George Bland is 65 and newly retired. He has lived his life cautiously, avoiding most emotional attachments. He has conscientiously but unambitiously worked his way over the decades into the comfort of the middle class. There is little indication that George is disappointed by his rather, um, bland, existence, but much of it did seem predicated on a rather specific light at the end of the tunnel. He and his friend/co-worker Michael Putnam have long planned to spend their retirement travelling extensively through the Far East making up for years of delayed gratification. When Putnam unexpectedly dies George finds himself alone, unmoored, and incapable of enjoying a trip to France let alone the Far East.
George’s appetite for travel and adventure all but disappear with Putnam’s death. The most important relationship in his life has suddenly ended and he finds himself with nothing to fall back on. Aside from a network of friendly acquaintances, George’s only emotional connection is to Louise, a woman he dated so cautiously many years previously that she ended up marrying someone else and starting a family. Over the years, and Louise’s widowhood, they have remained in touch and her weekly telephone calls and occasional visit are the only real human contact George has left. But even this rather overstates the case. He expects her calls and wouldn’t think of missing them, but one gets the sense that they are merely a weekly milestone for Bland rather than something that maintains a real connection.
Into all of this steps Katy Gibbs, a youngish woman who convinces George to hand over the spare keys for his neighbor’s flat across the hall. She claims to be a friend and have permission to stay in their temporarily empty flat. It doesn’t take long for George to realize she is squatting and probably doesn’t have permission to be there, but by that time he is both too embarrassed and too enthralled to move her. He finds her off-putting and unlikable but finds himself uncontrollably drawn to her. Although he thinks about sexual conquest, this seems to be more of an impediment to fulfilling his interest in her rather than the point of it.
George’s deep funk seems to be a swirl of grief over his good friend Michael and the sudden awareness of a lifetime of missed opportunities.
Though it was only just past five-thirty he went back to the bedroom and lay down again on his bed. He knew that a lonely night of reflection awaited him, and he welcomed it.
Whether George and Michael were lovers–I will take Brookner’s text at its word–is beside the point. George seems to never have rebelled a day in his life. Never pursued any sort of exceptional, or even noticeable status in any endeavor. He deliberately declined starting a family, and never seems to have had a mid-life crisis. He took small pleasures and kept his nose to the grindstone assuming that at the end of it all there would be some pay off in retirement. With those plans snatched away by Michael’s death, George ends up focusing his attention on Katy. Although he seems willing to throw away much for her, one gets the feeling that it really has nothing to do with her.
It is perhaps when the inevitable break with Katy finally comes that the reader is given the sense that there might still be light at the end of the tunnel for George. A happy ending? Possibly.