Miss Horeham seems to have walked straight out of a Barbara Pym novel: an older woman with standards which are disappointed with some regularity.
She has lived in this pension for long enough to see families come and go, long enough to recognise the rhythms of the seasons there, and to feel justified in complaining when things are not “just so”.
Mind you, she doesn’t do so on a whim. She needs some encouragement. The kind that comes from consuming a half-litre of red wine, left behind by the Lawrences from Wimbledon. This makes her bold and “talky”, gives her a “grape-coloured flush”.
Not that the standards are worth fighting for here; everybody knows that the decent places are closed over the holidays until after Christmas.
Miss Horeham doesn’t live in the decent places, but she is not so far removed from the idea of them that she doesn’t recognise another layer of propriety just out of her reach.
Although irritable and judgemental, Miss Horeham is not an entirely unsympathetic character. Readers learn that she demonstrated a sort of devotation to her father who, in turn, left her a pile of debts upon his death.
Almost at the end of the story, readers learn that he did not even appear to recognise his daughter on his deathbed, or, alternatively, did not bother to know her well enough to call her by her name. Instead, he called her Ruth.
Miss Horeham, however, is equipped to deal with disappointments. She has learned to camouflage them, colour them differently. She is not so much a woman in search of a silver lining, as a woman who has tucked a can of silver spray-paint in her oversized purse, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
(Another character might colour the entire story differently, for we see things from Miss Horeham’s perspective, but perhaps her father’s confusion was rooted in his physical deterioration, not a personal slight.)
So the story of her father’s deathbed becomes a somewhat romantic tale, in which Miss Horeham is wrapped in a beautiful Sicilian scarf – red and green and black stripes – a glamourous item bought on holiday. She bestows a kind of magic on it, claims that it transforms her into Ruth the Moabitess from the Bible.
She stores it in a small trunk of treasures, which she sorts through on nights when reading Proverbs does not subdue her restlessness.
The most recent addition to the trunk is a stone, which the boy who lives in the pension with his parents throws at her. The ever-resilient Miss Horeham chooses to view this as a gift from the boy and she puts it in the trunk with her other items of value.
Of similar value, readers wonder. If the stone was actually an object thrown at her in anger, what does that make the scarf (or the other items secreted therein)? Is it actually a box of treasures or a box of shameful and sorrowful memories?
The story is not intended to be uplifting, but neither is it barren and sombre. Not entirely. The rain comes off the Alps in “gusts, like grey swells, to merge with the grey fog on the sea”, but “on November nights, the world closed comfortably in”.
She never shared her life with any man other than her father, but she dreamed of it once, a dream “small and bright” which “slipped under the leaves [of her memory] again”. And perhaps the dream is preferred to any reality. Just as she considers noon in November to be much like a brilliant evening.
The young married couple in the pension, the Oxleys, have a life replete with complications and unpleasantnesses. Mothering is wearying for the missus, and the mister spends his evenings at the pub.
This creates the opportunity for pleasant and ingratiating Mr Wynn to assist with putting Tom to bed in the evenings. But one evening he is still in the Oxleys’ room quite late, and Mr Oxley makes a scene upon discovering the adults there when he has returned from the pub.
This results in Mr Wynn’s hasty departure the following morning and puts Tom at the heart of a turf war the following day. His father whisks him away to the beach, which seems as though it should be brilliant, but both return rumpled and irritable.
Miss Horeham’s disapproval runs rampant, but she sees no need to prettify the confrontation she has observed. She has a stake in wanting the single life to appear to be competitive on the scale of disappointment and discontentment, and the Oxley family’s misfortune is just another shadow in the fog.
An injury to Miss Horeham can be transformed into a treasure, but another’s injury is allowed to shine on its own terms, transforming her own quiet life into something of value.
As valuable as any bright piece of a dream might have been in some other life.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the third story in My Heart is Broken. It has not been collected elsewhere (AFAIK). Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.