Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
Warren Matthews, an American Fulbright scholar, and his wife, Carol, move into a basement flat in London owned by Carol’s aunt Judith. Carol soon finds she hates London, and the new living arrangements do nothing to cement an already crumbling marriage. She announces that she will return to New York with Cathy, their daughter. She will get an apartment and a secretarial job. She suggests that she and Warren use their months apart to think over the future of their relationship. The couple agree to tell Aunt Judith that Carol is returning to the United States because of an illness in her family. Warren offers no resistance to Carol’s plans. After a party at Cathy’s nursery school at which the child is given a cheap music box that plays “Happy Birthday,” mother and child depart.
Warren is lonely. He cranks the music box backward, listening to its formless tune, then goes in search of female companionship. He recalls his reluctance as a soldier on furlough in 1945 to engage the services of the prostitutes who frequented Piccadilly Circus. He takes a bus to Piccadilly and makes a quick choice among the women there. He accompanies one, Christine, to her room in a house where she plies her trade while her six-month-old daughter sleeps. Warren enjoys the sex, and the following morning, he enjoys breakfast and casual conversation with Christine, another prostitute, and Grace and Alfred Arnold, who own the house. Christine invites Warren to stay, without charge, and he accepts. That night, during sex, each declares love for the other. Christine gets drunk and complains that everything she ever wanted was taken away from her. She tells an elaborate tale of a dashing American army officer who she claims fathered her baby but refused to provide support for her or the child when he returned to the United States.
Warren goes back to his flat, but he cannot get Christine out of his mind. He returns to her bed for several more nights, postponing his decision to rescind his avowal of love for fear of her wrath. When Christine begins to telephone his flat, he worries that Aunt Judith will discover his infidelity.
Christine tells Warren that Grace was once a Piccadilly girl, too. She was pregnant by one of her clients when Alfred married her. He took her off the streets and adopted her child. Christine’s implication is clear to Warren, and he vows to prepare for an “orderly withdrawal” from the life of this “strange girl.” He cannot seem to find the right time or approach, however, and continues to see Christine and the Arnolds.
Warren makes several half-hearted attempts to end the affair, but it is Christine who finally takes the initiative, telling him that she cannot see him because she must earn money. Later, when Warren calls at the Arnolds’ home, Grace makes the excuse that Christine has gone to Scotland because of an illness in her family. It is the same lie that Carol used with Judith. Warren tells Grace he does not believe the excuse, and Christine calls him later to report that Alfred is angry because Warren called Grace a liar. Warren finds Alfred to apologize, only to learn that the man was never angry at all. Alfred warns against paying too much attention to what women say.
Back at Warren’s flat, Judith overhears a telephone conversation between Christine and Warren. She admits to him that she has known all along that Carol’s story about a family illness was untrue. Carol writes to Warren affirming her love and stating her desire to re-establish their marriage. As Warren packs to leave London and return to New York, he once more plays the music box backward, then he drops it in the trash.
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