A Review of “A Friendship” by William Trevor from the “After Rain” collection

William Trevor often makes me laugh. There are situations in his novel, “The Old Boys” that I remember at odd times and that make me laugh out loud no matter where I am. And this story does the same, but only at the beginning. It’s a thing that William Trevor does – you think the story is about one thing but it turns into something else entirely. The friendship in question is between Francesca, married to pompous Philip and with two sons, and Margy who livens up Francesca’s life with tales of her various love affairs. The two have been friends since childhood but have very little in common. As Trevor says:

“Their common ground was the friendship itself.”

Francesca seems an ethereal creature, tall and blonde, hardly aware of her surroundings, or of what her boys are up to. Margy, however, sees everything, She is small, dark, quick, with a touch of spite, especially where Francesca’s husband is concerned. And this spite is what eventually wrecks the friendship. Philip doesn’t help  himself however; he is known as “bad news” in their dinner circle:

” . . . he displayed little interest in the small-talk that was, increasingly desperately, levelled at him . . . he was not ill at ease; others laboured, never he.”

Margy, on the pretense that it was time she thought about settling down, proposes that they contact their old college friend, Sebastian. But Sebastian had always fancied Francesca, and shortly after they all meet up for lunch, he and Francesca begin an affair. Margy facilitates this by lending them her apartment from time to time.  Philip finds out by accident, a slip in conversation:

“Oh heavens, I’ve said the wrong thing!”

Philip pretends that he and Francesca often meet up with Sebastian. He confronts Francesca, who is contrite and says it wasn’t much. They have a row, clear the air, and decide to continue as before, with one difference:

“‘Drop me?’, Margy said, and Francesca nodded . . . ‘It’s how Philip feels.'”

“On the pavement . . . they stood for a moment in a chill November wind, then moved away in their two different directions.”

This is the body of the story, but it begins with Francesca’s two sons, aged six and eight, pouring wet cement into their father’s new golf bag, complete with new clubs. Even thinking about this makes me laugh. Trevor writes it down in such a matter of fact way, without as much as an exclamation mark.

“Sharing the handle of the bucket, they found they could manage to convey their load . . . they had practised; they knew what they were doing.”

“‘We know nothing about it,’ Jason instructed his brother. ‘Nothing about it,’ Ben obediently repeated.”

Francesca is oblivious; Margy sees it straight away but says nothing and the four sit down to lunch. Ben decides to break the monotonous silence and mentions his teacher:

“‘Miss Martindale’s mother died . . . a man interfered with her.'”

His mother is shocked but Margy is amused.

“Ben said all the girls had cried, that Miss Martindale herself had cried, that her face was creased and funny because actually she’d been crying all night. Margy watched Jason worrying in case his brother went too far.”

And that’s all there is about the boys, except for a sentence to say that when tackled by their angry father they said it was just a joke. But for me, they make the story memorable. I loved the pair of them. Very often children are interesting and exciting and you wonder what will become of them. But generally very little does; they grow up and stop pouring cement into new golf bags.

The writing, as always, is delicious.

“Rosemary”

Rosemary always made Dominic wait outside the door until she was in the bed. He could feel the slackness in her thighs and arms; he didn’t have to look at it as well.

            “Come in,” she called when she was ready.

            Dominic bounced into the room half-undressed and dropped his shoes.

            “Wait now,” he said, and brought in a bottle of red wine and two glasses.

            “I’d have been here sooner but only young Andy, you know Andy, he gives me a hand sometimes for a bit of dosh . . . ah, that’s the best sound in the world,” he said as the wine gurgled into the glasses.

            “So, himself and another young fella stopped me going in to the shop. Booze, they wanted, trying to talk me into getting it for them. Well, I gave them a good telling off but sure they’d hardly listen to me – look like babies, the pair of them, skinny, wee feckers. A good feed would suit them – “

            “Did you shower before you came over?” Rosemary interrupted him, sniffing at his shoulder.

            “I can still smell fish.”

            “Well I did, Rosie.” Dominic got in beside her, wrapping himself in the duvet. “But the water wasn’t all that hot. Sure what harm is a smell of fish?”

