In the previous story, we have Harold’s mother reminiscing about her earlier trips to the mountains, when it was just her and her husband, Harold’s father.
She observes that it was one thing to think of skiing down the slopes into town when she was a young woman; now that she has returned, with her son Harold, and she is in her fifties, such an act would invite an injury.
Here, in “April Fish”, readers meet another woman in her fifties. She is actually celebrating her fifty-first birthday on April 1st, April Fish (poisson d’avril).
If you don’t know about April Fish, take a moment to search out the vintage postcards once exchanged to mark the occasion (in French-speaking communities outside France, as well): they are delightful and strange (to my eyes).
There are quite a few short short stories in Mavis Gallant’s repertoire (particularly in the collection The Cost of Living, like this one) and this is the shortest – just four pages – in this collection. (The next shortest is the title story, only one page longer, but because there are two couples at the heart of it, it feels longer.)
Readers barely get acquainted with April (Avril, they call her, in Switzerland) and barely time to witness the gift-giving with which her three children commemorate the date. Each of these children has been “left behind by careless parents, dropped like loose buttons and picked up by a woman they call Maman”.)
The pile of dogs asleep at the foot of her bed are similarly rescued creatures. And she seems even more protective of them, when it comes to the way that the three children – home for Easter – are teasing them.
The one spot of joy in the woman’s day (spoiler – it doesn’t come from the company of or the gift from the three children – as if you hadn’t already guessed that) is a collectible item which her brother has sent to her: a letter from Sigmund Freud’s collection.
It’s written in German – so, incomprehensible – but clearly prized by the woman all the same. The children press for more information. And April is at a loss. She doesn’t want “the children to feel de trop or rejected”, but Maria-Gabriella comes into the room for the breakfast tray and discretely intervenes to direct the children out of the room.
She doesn’t want the children there. She doesn’t want the dogs to bark. She doesn’t want to speak to her solicitor on the telephone. She doesn’t want the fish that the children have brought. She doesn’t even really want the letter – only just a few moments after she has prized it so.
What she does want is a young Vietnamese girl, one of those who have suffered from the bombing in the war. But her solicitor has rung to say that the girl will not be forthcoming.
And what are we to make of that? What a contemporary comment on the way that a privileged person might use the another’s misfortune to compensate for what they lack. What a sharp realization of how one can opportunistically seize upon the possibility of doing/being something/someone worthwhile without expending any real effort themselves. What a sad and lonely birthday. What a great number of us need rescuing.
Either Mavis Gallant is playing a joke on her readers or she is allowing us to contemplate the ways in which we play jokes on ourselves, all year ‘round.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the seventeenth story in In Transit. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “The Captive Niece”.