There is an old literary conceit, as old as the hills, in which the protagonist rumbles through a series of inexplicable obstacles that seem to be at once completely unrelated and complicit in some hideous pattern. What he finds at the end of his search is that both these observations are perfectly true. And they are true because our lives are both episodic and often interpretable only upon death – or thereafter, if you believe that there is a thereafter – and our protagonist is dead. The theme is so common (I will not spoil a handful of stories and films that employ this device) that it may be easy to conclude that hell comprises not ever realizing that life has ended, eternal suffering as to why we cannot just die, why people no longer take any interest in you, and why what mattered before now has little to no meaning. A subtler reader, of course, might understand that those who do not live by moral principles will not be able to distinguish life from death even while still obligate aerobes. Perhaps the only difference is the level of acceptance we attach to them, which brings us to the eponymous story in this collection.
We are introduced to the Billingses, Jane and Carter, by way of the exploits of their friends. Now in their fifties and rather immune to the hubbub and locomotion of youth, Jane and Carter cast a weary look at their contemporaries and find that everyone is doing something that they are not: one couple is split by adultery and a subsequent living arrangement that raises a few eyebrows; another pair is exposed as embezzlers and smug embezzlers at that (as if, over time, there could be any other kind); but we are bound by numerical convention, and it is the third couple that will raze all other plot lines. This third couple are the Egglestons, Lucy and Frank, who decide that instead of waiting for retirement and a brooding dream of moving to England, they will come to it. They dispense with job, house, and responsibilities that have cost them half their lives and depart to this county along the North Sea which has big blue skies. Just like, apparently, the big blue skies Frank would have gazed upon had he taken the corporate suggestion of moving to Texas.
It will take three years for Jane and Carter to rouse themselves from the changes that are not nearly as shocking as they might seem and book two plane tickets to that most-often visited of European destinations for Americans. What they cannot help are their expectations. Frank has become heavier, rosier, and more deferential in that bluff English fashion; Lucy, on the other hand, has taken on a different hue altogether:
Her pleasant plain looks, rather lost in the old crowd of heavily groomed suburban wives, had bloomed in this climate; her manner, as she showed them the house and their room upstairs, seemed to Carter somehow blushing, bridal.
This passage is abetted by a long sequence on the staircase at night in which Carter, unable to orient himself properly in an older English home where everything seems to be "on the left," nearly kills himself. He is saved, it appears, by "something – someone, he felt – [that] hit him a solid blow in the exact center of his chest, right on the sternum." That something turns out to be the oval knob of a newel post, an object on which he could have just as easily maimed himself – but at this point Carter is unconcerned. His expectations have not been met because he did not really know what to think of the Old World, of its narrow quarters and quaint habits, of its air, its trees, and the numerous species that obtain special attention throughout the story. One segment involves a heron roving the neighboring duke's lands which Lucy and Frank "have never been able to spot." Lucy promises it found, yet the carnivore only appears upon Carter's premonition:
But the grey heron was not showing himself, though they trod the margin of the woods for what seemed half a mile .... At last their hostess halted. She announced, "We'd better get on with it – what a disappointment," and led them back to the car. As they drew close to the glittering, pleated, roaring weir, Carter had the sudden distinct feeling that he should look behind him. And there was the heron, sailing out of the woods towards them, against the wind, held, indeed, motionless within the wind, standing in midair with his six-foot wing-spread – an angel.
It may or may not be important that Carter, who shares a name with the man who located the most famous tomb of modern times, feels the need to turn back and encounter a bird so closely related to an avifauna of Egyptian mythology (naturalists will undoubtedly object to such fuzzy classification, and I am always a factioneer of naturalists). It may be simpler to aver that Americans immigrating to England because of the lack of culture in their homeland, a very common and unfortunately not spurious assertion, will never discover the nest of the grey heron, that noble and incredibly inventive bird, just as they will never ingress the soul of – and I think we all know where such platitudes lead.
While the playground of Updike's imagination is almost invariably American suburbia, England, site of a glorious year abroad, appears now and then like a lily cast afloat upon a pond's gently detonating surface. The name Billings is American enough – it is, after all, the largest city in the fourth largest U.S. state – but in the language of the invaders of Norfolk, invaders who came in savage waves about a thousand years ago, the word means "twin." In fact, a famous tale in the tradition of the "North Folk" has Billings hiding out in some reeds waiting for his beloved (there is also another famous story about a woman that belongs to him, ostensibly his daughter, but that is a tale for another day). Why would twins have anything to do with a plain plot of fiftyish friends trying to be youthful and active and above all, still friends? Let's just say that death and life have many things in common.