            “No harm, I suppose, but I don’t want to be covered with fish scales. I’m not a bloody mermaid.”

            “God, Rosie, you’re a cruel woman sometimes. The smell of fish is a grand honest-to-God smell attached to a man going about the business of survival. Drink up now,” he said. “That will warm and sweeten you.”

            “Thanks.”

            Rosemary took a drink.

            “Dominic,” she said. “I won’t be able to see you for a while.”

            “Oh?” Dominic took Rosemary’s hand. “What is it, Rosie, my pet, my dear? Tell your old man.”

            “Oh, it’s all right, nothing tragic – just – I got a letter from Vera this morning, a letter if you don’t mind. You know her husband died – the horrible Tony. I went to the funeral, remember? She wants to come and stay for a while. She thinks I’m fading away from loneliness.”

            “Well you’re not.” Dominic squeezed her hand. “You’ve got me.”

            “I couldn’t tell her that. She’d have a heart attack.”

            Rosemary took a long drink and caught her breath.

            “You don’t know what she’s like. It’s a miracle she ever got herself pregnant . . . she said for a week or two but that could mean anything.”

            “Well, sure, well – will we not meet at all then?”

            “I don’t know. I don’t know what it’ll be like with someone here. Could you not get rid of your landlady now and again?”

            “Ha! Might as well try to get rid of – of – barnacles on an old boat.

            They were quiet for a minute and Dominic topped up their glasses.

            “What’s the woman like anyway?” he said. “Not like you by the sound of it.”

            “She’s neat and tidy and she wears shoes all the time. God, Dominic, I don’t know why she wants to stay with me – we never got on – and I’ve an awful feeling she’s thinking of something permanent.”

            Rosemary leaned over and set her glass on the locker.

            “Right,” she said. “I’m not going to think about her.”

            She put her arms around Dominic.

            “It’s getting late – are you not ready for action yet?”

            “Now, Rosie, don’t be rushing your old man. Didn’t I take my cod liver oil this morning? Will I stay the night? We could stock up for the few weeks!”

Read the rest of the story – and all the other interlinked stories in “WE ALL DIE IN THE END” on Amazon Kindle.

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“SISTER”

Here I will rest

My ashes falling

Into swirls of bog-brown water

In Spring perhaps

The river quiet and the birds gone mad

My ghost will hover –

A shape in powdered white

Casting chills on my attendants

Willows hang their leaves

Across the rush of water

Such an airy, fragile green

And I think of you –

Your airy, fragile spirit

Gone out of turn before me

Our childhood memories

All lop-sided now

A pulse of anger yet –

Why aren’t you here!

You should be here!

The mystery of your absence

Plagues me

I kneel beside your grave

Bend low to sense your soul

Breathe in the smell of earth.

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“Cloister”

Some days, I wish I’d been a nun

Cloistered, curtained by the hanging

Green of trees. pale apple green,

Serene cloak. Measured days and nights

Paced from hour to praying hour

No pride no lust no greed no lies

No loss no gain no pain no strife

But peace, pale apple green, serene

Soft poultice on the quick of life.

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FREE! One Scene . . . and a taster!

From “We All Die in the End”.

Scene I3: May

There was still thunder in the sky but it was far off now and the rain had stopped. The smell of the earth was strong and Henry breathed it in deeply, liking it. He didn’t mind graveyards; it was nice smoking in the dark with no one around. Not for long though – they’d be coming out soon. He might have stayed at home and let her walk. She’d think there was something wrong with him, coming to get her but he had to think ahead. If she had to walk up the shore road in the storm she’d be whinging and complaining; salt spray on her good coat, boo, hoo, hoo, and Henry wanted his dinner early. Was he to be left waiting just because May wanted to trot along to the church with all the other craw-thumpers? Twice a week she went, and money every time.

            Henry leaned in close to the grey wall of the church and listened to the singing. He could pick out the odd word – father, soul, heaven. He moved away, back among the graves. He didn’t want to be seen when the fools came out and he could hear shuffling now; the singing had come to an end.

