much point in continuing. You might as well hang yourself.”
But the widows give him a sense of purpose. And some days the idea of growing old alongside their growing older is enough. Sometimes his fantasies of pushing Mrs. Wiggott in a Bath chair along the Promendade des Anglais at Nice are multi-coloured and satisfactory.
But when his sister, Eve, visits with her family, the summer of an unmarried man is cast in relief against a backdrop of activity and might-have-been’s. Walter’s life comes up short.
Which frustrates Eve, who feels she has had to accept certain limitations in her life; Eve views Walter’s life as having been a panorama of possibilitites, in contrast to her experience.
“I did envy Walter once. Walter, think of the money that was spent educating you. They wouldn’t do it for a girl. Ah, how I used to wish we could have exchanged, then.”
The implication is that she does not wish to exchange now, although at first readers aren’t attending to that, aren’t privy to the view of Walter’s life from without. His life caring for a house which belongs to Miss Cooper and Miss Le Chaine, living off his pension from last war and sharing an income off a small trust fund with Eve, might seem tame – dull, even – but not unpleasant.
Eve, in contrast, is married to Frank Osborn, and they have been farming in South Africa, with their two children: twelve-year-old Mary and her younger brother Johnny. Walter’s dependents are a cat, named William of Orange, and Angelo, Walter’s seventeen-year-old “comic valet”.
With all of them in Miss Cooper’s and Miss Le Chaine’s house, it is transformed, as though it were “a normal place to be”.
“They were more at home than Walter had ever been. Mornings, he heard them chattering on the terrace or laughing in the kitchen with Angelo. Eve and Angelo planned the meals, and sometimes they went to the market together. The Osborns took over the household food expenses, and Walter, tactfully, made no mention of it. Sometimes the children had their meals in the kitchen with Angelo and the hamster and the cat. But there was no order, no system, to their upbringing.”
Walter is uncomfortable with the new activity but seems helpless to redirect. Cast together with Eve, he has occasion to reflect differently on his everyday existence. Most significantly, he marvels at the weight and promise of her children, who are both connected to and separate from him.
“He answered her remarks (about Riviera people, French politics, the Mediterranean climate, and the cost of things) with his habitual social fluency, but it was the children who took his attention. He marveled at their singleness of purpose, the energy they could release just in tearing off their clothes. They flung into the water and had to be bullied out. Mauve-lipped, chattering, they said, “What’s there to do now?””
Walter is needed. He has value. He impacts the lives of others. He has, for instance, had an integral impact on Angelo’s life. (And if all that sounds a little forced: well, yes.)
“Once, Angelo had been a figure on the wall of a baroque church; from the wall he came toward Walter, with his hand out, cupped for coins. The church had been intended from its beginnings to blister and crack, to set off black hair, appraising black eyes. The four elements of Angelo’s childhood were southern baroque, malaria, idleness, and hunger. They were what he would go back to if Walter were to tire of him, or if he should decide to leave.”
But Angelo is no Mary. And Walter’s niece sparks something in him which he had previously overlooked.
“She was not pretty, no, but quite lovely, in spite of the straight yellow hair, the plain way she was dressed. Walter knew instantly what he would have given her to wear. He thought, Ballet lessons … beautiful French, and saw himself the father of a daughter. ”
This is not a flawless scheme, however. In fact, when Walter asks Mary if she ever wanted to be a ballet dancer, he is disappointed by her disinterest. Which isn’t surprising. Anyway, he had already dismissed that brief fantasy of fatherhood.
“Yes—but to have a daughter one needed a wife. That brought everything down to normal size again. He smiled to himself, thinking how grateful he was that clods like Frank Osborn could cause enchanting girls to appear, all for the enjoyment of vicarious fathers. It was a new idea, one he would discuss next winter with Mrs. Wiggott. He could develop it into a story. It would keep the old dears laughing for weeks.”
Walter can recast his disappointment into an amusement, with just a little doing (like Miss Horeham turns her scarf into a lovely memory in “The Moabitess”). His widows will oblige him by laughing. Of course they’ll probably be dead before his niece finishes school.
The fragility of his acceptance, his appearance of satisfaction, is more visible than it seemed.
“Walter, what are you up to? That sad, crumbling house. Nothing has been changed or painted or made pretty in it for years. You don’t seem to have any friends here. Your telephone never rings. It hasn’t rung once since I’ve been here. And that poor boy.”
Eve has seen through it more quickly than the narrative suggested initially.
As if we, readers, were simply listening to one of Walter’s amusing stories.
“Yet he wanted her to approve of him; he wanted even Frank to approve of him. He was pushed into seeing himself through their eyes. He preferred his own images, his own creations. Once, he had loved a woman much older than himself. He saw her, by chance, after many years, when she was sixty. ‘What will happen when I am sixty?’ he wanted to say. He wondered if Eve, with her boundless concern for other people, had any answer to that. What will happen fifteen years from now, when Miss Cooper claims the house?”
What will happen indeed?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second last story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The End of the World and Collected Stories. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.