INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
Mavis Gallant is one of our great masters. She wrote about displacement. About war. About living in the shadow of fascism. About the deleterious nature of power and the incompetence of politicians and officials. To use a silly contemporary idiom, her work is more relevant than ever. But more than that, she’s so funny. And such a beautiful writer, whose sentences are sharp and swift.
The facts of Mavis Gallant’s early life have been summarized so many times by so many newspapers, that I can almost recite them by heart. Mavis Gallant was born in Montreal in 1922. Her father died when she was quite young, and her mother, an American, remarried and left a young Mavis behind so that she could pursue her own material comfort and happiness. Her childhood was peripatetic. When she came of age, Gallant began work as a reporter to support herself. After working as a journalist in Canada, she left for Europe in 1950 to pursue fiction.
Over the course of her career, Mavis Gallant published more than one-hundred short stories in The New Yorker, the first appearing in 1951, the last in 1995. She published two novels Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970), and numerous short story collections, including three elegant volumes from New York Review Classics: The Paris Stories, The Cost of Living, and Varieties of Exile. Recently, Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics Series issued The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, a book with fine, beautiful pages that put me in the mind of the old Bibles my grandmother kept on the kitchen table next to the flour tins. I keep my copy of the Collected Stories next to my bed. Family habits.
This week’s story, “Travelers Must Be Content,” was published in The New Yorker in 1959. I first read it in her collection The Cost of Living. The story opens with Wishart, an itinerant housefly of a dandy whom Gallant summarizes sharply: “Like many spiteful, snobbish, fussy men, or a certain type of murderer, Wishart chose his friends among middle-aged solitary women.”
Wishart arrives in Cannes to spend a few weeks with his friend Bonnie, a wealthy American, and her daughter Flor. His expectations of luxury are soon thwarted however when he realizes that Bonnie has selected a cheap hotel for their accommodation. From there, the story gets under way as Wishart and Bonnie meet up with Flor and a new beau at the beach.
What unfolds over the course of a simmering stay in Cannes is a masterfully constructed series of disappointments, evasions, and revelations. Gallant skillfully weaves in and out of each of the characters’ perspectives as they deliver withering, cutting remarks to each other. Bonnie’s hopes that Flor would marry well and save them from poverty, Flor’s increasing desire to be apart from her mother and to find a home of her own, her beau’s desire for Flor, and Wishart’s desire for affirmation and material comfort all clash and collide.
“Travelers Must be Content” is a masterclass of a story because it makes the impossible seem easy. The multiple points of view toggle seamlessly, sometimes across the length of a single sentence; flashbacks and flash forwards come with the pulse of thought; characters’ understandings of their relationships to one another pivot on single phrases as they wound each other or love each other; dialogue that sings with real human music. It’s utterly astonishing how she breaks all of the rules for fiction. She shows how arbitrary our sense of the mechanics of style and narrative have become.
But more than that, upon finishing the story, I felt so devastated not only for the characters but for myself because I had forgotten that this was not a memory of another time in my life but a made-up story. You leave “Travelers Must be Content” with a longing for Bonnie and Flor and Wishart and even Bob. You miss these characters, their little arguments and habits. The waking up to compare headaches at breakfast. The hotel with its sandy floors. You miss the texture of the world Gallant envisions here.
Perhaps that is her greatest gift, beyond her masterful prose and the delicious bite of her dialogue. It’s that she makes you feel that you are remembering something from an earlier life, and when you finish her stories, you must return to your own drab existence.
If this is your first Mavis Gallant story, don’t let it be your last. Go out and find one of her collections and read. And then reread. She’s one of those rare writers whose work rewards a second, third, and fourth reading. There’s always some new insight, some new turn, some new tension. An image that attains a new resonance upon reread.
I won’t get into the why don’t more people read Mavis Gallant? debate. Because it is irrelevant and ultimately uninteresting. A debate for scholars and critics. I am neither. I am a fan. A fanatic. A true believer.
– Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Tolerating Friends on a Holiday in Cannes
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“Travelers Must Be Content”
By Mavis Gallant
Dreams of chaos were Wishart’s meat; he was proud of their diversity, and of his trick of emerging from mortal danger unscathed. The slightest change in pace provoked a nightmare, so that it was no surprise to him when, falling asleep in his compartment a few seconds before the train arrived at Cannes, he had a dream that lasted hours about a sinking ferryboat outside the harbor. Millions of limp victims bowled elegantly out of the waves, water draining from their skin and hair. There were a few survivors, but neither they nor the officials who had arrived in great haste knew what to do next. They milled about on the rocky shore looking unsteady and pale. Even the victims seemed more drunk than dead. Out of this deplorable confusion Wishart strode, suitably dressed in a bathing costume. He shook his head gravely, but without pity, and moved out and away. As usual, he had foreseen the disaster but failed to give warning. Explanations unrolled in his sleeping mind: “I never interfere. It was up to them to ask me. They knew I was there.” His triumph was only on a moral level. He had no physical vanity at all. He observed with detachment his drooping bathing trunks, his skinny legs, his white freckled hands, his brushed-out fringe of graying hair. None of it humbled him. His body had never given him much concern.
