Wow, I have really come upon some true gems with the short stories I’ve read so far this year. When I started this reading project, I told myself “Since you’re only obligated to read one per week, you should really make an effort to delve deeply into the stories and try to understand the ones that you may previously have just skimmed through or dismissed.” This story by William Trevor was one that didn’t grab me at first, so I slowed down and made a real effort. It was so worth it.
***warning: some spoilers follow***
At the simplest level, this story is about the aftermath of a love affair that has ended. I can’t imagine there is anyone who is unable to relate to this theme to at least some degree. In the story, the woman, Harriet, goes on a holiday to an Italian resort familiar to her from childhood visits, having decided not to waste the scheduled time that she would have used to go with her former lover to the island of “Skyros.” (Is that a real place? I don’t know.) The story begins with her in the restaurant of this resort – a setting which only emphasizes her single-ness, and one which leads her to speculate on how things could or should have been different for her.
There is one passage where she recalls the dialogue when the breakup occurred. It sounds so real: “…’But weren’t we happy?’ she hears herself exclaim. A little shrill because she can’t help it. Yes they were happy, he agreed at once, wanting to make that clear. Not happy enough is what he meant, and you could tell; something was not right. She asked him and he didn’t know, genuine in his bewilderment.” This has to ring familiar to many…
At one point she meets a fellow solitary diner. An older gentleman who is likely lonely himself. We are treated here to some of Trevor’s great, brief characterizations. The old man’s hair is described as “so sparse it didn’t register whether it was white or gray,” and later we get “He smiles. His teeth are still his own.” I particularly liked that one.
One telling observation I had was that Harriet “knows” the staff of this restaurant, but only superficially. The waitresses are described by their physical characteristics: “the one with the rusty hair,” “the one with a wild look,” “the plump but pretty one,” etc. It’s almost as though her character doesn’t want to be alone “in her condition” and wants to be among people, but doesn’t want any social intimacy with them.
At one point in the story, while waiting out a rainstorm, Harriet becomes immersed in pondering a painting of “The Annunciation” in local church. Trevor’s description of the painting and her reactions to it are masterful. Later, after the rain has passed, she ventures outside again, delighting in the renewing effect the showers have had on the town, the scenery, the fragrances. She is witnessing this landscape in a rare moment. She also realizes that the painting she has just been observing captured a similar rare moment. “The Annunciation” was painted after rain. “It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” I was blown away by this passage.
What does it all mean? I can’t really be certain. Perhaps the speed bumps of failed relationships are – like some dry and dusty Italian landscape – just preludes to a periodic cleansing and renewing “rain.” Perhaps there is a fully intended religious tie in (The Annunciation is the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, revealing to her that she will conceive a child who is the son of God), but I choose not to interpret the story this way. Whatever the ‘deeper meaning,’ it’s truly a beautiful little story and I would heartily recommend it. It can be found in a collection of short stories with the same name, After Rain….