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After letting William Trevor’s The Collected Stories languish on my bookshelf for many years, I have endeavored to read the thousand plus pages. Of course his recent death has spurred my interest, but the recommendation of one of my college writing instructors, Padgett Powell always rings true here, so I am now questing through and pondering the greatness of Trevor’s works.
To begin, Trevor’s “A Meeting in Middle Age” crafts a slow burn narrative around an unlikely couple. On one end is Mr. Mileson, a man who has nothing to live for, nor anything of distinction in his past. His family had had a house on a lease of ninety-nine years, but despite being unmarried and childless, Mr. Mileson is unable to retain the property. While he mentions a lack of regret over this fact, his thoughts repeatedly cycle back to the residence and pang with loss in general. Thus, while he has failed to fulfill his biological purpose of reproducing, he also relinquishes the family’s material legacy. As Mrs. da Tanka later notes, “‘What kind of life have you had? You had not the nerve for marriage. Not the brains for success. The truth is you might not have lived’” (9). He lacks fulfillment, and even struggles to play his full part in their brief encounter.
Mr. Mileson is pitted against Mrs. da Tanka. A dashing woman of middle age, she still hangs on the laurels of her beauty. She is seeking a separation from her husband and has arranged to be seen with Mr. Mileson in bed. While the two do not outwardly intend to be lovers, they are placed in the ample position to do so if wanted. With these facts in mind, Trevor places the perfect strangers in a room and allows the fires of reality to burn. The stodgy Mrs. da Tanka rails on her whole life, calls foul to her existence due to her dissatisfaction with her husband and his predecessor, and shreds her current companion as well: “‘Have you ever thought of wearing an eye-patch Mr. Mileson? I think it would suit you. You need distinction. Have you led an empty life? You give the impression of an empty life’” (5). She sees the man as a low class lackey and, as unfortunate as it may seem, Mr. Mileson lives up to the role. He is a shell, a vessel waiting to be filled but lacking the capacity to do so. She clings to this fact and works to tear him down to what she deems to be the appropriate level.
In actuality, Mr. Mileson has little to hold on to. His garden and the cottage that held it vanished with his lease, and without children, women, or even a desire to marry and love, he clings to empty vessels from his past: “‘As a child I collected birds’ eggs on the common. I have kept them all these years’” (8). While an act of tenderness, the retention of these eggs only serves to show Mr. Mileson is the end of his line and a child at heart. He takes pride in the past, and it is with his past that he will mistakenly attack his pseudo-lover and tear her heart out. It is in this past, the mention of cow-parsley, that the two connect at the very time that the walk off the train and go their separate ways. All the while, Trevor forces his readers to consider the implications over who was worse off and who really was the failure.
“In fact she was not, but finding herself involved at all reflected the inadequacy of her married life and revealed a vacuum that once had been love. ‘We are better apart,’ she had said. ‘It is bad to get used to being together. We must take our chances while we may, while there is still time’” (2).