Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In the beginning of the story, an invitation to a wedding in England has prompted a soldier in the American Army to contemplate, briefly, a return visit overseas. Though he decides not to go, he also determines to jot down some "revealing notes on the bride as [he] knew her almost six years ago."
This story was published in The New Yorker in April of 1950, and the narrator specifically says that he is recollecting his time in England in April of 1944, when he was taking a training course in Devon, directed by British Intelligence. In London, just prior to receiving his assignment, the narrator finds himself in front of a church, and he learns that a children's choir is practicing. He goes in and listens to the choir, noting one girl, especially, whose voice stands out among the rest.
Afterward, the narrator goes to a tea shop, and the girl from the choir, her brother, and their governess enter a few minutes later. The girl, quite poised, walks over to the narrator's table and accepts his invitation to join him. He notices that she's wearing a large man's wristwatch, and she tells him that her father died in North Africa some years ago and that her mother passed away more recently. She tells him that she's going to be a jazz singer, and she ignores the governess's attempts to compel her to return to their table. She is quite precocious, and though only thirteen years old, she acts, or tries to act, as though she is much older.
The girl, whose name is Esmé, asks the narrator a number of personal questions and is thrilled to learn that he is a writer; she asks him to write a story just for her, and she (rather enigmatically) informs him that she loves stories about squalor. She promises to write to the narrator soon and looks forward to receiving her story. Esmé also tells him that she hopes he returns from the war "with all [his] faculties intact."
Now, the narrator says, comes the "squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes." He is now in Bavaria, Germany, and V-E Day has taken place—though he writes about himself in the third person as Staff Sergeant X. He has had a nervous breakdown and has developed a significant palsy in his hands and his face is affected by muscular tics. He keeps to himself now, traumatized by his experiences in the war, and does not seem to take much interest in anything, even in his former friends. One friend invites him to come and listen to a radio program with some others, but Sergeant X declines.
Once he's alone again, he spots a package on his desk and opens it. Within, he finds a letter from Esmé in which she apologizes for having taken so long—thirty-eight days—to write to him, and she congratulates him on the Allied victory at D-Day. She expresses concern for his well-being and sends her warm regards to his wife. Most notably, though, Esmé includes her wristwatch, offering it up as a "lucky talisman" to help the narrator. Its face has been broken in transit, but he is so touched by her gift that he finds himself suddenly feeling sleepy—feeling able to sleep—and this provides hope that he might "again becom[e] a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact."
From this information, the readers can then infer that Esmé is the bride-to-be from the beginning of the story, and the narration is the story that she asked for six years prior.