by William Trevor
from Last Stories
I have been putting off reading my final two stories from William Trevor’s final collection, Last Stories, because I cannot stand the thought of finishing this book. At the same time, I have a lot more of his work to get to, so it is time to carry on.
“Making Conversation” showed up in Electric Lit with an introduction by Patrick Cox, Trevor’s son (see here; this link also has the story in its entirety). Cox mentions that Trevor was working on this story in the mid-1990s and touches on the latent violence in the story. To be honest, it took me a while to understand just what Cox was talking about because the story doesn’t seem to contain any overt violence. Ah, but Cox doesn’t mean overt violence. He means the threat that results in a wound, the suggestion that results in pain.
The story is structured in a straightforward manner. When it begins, Olivia, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who is separated from her husband, answers her doorbell. Annoyed, because it’s a Sunday afternoon and she and “the man Olivia lives with” are watching The Return of the Thin Man (a movie that, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist; I’m not sure if it is relevant, or if Trevor was just thinking of any one of the five sequels to The Thin Man). Olivia is surprised in her annoyance to hear a woman from two flights down, after commenting on not being very good at “these gadgets,” ask, “Is my husband there?” Olivia denies any such thing; the reader thinks about the nameless “man Olivia lives with”; the woman is insistent and finally tells Olivia that she is Mrs. Vinnicombe.
That’s the end of the first section. From there we shift immediately to this: “Olivia met Vinnicombe on the street.” Of course this further undercuts Olivia’s denial. Not only is there a man with Olivia, but Olivia does have some relationship with the woman’s husband.
The story proceeds to go back and forth. Olivia eventually invites the woman upstairs (the man retreats to the bathtub). While Olivia listens to Mrs. Vinnicombe, we go back in time to the various encounters Olivia had with her husband. At first he seemed like a mild gentleman, kind and concerned when Olivia stumbles down two steps and falls onto a sidewalk as he walks by. She is at the time grateful of his kindness and moves on quickly with her life, barely remembering him. However, his kind solicitude finds its way back into her life, quickly raising alarms.
Here we have, then, in “Making Conversation,” Olivia meeting with her stalker’s wife. Olivia is not a stranger to pain, and she recognizes it in Mrs. Vinnicombe, who, we see, has been fully debriefed by her husband, albeit from his warped perspective.
‘My hope was he’d be here.’
‘He only wanted to be with you. No bones about it: he said he couldn’t lie. A meaning in his life. He used those words.’
Mrs. Vinnicombe is talkative now. Her unease has dissipated; fingers twisting into one another a moment ago are still.
‘He never made me think you were a go-getting woman. I never thought of you as that. “Don’t blame her,” he said, no more than two days ago, but then he’d said it already. When he told me was the time he said it first, and often after that.’ Her voice is flat, empty of emotion. She says she’s frightened. She says again her hope had been to find her husband here.
He disappeared the day before. What’s she to think?
For Olivia’s part, already sitting across from a woman in pain, how does she extricate herself from a situation not of her making, one where the real story — that Mrs. Vinnicombe’s husband is a stalker — shows the woman in pain that her husband is horrific and pathetic in ways she didn’t believe before. But Olivia is seeing other things still. Though not encouraging an affair, she did allow Mr. Vinnicombe to take her to dinner. She pitied him, she thinks. But look how this paragraph ends:
‘Your husband and I were not having any kind of love affair.’ She gave him no encouragement, Olivia says: not once has she done that. She doesn’t say she pitied him after he followed her from the Tube station, the night they sat together on the red-upholstered banquette, the night she asked him if he had always invented thing. These details, now, seem neither here nor there: omitting to relate them is not intended to mislead. ‘Why don’t we have a bite to eat?’ he said and, still pitying, she allowed him to take her to a place he knew nearby, called the Chunky Chicken Platter. ‘All right for you?’ he solicitously enquired when they were given a table there, and it was then that she knew she was pitying herself as well.
Oh, it’s heart-wrenching stuff. Olivia recognizes pain and jealousy and even inappropriate expressions of lust. It doesn’t change the situation, but she can see it, and the story ends with her deep reflection. She thinks the Vinnicombes will probably reconcile soon. Perhaps Vinnicombe’s disappearance is his way of excising his hopeless love and suffocating the pain. But even if that happens, Olivia, never having done anything wrong, will be a dull pain in their lives.
And I love the final line, where we see just how pathetic it is but how real the pain will be:
Courage could have brushed glamour over what little there was, but courage is ridiculous when the other person doesn’t want to know.
This fake romance he built in his head, where he felt overcome to the point of leaving and, Olivia thinks, perhaps even imagined “his last thoughts reaching out towards his hopeless love, that he imagined the seaweed in his clothes, and sand beneath his eyelids and in his mouth.” It’s a suicide that would be meaningless, ridiculous even. Let’s hope Olivia’s right that Mr. Vinnicombe didn’t attempt such a gesture, but instead returns home and finds something to fix.
I always love how quietly Trevor can convey this torrential pain. If you read the story quickly, it’s a pretty simple conversation between to women about a disturbing misunderstanding. But there is much underneath that conversation.