            A sudden burst of light shone from the main door and people began to come out slowly, talking and stopping and starting. A group of women stood near the porch looking at the sky to see would it rain again and Henry squinted, trying to pick out May’s green coat. He felt a spit of rain and wondered if he could get to the car without being seen.

            “Godallmighty! Is that you, Henry Toal?”

            He heard a laugh behind him.

            “I thought you weren’t the praying type. I thought you’d go up in a ball of smoke if you were anywhere near the church!”

            “Very funny, Barney, very funny. Did you see May about? Is she saying extra prayers or what?”

            “Couldn’t say, I wasn’t in there myself, just taking the short cut. Will you be over for a pint later?”

            “Aye, after my dinner.”

            “See you so. Say one for me while you’re at it!”

            Jesus! Henry spat his cigarette to the ground when Barney had gone. He’d be the talk of the pub now. That gobshite would be saying all sorts, he’d make a production of it – Henry in among the graves, saying prayers! And where the bloody hell was May anyway? Leaving him like an eejit to be seen by the whole congregation! He stared up and down the street and turned back to the churchyard but it was empty. He took out his phone and rang her but only got the message minder.

            “For fuck sake!”

            He looked at his watch and stood helpless for a minute. Where could the woman be? Well, he’d soon see what she had to say for herself, and if she said nothing, a few belts would loosen her tongue.

            Henry drove home to a dark, lightless house. He turned up the heat and went into the kitchen; the kettle was stone cold. He lit a cigarette and thought about filling it but it wasn’t for him to do it. His stomach roared with hunger as he paced the room. What was May at? She must have lied, and she’d got money off him too.

            Henry stopped pacing. Maybe . . . maybe she had done this before. How would he know? Money for the collection! By God, he thought, I’ll give her a collection. She’ll be fucking well collected when I’m finished with her. He began to relish the thought of smacking her good and hard. It was months since he’d hit her; she’d be getting careless; time to sort her out again. She always cried and said she was sorry afterwards. She’d be sorry all right, sore and sorry. Henry closed his fists slowly, watching the muscles jump, but he’d wait till he’d had his dinner.

            He put out his cigarette and lit another and then he heard May’s step and the swing of the gate. The key was in the door and there she was, pulling off the green coat and patting her hair the way she did. She moved quickly, hardly looking at him, and there was a half-smile on her face. Henry felt his fists curl.

            “I suppose you’re starving.”

            May went into the kitchen.

            She felt the kettle and threw Henry a look over her shoulder.

            “Wouldn’t kill you to put it on, you know. You could have had a cup of tea anyway.”

            She laughed a giddy laugh.

            “Do you have to stand there staring, Henry?”

            Potatoes thick with dirt thudded into the sink. The smell reminded Henry of the graveyard and himself standing there, waiting. And laugh, would she? He moved nearer. Who told her she could laugh like that? She was making it very hard for him to wait. Liar! Well, he had her now all right. His eyes began to water. Don’t hit her yet, he told himself. But he couldn’t help it – he pushed her shoulder and she staggered. He saw fright jump into her face. Oh, he’d fix her! He stood over her with his arm raised and she hunched away from him.

            “What’s wrong with you? You leave me alone.”

            She straightened up and threw half-washed potatoes into a saucepan. Defy him, would she! Henry poked her between the shoulders.

            “Tell me more,” he said, “about the holy church and the holy priests and all the holy people.”

            He went round the kitchen after her, turning to meet her, trying to stand in front of her when she put the steaks in the frying pan.

            “I like to know where my money’s going,” he said. “All those collections.”

            “It was just the same as usual, Henry, that priest that’s visiting, Monroe, he’s called. Isn’t that gas? Do you think he’s related to Marilyn? He gave the sermon, better than the usual oul stuff, love your neighbour and all that. There’s nothing to tell, Henry, not a thing, unless you want to know what the neighbours were wearing.”

            Oh, but she had plenty to say for herself, lickity spit, lickity spit, galloping on. Henry slapped her hard; he felt the sting on his palm and she stumbled, reaching out a hand to the sink.

