Woman in a Red Raincoat


After a fellow early-morning dog walker accosted me some weeks ago about cleaning up after my dogs, I suffered half the morning from anger and chagrin. I both feared the possibility of seeing the woman again the next day and rejoiced at the prospect of being put to the test again—not the test of picking up poop (which I had not seen because I had been distracted) but of maintaining my calm. I even imagined our second meeting. She would see me approaching, step back in surprise, and start forming some ugly words. Who could blame her? I had, after all, called her an unpleasant woman. “No, no,” I would say this time, before she got a word out. “Don’t worry, please. I just wanted to say I was sorry. I am sorry.” That would stop her in her tracks.

Stopping people in their tracks is not a laudable goal. But a person who feels misunderstood or ill-judged, and who has come out badly in the first round, might be forgiven for harboring a fantasy of the perfect gambit in a rematch. It would be a fantasy not of revenge, really, but of triumph. Maybe even shared triumph.

In my fantasy, before this woman could recover and huffily move off, I would explain myself. “You see, I was just very surprised the other day. First at your tone—so aggressive!” I’d pause a split second to let that sink in but continue before she had time to rebuff me. “I know, I know—you’d probably had a bad morning. An argument with your husband, perhaps. Or your kids! I know how that goes!” She’d want to deny it, but before she could, onward with my act. “It doesn’t really matter what put you in a bad mood. I should have been more forgiving. I’m so sorry.”

I’d need to take a breath by now, and would have to stop. She’d take the opportunity to remind me that I had indeed done what she’d accused me of: walked away without picking up my dog’s excrement. The thing to do at that point would be to acknowledge that truth. “You are so right!” Then I would pile on talk about how astonishing that I hadn’t realized. “You have to believe me! I really didn’t notice it. I was already stopped, you see, placing the recycling in the bins, so there was no telltale pull at the leash to alert me.” She would eye me warily.

But why would I go to all this trouble to win over a woman I did not like and who did not like me? Why even bother to imagine another meeting? Better to put her out of my mind, forget her. Were I to encounter her again, the best response would be to walk the other way. And yet, my imagination wouldn’t let it go.

She was obviously a woman accustomed to frowning and finding fault, I told myself, so she wouldn’t warm to me right away. But I would be patient. At exactly the right moment, I’d slip my arm through hers, ask which way she was going, and tell her I’d keep her company. She would be no match for my mix of ingenuousness and sincerity. “My fault entirely!” I’d exclaim if she even murmured the word but. Our altercation in the streets of La Pola would have a happy outcome as we made friends. That isn’t beyond belief. We have in common being early risers, dog owners, and responsible people who clean up after our dogs. Yet that probably isn’t enough to overcome an initial dislike and cause a reversal of mutual scorn.

Or is it? In William Trevor’s story “A Meeting in Middle Age,” such a reversal almost happens. The story is about two strangers, a woman and a man. She is an unhappy wife wanting a divorce, which in mid-20th century Ireland meant supplying evidence of adultery. He is a lonely bachelor who, for a fee, agrees to play the part of the co-respondent by spending the night with her in a hotel room. As planned, they meet up on a train, then spend the evening visibly together, first in the hotel bar and then in the grill-room, before retiring to the room for the night. She, Mrs. da Tanka, is the more worldly one. “You must not feel embarrassment,” she tells him early on. “We are beyond the age of giving in to awkwardness in a situation. You surely agree?” Mr. Mileson doesn’t know how he feels.

During the evening, someone makes a wrong comment, someone is impatient, someone is rude, and, little by little, anger builds, bickering erupts, and personal remarks are made by these two strangers. They insult each other. Through the night it continues. Facing each other the next day in an empty carriage of the train, it goes on. Mrs. da Tanka taunts him with his solitary life. “When you die, Mr. Mileson, have you a preference for the flowers on your coffin? It is a question I ask because I might send you off a wreath. That lonely wreath. From ugly, frightful Mrs. da Tanka.”

Mr. Mileson, who has tried on other occasions to imagine his funeral, is taken off guard and answers. “Cow-parsley, I suppose.”

“Cow-parsley?” she echoes. She is surprised. She remembers cow-parsley from her happy childhood days. She remembers sitting in the sun amid bunches of it. “Why did you say cow-parsley?” she asks him, twice. He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t answer. She tries to say something, but after the night they have passed, she can find no words that fit. She looks at him, imagining a different outcome to their meeting. She pictures them strolling out of the hotel, arm-in-arm, discussing and agreeing which direction to turn. On the train, he senses something and wants to speak, but his suspicion of her is too strong, and the words die on his lips. The two go on in silence. They leave the train together at their stop, then separate. The love affair that might have developed never gets a start, both people having joined in to ruin a chance. It makes you feel for these proud, wary, people, and it makes you think about all of the people destroying their own happiness in petty ways. The details of these two people’s lives and the complicated scenario of the subterfuge to end a marriage make the outcome plausible. But truth is stranger than fiction, and such senseless loss probably occurs every day in terribly mundane circumstances as people give in to fate and do not try to climb from the hole that, with a rude or thoughtless word, they’ve dug themselves into. It’s different for me, you might tell yourself. I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t start it. But even if you haven’t been guilty this time, you certainly don’t want to be next time. Better than to avoid the woman in the red raincoat or pursue her is to remember her.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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