The train is out of sight; he hears it putting on a bit of speed, clear of the curve. He spits on his hurting hands, getting the gravel out. Then picks up his bag and starts walking back in the direction he has just covered on the train. If he followed the train he would show up at the station there well after dark. He’d still be able to complain that he’d fallen asleep and wakened all mixed up, thinking he’d slept through his stop when he hadn’t, jumped off all confused.
He would have been believed. Coming home from so far away, from Germany and the war, he could have got mixed up in his head. It’s not too late, he would be where he was supposed to be before midnight. But all the time he’s thinking this he’s walking in the opposite direction.
I love train symbolism, though I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been on a train (not counting the many, many hours spent on Boston subways). Something about the echoes of the past; of watching the world go by; of being close to yet separate from the world at the same time. They’re a natural match for Munro stories – especially this one (available online).
We get hints right from the start that Jackson is avoiding something, some place where it wasn’t too late until he starts walking back the other way, but we don’t find out for quite some time just what that is. When we do find out, we discover that, too, is a symptom of another place he’s avoiding, a place he’s avoided most of his life. Jackson is given neither to memories, nor to introspection; he’d rather light out when things get messy.
And of course with Belle not a thing had to be spoken of. She was — he had found this out — sixteen years older than he was. To mention it, even to joke about it, would spoil everything. She was a certain kind of woman, he a certain kind of man.
I love the way the passage of time is handled in this section: one minute, he’s staying for supper, then he’s staying until December, then he realizes he’s aged and suddenly it’s twenty years later. It takes somewhat close reading to stay on top of it, but it’s a story best read closely anyway.
Given his penchant for avoidance, for moving on, it’s interesting he stays for so long. We don’t need to know the details of what went on between them, because we can imagine it: absolutely nothing, beyond fixing up the dilapidated house and getting through another day. He and Belle are both damaged goods, damaged in ways that we don’t really understand yet, but we come to realize their particular flavors of damage make them ideal companions for each other. That damage is most clearly revealed and emphasized in the suddenness with which he picks up and moves on; the precipitating event doesn’t seem like enough to disrupt a successful twenty year coexistence, which emphasizes its importance even more: she ruined everything.
In the next phase of the story, Jackson performs the same kind of caretaking duties at a small apartment building in the city; a completely different environment, yet the same self-imposed isolation.
Things could be locked up, it only took some determination.
Once more, this stability is disrupted, again by the past, and we finally find out what he was avoiding when he first jumped off that train at the beginning of the story – and we find out where that came from. The roots of Jackson’s damage go deep, which is why the branches spread so wide.
The story begins and ends with trains. I’ve sometimes thought of complicated situations in life, situations so complicated I don’t feel up to dealing with them, as trains: you don’t have to know exactly how to get from one town to the other, you just have to get on the train, and it’ll take you there. Sometimes you must jump off in the middle, though; sometimes your past forces this.