‘Winter Break’ by Hilary Mantel
Read it here in about 15 minutes.
Thinking about time…
Time is important in this story, for several reasons.
Firstly, time is used as a structural device. The story is just under 2,000 words long, and spans the duration of a taxi ride from the airport to the couple’s hotel, which, we are told, will take about 1 hour; this time and space limitation helps keep the story tight because it creates constraints – what can happen, when, to whom, etc. Analepsis (flashback) allows a brief break from these constraints, and is used to add personality and background to the couple – we learn the husband never wanted children, although the wife did (and still does); we see, through memories of conversations, his arguments as to why they should not have children; and we see some of the husband’s behaviour that the wife dislikes (e.g. his rudeness at the airport) – they are a couple at odds with each other. When we reach the middle of the story (just over 1,000 words in), we also reach the middle of the taxi ride, when the driver says there’s half an hour remaining.
Secondly, metaphors related to time reveal key themes. The journey has been a long one, the plane was delayed, and it’s late in the day (it’s dark out), so, as we’re told in the first line ‘By the time they arrived at their destination, they could no longer recognise their own name.’ – this perhaps suggests the weariness within the relationship; tiredness at the repetition of certain conversations over the years (such as those about children); how the couple have grown apart, due to different goals (also seen in the way ‘the dot on the ‘i’ had drifted away like an island’). It’s also becoming too late for the wife to have children: ‘She had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and reattaching themselves.’
So, when the husband and wife instinctively collaborate, at the end of the story, to protect the driver and the object he placed in the car boot, can we read this as the couple reuniting? Does this mean their relationship can be saved? Or is this guilt and denial symbolic of their entire relationship – the husband wanting to lose himself in the pleasures of food and drink, and the wife refusing to see what’s right in front of her?