Why you should care
Because reading Irish novelist William Trevor’s 1979 short story “Lovers of Their Time” is a wonderful way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
The good people at OZY asked me, of all people, to write a piece for Valentine’s Day. I’ve been called a lot of things, but a Cyrano never. My idea of a romantic evening is a nine-hour Holocaust movie on Christmas Eve. I’m not kidding, ask members of my household for independent verification.
Talk? Conversation? Let’s watch Shoah again.
Lovers of Their Time
And yet, I like OZY, and I like the good people of OZY, and their site is terrific, so there must be some method to their madness.… So here are some thoughts for Valentine’s Day — on William Trevor’s “Lovers of Their Time.” By far the greatest short story about sex in a public bathroom ever written.
A travel agent in London named Norman Britt — even his name is dull — is caught in a loveless (but not sexless) marriage. When his wife, Hilda, is in the mood — which is frequently, way too frequently for Norman Britt — she looks him over and says, “Feeling fruity, dear?”
But even Norman Britt has a destiny, a small one, but still a destiny. It’s the 1960s and even a man like Norman Britt — a man who Trevor describes as having a David Niven mustache — will get his taste of the decade of free love. He meets Marie, a clerk in a store near Paddington Station. She’s voluptuous, much younger than he is, and, for a time, she’s a dream. And then — to Norman Britt’s disbelief — she’s not. After the two meet for a drink in a nearby pub, they begin, in their way, to fall in love. Characterized by dialogue like this:
“I lie awake and think of you,” she whispered.
“You’ve made me want to live,” he whispered back.
“And you me. Oh, God, and you me.”
Now we are talking about, to my mind, one of the most majestic writers of short stories in the English language. Trevor doesn’t write such talk lightly. It’s somehow all the more real for being so mundane, so sad, so pathetic. Poor Norman Britt. Poor Marie. You can’t help but fall for these two, and you root for them knowing that this is a love story, and that most love stories, if not all, in literature anyway, end with doom.
Months go by, and Norman and Marie’s frustration builds and builds. There’s only one thing both of them want, and they can’t seem to figure out a way to get it. They only want to be alone — if only for a little while. The Drummer Boy pub isn’t cutting it, and at that time you couldn’t just get a hotel room. But one day Norman Britt stumbles on a public bathroom in a hotel in Piccadilly Circus, a gorgeous, well-appointed bathroom with a lock on the door. It should be said that it’s a British-style bathroom, as I understand it, just the bath, not the toilet. Anyway, Marie is reluctant at first, but after some cajoling she agrees to try it, and things go on between Norman Britt and Marie in there, beautiful things:
In the bathroom they always whispered, and would sit together in a warm bath after their love-making. Still murmuring about the future, holding hands beneath the surface of the water … He whispered to her of faraway places he knew about but had never been to: the Bahamas, Brazil, Peru, Seville at Easter, the Greek islands, the Nile, Shiraz, Persepolis, the Rocky Mountains.…
But even bathroom bliss can’t go on forever, and eventually you’ve got to live in the outside world, and the outside world isn’t, for Norman Britt and Marie, Seville at Easter.
If only they could have stayed in that bathroom at the Great Western Northern Hotel, barricaded themselves in that ostentatious bathroom for good. What undoes these two, what undoes so many, and I hate to bring this up on Valentine’s Day, a day of, well, what is Valentine’s Day supposed to be about? Anyway, forgive me: economics. Economics, that great destroyer of romance.
You know this already, of course. And so do Norman Britt and Marie, but they make a go, anyway. Norman Britt leaves Hilda but is saddled with support. His salary at the Travel-Wide isn’t enough to cover a decent place to live for himself and Marie now that they are on their own. Marie wants children, and she wants them soon. They move in with Marie’s mother, who hates Norman, etc, etc. It all unravels from there. A year later, Marie marries a brewer. Norman Britt returns to Hilda, who takes him back and once again asks, “Feeling fruity?”
But the great weight of the story — and why I never forget it — is in the memories that Marie and Norman Britt will carry beyond the 1960s, of themselves frolicking in a luscious bathroom in love — for a while, anyway — and the story may be preposterous, and we may laugh at these two, and yet, like I say, we root for them, too, as we might root for our younger selves when we think back on gone years, on what could have been but never was. Dreams don’t die; they just get buried by the days. In the morning, we lug them around with us on our way to work.
Sometimes on the Tube he would close his eyes and with the greatest pleasure that remained to him he would recall the delicately veined marble and the great brass taps…
Peter Orner is the author of four critically acclaimed books of fiction, including Esther’s Stories and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, a New York Times Editor’s Choice book for 2013 and a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2013. Stories by Orner, a Guggenheim Fellow, have appeared in Best American Stories, the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review. @Peter_Orner