Wishart was pleased with the dream. No one was gifted with a subconscious quite like his, tirelessly creative, producing with- out effort any number of small visual poems in excellent taste. This one might have been a ballet, he decided, or, better still, because of the black-and-white groupings and the unmoving light, an experimental film, to be called simply and cryptically “Wishart’s Dream.” He could manipulate this name without conceit, for it was not his own. That is, it was not the name that had been gummed onto his personality some forty years before without thought or care; “Wishart” was selected, like all the pieces of his fabricated life. Even the way he looked was contrived, and if, on bad days, he resembled nothing so much as a failed actor afflicted with dreams, he accepted this resemblance, putting it down to artistic fatigue. He did not consider himself a failed anything. Success can only be measured in terms of distance traveled, and in Wishart’s case it had been a long flight. No wonder I look worn, he would think, seeing his sagged face in the glass. He had lived one of society’s most grueling roles, the escape from an English slum. He had been the sturdy boy with visions in his eyes. “Scramble, scrape, and scholarship” should have been written on his brow, and, inside balloons emerging from his brain, “a talent for accents” and “a genius for kicking the past from his shoes.” He had other attributes, of course, but it wasn’t necessary to crowd the image. Although Wishart’s journey was by no means unusual, he had managed it better than nearly anyone. Most scramblers and scrapers take the inherited structure with them, patching and camouflaging as they can, but Wishart had knocked his flat. He had given himself a name, parents, and a class of his choice. Now, at forty-two, he passed as an English gentleman in America, where he lived, and as an awfully decent American when he went to England. He had little sense of humor where his own affairs were concerned, no more than a designer of comic postcards can be funny about his art, but he did sometimes see it as a joke on life that the quirks and crotchets with which he was laced had grown out of an imaginary past. Having given himself a tall squire of a father who adored horses and dogs, Wishart first simulated, then genuinely felt a disgust and terror of the beasts. The phantom parent was a brandy-swiller; Wishart wouldn’t drink. Indeed, as created by his equally phantom son, the squire was impeccably bien élevé but rather a brute; he had not been wholly kind to Wishart, the moody, spindly boy. The only person out of the real past he remembered without loathing was a sister, Glad, who had become a servant at eleven and had taught him how to eat with a knife and fork. At the beginning, in the old days, before he had been intelligent enough to settle for the squire but had hinted at something grand, he had often been the victim of sudden frights, when an element, hidden and threatening, had bubbled under his feet and he had felt the soles of his shoes grow- ing warm, so thin, so friable was the crust of his poor world. Nowadays, he moved in a gassy atmosphere of good will and feigned successes. He seemed invulnerable. Strangers meeting him for the first time often thought he must be celebrated, and wondered why they had never heard of him before. There was no earthly reason for anyone’s having done so; he was a teacher of dramatics in a preparatory school, and once this was revealed, and the shoddiness of the school established, it required Wishart’s most hypnotic gifts, his most persuasive monologue, to maintain the effect of his person. As a teacher he was barely adequate, and if he had been an American his American school would never have kept him. His British personality—sardonic, dry—replaced ability, or even ambition. Privately, he believed he was wasted in a world of men and boys, and had never bothered giving them the full blaze of his Wishart creation; he saved it for a world of women. Like many spiteful, snobbish, fussy men, or a certain type of murderer, Wishart chose his friends among middle-aged solitary women. These women were widowed or divorced, and lived in places Wishart liked to visit. Every year, then, shedding his working life, a shining Wishart took off for Europe, where he spent the summer alighting here and there, depending on the topography of his invitations. He lived on his hostesses, without shame. He was needed and liked. His invitations began arriving at Christmas. He knew that women who will fret over wasting the last bit of soap, or a torn postage stamp, or an unused return ticket, will pay without a murmur for the company of a man. Wishart was no hired companion—carrier of coats, fetcher of aspirin, walker of dachshunds. He considered it enough to be there, supplying gossip and a listening ear. Often Wishart’s friends took it for granted he was homosexual, which was all to the good. He was the chosen minstrel, the symbolic male, who would never cause “trouble.” He knew this and it was a galling thought. But he had never managed to correct it. He was much too busy keeping his personality in place so that it wouldn’t slip or collapse even in his dreams. He had never found time for such an enervating activity as proving his virility, which might not only divert the movement of his ambitions but could, indeed, take up an entire life. He had what he wanted, and it was enough; he had never desired a fleet of oil tankers. It sufficed him to be accepted here and there. His life would probably have been easier if he had not felt obliged to be something special on two continents, but he was compelled to return to England now, every year, and make them accept him. They accepted him as an American, but that was part of the buried joke. Sometimes he ventured a few risks, such as, “We were most frightfully poor when I was a child,” but he knew he still hadn’t achieved the right tone. The most successful impostures are based on truth, but how poor is poor, and how closely should he approach this burning fact? Particularly in England, where the whole structure could collapse for the sake of a vowel.
He got down from the train, holding his artfully bashed-up suitcase, and saw, in the shadow of the station, Mrs. Bonnie McCarthy, his American friend. She was his relay in the South of France, a point of refreshment between the nasal sculptress in London, who had been his first hostess of the season, and a Mrs. Sebastian in Venice. It would have been sweet for Wishart at this moment if he could have summoned an observer from the past, a control to establish how far he had come. Supposing one of the populated waves of his dream had deposited sister Glad on shore? He saw her in cap and apron, a dour little girl, watching him being greeted by this woman who would not have as much as spat in their direction if she had known them in the old days. At this thought he felt a faint stir, like the rumor of an earthquake some distance away. But he knew he had nothing to fear and that the source of terror was in his own mistakes. It had been a mistake to remember Glad.
“Wishart,” his friend said gravely, without breaking her pose. Leaning on a furled peach-colored parasol, she gave the appearance of living a minute of calm in the middle of a hounding social existence. She turned to him the soft, myopic eyes that had been admired when she was a girl. Her hair was cut in the year’s fashion, like an inverted peony, and she seemed to Wishart beautifully dressed. She might have been waiting for something beyond Wishart and better than a friend—some elegant paradise he could not imagine, let alone attain. His admiration of her (her charm, wealth, and aspirations) flowed easily into admiration of himself; after all, he had achieved this friend. Almost tearful with self-felicitation, he forgot how often he and Bonnie had quarreled in the past. Their kiss of friendship here outside the station was real.
“Did you get my telegram?” he said, beginning the nervous remarks that preceded and followed all his journeys. He had pre- pared his coming with a message: “Very depressed London like old blotting paper longing for sea sun you.” This wire he had signed “Baronne Putbus.” There was no address, so that Bonnie was unable to return a killing answer she would have signed “Lysistrata.”
“I died,” Bonnie said, looking with grave, liquid eyes. “I just simply perished.” After the nasal sculptress and her educated vowels, Bonnie’s slight drawl fell gently on his ear. She continued to look at him gaily, without making a move, and he began to feel some unease in the face of so much bright expectancy. He suddenly thought, “Good God, has she fallen in love?,” adding in much smaller print, “With me?” Accidents of that sort had happened in the past. Now, Wishart’s personality being an object he used with discretion, when he was doubtful, or simply at rest, he became a sort of mirror. Reflected in this mirror, Bonnie McCarthy saw that she was still pretty and smart. Dear darling Wishart! He also gave back her own air of waiting. Each thought that the other must have received a piece of wonderful news. Wishart was not envious; he knew that the backwash of someone else’s good fortune can be very pleasant indeed, and he waited for Bonnie’s tidings to be revealed. Perhaps she had rented a villa, so that he would not have to stay in a hotel. That would be nice.
“The hotel isn’t far,” Bonnie said, stirring them into motion at last. “Do you want to walk a little, Wishart? It’s a lovely, lovely day.”
No villa, then; and if the hotel was nearby, no sense paying a porter. Carrying his suitcase, he followed her through the station and into the sudden heat of the Mediterranean day. Later he would hate these streets, and the milling, sweating, sunburned crowd; he would hurry past the sour-milk-smelling cafés with his hand over his nose. But now, at first sight, Cannes looked as it had sounded when he said the word in London—a composition in clear chalk colors: blue, yellow, white. Everything was intensely shaded or intensely bright, hard and yellow on the streets, dark as velvet inside the bars.
