For the first time, twelve-year-old Emma Ellinger feels truly connected to her mother. They are finally “doing something together, alone, with no man, no Uncle Anyone, to interfere”.
It’s true that the cruise hasn’t gone entirely as planned; they have packed the wrong clothes (all summer dresses, which is what one might imagine one would wear on a cruise, which includes going ashore in Africa, but reality is otherwise) and never seem to properly anticipate the next stage of events.
Nonetheless, the sense of comradeship which Emma feels is intense. And the story her mother tells to other travellers seems to echo that: “She was born during the war. We only have each other.”
But Mrs. Ellinger’s story is told for reasons which Emma hasn’t fully understood yet. Being born during the war invites conjecture regarding a missing husband and father; and, even more importantly, it offers an acceptable explanation for the man’s absence. And being alone is another kind of invitation, a way of indicating a particular kind of need.
It’s a familiar story, and one which Emma has heard many times. She has lost track of all her uncles. Sometimes she remembers the gifts they’ve given her. Sometimes an object unexpectedly embodies them (as with the high-school edition of “The Merchant of Venice”). But, mostly, it’s a blur of uncles for Emma.
Mrs. Ellinger is caught in a fog herself, unable to see the road ahead. “She was adrift on an ocean whose immenseness she could not begin to grasp. She was alone, she had no real idea of their route, and it was too late to turn back.”
She, like many other women in Mavis Gallant’s stories, is caught in a place between. The cabin on the cruise is really just another hotel room (another summer rental, another temporary billeting).
“The cabin was gray, chintzed, consolingly neutral; it resembled all or any of the hotel rooms she and Emma had shared in the past. She was surrounded by her own disorder, her own scent. There were yesterday’s clothes on a chair, trailing, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke. There, on the dressing table, was an abandoned glass of brandy, an unstoppered bottle of cologne.”
But going ashore? That contains a myriad of possibilities.
Here, however, readers might recall the disappointment in this collection’s first story, when the imagined version of Paris does not mesh with its reality. Young Emma, too, has ideas about Africa.
When she imagines disembarking and having lunch in Tangier, she thinks of sand dunes and camels, lions and trailing vines. If she’d been able to browse one of the guidebooks that her fellow travellers depend so heavily upon, I imagine she might have seen a picture of the marketplace like this one above: her suppositions swelling into some combination of slightly outdated and overly “romanticized” images.
And whether a result of the heat or the excitement, Mrs. Ellington is more-than-the-usual-kind-of-adrift, when the two go ashore. She looks longingly back towards the ship, and Emma has to boss her into a taxi, instructing the driver to take them to the centre of town.
Mrs. Ellington is by terns overbearing and demanding, fragile and easily cowed. When Emma watches her readying herself, she observes her “thin shoulder blades that moved like wings”. And perhaps it’s her recognition of this fragility which urges her to accommodate her mother uneexpectedly.
While in Tangier, Emma obediently agrees to allow her mother to purchase a bracelet for her, which is both unappealing and fits too tightly. The bracelet – shiny and ornamental – leaves a green mark on her skin, which Emma can barely remove later.
It’s another disappointment. “The new life was always there, just before them, like a note indefinitely suspended or a wave about to break. It was there, but nothing happened.”
Childhood is, perhaps, the greatest disappointment of all. “Everyone she knew had a life, complete, that all but excluded Emma.”
More than anything, Emma wants a life, something complete. She calls out the shopowner, who claims that the toy tiger he has for sale is an authentic piece of art and comes complete with the capacity to fulfill ten wishes, as bogus; but part of her also wants to believe his tale.
She flushes with her desire to believe. The shop scene is poignant, painful. And although readers will not be surprised when Emma later discovers the “Made in Japan” stamp, it’s still disappointing. Even just one wish would have been lovely.
It’s not as though Emma’s life is characterized by deprivation. Mrs Ellinger is clear to point out the good mothering she has exhibited, referring to the white-on-white wardrobe she maintained for her daughter in her younger years (when, presumably, it was even harder to keep her clean). And Emma herself chronicles some of the bounty she has enjoyed from her various uncles, including a trip to the circus and a complete set of Sue Barton books. (Again: complete.)
Indeed, the experience of the cruise has contained many positive elements, not only the attentions of Miss. and Mrs. Mann (another mother-daughter pair, but considerably older and both more sensibly dressed and better stocked with guidebooks and maps) but those of Mr. Cowan (a solo traveller whom Emma comes to know over a series of conversations in the ship’s bar) and Eddy (the bartender aboard).
Almost accidentally, Emma is learning a great deal along the way, even beyond her mother’s common and vociferous exhortations (e.g. don’t get married, don’t have a baby). And if her mother has to pay her pound of flesh to cover the costs of raising a young girl, she can also enjoy a sunny afternoon in Tangier.
Despite some sorrowful and strained moments, the story is not entirely hopeless. Primarily because readers experience the journey through Emma’s eyes. (This reminds me of Carol’s purchase of the violets at the end of “The Other Paris”; even though part of her believes they will be dead before she gets home, she still buys them, still hopes for another outcome.)
“Yes, they were nearly there. She could see the gulls swooping and soaring, and something on the horizon – a shape, a rock, a whole continent untouched and unexplored. A tide of newness came in with the salty air: she thought of new land, new dresses, clean, untouched, unworn. A new life. She knelt, patient, holding the curtain, waiting to see the approach to shore.”
And this time? Nobody will interfere.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth story in The Other Paris. 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 Picnic” (which also appears in some other collections as outlined in the schedule).