William Trevor’s stories fill me with love for other people as they struggle to get through each day. Quiet grief is so often lovingly conveyed. Yet they are often devastating. And in his final collection I don’t think any is more devastating than “The Unknown Girl.” After all, it contains this brutal judgment:
Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.
And as is only proper in a William Trevor story, we know next to nothing about the life in question. This is the story called “The Unknown Girl,” after all. What we are certain of, though — as certain as we can be of anything — is that this unknown girl was in pain, and no one shared it with her.
The story begins with death. A young woman named Emily Vance is struck by a vehicle. Everyone else at the crosswalk noticed the traffic and stood waiting on the side of the road. Those who witnessed the event, or think they witnessed the event, say the driver did nothing wrong. The young woman just wasn’t paying attention. It’s a tragedy.
A local vicar is tasked with trying the young girl’s funeral. He hopes to find her family, so he goes to those he thinks had some connection with the girl, and that includes Harriet Balfour. Harriet is a widow well aware that her growing son is soon to move out of the house. Some time ago, Emily worked for Harriet as a house cleaner. When the vicar asks, Harriet says that Emily was a very good worker but they didn’t get to know each other. In fact, months ago Emily simply stopped coming to work. She didn’t give notice or get in touch again.
When the vicar leaves, we realize that Harriet is very uncomfortable with Emily’s death, and not just because she had some acquaintance with the girl. As she reflects on Emily’s time with her and her son, Harriet remembers a tiny moment, so little it was barely worth remembering, yet so sharp it was hard to forget: one afternoon Harriet swears she saw something unspoken flash between Emily and her son.
This leads her to wonder if they had some kind of relationship and, if so, if Emily’s death was a suicide and, if so, did it have anything to do with her son.
I won’t get into the revelation, if it can be called that, at the end, but suffice it to say that Harriet’s distress increases when she realizes that Emily and her son didn’t have a relationship. That, she says, would at least be understandable. What’s happened here, to the extent we and Harriet know, is so much worse.