“I hope you aren’t cross because Florence isn’t here,” Bonnie said. “She was perishing to meet your train, but the poor baby had something in her eye. A grain of sand. She had to go to an oculist to have it taken out. You’ll love seeing her now, Wishart. She’s getting a style, you know? Everyone notices her. Somebody said to me on the beach—a total stranger—somebody said, ‘Your daughter is like a Tanagra.’”
“Of which there are so many fakes,” Wishart remarked. He did not have a great opinion of his friend’s intelligence, and may have thought that a slight obtuseness also affected her hearing. It was insensitive of her to mention Flor now, just when Wishart was feeling so well. From the beginning, their friendship had been marred by the existence of Bonnie’s daughter, a spoiled, sulky girl he had vainly tried to admire.
“There are literally millions of men chasing her,” Bonnie said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Every time we go to the beach or the casino—”
“I’m surprised she hasn’t offered you a son-in-law,” he said. “But I suppose she is still too young.”
“Oh, she isn’t!” Bonnie cried, standing still. “Wishart, that girl is twenty-four. I don’t know what men want from women now. I don’t even know what Flor wants. We’ve been here since the eighth of June, and do you know what she’s picked up? A teeny little fellow from Turkey. I swear, he’s not five three. When we go out, the three of us, I could die, I don’t understand it—why she only likes the wrong kind. ‘Only likes,’ did I say? I should have said ‘only attracts.’ They’re awful. They don’t even propose. She hasn’t even got the satisfaction of turning them down. I don’t understand it, and that’s all I can say. Why, I had literally hundreds of proposals, and not from little Turkeys. I stuck to my own kind.”
He wanted to say, “Yes, but you were among your own kind. The girl is a floater, like me.” He sensed that Bonnie’s disappointment in what she called her own kind had affected her desires for Flor. Her own kind had betrayed her; she had told him so. That was why she lived in Europe. Outside her own kind was a vast population of men in suspenders standing up to carve the Sunday roast. That took care of Americans.
They walked on, slowly. A store window they passed reflected the drawn, dried expression that added years to Wishart’s age but removed him from competition and torment. He found time to admire the image, and was further comforted by Bonnie’s next, astonishing words: “Someone like you, Wishart, would be good for Flor. I mean someone older, a person I can trust. You know what I mean—an Englishman who’s been in America, who’s had the best of both.”
He knew that she could not be proposing him as a husband for Florence, but he could have loved her forever for the confirmation of the gentleman he had glimpsed in the window, the sardonic Englishman in America, the awfully decent American in England. He slipped his hand under her elbow; it was almost a caress. They reached the Boulevard de la Croisette, crossed over to the sea side, and Bonnie put up her parasol. Wishart’s good humor hung suspended as he looked down at the beaches, the larva-like bodies, the rows of chairs. Every beach carried its own social stamp, as distinct as the strings of greasy flags, the raked pullulating sand, and the squalid little bar that marked the so-called “students’ beach,” and the mauve and yellow awnings, the plastic mattresses of the beach that were a point of reunion for Parisian homosexuals. Wishart’s gaze, uninterested, was about to slide over this beach when Bonnie arrested him by saying, “This is where we bathe, Wishart, dear.” He turned his head so suddenly that her parasol hit him in the eye, which made him think of her falsehood (for it was a falsehood, unquestionably) about Flor and the grain of sand. He looked with real suspicion now at the sand, probably treacherous with broken bottles, and at the sea, which, though blue and sparkling, was probably full of germs. Even the sky was violated; across the face of it an airplane was writing the name of a drink.
“Oh, my sweet heaven!” Bonnie said. She stood still, clutching Wishart by the arm, and said it again. “Sweet heaven! Well, there she is. There’s Flor. But that’s not the Turk from Turkey. No, Wishart, her mother is to have a treat. She’s got a new one. Oh, my sweet heaven, Wishart, where does she find them?”
“I expect she meets them in trains.”
From that distance he could admire Bonnie’s girl, thin and motionless, with brown skin and red hair. She leaned on the low wall, looking down at the sea, braced on her arms, as tense as if the decision between this beach and some other one was to decide the course of her life. “She does have extraordinary coloring,” he said, as generously as he could.
“She gets it from me,” said Bonnie, shortly, as if she had never noticed her own hair was brown.
The man with Florence was stocky and dark. He wore sneakers, tartan swimming trunks of ample cut, a gold waterproof watch, a gold medal on a chain, and a Swedish-university cap some sizes too small. He carried a net bag full of diving equipment. His chest was bare.
“Well, I don’t know,” Bonnie said. “I just don’t know.”
By a common silent decision, the two rejected the beach and turned and came toward Bonnie. They made an impression as harsh and unpoetical as the day. The sun had burned all expression from their faces—smooth brown masks, in which their eyes, his brown and hers green, shone like colored glass. Even though Wishart had never dared allow himself close relations, he was aware of their existence to a high degree. He could detect an intimate situation from a glance, or a quality of silence. It was one more of his gifts, but he would have been happier without it. Pushed by forces he had not summoned or invented, he had at these moments a victim’s face—puzzled, wounded, bloodless, coarse. The gap between the two couples closed. Bonnie had taken on a dreamy, vacant air; she was not planning to help.
“This is Bob Harris,” Florence said. “He’s from New York.”
“I guessed that,” Bonnie said.
It was plain to Wishart that the new man, now sincerely shaking hands all around, had no idea that Mrs. McCarthy might want to demolish him.
Every day after that, the four met on Bonnie’s beach and lunched in a restaurant Bonnie liked. If Wishart had disapproved of the beach, it was nothing compared to the restaurant, which was full of Bonnie’s new friends. Wine—Algerian pink—came out of a barrel, there were paper flags stuck in the butter, the waiters were insolent and barefoot, the menu was written on a slate and full of obscene puns. Everyone knew everyone, and Wishart could have murdered Bonnie. He was appalled at her thinking he could possibly like the place, but remembered that her attitude was the result of years of neuter camaraderie. It didn’t matter. On the tenth of July he was expected in Venice. It was not a pattern of life.
It seemed to Wishart that Bonnie was becoming silly with age. She had developed a piercing laugh, and the affected drawl was becoming real. Her baiting of Bob Harris was too direct to be funny, and her antagonism was forming a bond between them—the last thing on earth she wanted. Bob had the habit of many Americans of constantly repeating the name of the person he was talking to. Bonnie retaliated by calling him Bob Harris, in full, every time she spoke to him, and this, combined with her slightly artificial voice, made him ask, “Is that a Southern accent you’ve got, Mrs. McCarthy?”
