The unnamed narrator takes Catherine, a neighbor child, on an afternoon outing to visit their friend Philip at his boarding school outside London. Catherine, who is thirteen years old, idolizes both the fifteen-year-old Philip and the narrator, an older woman who lives in a nearby apartment. Catherine borrows a collection of short stories by the Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel to read on the train because she knows that Philip is reading them.
The visit to Philip is a success. The three walk through the school’s beautiful playing fields, as Catherine carries the Babel book in her left hand. After lunch, they go to a movie matinee, to see The Hoodlum Priest (1961), a new Hollywood film about a Jesuit priest who rescues juvenile delinquents, but who cannot save one of them from being executed. The film has a strong, moving, sentimental ending sequence in a prison gas chamber that causes many theatergoers, including Catherine, to cry. As they leave the theater, they pass the doorman, who loudly criticizes the red-eyed patrons for being soft on crime.
On the return train trip to London, Catherine asks the narrator why Isaac Babel is a famous writer. The narrator explains that Babel’s writing style is simple, spare, and clear. Catherine is shocked to learn that Babel was killed twenty years earlier. She tries to read the narrator’s favorite Babel story, “My First Goose,” but does not understand much of it and what she does understand she finds too morbid. The narrator suggests that Catherine might like Babel better when she is a little older. She agrees, remarking that Philip is older.
A week later, the narrator receives a thank-you letter from Catherine, who writes that the visit was the most lovely day in her life. She tells the narrator that The Hoodlum Priest has convinced her that capital punishment is wrong. She also writes that she has been meditating on Isaac Babel, and has concluded that the conscious simplicity of his style is what makes him a great writer. Catherine closes the note by asking the narrator whether Philip has said anything about coming to her party but begs in a postscript that she not tell him that she has asked, for she would die if he knew.