Lily Littel is a rather wilted “Lily-girl” from London, with champagne taste on a ginger-ale budget. Although her name and accent betray humble social origins, she aspires to live like the aristocracy. She lost her working-class husband, Cliff, during World War II, or perhaps simply lost interest in him, and began calling herself “Miss” Littel. She served for eight years as the paid companion of an elderly lady and received a modest bequest in the lady’s will. She now spends most of the year in a pensione on the Italian Riviera, which is all that her ginger-ale budget will allow. When her quarterly dividend arrives, however, she goes to Nice on the more fashionable French Riviera to indulge her taste for champagne—indeed any sort of alcohol—because she is a binge drinker. As the story begins, her latest check is in the mail and she looks forward to another getaway. She will pretend to lavish her time and money on a poor sister and will enjoy being missed for a few days.
Mrs. Freeport has been running the small pensione for thirteen years, perhaps to be near the cemetery where her husband is buried. Among her annual paying guests is Mrs. Garnett, a cousin’s widow, who is the oldest and wealthiest of the three characters. When Mrs. Garnett requests an Italian meal for the last night of her stay, Mrs. Freeport grudgingly sets the Christmas leftovers to one side. She even serves the wine undiluted. She orders Lily about like a serving girl, and Lily complies. The dinner is a disaster, nevertheless. Mrs. Garnett nibbles at her food and declines the main course. Mrs. Freeport takes offense and accuses her guest of secret eating, which is as bad in their book as secret drinking. She keeps up the insults until Mrs. Garnett faints and must be carried to bed.
After Mrs. Garnett leaves the next morning, Mrs. Freeport breaks into tears, lamenting that she will never see her dear old friend again. Lily replies, quite sensibly, that this sort of behavior has never kept Mrs. Garnett away in the past. Reassured, Mrs. Freeport begins to plan for the next tourist season, when she will make better provisions for her friend. Lily announces her plan to visit her sister and Mrs. Freeport responds politely, but both are too shaken by the day’s events to speak more.