“Well, it just might be, Bob Harris!” Bonnie cried, putting one on. But it was a movie accent; she did it badly, and it got on Wishart’s nerves. “Well, that’s a nice breeze that’s just come up,” she would say, trailing the vowels. “We’re certainly a nice little party, aren’t we? It’s nice being four.” Nice being four? Nice for Wishart—the adored, the sought-after, Europe’s troubadour? He closed his eyes and thought of Mrs. Sebastian, Venice, shuttered rooms, green canals.
Then Florence burst out with something. Wishart guessed that these cheeky outbursts, fit for a child of twelve, were innocent attempts to converse. Because of the way her mother had dragged her around, because she had never been part of a fixed society, she didn’t know how people talked; she had none of the coins of light exchange. She said in an excited voice, “The Fox, the Ape, the Bumblebee were all at odds, being three, and then the Goose came out the door, and stayed the odds by making four. We’re like that. Mama’s a lovely bumblebee and I’m fox-colored.” This left Wishart the vexing choice between being a goose and an ape, and he was the more distressed to hear Bob say placidly that it wasn’t the first time he had been called a big ape. All at once it seemed to him preferable to be an ape than a goose.
“Have you got many friends in Paris, Bob Harris?” said Bonnie, who had seen Wishart’s face pucker and shrink.
“Last year I had to send out one hundred and sixty-nine Christmas cards,” said Bob simply. “I don’t mean cards for the firm.”
“The Bambino of the Eiffel Tower? Something real Parisian?”
Bob looked down, with a smile. He seemed to feel sorry for Mrs. McCarthy, who didn’t know about the cards people sent now—nondenominational, either funny or artistic, depending
on your friends.
He stayed in one of the spun-sugar palaces on the Croisette, and Wishart’s anguished guess had been correct: Flor went to his room afternoons, while Bonnie was having her rest. The room was too noisy, too bright, and it was Flor who seemed most at ease, adjusting the blind so that slats of shade covered the walls, placing her clothes neatly on a chair. She seemed to Bob exclusive, a prize, even though the evidence was that they were both summer rats. He had met her in a café one afternoon. He saw his own shadow on her table, and himself, furtive, ratlike, looking for trouble.
Wishart had decided that Bob was no problem where he was concerned. His shrewdness was not the variety likely to threaten Wishart, and he took up Flor’s time, leaving Bonnie free to listen to Wishart’s chat. He did not desire Bonnie to himself as a lover might, but he did want to get on with his anecdotes without continual interruptions.
Alone with him, Bonnie was the person Wishart liked. When they laughed together on the beach, it was like the old days, when she had seemed so superior, enchanting, and bright. They lived out the fantasy essential to Wishart; he might have been back in London saying and thinking “Cannes.” They had worked out their code of intimate jokes for the season; they called Bonnie’s young friends “les fleurs et couronnes,” and they made fun of French jargon, with its nervous emphasis on “moderne” and “dynamique.” When Bonnie called Wishart “un homme du vingtième siècle, moderne et dynamique,” they were convulsed. Flor and Bob, a little apart, regarded them soberly, as if they were a pair of chattering squirrels.
“Wishart is one of Mama’s best friends,” said Flor, apologizing for this elderly foolishness. “I’ve never liked him. I think he thinks they’re like Oberon and Titania, you know—all malice and showing off. Wishart would love to have wings and power and have people do as he says. He’s always seemed wormy to me. Have you noticed that my mother pays for everything?”
In point of fact, Bob paid for everything now. He expected to; it was as essential to his nature as it was to Wishart’s to giggle and sneer. “Wishart doesn’t like the way I look. The hell with him,” he said placidly.
Lying on her back on the sand, Flor shaded her eyes to see him properly. He was turned away. He seemed casual, indifferent, but she knew that he stayed on in Cannes because of her. His holiday was over, and his father, business- and family-minded, was waiting for him in Paris. The discovery of Flor had disturbed Bob. Until now he had liked much younger girls, with straight hair and mild, anxious eyes; girls who were photographed in the living room wearing printed silk and their mother’s pearls. His ideal was the image of some minor Germanic princess, whose nickname might be Mousie, and who, at sixteen, at twenty-nine, at fifty-three, seems to wear the same costume, the same hair, and the same air of patient supplication until a husband can be found. This picture, into which he had tried to fit so many women, now proved accommodating; the hair became red, the features hardened, the hands were thin and brown. She stared at him with less hopeless distress. At last the bland young woman became Flor, and he did not remember having held in his mind’s eye any face but hers, just as he would never expect to look in the mirror one morning and see any face except his own.
“Bob is just a deep, creative boy looking for a girl with a tragic sense of life,” Wishart said to Bonnie, who laughed herself to tears, for, having tried to trap Bob into saying “Stateside” and “drapes” and having failed, she needed new confirmation of his absurdity. The conversation of the pair, devoid of humor, was repeated by Wishart or Bonnie—whichever was close enough to hear. “Do you know what they’re talking about now?” was a new opening for discussion, amazement, and, finally, helpless laughter.
“They’re on birds today,” Wishart would say, with a deliberately solemn face.
They collapsed, heaving with laughter, as if in a fit. The fleurs et couronnes, out of sympathy, joined in.
“Do you know what bothered me most when I first came over here?” Wishart had heard Flor say. “We were in England then, and I didn’t recognize a single tree or a single bird. They looked different, and the birds had different songs. A robin wasn’t a robin anymore. It was terrible. It frightened me more than anything. And they were so drab. Everything was brown and gray. There aren’t any red-winged blackbirds, you know—nothing with a bright flash.”
“Aren’t there?” The urban boy tried to sound surprised. Wis-hart sympathized. The only quality he shared with Bob was ignorance of nature.
“Didn’t you know? That’s what’s missing here, in everything. There’s color enough, but you don’t know how I miss it—the bright flash.”
Bob saw the sun flash off a speedboat, and everywhere he looked he saw color and light. The cars moving along the Croisette were color enough.
“Will you always live here now?” said Flor. “Will you never live at home again?”
“It depends on my father. I came over to learn, and I’m practically running the whole Paris end. It’s something.”
“Do you like business?”
“Do you mean do I wish I was an actor or something?” He gave her a resentful look, and the shadow of their first possible difference fell over the exchange.
“My father never did anything much,” she said. Her eyes were closed, and she talked into the sun. The sun bleached her words. Any revelation was just chat. “Now they say he drinks quite a lot. But that’s none of my business. He married a really dull thing, they say. He and Mama are Catholics, so they don’t believe in their own divorce. At least, Mama doesn’t.”
