A Bit On The Side
This week, the adventure continues with William Trevor’s 2004 short story A Bit On the Side, published as part of the story collection of the same title. Mr. Trevor, who was born in Ireland but lived in England during the latter part of his life, was 76 in 2004. He died in 2016. He notoriously refused to accept many of the literary awards he received in his lifetime, rejecting these elements of a brilliant writer’s career, but worked steadily, publishing no less than twenty-one novels and twenty-three short story collections.
Mr. Trevor is quoted as saying that the stories in this collection have to do with “the fragility of love.”
Set in contemporary times, A Bit On the Side concerns the end of a love affair between a man and a woman who reside in London. The action is primarily in the present, comprising the interval of a single day, although there are passages set in the past. Although other minor characters are named, the man and woman are only referred to as “he” and “she.” The narrator entity—always prominent in Trevor’s work—is not a character but an omniscient storyteller who offers a distant but intimate commentary on these two as they confront the end of their relationship. The narration alternates between the two character’s perspective, and then sometimes steps back to make comment.
It begins: “In the Japanese café he helped her off with her coat and took it to the line of hooks beneath the sign that absolved the management of responsibility for its safety.” We’ll come back to this first line and consider what questions it raises, but for now, let’s note how this is the narrator’s voice—a character in a story might register the sign but would probably not comment on it, interpreting the official language in such a formal way. Straight off, we learn one of the rules of the story—the narrator entity will be the one showing the action. Consider the difference in style: “I helped her off with her coat and hung it up beneath the sign the café put up, the one that says they’re not responsible for injuries.” This would represent a character narrator and leave less room for ironic commentary.
The story is written in third person, and simple past tense, which we know signals the reader that the story’s events have already occurred and that a storyteller is presenting them after the fact.
The second paragraph continues, “He hung up his coat…” but then shifts to include the woman’s experience: “…the forecast they’d both heard—she in her kitchen an hour ago, he while he shaved in Dollis Hill…”
Thus far, we are shown two characters, described in a scene. A man and a woman have arrived at a café, and the man hangs up their coats. Here’s the first sign of action and conflict, presented by the narrator: “Something was different this morning; on the walk from Chiltern Street she had sensed…that their love affair was not as it had been yesterday.”
“All right?’ she asked. ‘All right?’ She kept anxiety out of her tone…”
I don’t want to belabor this analysis and go line by line, but—
The importance of this passage is why we keep reading, I think. The reader begins this story, perhaps with some pre-conceptions; chiefly, I’d guess because she/he knows of William Trevor, knows of the high quality with which he writes. But let’s say a reader began this story without pre-conception, or a minimal amount of them, what would “hook” them to read the whole thing? (Yes, the management assumes no responsibility). I think we’ve found the hook right here—the woman senses something is different between she and the man, something that has changed the terms of their love affair since they last were together. The reader wants to read on and discover what this “something” is.
But satisfaction will be deferred, my friends. If Mr. Trevor immediately answered this “what” question, you might not have much of a story. No, sir. The action continues with the man denying that anything is wrong.
“’Absolutely,’ he said, and then their coffee came…’Absolutely,’ he repeated, breaking his croissant in half.”
Aha! He denies there’s anything wrong, and/but breaks his croissant in half.
Hmmm. With a lessor storyteller, a character might break his muffin in two, and it wouldn’t relate to anything except perhaps providing atmosphere in a café. But here, I think we can take this as symbolic, best B. Nothing occurs randomly. As Don Juan said, there are no coincidences.
‘Kay. What’s been established is that there’s trouble in paradise.
On page three, we get a description of the two characters and the terms of their relationship. “She was thirty-nine; he in his mid-forties.” They met when they both worked in the same office—she has since left. He is married with children; it’s a significant omission that no mention is made yet of her marital status.
“He was a man, who should have been, in how he dressed, untidy. His easy, lazily expansive gestures, his rugged, often sunburnt features, his fair hair stubborn in disregard of his intentions, the weight he was inclined to put on, all suggested a nature that would resist sartorial demands. In fact he was quite dressily turned out, this morning in pale lightweight trousers and jacket, blue Eton shirt, his tie striped blue and red. It was a contradiction in him she had always found attractive.
“She herself today, besides the black of her showerproof coat, wore blue and green, the colors repeated in the flimsy silk of her scarf. Her smooth black hair was touched with grey, which she made no attempt to disguise…She would have been horrified if she’d put on as much as an ounce…Eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, unblemished neck: no single feature stood out, their combination necessary in the spare simplicity of her beauty. Good earrings…were an emphasis that completed what was already there.”
There are a number of “British-isms” herein that sound a bit exotic to American ears, but overall these are nearly perfect descriptions, I’d say. The man is shown in terms of what he wears and how this contradicts his physicality. The woman is described in relatively non-sexual terms—often a pitfall for a male author. The “good earrings” is a nice touch. What we get are descriptions that link with personality, so that we learn not just about physical appearance but how costume is an expression of a particular self. Contrast the above with, “He was a middle-aged man, slightly chubby, with thin blond hair and pale blue eyes.” This does not convey as much information.
The couple “talks about the day,” a mundane subject that indicates they’re both avoiding the subject of something between them.
Then: “It was here, at this same table, that she had broken the news of her divorce, not doing so—not even intimating her intentions—until her marriage’s undoing was absolute…’I would have done it anyway,’ she had insisted in the café, though knowing that she might not have…She felt uncluttered, a burden of duty and restriction lifted from her.”
So, the narrator is showing us the context for their meeting at the Japanese café. We learn now that the woman was married and that she divorced, apparently keeping it a secret till it was done. The narrator deftly goes back in time to show this and then zips us right back to the story’s present. Another approach might be to have one of the characters present this information, perhaps in thought but these two are unwilling or unable to have these insights, so the narrator must do the heavy lifting.
“Wire gauze, I suppose,” he said, the subject now a cat that was a nuisance…”
This shows his reluctance to talk about the important things going on—his emotional reaction to her divorcing, changing the terms of their affair from one involving two people married to others, to one where one of the participants is free. A quartet to a triad.
“Although such domestic details were sometimes touched upon…his family remained mysterious, never described or spoken of. Since the divorce, he had visited the flat her husband had moved out of…But her flat never seemed quite right, so used had they become to their love affair conducted elsewhere and differently.”
And now they part to go to their jobs. They will meet later.
Let’s leave them there, my friends.
Till next time.