“The Third Party” is one of my favorites in the Collected, a story that has stuck with me ever since I first read it perhaps 15 years ago. The set-up is simple: two men, strangers to each other, meet in a Dublin bar. We quickly learn that the big man, Boland, is there to meet his wife’s lover, the smaller Lairdman. Annabella, Boland’s wife, suggested the meeting in hopes it would bring Boland around to the reality of her long infidelity and plans to leave him. Lairdman wants to move Annabella into his “seven room flat in the Wellington Road” and start a family with her, and he wants Boland to agree to a divorce. In the course of the conversation, during which Lairdman drinks mineral water and Boland consumes Jameson after Jameson, we learn—via Boland’s focal point of view—that Lairdman and Boland went to the same school. Lairdman was a “day boy”—a local boy who left at the end of the day, and provincial Boland was a boarder. We learn that Lairdman had his head held down the toilet by bullies, a fact that Boland taunts him with after his third drink.
We also learn that Annabella is, according to Boland anyway, an inveterate liar, an unsatisfiable and unpleasant spouse, and, most importantly for the story, infertile. Their childless marriage has become loveless, and Boland reminds himself as he drinks that he must keep his temper, that he wants Lairdman to take her off his hands. But, just as he cannot stop himself taunting Lairdman about their school days, he cannot likewise resist throwing Annabella’s barrenness in the face of Lairdman’s sentimental plants to raise a family. Lairdman angrily departs, and we remain with Boland as he eats a leisurely lunch and makes the long drive back to their village, all the while imagining that Annabella might be gone by the time he arrives home. But his desultory return is merely putting off an acceptance of a truth he admits to himself as he reaches the edge of town: he was botched the marital hand-off by telling Lairdman about his wife’s infertility; she will never leave and their miserable life will continue apace.
The slowly revealed truth that Boland is happy—at least on the surface—to have Lairdman solve his marital problems for him, is extremely effective—the story ideal: simple yet surprising. We have seen so many stories like this, we assume Boland must be injured and desperate to save his marriage, and it is very satisfying to see the reverse play out. And yet the masterstroke of the story is that Boland is, in fact, injured, and perhaps on some level desperate to save his marriage, or perhaps less generously, to uncuckold himself.
A lesser writer—and perhaps a lesser Trevor story—would have ended with Lairdman’s departure, and Boland’s unease at the meeting, his correct feeling that he has drunkenly botched his plan. The real genius of this story is in the last few pages, the way we linger with Boland as he lingers over lunch, the slow drive home, a break for several sobering teas, and the final stop at the village pub where we at last leave him. During these pages, Boland thinks at first not so much of Lairdman, but of his brutal days at the boarding school where Lairdman is now a governor. He thinks about being beaten by the terrifying and abusive boy’s master called the Belted Earl, and he thinks about long cold days spent keeping warm with the unpleasant furnace operator, McArdle the cokeman. His memories of boarding school emerge throughout the meeting and follow him home, slowly dissolving and transforming into a grim acceptance that Annabella will not leave him after all. The story does not explain the connection, but we understand as readers that there is one, a link between the childhood abuse he suffered for being a provincial, and his inability to let his bored wife be captured by a “cute” Dublin gentleman. We understand this, though Boland does not, as he sits in the bar “wondering why he hadn’t been able to let Lairdman take her from him.”
This is what great stories do—they pursue great endings. There is nothing that we really learn in the last four pages, after Lairdman leaves, that we don’t already know. But Trevor patiently makes us sit with Boland, sit with him in his half-drunken memories and dawning sense of dread. It isn’t enough to simply have the information, we have to know what it’s like for that information to set in, to know that you have misplayed your one remaining chance for happiness.
A quick additional note: “The Third Party” is, I think productively ambiguous about Boland’s reliability regarding Annabella. We have no real reason to think he’s incorrect about his marriage and happiness, and it’s objectively true that his wife has been cheating on him for years. The facts are there. And yet Trevor cleverly has Lairdman call Boland on his alcohol intake, and Boland refutes the charge of drunkenness, claiming that he rarely drinks. As this is clearly revealed as a falsehood, we must wonder what else Boland is fudging, and how much Annabella might be, for her own part, dreading the return of her husband.