He noticed that Flor kissed her mother anxiously when they met, as if they had been parted for days, or as if he had taken Flor to another country. The affection between the two women pleased him. His own mother, having died, had elevated the notion of motherhood. He liked people who got on with their parents and suspected those who did not.
“I suppose he thinks he shouldn’t be living with his second wife,” Flor said. “If he still believes.”
“How about you?”
“I’d believe anything I thought would do me or Mama any good.”
This seemed to him insufficient. He expected women to be religious. He gave any amount of money to nuns.
These dialogues, which Wishart heard from a distance while seeming to concentrate on his tan, and which he found so dull and discouraging that the pair seemed mentally deficient, were attempts to furnish the past. Flor was perplexed by their separate pasts. She saw Bob rather as Bonnie did, but with a natural loyalty to him that was almost as strong as a family tie. She believed she was objective, detached; then she discovered he had come down to Cannes from Paris with a Swedish girl, the student from whom he had inherited the cap. Knowing that “student” in Europe is a generous term, covering a boundless field of age as well as activity, she experienced the hopeless jealousy a woman feels for someone she believes inferior to herself. It was impossible for Bonnie’s daughter to achieve this inferiority; she saw the man already lost. The girl and Bob had lived together, in his room. Flor’s imagination constructed a spiteful picture of a girl being cute and Swedish and larking about in his pajamas. Secretly flattered, he said no, she was rather sickly and quiet. Her name was Eve. She was off somewhere traveling on a bus. Cards arrived bearing the sticky imprint of her lips—a disgusting practice. Trembling with feigned indifference, Flor grabbed the cap and threw it out the window. It landed on the balcony of the room below.
Bob rescued the cap, and kept it, but he gave up his hotel and moved into Flor’s. The new room was better. It was quiet, dark, and contained no memories. It was in the basement, with a window high in one wall. The walls were white. There was sand everywhere, in the cracked red tiles of the floor, in the chinks of the decaying armchair, caked to the rope soles of their shoes. It seemed to Flor that here the grit of sand and salt came into their lives and their existence as a couple began. When the shutters were opened, late in the afternoon, they let in the peppery scent of geraniums and the view of a raked gravel path. There must have been a four-season mimosa nearby; the wind sent minute yellow pompons against the sill, and often a gust of sweetish perfume came in with the dying afternoon.
Flor had not mentioned the change to Bonnie, but, inevitably, Bonnie met her enemy at the desk, amiable and arrogant, collecting his key. “Has that boy been here all along?” she cried, in despair. She insisted on seeing his room. She didn’t know what she expected to find, but, as she told Wishart, she had a right to know. Bob invited her formally. She came with Flor one afternoon, both dressed in white, with skirts like lampshades, Bonnie on waves of Femme. He saw for the first time that the two were alike, and perhaps inseparable; they had a private casual way of speaking, and laughed at the same things. It was like seeing a college friend in his own background, set against his parents, his sisters, his mother’s taste in books. He offered Bonnie peanuts out of a tin, brandy in a toothbrush glass. He saw everything about her except that she was attractive, and here their difference of age was in the way. Bob and Florence avoided sitting on the lumpy bed, strewn with newspapers and photographs. That was Bonnie’s answer. They knew she knew; Bonnie left in triumph, with an air she soon had cause to change. Now that Bonnie knew, the lovers spent more time together. They no longer slipped away during Bonnie’s rest; they met when they chose and stayed away as long as they liked. If they kept a pretense of secrecy, it was because to Bob a façade of decency was needed. He had not completely lost sight of the beseeching princess into whose outline Flor had disappeared.
When he and Flor were apart, he found reason to doubt. She had told him the birds of Europe were not like the birds at home, but what about human beings? She never mentioned them. The breath of life for him was contained in relations, in his friendships, in which he did not distinguish between the random and the intense. All his relationships were of the same quality. She had told him that this room was like a place she had imagined. The only difference was that her imagined room was spangled, bright, perfectly silent, and full of mirrors. Years after this, he could say to himself “Cannes” and evoke a season of his life, with all the sounds, smells, light and dark that the season had contained; but he never remembered accurately how it had started or what it had been like. Their intimacy came first, then love, and some un-clouded moments. Like most lovers, he believed that the beginning was made up of these moments only, and he would remember Flor’s silent, mirrored room and believe it was their room at Cannes, and that he had lived in it, too.
One afternoon at the beginning of July, they fell asleep in this room, the real room, and when Flor woke it was dark. She knew it had begun to rain by the quickening in the air. She got up quietly and opened the shutters. A car came into the hotel drive; a bar of light swept across the ceiling and walls. She thought that what she felt now came because of the passage of light. It was a concrete sensation of happiness, as if happiness could be felt, lifted, carried around. She had not experienced anything of the kind before. She was in a watery world of perceptions, where impulses, doubts, intentions, detached from their roots, rise to the surface and expand. The difference between Bob and herself was that he had no attachments to the past. This was what caused him to seem inferior in her mother’s view of life. He had told them freely that his father was self-educated and that his mother’s parents were illiterate. There were no family records more than a generation old. Florence had been taught to draw her support from continuity and the past. Now she saw that the chain of fathers and daughters and mothers and sons had been powerless as a charm. In trouble, mistrusting her own capacity to think or move or enjoy living, she was alone. She saw that being positive of even a few things—that she was American, and pretty, and Christian, and Bonnie’s girl—had not helped. Bob Harris didn’t know his mother’s maiden name, and his father’s father had come out of a Polish ghetto, but Bob was not specifically less American than Florence, nor less proud. He was, if anything, more assertive and sure.
She closed the shutters and came toward him quietly, so that he would not wake and misinterpret her drawing near. Lacking an emotional country, it might be possible to consider another person one’s home. She pressed her face against his unmoving arm, accepting everything imperfect, as one accepts a faulty but beloved country, or the language in which one’s thoughts are formed. It was the most dangerous of ideas, this “Only you can save me,” but her need to think it was so overwhelming that she wondered if this was what men, in the past, had been trying to say when they had talked to her about love.
The rainstorm that afternoon was not enough. Everyone agreed more rain was needed. Rain was wanted to wash the sand, clean the sea, cool their tempers, rinse the hot roofs of the bathing cab- ins along the beach. When Wishart thought “Cannes” now, it was not light, dark, and blueness but sand, and cigarette butts, and smears of oil. At night the heat and the noise of traffic kept him awake. He lay patient and motionless, with opened owl eyes. He and Bonnie compared headaches at breakfast; Bonnie’s was like something swelling inside the brain, a cluster of balloons, while Wishart’s was external, a leather band.
