Here, Eric inhabits a room like Carmela’s in “The Four Seasons”, in the Unwins’ home: the kind “assigned to someone’s hapless, helpless paid companions, who would have marvelled at the thought of its lending shelter to a dying man”.
And Eric is dying, like the father in “The End of the World”.
But this is a story of Bougainvillea and deck chairs too, a story set in Rivabelle (or Rivabella, depending whether one emphasizes the French or Italian Riviera connection), in this “paler version of colonial life”.
Because everything is paler here.
“His blood was white (that was how he saw it), and his lungs and heart were bleached, too, and starting to disintegrate like snowflakes. He was a pale giant, a drained Gulliver, cast upon the beach, open territory for invaders.”
“They seemed to her and perhaps to each other thin and dry, like Alec.”
There are three of them, whom their mother, Barbara, wanted to name differently (Giles and Nigel for the boys, Samantha for the girl).
They are ten, eleven, and twelve years old, when the story opens. But time and space are changing, here in the this new place, far from England, far from the familiar.
Corsica (French borders, Italian culture)
“Lou Mas at such times seemed to shrink to a toy house she might life and carry; she would remember what it had been like when the children were babies still, and hers alone.”
The children are beginning to belong to themselves. Or, at least, they seem to be separate and apart from the experiences of their parents.
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, Alec was still able to consider moving into the room with the television; days later, he cannot move from his bed. But he remains in a bed for three more springs.
“That winter Molly grew breasts, she thought them enormous, though each could have been contained easily in a small teacup.”
But there are more similarities between the remission destination and England-left-behind than Barbara expected. And what appears to be colourful and glossy is simply a cover for the grey.
“Rivabella turned out to be just as grim and bossy as England – worse, even, for it kept up a camouflage of wine and sunshine and live trees and of amiable southern idiots who, if sacked, thought nothing of informing on one.”
And the cold.
“You live in an ice palace. There is so little happiness in life unless you let it come near. I always at least had an idea about being happy.”
This cheerful little bit is Barbara speaking to her daughter, Molly. Who has grown. (I’m guessing we’re talking coffee mugs rather than tea cups in this span of time.)
But Molly has so many reasons to be “shut and locked”. She and the boys have come to understand the family’s true position in this grey space on the Riviera.
“They could have drawn the social staircase of Rivabella on a blackboard, and knew how low a step, now, had been assigned to them.”
Readers can imagine her there, on that bottom step, her chin on her knees.
Expressionless and pale.
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 From the Fifteenth District. 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 Latehomecomer”. Next collection: From the Fifteenth District, beginning Feburary 5th with “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”.