The story opens with a mother and daughter in a taxi on the way to the train station for the mother's departure, after a visit to her married daughter's family. The daughter, Catherine, is relieved that the tensions of the visit will soon end. She had nearly laughed aloud at her husband's discomfort when her mother made a general and insincere-sounding apology for her comments, which apparently mostly centered on the couple's ‘‘thin and highly strung’’ son. Tony, suffering from a cold, had hidden behind a cough rather than respond meaningfully to his mother-in-law. In the taxi ride, both women have the sense of something left unsaid, and they ask each other what they may have forgotten, but keep the conversation on the relatively safe topic of the child. Their composure is momentarily shaken when the taxi driver slams on the brakes and the two women briefly collide. They rearrange the suitcases and handbags quickly, to avoid the sense of"physical intimacy long since forgotten.’’ Catherine had had a closer relationship with her father, and she is anxious to be away from her mother. Only when the train lurches away do they call out to each other, "Mother" and "Catherine," and when the daughter sees her mother's tremulous hand adjusting the hat she had bought at Catherine's milliner's shop, she has a sudden urge to ask her if she had had a happy marriage with her father.
Having never made the connections both women longed for and feared, they are parted, and Catherine walks with her usual brisk step, now that she no longer has to keep pace with her aging mother. She feels beautiful and fixes her pleasure on "the things of the world.’’ Catherine heads straight for her own son, after answering yes to her husband' s terse query,"Has she gone?'' The child is a distant and preoccupied young thing, four years old. She finds him playing with a wet towel, and feels a sudden desire to ‘‘fasten the child forever to this moment.'' As she hangs up the towel, the child calls her "Mummy," in a way he hadn' t before, without following it with some kind of request. Not understanding why, Catherine enjoys the moment, and bursts into a wheezing laugh, which the child promptly pronounces "ugly.'' Now Catherine is more than ever determined to attach him to her. She brusquely gathers him up and spirits him to the elevator, telling her surprised husband they are going for a walk. Coughing and blowing his nose from his cold, Tony does not have time to respond or to stop them, even though he feels left out.
Tony watches the pair from the height of the apartment window, seeing them now as "flattened," without their familiar perspective. The child's hair blows in the breeze of the nearby sea. A fear grips Tony that his wife might transmit something—at first he does not know what—to his son. ‘‘Catherine, this child is still innocent,’’ he thinks. He realizes that it is imprisonment that she will transmit, and that she will impose it with a ‘‘morose pleasure.’’ He foresees how the child will stand by the same window and be imprisoned, "obliged to respond to a dead man.’’ Tony feels alone in the efficient apartment his engineering job has provided for his family. They have escaped him to form a bond he will not join. He realizes that beneath her serenity, Catherine hates him and what they have achieved, as a family as well as economically, but he also knows that he is bound to perpetuate both. He sees their petulant child...
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as excised from the safe life Catherine and he have fashioned; the child is the expression of irritation and frustration that they refuse to express to each other.
Tony's thoughts turn to dinner, the return of routine, and he decides to go to the cinema after dinner, to bide the time until dark, when "this day would break up like the waves on the rocks of Arpoador.’’ Tony just barely acknowledges the irritating sound of the elevator coming up, bearing his family. Either the noise or the idea of its not stopping "even for a second'' seems to remind him how little control he has over his family's progression toward eternal imprisonment.