He could not understand what Bonnie was doing in this place; she had been so fastidious, rejecting a resort when it became too popular, seeming to him to have secret mysterious friends and places to go to. He still believed she would not be here, fighting through mobs of sweating strangers every time she wanted a slopped cup of coffee or a few inches of sand, if there had not been a reason—if she had not been expecting something real.
After a time, he realized that Bonnie was not waiting for anything to happen, and that her air of expectancy the day he arrived had been false. If she had expected anything then, she must have believed it would come through him. She talked now of the futility of travel. She said that Flor was cold and shallow and had broken her heart. There was no explanation for this, except that Flor was not fulfilling Bonnie’s hopes and plans. Self-pity followed; she said that she, Bonnie, would spend the rest of her life like a bit of old paper on the beach, cast up, beaten by waves, and so forth. She didn’t care what rubbish she said to him, and she no longer tried to be gay. Once she said, “It’s no good, Wishart; she’s never been a woman. How can she feel what I feel? She’s never even had her periods. We’ve done everything—hormones, God knows what all. I took her to Zurich. She was so passive, she didn’t seem to know it was important. Sometimes I think she’s dumb. She has these men—I don’t know how far she goes. I think she’s innocent. Yes, I really do. I don’t want to think too much. It’s nauseating when you start to think of your own daughter that way. But she’s cold. I know she’s cold. That’s why we have no contact now. That’s why we have no contact anymore. I’ve never stopped being a woman. Thank God for it. If I haven’t married again, it hasn’t been because I haven’t men after me. Wishart! It’s tragic for me to see that girl. I’m fifty and I’m still a woman, and she’s twenty-four and a piece of ice.”
He was lying beside her on the sand. He pulled his straw hat over his face, perfectly appalled. It was a pure reaction, unplanned. If he let his thoughts move without restraint into the world of women, he discovered an area dimly lighted and faintly disgusting, like a kitchen in a slum. It was a world of migraines, miscarriages, disorder, and tears.
Another day, complaining of how miserable her life had been in Europe, she said, “I stopped noticing when the seasons changed. Someone would say that the trees were in bud. I hadn’t even noticed that the leaves were gone. I stopped noticing everything around me, I was so concentrated on Flor.”
She talked to him about money, which was new. When he discovered she was poor, she dwindled, for then she had nothing to make her different or better than anyone else. She had always been careful over pennies, but he had believed it was the passionate stinginess of the rich. But she was no better than Wishart; she was dependent on bounty, too. “I get no income at all, except from my brothers. And Stanley isn’t required to support me, although he should, as I’ve had the burden of the child. And Flor’s money is tied up in some crazy way until she’s thirty. My father tied it up that way because of my divorce; he never trusted me again. Believe me, he paid for it. I never sent him as much as a postcard from that day until the day he died. Family, Wishart! God! Lovely people, but when it comes to m-o-n-e-y,” she said, spelling it out. “Flor’s allowance from Stanley was only until her majority, and now he hardly sends her anything at all. He forgets. He isn’t made to do anything. She’ll have to wait now until he dies. They say the way he’s living now there won’t be anything left. Wishart, my brain clangs like a cash register when I think about it. I never used to worry at all, but now I can’t stop.”
“You thought she would be married by the time her allowance from Stanley stopped,” Wishart said. No tone could make this less odious. He thought he had gone too far, and was blaming her for having started it, when she relieved him by being simply angry.
“Do you think it’s easy? Marriage proposals don’t grow on trees. I can’t understand it. I had so many.”
Their conversation showed how worn their friendship had become. It was used down to the threads; they had no tolerance for each other anymore, and nothing new to give. They were more intimate than they needed to be. He blamed her. He had tried to keep it bright. Once, Bob had asked Bonnie why she lived in Europe, and Wishart had replied, “Bonnie had Flor and then, worn out with childbearing, retired to a permanently sunny beach.” This was a flattering version of Bonnie’s divorce and flight from home. “Don’t you listen,” Bonnie had said, immensely pleased. (She was pleased on another count: they were sitting on the outer edge of a café, and Bob was repeatedly jostled by the passing crowd. He had once said he liked people and didn’t mind noise, and Bonnie saw to it that he had a basinful of both when it could be managed.) Wishart wanted their holiday to go on being as it had sounded when he said, in London, “I am going to Cannes to stay with a delightful American friend.” The American friend now questioned Wishart about his plans. He perceived with horror that she was waiting for a suggestion from him. He might have been flattered by Bonnie’s clinging to him, but in friendship he was like a lover who can only adore in pursuit. In a few days, he would be in Venice with Mrs. Sebastian—blessed Mrs. Sebastian, authentically rich. Snubbing Bonnie, he talked Venice to the fleurs et couronnes. Rejected by Wishart, abandoned by Flor, Bonnie took on a new expression; even more than Wishart, she looked like the failed comedian afflicted with dreams. He knew it, and was pleased, as if in handing over a disease he had reduced its malignant powers. Then, in time to bump him off his high horse, Wishart received a letter from Mrs. Sebastian putting him off until August. There were no apologies and no explanations; she simply told him not to come. He remembered then that she was cold and vulgar, and that she drank too much, and that, although she was a hefty piece, her nickname was Peewee and she insisted on being called by it. She was avaricious and had made Wishart pay her for a bottle of ddt and a spray one summer when the mosquitoes were killing him. He remembered that in American terms Bonnie was someone and Mrs. Sebastian nothing at all. Bonnie became generous, decent, elegant, and essential to Wishart’s life. He turned to her as if he had been away; but as far as she was concerned he had been away, and he had lost ground. The dark glasses that seemed to condense the long curve of the beach into a miniature image were turned elsewhere. Even a diminished, penitent Wishart could not see his own reflection.
For her part, Bonnie was finding her withering Marchbanks tedious. His pursy prejudices no longer seemed delicious humor. He made the mistake of telling her a long, name-studded story of school politics and someone trying to get his job. It established him in reality—a master afraid for his grubby post—and reality was not what Bonnie demanded. She had enough reality on her hands: in the autumn that girl would be twenty-five.
Wishart tried to get back on their old plane. “Distract her,” he said lazily. “Move on. Divert her with culture. Inspect the cathedrals and museums. Take her to the Musée de l’Homme.”
