“You think that would have changed things?”
“The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.”
In interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Nick Hornby discusses the “problem of being divided being two worlds” saying that many of us have a version of this in our own lives.
This is true for the narrator of this story, who has had a successful career as a public figure, as a radio broadcaster which has, ironically, allowed him to keep his face hidden from many people who feel a strong connection to him.
He is both a very public figure and a very private one, much beloved and much alone.
With considerable motivation, he found work in broadcasting, recognizing the great potential, given the prominent birthmark on his face.
“What a chunk of chopped liver,” his father declared, the first time he saw his son’s face, with the prominent purple stain.
(Whether or not the father actually described it this way is uncertain, for he does not have a voice in the story. In fact, we are meant to at least question whether this is simply the mother’s the-whole-world-is-against-you-except-for-your-mother version of events.)
The narrator, however, describes it for readers as “not red, but purple” and says it “looks as if someone has dumped grape juice or paint on me”.
Both of these descriptions are significant because his childhood friend, Nancy, aims to mark herself in the same way, using red paint, one afternoon in the cellar.
In his description of the event, he clarifies for readers that Nancy was not “taunting”, rather “bursting with satisfaction, as if this was what she had been aiming for her whole life”.
How ironic, for a boy whose mother has been identifying (using?) the birthmark as the reason for her marriage having failed.
Until that afternoon in the cellar, the mark was something divisive. Here, with Nancy, it is something desirable.
This is what accentuates the divide in his existence. For he builds a life around concealing, finding a way to thrive behind-the-scenes.
And, ultimately, it is a successful life on many levels. When he announces his retirement, he is genuinely touched by the letters from listeners who have come to think of his as a friend, someone with whom to share/fill time.
He, however, does not appear to have had that opportunity on the other side of the microphone. He has remained separate, apart. Even though he has had some relationships which would have, at least to an outside observer, appeared to be ‘satisfying’ at least, if not exactly ‘happy’.
Perhaps from that very afternoon, he has been alone. At least he has never met someone else like Nancy, who could not only accept him unquestioningly but develop an attachment which was uncomplicated by the need for a public face, as a relationship later in life would require.
In childhood, playing in the cellar, he existed on his own terms. “Such deep feelings. Children have,” his mother observes, years later.
The narrator replies: “They get over that.”
Such a common phrase. But inaccurate. For while he and Nancy have grown up, have become adults, there is no saying whether they have truly “gotten over” what needed to be “gotten over”.
Which is what, exactly, for our narrator? Getting over the idea of having a father who did not wish to share the dinner table with his son? Getting over the idea of having a mother who chose to have dinner with her husband and not her son, so that he was left to eat alone? Getting over the idea that Nancy’s mother might have been having an affair with his father? Getting over the idea that his mother might have known about/sanctioned that extramarital relationship? Getting over a wasp sting which required a night of hospitalization?
There are so many elements of life that a child has to “get over”. A birthmark is a readily identified target, but the lingering psychological and emotional pain does not leave a visible mark.
When our narrator imagines running into Nancy, on a subway in Toronto, he suggests that things might have changed as a result.
They could have changed certainly and temporarily and not at all.
In his mind, our narrator remains divided.
Which is also just how he has “gotten over” it.
Of course, and for a while, and never.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Too Much Happiness as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the sixth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week, “Some Women”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.