Some of my women friends wouldn't dream of going into a restaurant for a meal on their own. Who wants to be the lonely woman in the corner with nobody to talk to? For me, it's one of the rare treats of travelling alone - to enjoy a meal and a couple of glasses of wine with nothing but a good book for company. Of course, family meals, dinners a deux and dinners with friends all offer different pleasures, but even so, there's an almost furtive delight about breaking all those rules of polite society about elbows and books on tables, to sit with a book propped up against the salt cellar and sink into anonymous oblivion in an unknown city. A book of short stories is ideal company - neither too long nor too short but just right (as Goldilocks might have said).
This week, working in Leuven in Belgium, I'm reading William Trevor's book of short stories, Cheating at Canasta. He is one of my favourite authors. His language is so delicately spun, subtle and haunting, so that it weaves a spell in the soul - a sense of persistent and melancholic wonder. The title story is about a man who eats alone in a restaurant which his wife and he used to visit on holiday, before she began suffering from dementia. He watches a glamorous young couple quarreling at a nearby table and he speaks to them as they leave, revealing more than he intended of his loss and immediately feeling ashamed. The story has the most exquisite ending: 'He watched the couple go, and smiled across the crowded restaurant when they reached the door. Shame isn't bad, her voice from somewhere else insists. Nor the humility that is its gift.' These are thoughts that linger in the mind, as does this whole gentle eulogy to love and marriage and loss and memory. The next story, 'Bravado', plunges us into a different, brasher world, and yet still one which is drawn with an exquisite tenderness and concern for its young male characters who have had to learn early 'of self-preservation and of survival's cunning.'
Like a good meal, such stories invite us to linger over them, to savour their delicate flavours, their subtle blends of moods and meanings. What a treat to enjoy both together.