“A Meeting in Middle Age” from The Collected Stories
This is the first in the collected stories, a tale about two strangers, Mrs. Da Tanka, an impossible woman who wants grounds for divorcing her second husband, and Mr. Mileson, a solitary bachelor who, through a third party, contracts with Mrs. Da Tanka for five pounds to spend the night in a hotel room with her, thereby giving public evidence of her adultery and grounds for divorce.
They sit at table in the hotel. She lurches from one unexpected topic to another, tries to get a hotel waiter to replace himself, leaps to ungenerous conclusions about Mr. Mileson. It’s clear that her own two marriages have been disasters. She says of her first husband: “Weeks would pass without the exchange of a single significant sentence. We lived in the same house, ate the same meals, drove out in the same car, and all he would ever say was: ‘It is time the central heating was on.’ Or: ‘These windscreen wipers aren’t working'” (p. 3).
She and Mr. Mileson have the following exchange: “‘Mr. Mileson, I don’t like that waiter. . .’
‘Do you know the waiter?’
Mrs. da Tanka laughed unpleasantly, like ice cracking; ‘Why should I know the waiter? I do not generally know waiters. Do you know the waiter?’
‘I ask because you claim to dislike him.’
‘May I not dislike him without an intimate knowledge of the man?’
‘You may do as you please. It struck me as a premature decision, that is all.’
‘What decision? What is premature? What are you talking about? Are you drunk?'”(p. 5).
At one point, she reviles Mr. Mileson (we never know either of their first names) for having accepted the commission SHE gave him: “‘You are an enemy to me. I don’t understand your sort. You have not got on in the world. You take on commissions like this. Where is your self-respect?'” (p. 7).
When he awakens to the madness of having accepted her commission, she is hurt and determined to hurt him in return. “‘What kind of life have you had? You had not the nerve for marriage. Nor the brains for success. The truth is that you might not have lived'” (p. 9). She keeps attacking his insignificance: “‘You are like an occasional table. Or a coat-rack in the hall of a boarding-house. Who shall mourn at your grave, Mr. Mileson?’
“He felt her eyes upon him; and the mockery of her words sank into his heart with intended precision.” (p. 11).
She doesn’t know him, really, and yet she has rightly guessed his relative insignificance. He has no one. He has tried sex just once, as a young man with a house maid. He will, after they part, go home to a single room, “to the two unwashed plates on the draining board and the forks with egg on the prongs; and the little fee propped up on the mantelpiece, a pink cheque for five pounds, peeping out from behind a china cat.”
He has not had sex with Mrs. Da Tanka and had not tried. “You were not man enough to stick to your word. You are a worthless coward, Mr. Mileson. I expect you know it.”
Now he has had enough: “‘I know myself, which is more than can be said in your case. Do you not think occasionally to see yourself as others see you? An aging woman, faded and ugly, dubious in morals and personal habits. What misery you must have caused those husbands!’
They married me and got good value. You know that, yet dare not admit it.” (With her, everything has to end with an accusation.)
Mr. Mileson attracts empathy. He’s a solitary man, living marginally (including financially), and makes the mistake of stepping outside his borders to earn a little money and maybe a human connection. Instead, he gets ridiculed by an impossible woman, and the ridicule has the power of acid. I believe an author with as kind a face as William Trevor would have sorrowed over Mr. Mileson, with all those miles on him and little to show for it. Think Ps. 103. “His place will know him no more.” Hardly knows him now. Everything depends on whether we may count on the loving-kindness of God being there for all the generations, including the generations of Mr. Milesons. “In every pew there is a broken heart” (Hulitt Gloer).
Preaching connection: wisdom on the topics denoted by the keywords; power of the story to move the heart toward compassion.