“You don’t meet any men in museums,” said Bonnie, as if this were a sore point. “Anyway, what’s the good? She only comes to life for slobs.” After a moment she said quietly, “Don’t you see, that’s not what I want for Flor. I don’t want her to marry just anybody. It may sound funny to you, but I don’t even want an American. They’ve always let me down. My own brothers—But I don’t want to go into it again. I want a European, but not a Latin, and one who has lived in the States and has had the best of both. I want someone much older than Flor, because she needs that, and someone I can trust. That’s what I want for my girl, and that’s what I meant when I said proposals don’t grow on trees. Neither do men.” But what did Wishart know about men? He was a woman-haunter, woman’s best friend. She put on her sunglasses in order to hide her exasperation with him, because he was a man but not the right person.
Her expression was perfectly blank. There was no doubt now, no other way of interpreting it. In spite of his recent indifference to her, she had not changed her mind. Wishart was being offered Flor. He had never been foolish enough to dream of a useful marriage. He knew that his choice one season might damn him the next. He had thought occasionally of a charming but ignorant peasant child, whom he could train; he had the town boy’s blurry vision of country people. Unfortunately, he had never met anyone of the kind. Certainly his peasant bride, who was expected to combine with her exceptional beauty a willingness to clean his shoes, was not Flor.
This was not the moment for false steps. He saw himself back in America with a lame-brained but perfect wife. Preposterous ideas made him say in imagined conversations, “The mother was a charmer; I married the daughter.”
He forgot the dangers, and what it would be like to have Bonnie as a mother-in-law. A secret hope unfurled and spread. He got up, and in a blind, determined way began to walk across the beach. Not far away the lovers lay on the sand, facing each other, half asleep. Flor’s arm was under her head, straight up. He saw Bob’s back, burned nearly black, and Flor’s face. They were so close that their breath must have mingled. Their intimacy seemed to Wishart established; it contained an implicit allegiance, like a family tie, with all the antagonism that might suggest as well. While he was watching, they came together. Wishart saw that Flor remained outside the kiss. Two laurels with one root. Where had he heard that? Each was a missing part of the other’s character, and the whole, in the kiss, should have been unflawed.
Flor wondered what it was like for a man to kiss her, and remembered words from men she had not loved. It was a narcissism so shameful that she opened her eyes, and saw Wishart. He was the insect enemy met in an underground tunnel, the small, scratching watcher, the boneless witness of an insect universe—a tiny, scuttling universe that contained her mother, the pop-eyed Corsican proprietor of this beach, the fleurs et couronnes, her mother’s procession of very best most intimate friends. (Before Wishart a bestial countess, to whom Flor, as a girl, had been instructed to be nice.) In a spasm of terror, which Bob mistook for abandonment, she clung to him. He was outside this universe and from a better place.
Wishart returned to Bonnie and sank down beside her on the sand, adjusting his bony legs as if they were collapsible umbrellas. If he continued in error, it was Bonnie’s fault, for she went on again about men, the right man, and Flor. The wind dropped. Cannes settled into the stagnant afternoon. The fleursetcouronnes were down from their naps and chattering like budgerigars. Bonnie had been polishing her sunglasses on the edge of a towel. She stopped, holding them, staring. “Last night I dreamed my daughter was a mermaid,” she said. “What does it mean? Wishart, you know all about those things. What does it mean?”
“Ravissant,” said one of her court. “I see the blue sea and the grottoes, everything coral and blue. Coral green and coral blue.”
“There is no such thing as coral blue,” said Wishart mechanically.
“And Florence, la belle Florence, floating and drifting, the bright hair spread like—”
“She sang and she floated, she floated and sang,” took up a minor figure who resembled a guppy. At a look from Bonnie he gave a great gasp and shut up.
“It was nothing like that at all,” said Bonnie snappily. “It was an ugly fishtail, like a carp’s. It was just like a carp’s, and the whole thing was a great handicap. The girl simply couldn’t walk. She lay there on the ground and couldn’t do a thing. Everybody stared at us. It was a perfectly hopeless dream, and I woke up in a state of greatdistress.”
Wishart had been so disturbed by the kiss that moved into blankness. He could not form a coherent thought. What interested him, finally, was the confirmation of his suspicion that Flor was a poseuse. How conceited she had been, lying there exploring her own sensations as idly as a tourist pouring sand from one hand into the other. He recalled the expression in her eyes— shrewd, ratty eyes, he thought, not the eyes of a goddess—and he knew that she feared and loathed him and might catch him out. “It won’t do,” he said to Bonnie.
“It wouldn’t do, a marriage with Flor.” He heard the words, “She has a crack across the brain,” but was never certain afterward if he had said them aloud.
Bonnie turned her pink, shadowed face to him in purest amazement. She noticed that Wishart’s eyes were so perturbed and desperate that they were almost beyond emotion—without feeling, like those of a bird. Then she looked up to the sky, where the plane was endlessly and silently writing the name of a drink. She said, “I wish he would write something for us, something useful.” His mistake in thinking that Bonnie considered him an equal and would want him for her daughter had been greater than the gaffe about Flor. Everything trembled and changed; even the color of the sky seemed extraordinary. Wishart was fixed and paralyzed in this new landscape, wondering if he was doing or saying anything strange, unable to see or stop himself. It was years since he had been the victim of such a fright. He had believed that Bonnie accepted him at his value. He had believed that the exact miniature he saw in her sunglasses was the Wishart she accepted, the gentleman he had glimpsed in the store window that first day. He had thought that the inflection of a voice, the use of some words, established them as a kind. But Bonnie had never believed in the image. She had never considered him anything but jumped-up. He remembered now that she had never let him know her family back home, had never suggested he meet her brothers.
When Bonnie dared look again, Wishart was picking his way into the sea. He was wearing his hat. He did not mind seeming foolish, and believed eccentricity added to his stature. After standing for a time, knee-deep, looking, with the expression of a brooding camel, first at the horizon and then back to shore, he began to pick his way out again. The water was too dirty for swimming, even if the other bathers had left him room. “Large colored balls were being flung over my head, and sometimes against it,” he composed, describing for future audiences the summer at Cannes. “The shrieking children of butchers were being taught to swim.”
Farther along the beach, Bob Harris carried two bottles of beer, crowned with inverted paper cups, down to Flor. Bonnie watched without emotion. Their figures were motionless, printed against her memory, arrested in heat and the insupportable noise.
Everyone around Bonnie was asleep. The sirocco, unsteady, pulled her parasol about on the sand. Sitting, knees bent, she clasped her white feet. There was not a blemish on them. The toes were straight, the heels rosy. She had tended her feet like twin infants, setting an example for Flor. Once, exasperated by Flor’s neglect, she had gone down on her knees and taken Flor’s feet on her lap and shown her how it ought to be done. She had creamed and manicured and pumiced, while Flor, listless, surreptitiously trying to get on with a book, said, “Oh, Mama, I can do it.” “But you won’t, honey. You simply don’t take care of yourself unless I’m there.” She had polished and tended her little idol, and for whom? For a Turk not sixty-three inches high. For Bob Harris in tartan trunks. It was no use; the minutes and hours had passed too quickly. She was perplexed by the truth that had bothered her all her life—that there was no distance between time and events. Everything raced to a point beyond her reach and sight. Everyone slid out of her grasp: her husband, her daughter, her friends. She let herself fall back. Her field of vision closed in, and from the left came the first, swimming molecules of pain.