            “By God!” Henry caught her by the arm.

            “I’m going to find out what you’re doing with my money.”

            He shook her until the permed curls hopped and jumped and tears splashed from her eyes. Behind them the potatoes boiled up and water hissed on the ring. Henry’s fingers bit deep.

            “I went to the church, May. What do you say to that? I went to say a prayer alongside my wife, but my wife wasn’t there. And I phoned my wife but I got no answer. What’s up with you now? Speak up, woman! You had plenty to say a minute ago.”

            He grabbed the wiry curls.

            “Ah, don`t. Ah, don`t!” May cried out.

            “I went there in the storm,” he said into her ear, “to bring you home so you could make my dinner and not be whinging about getting wet.”

            Henry could feel the heat in his chest burning hotter and hotter. He forced May to her knees, still with his fist in her hair and he never even saw her arm swing up with the saucepan. It cracked against his head and he swayed there with his arms loose.

            “Jesus . . .  ” he said.

            When the second blow landed he fell against the table and slid onto a chair. He stared with dopey eyes at May. She’d gone mad, was all he could think.

            “Now! Now! Now! Now!” she said. “I’ll tell you where I’ve been if you want to know, not that I could go far on the bit of money you dole out to me.”

            She laughed suddenly.

            “And did you wait there long? I can just see you lurking around and squinting up your oul face. Well, I was in Dinnie’s, Henry. Me and your Irene, yes, your sister – we go to talks in the ladies’ club, and after that we go to the pub, and after that we get fish and chips and go down to the harbour, and we sit on the wall and eat them. So now you know what the collection’s for. It’s for me! But you can stuff it up your arse in future because I’m going back to the Civil Service and I won’t need your oul money. The girls are gone now and I don’t have to be here all the time to cook you steak for your dinner and wash your dirty clothes.”

            Henry didn’t move. He sat there with his fingers twitching and blood coming from his head. He couldn’t take in what May was saying.

            “You bloody men,” she said, “with your big swinging fists. We’ve been learning things, me and Irene. Did you know that men have to invent things so they can think they’re grown up? Rituals Henry, rituals. But not us, Henry. We’ve got periods!”

            May shouted the word at him.

            “And having babies, and yous have nothing! Did you know that? All over the world men invent things. They cut their faces and their willies and God knows what else to draw blood.”

            Henry half-lifted a hand against the spit from her mouth.

            “If men had periods,” May took a quick breath, “all the oul fellas would be running around the place with bloody sheets – my son is a man, my son is a man – but yous have nothing.”

            Henry tried to sit up straight, to get his head right. May was smiling fiercely at him. She swung up the pan again and he flinched.

            “Now I’m going round to Irene’s,” she said, “for a cup of tea, or a drink if she has any for I think I need it. You can put up your own dinner, and by Christ, you big gormless shite, you, if you ever touch me again, you’re dead.”

            When the door banged behind her Henry put his hands to the table and pushed himself up. He groped his way to the sink and washed his head with shaky fingers.

            “Jesus, God! Jesus, God!”

            How could May talk like that to her own husband – about things – she’d no right to talk like that. What sort of a woman was she? He turned off the cooker and lifted the steak onto a plate, and then he drained the potatoes and heeled them out. He tried to eat but when he chewed the cut on his head opened again and he felt a trickle on his face. He lit a cigarette and watched blood drip slowly onto his dinner.

Scene I4: Thelma

“I wonder if I should wash . . . Thelma, do you think I should have a wash?”

            Thelma dithered beside the bed, moving from one wee foot to the other, waiting to heave Thomas to his feet. The top of his pyjamas hung open and his belly bulged over the bottoms. There was a line of sweat where the bulge began and another across the back of his neck when he bent to look at his feet.

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5 Best Opening Lines

  1. “Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames.” Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.
  2. “All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.” Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor.
  3. “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
  4. “‘All good things must end,’ said Frances Price.” French Exit by Patrick de Witt.
  5. “It was love at first sight”. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.