I knew, when Kim (Reading Matters) and Cathy (746 Books) announced their “A year with William Trevor” project, that I had a little book containing some William Trevor short stories but, could I find it? Nope. It was a little book after all. And then, voilà, just the other day while I was doing my book decluttering and packing, I came across it. It’s Pocket Penguin 22 from Penguin’s 70 Years celebration, and is called The dressmaker’s child, but it contains three short stories, so these will be my (very willing) contribution to the project. Two of the stories were chosen by the author from previous collections, but for the titular story this is its first appearance in book form.
Most of you will know of Trevor (1928-2016) but, in a nutshell, he’s an Irish writer of novels and novellas, short stories and plays. He won many literary awards in his life, and was particularly well regarded as a short story writer – making him right up my alley. In fact I have read one of his short stories before, early in this blog.
In her most recent Trevor review (of a novel titled The children of Dynmouth) kimbofo writes that it didn’t take her long to feel that she was in “familiar William Trevor turf in which he takes a seemingly ordinary character with eccentric traits and lets them loose in a confined setting”. This could apply to the short story, “The dressmaker’s child”, as it is about a young nineteen-year-old motor mechanic, Cahal, working for his father in a small town. He’s the only son in a family of girls – all of whom have left – and he is “scrawny” with a “long face usually unsmiling”. The story opens on him applying WD-40 “to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift”, which sets a tone that perhaps other things are, or might be, locked up for our protagonist.
As he continues to work on the car, a young Spanish couple appears, wanting to be driven out to see the Sacred Virgin (Our Lady of Tears) who they believed – that is, they had been told so by a barman – would bless their marriage. Now Cahal knows the statue’s special spiritual status had been disproved and thus rejected by the church, but with a 50-euros job in the offing, he doesn’t actively dissuade them from their mission.
Trevor describes the trip, complete with hints of self-delusions, until on the way home Cahal’s car hits a child – the dressmaker’s child – who is known to run at cars and who, up till then at least, had never been hurt. With the Spanish couple kissing in the back of the car, and choosing avoidance over action, Cahal continues driving despite being aware of “something white lying” on the road behind him. Back in town, nothing is said about the dressmaker’s daughter for a few days, but Cahal remains uncertain. It affects his relationship with his young woman, and when the dressmaker herself starts to appear in town at his side, hinting that she knows what had happened, but is not reporting him, his fears and uncertainty increase.
This is not a thriller, but there is a plot and an ending (of course) so I will leave the story here. It’s nightmarish stuff, but very real too.
Trevor’s writing, his unfolding of story and character, is a pleasure to read. Take Cahal’s character, for example. From the stuck bolt (albeit does start to loosen, hinting at possibilities), he is depicted as rather gormless, bowling along, taking opportunities as they come without a lot of consideration – and somewhat different to his father who, during a conversation about the Swedish couple, shakes his head “as if he doubted his son, which he often did and usually with reason.”
This brings me to the point of the story which, as we are slowly brought to see, is the impact on Cahal of what he did or didn’t do – and the almost catatonic fear it engenders:
Continuing his familiar daily routine of repairs and servicing and answering the petrol bell, Cahal found himself unable to dismiss the connection between them that the dressmaker had made him aware of when she’d walked behind him in the night, and knew that the roots it came from spread and gathered strength and were nurtured, in himself, by fear. Cahal was afraid without knowing what he was afraid of, and when he tried to work this out he was bewildered.
It changes his life – not in the way we might expect but in a way that shows with absolute clarity how avoidance and inaction can be as potent as anything else. Trevor, like my favourite short story writers, is less about drama and more about the complex realities of human interaction in which accommodations rather than simple resolutions are more often the go. I look forward to the next story.
“The dressmaker’s child”
in William Trevor, The dressmaker’s child
London: Penguin Books, 2005
(First published in The New Yorker magazine, October 4, 2004: available online)