Wishart, returning from the sea, making a detour to avoid be- ing caught up and battered in a volleyball game, came up to Bonnie unobserved. Patting his yellowed skin with a towel, he watched the evolution of his friend’s attack. Her face was half in sun. She twisted to find the shadow of the rolling parasol. Bitter, withdrawn, he was already pulling about himself the rags of imaginary Wishart: the squire father; Mrs. Sebastian, rolling in money above the Grand Canal. Bonnie believed she was really dying this time, and wondered if Flor could see.
Flor said, “I think Mama has one of her headaches.”
“You two watch each other, don’t you?” Bob Harris said.
A haze had gone over the sky. She finished her beer, spread her striped beach towel a little away from him, and lay still. He had told her that his father had telephoned from Paris, and that this time it was an order. He was leaving soon, perhaps the next day. This was July. The summer, a fruit already emptied by wasps, still hung on its tree. He was leaving. When he had gone, she would hear the question, the ghost voice that speaks to every traveler: “Why did you come to this place?” Until now, she had known; she was somewhere or other with her mother because her mother could not settle down, because every rented flat and villa was a horrible parody of home, or the home she ought to have given Flor. When he had gone, she would know without illusion that she was in Cannes in a rotting season, that the rot was reality, and that there was no hope in the mirrored room.
“Are you coming to Paris later on?” he asked. His father was waiting; he spoke with a sense of urgency, like someone trying to ring off, holding the receiver, eyes wandering around the room.
“I don’t know. I don’t know where we’ll go from here, or how long Mama will stay. She and Wishart always finish with a fight, and Mama loses her head and we go rushing off. All our relations at home think we have such a glamorous life. Did you ever go out in the morning and find a spider’s web spangled with dew?” she said suddenly. “You’ll never find that here. It’s either too hot and dry or it rains so much the spider drowns. At my grandmother’s place, you know, summers, I used to ride, oh, early, early in the morning, with my cousins. All my cousins were boys.” Her voice was lost as she turned her head away.
“Flor, why don’t you go home?”
“I can’t leave my mother, and she won’t go. Maybe I don’t dare. She used to need me. Maybe now I need her. What would I do at home? My grandmother is dead. I haven’t got a home. I know I sound as if I feel sorry for myself, but I haven’t got anything.”
“You’ve got your mother,” he said. “There’s me.”
Now it was here—the circumstance that Bonnie had loathed and desired. He moved closer and spoke with his lips to Flor’s ear, playing with her hair, as if they were alone on the beach or in his room. He remembered the basement room as if they would never be in it again. He remembered her long hair, the wrinkled sheets, the blanket thrown back because of the heat. It was the prophetic instant; in it was the compression of feeling that occurs in childhood and in dreams. Wishart passed them; his shadow fell over their feet. They were obliged to look up and see his onion skin and pickled eyes. They were polite. No one could have said that they had agreed in that moment to change the movement of four lives, and had diverted the hopes, desires, and ambitions of Bonnie and of Bob’s father, guides whose direction had suddenly failed.
Wishart went back to his hotel. It was the hour when people who lived in pensions began to straggle up from the sea. Whole families got in Wishart’s way. They were badly sunburned, smelled of Ambre Solaire and Skol, and looked as if they couldn’t stand each other’s company another day. Wishart bathed and changed. He walked to the post office and then to the station to see about a bus. He was dryly forgiving when people stepped on his feet, but looked like someone who will never accept an apology again. He sent a telegram to an American couple he knew who had a house near Grasse. He had planned to skip them this year; the husband disliked him. (The only kind of husband Wishart felt easy with was the mere morsel, the half-digested scrap.) But he could not stay with Bonnie now, and Mrs. Sebastian had put him off. He summed up his full horror of Cannes in a heart-rending message that began, “Very depressed,” but he did not sign a funny name, for fear of making the husband cross. He signed his own name and pocketed the change and went off to the station. This time he and Bonnie were parting without a quarrel.
That night there was a full moon. Bonnie woke up suddenly, as if she had become conscious of a thief in the room; but it was only Flor, wearing the torn bathrobe she had owned since she was fourteen and that Bonnie never managed to throw away. She was holding a glass of water in her hand, and looking down at her sleeping mother.
“Flor, is anything wrong?”
“I was thirsty.” She put the glass on the night table and sank down on the floor, beside her mother.
“That Wishart,” said Bonnie, now fully awake and beginning to stroke Flor’s hair. “He really takes himself for something.”
“What is he taking himself for?”
Bonnie stroked her daughter’s hair, thinking, My mermaid, my prize. The carp had vanished from the dream, leaving an iridescent Flor. No one was good enough for Florence. That was the meaning of the dream. “Your hair is so stiff, honey. It’s full of salt. I wish you’d wear a bathing cap. Flor, have you got a fever or something?” She wants to tell me something, Bonnie thought. Let it be anything except about that boy. Let it be anything but that.
At dawn, Wishart, who had been awake most of the night, buckled his suitcase. No porter was around at that hour. He walked to the station in streets where there was still no suggestion of the terrible day. The southern scent, the thin distillation of lemons and geraniums, descended from the hills. Then heat began to tremble; Vespas raced along the port; the white-legged grub tourists came down from the early train. Wishart thought of his new hostess—academic, a husk. She chose the country behind Grasse because of the shades of Gide and Saint-Ex—ghosts who would keep away from her if they knew what was good for them. He climbed into the bus and sat down among workingmen who had jobs in Grasse, and the sea dropped behind him as he was borne away.
In the rocking bus, his head dropped. He knew that he was in a bus and traveling to Grasse, but he saw Glad, aged twelve, going off at dawn with her lunch wrapped in an apron. What about the dirty, snotty baby boy who hung on her dress, whose fingers she had to pry loose one at a time, only to have the hand clamp shut again, tighter than before? Could this be Wishart, clinging, whining, crying “Stay with me”? But Wishart was awake and not to be trapped. He took good care not to dream, and when the bus drew in at Grasse, under the trees, and he saw his new, straw-thin hostess (chignon, espadrilles, peasant garden hat), he did not look like a failed actor assailed with nightmares but a smooth and pleasant schoolmaster whose sleep is so deep that he never dreams at all.