In the previous story, Berthe and Marie were six and four years old, but now they are twenty-two and twenty, when the Carette family is moving house once again.

Having moved around the same neighbourhood every few seasons, they and their mother are signing a two-year lease for the first floor of a house around the corner from the church of Saint Louis de France. (Shown alongside: what a landmark.)

Berthe’s salary from her office job pays half the rent and their neighbours include a retired opera singer and a city counillor’s first cousins. But the neighbourhood isn’t what it used to be.

Corner of Rue Saint-Hébert and Fleurmont, Montréal 1940

© Ville de Montréal, Gestion de documents et archives (17-09-08-04 R-3218.31) 

There’s a “family of foreigners” across the road and a sign in another ground-floor window advertising the skills of a seamstress inside. (And the Greeks are starting to move in: one of them catches Marie’s eye. Shhh. No need to think of her having to be nice to his mother and eat “peculiar food” just yet.)

In quiet moments, Mme Carette imagines her funeral. She is forty-five years old and “death had been her small talk”. She still feels “cruelly the want of a husband, someone – not a daughter – to help her up the steps of a streetcar, read La Presse and tell her what was in it, lay down the law to Berthe”.

L’Eglise de Saint Louis de France © Musée McCord

In lieu of that, she channels her inner-Mrs-Bennett and seeks to marry one of her daughters instead. She asks the assistance of an uncle, who aside his work on a memoir he is writing for Berthe and Marie.

The first sentence of Uncle Gildas’ memoir is already complete: “I was born in Montréal, on the 22nd of May, 1869, of pious Christian parents, connected to Montreal families for whom streets and bridges have been named.”

In just this sentence – and the uncle’s, not even a sentence via one of the central Carettes – readers have a glimpse of the sense of how we are to direct our gaze towards the fringes. These are characters who inhabit the margins; they live near the beautiful parks and churches, but do not enjoy a pristine view of these surroundings in their glory, only off to one side or enjoyed on a delay, after things have been worn and become a little less glorious.

But we also have a glimpse of Mavis Gallant’s wit (for the Carettes are not a humourous bunch), which simmers beneath the surface of this story and erupts like bubbles on a hard boil in a pot on the stove. The humour is rooted in the everyday and is slightly caustic and buoys this story brilliantly. (I love the idea that the aging priest is working on his memoir but has only written a single sentence.)

There is so much that I want to tell you about the Carettes, now in 1949, and how things turn out with this potential suitor. Because would you believe, but he wears glasses! “How can we be sure he’s the right man?” Mme Carette wonders, imagining her near-sighted grandchildren. And he has a “fringe of ginger hair below his hat”. (All this on first glance, challenging Uncle Gildas’ declaration that the young man was “of distinguished appearance”.)

But I must leave you to discover these developments in your own time. So I will backtrack to consider Gallant’s reasons for choosing 1949 in the life of the Carettes.

It was “a year that contained no other news of value”, no other new other than that Mme Carette has received a legacy of $18,000 from a brother-in-law (who helped with the family’s rent in “1933”, sending a “generous postal order” from Fall River each month).

Which is quite a bit of news, one would think. But Mme Carette doesn’t want to dwell on it. “She had suspected him of being a FreeMason, as well as of other offenses, none of them trifling, and so she did not make a show of bringing out his photography; instead, she asked her daughters, Berthe and Marie, to mention him in their prayers.”

Understanding Mme Carette’s concept of what is a trifle makes me gasp given that what this man has bequeathed to his sister-in-law is no trifle (and inheritances are central to many of Mavis Gallant’s stories). But, then, I can’t help but chuckle, because she is not so bothered (by these not-trifles) that she feels compelled to pray for him.

Instead, Mme Carette only urges her daughters to pray for the man (as though more concerned about appearing to be concerned than actually being concerned, and she knows that Berthe doesn’t pray often anyway, so the accumulated prayers for this rumoured Freemason will be minimal at best).

Anyhow, Mme Carette’s got her hands full, chastising the parish priest’s housekeeper, who is not responsible for scrubbing the holy-water font, but someone must hear about it looking mossy. And judging the woman in the neighbourhood with her sign advertising her needle-work (even though Mme Carette had to turn to her needle in “1933” as well).

L’Eglise de Saint Louis de France, interior view 

Readers can peel back the layers of character-driven detail in multiple readings. There is no forthright sketch of each Carette family member. Single adjectives or details in a scene build these characters gradually, organically.

Some details will especially appeal to Canadian readers (like the 2-pound box of Laura Second chocolates tucked under a suitor’s arm); others will have universal appeal (the scandal of well-known politicians stuffing down oysters and lobster at tax-payers’ expense).

In ordinary details Gallant displays her ongoing class-commentary, at the forefront here, while a man with little fortune–but a nice box of chocolates–seeks a wife. But: “In the life of a penniless unmarried young woman, there was no room for a man merely in love.”

Whose ankles are crossed, who answers the door when a gentleman calls, who eats tapioca soup, who wears a bottle-green snap-brim fedora, who is native Canadian and who is Canadian-from-New-England Canadian, who serves iced sultana cake, who vacations in Maine (but not in Rome): these details matter and, together, tell another version of the Carettes’ story.

Across the Bridge’s Stories: 1933 / The Chosen Husband / From Cloud to Cloud / Florida / Dédé / Kingdom Come / Across the Bridge / Forain / A State of Affairs / Mlle. Dias de Corta / The Fenton Child

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 story in Across the Bridge. 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: “From Cloud to Cloud”.