Fiona and Grant are a couple married for about 45 years. The story is told mostly from the perspective of Grant. Fiona starts suffering from memory loss, which seems like Alzheimer, though it is not explicitly mentioned. The onset and seriousness of memory loss is not referred explicitly, but more through a series of events/actions like
Over a year ago, Grant had started noticing so many little yellow notes stuck up all over the house. That was not entirely new. Fiona had always written things down—the title of a book she’d heard mentioned on the radio or the jobs she wanted to make sure she got done that day. Even her morning schedule was written down. He found it mystifying and touching in its precision: “7 a.m. yoga. 7:30–7:45 teeth face hair. 7:45– 8:15 walk. 8:15 Grant and breakfast.”
But things come to a pass, where Fiona has to be taken to a place 'Meadowlake' which apparently looks after people with similar affliction. Grant comes back after leaving her there. He is to visit her after a week. He is worried about her and phones everyday and talks to the nurse Kristy about Fiona. Grant has been a lecturer/professor at a college. He has also had quite a few affairs. It is hinted that he had to resign from his position due to some hushed up scandal where he was accused of using his position to get one his students to bed. Munro is a master in describing entire life times in a few paragraphs, but why this description about Grant's affair. The answer could be present, as we read through the story. It is hinted that even with his affairs, he did not even think of leaving Fiona, does it mean he loved her and if so why the affairs?
And of deceiving Fiona—as, of course, he had. But would it have been better if he had done as others had done with their wives, and left her? He had never thought of such a thing. He had never stopped making love to Fiona.
Grant visits Fiona after a week. She is not in her room, the nurse takes him to a hall where there are several inmates present along with Fiona. They are playing cards and Fiona is sitting next to a person who is also in the game. Fiona sees Grants and greets him. He introduces her new friend, whom she says she used to know when they were kids.
The other man is Aubrey and about Grant's age But he seems to resent Grants intrusion here. In Munro's words
the cardplayer was sending her his look, which was one not of supplication but of command. ... Fiona too seems to have become close him, when she says “I better go back,” Fiona said, a blush spotting her newly fattened face. “He thinks he can’t play without me sitting there. It’s silly, I hardly know the game anymore...' Fiona goes back to the game leaving Grant. He goes back to the Nurse. His reaction to what has happened is pithily put in the question he asks the nurse 'Grant said, “Does she even know who I am?”. The nurse tries to brush it off saying that it is normal to people here for form new attachments and it would probably go off after sometime. But things don't change, Fiona is most of the time with Aubrey and seems to drift apart from Grant. The story can very well end here and it would still be a good one, with Grant being left alone and the reader ruminating on the myriad ways in which humans can behave. But Munro is one who pushes the envelope always.
One day when Grant visits here, he finds here in bed and pretty upset. Aubrey is with her holding hands. It transpires.that Aubrey is to be discharged. Completely unaware of what she is saying, Fiona asks Grant if he any influence to keep Aubrey here. Aubrey too does not seem to want to leave. Fiona holds him in her arms, comforting him and 'there was nothing Grant could decently do but get out of the room.". The irony of this is wrenching. Fiona's condition deteriorates after Aubrey leaves, she rarely leaves her bed and becomes almost immobile. She is in danger to moving to a ward where the more seriously afflicted are kept.
Grant then goes to meet Aubrey's wife Marian. Marian is initially bit hostile to him as she is upset about her husband's new relationship with Grant's wife. Gradually she thaws. Grant asks Marian if if Aubrey could visit Fiona once in a week. He offers to take Aubrey himself to the center. Marian refuses, saying that what could be passing fancy could become more permanent. She also says that she would keep Aubrey at her home itself. Grant praises here noble intentions. But Munro is not satisfied with that. She peels layer after layer of the human mind and behavior and lets us see what lies underneath each layer. This great gift of hers could actually be a failing, since the reader gets an impression that there is almost no true empathy anywhere in the world, when all actions are stripped to the bare. Consider Marian's response to Grant's praise.
“No, it isn’t. But the way I am, I don’t have much choice. I don’t have the money to put him in there unless I sell the house. The house is what we own outright. Otherwise I don’t have anything in the way of resources. Next year I’ll have his pension and my pension, but even so I couldn’t afford to keep him there and hang on to the house. And it means a lot to me, my house does.”
Sounds almost mercenary right, but who are we to judge others and their predicaments. Grant's leaves and comes back to his home. Even at this point, if the story ends, it is a good one, better than the one that ends with Fiona making friendship with Aubrey. But no, there are still layers of human behavior to be peeled. Grant has got 2 messages in this phone. Both are from Fiona. The first is
“Hello, Grant. I hope I got the right person. I just thought of something. There is a dance here in town at the Legion supposed to be for singles on Saturday night and I am on the lunch committee, which means I can bring a free guest. So I wondered whether you would happen to be interested in that? Call me back when you get a chance.”
The second message, which has come immediately after the first is
“I just realized I’d forgotten to say who it was. Well, you probably recognized the voice. It’s Marian. I’m still not so used to these machines. And I wanted to say I realize you’re not a single and I don’t mean it that way. I’m not either, but it doesn’t hurt to get out once in a while. If you are interested you can call me and if you are not you don’t need to bother. I just thought you might like the chance to get out. It’s Marian speaking. I guess I already said that. O.K. then. Goodbye.”
The greatness of Munro manifests in the above 2 paragraphs, which are so real. Lets consider the first one, Marian is asking Grant if he would come with her for a dance. Set aside the surprise/shock at this message from Marian who is pretty devoted to her husband and lets also set side thinking about what made her do this. Just the dialogue, short, abrupt, exactly just like someone who just wants to get something out and blurts it out without any context or reference. The second dialogue is even more insightful. This is what every done says/has said, after we have said/done something without much thinking and want to make up for it. Marian in this message, is bit defensive, unsure of what she wants to says and if she saying it the correct way and trying to mask it at the same time and trying to be bit flippant in saying that 'don't need to bother if you are not interested'.
How many times have we said variants of the same thing. Grant thinks for sometime and starts dialing her number.
Cut to the last part. Grant goes to the center. He tells Fiona '“Fiona, I’ve brought a surprise for you. Do you remember Aubrey?”. What has happened, did Grant and Marian hook up together, is that why Aubrey has come to visit Fiona, as some deal? Or is it just a simple rhetorical question? But
“Names elude me,” she said harshly. It seems she has forgotten Aubrey or has she? The story ends there with the following paragraphs
“I’m happy to see you,” she said, both sweetly and formally. She pinched his earlobes, hard.
We are left with several questions. Why does Grant do that things he does? Is it his overwhelming love for Fiona and if so what are we to make out of his affairs in the past. Is it because of some untold guilty conscience that he is trying to be accommodative and is that why mention of his affairs made earlier in the story. Maybe it's the first thing, even considering all his affairs. The end of the story 'He said, “Not a chance.” may validate this. Above and all Fiona and Grant are two people greatly in love, who cannot let go of each other. We are left just hoping that Fiona recovers and so does Aubrey. What do we make of Marian? We are left with questions alone as is the case most of the time. Let's just let people be and stop trying to decipher human emotions, much like Munro. She shows us minute changes in behavior, emotions and the way people behave in different situations, but is never judgmental.
1. I did not then and don't do now, understand the rationale of the title of this story. If someone can enlighten me, would be grateful.
2. This story was made into a film, don't know if it released last year or is yet to release.