Old Flame | William Trevor #IRLshortstory

Grace died.

As Zoë replaces the lid of the electric kettle – having steamed the envelope open – her eye is caught by that stark statement.

Unintentionally, the two stories I chose to read from Cheating at Canasta for Cathy & Kim’s A Year With William Trevor, were both about adultery.

The Room featured a 47 year old woman who decides to punish her husband for the affair he had nine years ago by having an affair herself. Naturally, being a William Trevor short story, there is much more to it than that. Moral dilemmas abound for the protagonist, Katherine.

In Old Flame moral dilemmas are explored once again and it is the wife’s version of events that we experience in both cases.

Charles had a love affair with a work colleague, Audrey, five years into his marriage with Zoë. Audrey’s closest friend (plain, plump) Grace seems to have an invested interest in the affair and encourages and supports Audrey to keep things going, even when it becomes apparent that Charles passion has waned and that he has chosen to stay with his wife and children after all. He informs Zoë of the affair and his decision to stay. But Zoë knows more than she lets on as she has been steaming open his letters from Audrey.

Zoë feared this correspondence once, and hated it.

Years later, their children grown and left home, Zoë now 74 is still steaming open the letters and eavesdropping on phone conversations. This day she discovers that Grace has died. Charles arranges for one last lunch date with Audrey. All three know that without Grace’s imput, the ‘old flame’ will finally fizzle out. Or at least, that is what Zoë is hoping for.

The old flame bore him now, with her scent and cigarettes and her cellophane butterflies…. One day, on her own, she’ll guess her friend was false. One day she’ll guess a sense of honour kept pretence alive.

Once more Trevor writes about a couple operating with an extraordinary amount of restraint and reserve. And secrets.

The affair is never discussed after the initial outrage, neither are the occasional platonic lunch dates that Charles disappears off to every once in a while. Zoë believes that Charles’ intense feelings for the affair have long since subsided and that he only continues with the lunch dates out of a sense of loyalty to his old feelings. Zoë’s jealousy and anger have also been worn down by the passing of time. She takes comfort in Charles’ loyalty to her and their marriage.

In Katherine’s case in The Room, this wasn’t enough. She decides to leave the marriage. But Zoë chooses forgiveness instead. I think.

No one told him that keeping faith could be as cruel as confessing faithlessness.

Like so many of Trevor’s stories, there is an air of uncertainty to the ending. A level of deceit exists on all sides, yet no-one is judged. Zoë is another of his characters who has had her share of disappointments and who prefers not to look too closely at her comforting delusions.

We don’t know for sure if the luncheon played out as Zoë imagined it. We’re not completely sure how reliable she is as a narrator either. She never tries to excuse her behaviour, yet somehow she seems sincere.

I suspect that Trevor was also leaving clues behind when he tells us that Charles’ favourite book to read when unwell is Little Dorrit, and at the end of the story Zoë is about to sit down to watch an afternoon movie, a rerun of Barefoot in the Park.

William Trevor: A Short-Story Master’s Life Work | 10 Jan 2011 | Maureen Corrigan

Trevor is a master of capturing those small shifts in consciousness that shatter someone’s world….[his stories] compose a quietly devastating argument for the beauty and power of the short story form as tool for cutting to the quick of human desire and vulnerability.

Title: Old Flame
Author: William Trevor
Originally published in The New Yorker 25 Feb 1991
Then published in Cheating at Canasta 2007 
And in my 2011 edition of William Trevor Selected Stories
Penguin Books pp. 434-544
Date Read: 28 January 2023
  • This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.

2 thoughts on “Old Flame | William Trevor #IRLshortstory

  1. I wonder if Zoe plumps for acceptance rather than forgiveness, but then I haven’t and won’t read the story. Indeed I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all the Trevors popping up just now.


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