(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This episodic story begins with an account of how Needle got her unusual nickname: by reaching into a haystack on which she and her friends, George, Kathleen, and John, were playing and accidentally impaling the fleshy part of her thumb with a needle that lay hidden in the hay. After some minor first aid, George marks the occasion by taking a photograph, which serves throughout the story as a memento of the youthful friendship that these people shared—a friendship that survives, although in modified form, through a lengthy period of change as they mature.

As the first episode marks the earliest event in the chronology of the story, the second marks virtually the latest. Needle describes an accidental meeting with George and Kathleen that occurs many years after the haystack episode, when Kathleen is nearing thirty-five years of age. Needle is passing through the Saturday crowds in the Portobello Road, an open-air market area of London, when she comes across her two old friends, who are now married to each other. Acting under an inner prompting, Needle speaks to George, who is horrified to see her. When he tells Kathleen that Needle is nearby, she insists that he is mistaken because, as she remarks at the end of the episode, Needle has been dead for five years.

The remainder of the story recounts the progressive decline of the unusual relationship between these four childhood friends. Although Needle does not use the term, she clearly suggests in the succeeding narrative, an interlude between the second and third episodes, that she is spending the time after her death clearing up the “unfinished business” of this relationship. The nature of that business is, in large part, both the source of the story’s interest and the basis of its surprising conclusion.

In the third episode, Needle picks up the chronological account that begins with the haystack episode at the beginning of the story. No longer mere children, the four friends are preparing to take up adult lives in London and the south of England, far from their native territory on the Scottish border: John, nicknamed “Skinny,” goes to study archaeology; George and Kathleen, to take up connections with wealthy family members; and Needle, to undertake a career as a writer. George soon decides to go to Africa and work on his uncle’s tobacco farm, and his approaching departure from familiar surroundings and friends makes him both anxious and eager to remind them that they must maintain their friendship. In the way of persons whose early friendships survive changing adult interests, the four keep track of one another despite the changes.

John arranges a job for Needle as secretary to an archaeological dig in Africa,...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)