Real Time Short Stories

Café Shorts: Katherine Mansfield “A Dill Pickle”

Posted on: April 24, 2011

We’ve taken a look at some of the factors that bring writers into coffee shops and that, once there, illuminate potential stories; and there was some discussion about the dramatic resonance these places can derive from personal memory and location. Let’s now grab a refill and take a closer look at how a short story narrative is galvanised by this type of setting.

Katherine Mansfield by Anne Estelle Rice

The narrative of a story can be glimpsed in its opening and Katherine Mansfield‘s 1917 short story, A Dill Pickle, tells us all we’re going to need to know in this stunning first paragraph:

And then, after six years, she saw him again. He was seated at one of those little bamboo tables decorated with a Japanese vase of paper daffodils. There was a tall plate of fruit in front of him, and very carefully, in a way she recognized immediately as his “special” way, he was peeling an orange.

It’s an extraordinary first sentence, prompting a cascade of images suggesting what preceded the “And then…” The collapse of the previous six years into being the moment before seeing him “again” is devastating to us, before we have any idea who “she” and “him” are. As soon as physical details emerge, though, we start to realise we know them very well. It’s the tea room setting that does this. We can see him seated at the table, with its Oriental pretensions, doing just enough to trigger her memories of him – and we know what this is. The chance meetings we experience in tea rooms and coffee houses are never entirely by chance. Put another way, these aren’t the places you’d visit to avoid bumping into an old familiar face. We’ve gained more than a setting from the knowledge that this is a chance meeting across a plate of fruit. We get that these people have the time it will take them to get through their order –

He interrupted her. “Excuse me,” and tapped on the table for the waitress. “Please bring some coffee and cream.” To her: “You are sure you won’t eat anything? Some fruit, perhaps. The fruit here is very good.”

“No, thanks. Nothing.”

– either to re-open old wounds or to rekindle lost intimacy. What it was that took place in those six years; what they were to each other before then; the people they’ve been before this moment; what could happen next: all this will be determined in the time it takes to order, drink and pay for coffee and cream. Again, the mechanics of the venue underpin the choreography of the characters. What will this meeting inspire? Well, you can probably work it out if I tell you that she responds to an early compliment by raising her veil and unbuttoning her fur collar – entirely normal actions, or else she won’t feel the benefit when she goes out again – but that, left alone at the end with the bill, he points out to the waitress that “the cream has not been touched.”…”Please do not charge me for it.”

The mundane functions of all our lives can provide framing devices for narratives, and café culture offers these by the plateful. I’ve chosen a 94-year-old story that could have taken place today in your local Costa, but do you know, or have any favourite short stories set, entirely or mainly, in cafés? Let me know below…

11 Responses to "Café Shorts: Katherine Mansfield “A Dill Pickle”"

I’m especially interested in your suggestions of cafe/diner/coffee shop/tea room/ice cream parlour short stories but please don’t hold back from chatting about songs, poems, or scenes in novels, films or plays in any of those settings.

This is a song, but it’s also a short story… Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”.

You probably know it. It’s a vignette, an interval in a life, upon which other lives touch. The man behind the counter, another customer, a passer-by in the street – and you, the narrator’s lover. The interval ends with the chime of the xathedral bells, and the narrator leaves, but we have a sense of where she is going, who she may be meeting… and an echo of an encounter witnessed by the narrator as a passive onlooker.

That was meant to be cathedral. D’oh.

I like ‘xathedral’ – sounds quite Catalonian.

The lyrics of ‘Tom’s Diner’ certainly read like a piece of flash fiction, Amanda. I like the details of looking in the paper for “the funnies” and of the woman outside looking at a reflection of herself. What the story can do in those moments is put us directly inside the experience, because the characters do no more or less than we do in the same situations. All of a sudden, we’re experiencing our own lives.

[…] coffee shop sitter-and-writer so it’s only right we should turn to him for the second of our occasional Café Shorts series. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, the dimensions of the place in question are […]

[…] of narrative in a self-contained or claustrophobic space is a short story characteristic, as we’ve discussed previously, and it’s worth noting that there are differences between the way London is used here and the […]

[…] and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a […]

[…] read something like – And then, after six years, she saw him again. [Katherine Mansfield, A Dill Pickle] Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove […]

[…] no doubt in brand new art deco surroundings, observed by Katherine Mansfield and reproduced as A Dill Pickle, and he carried the incident away with him in his notebook. The result was Tea at the Midland, […]

“Café Shorts: Katherine Mansfield ?A Dill Pickle? | Real Time Short Stories” ended up being
a relatively pleasant blog, . Continue publishing and I’m going to keep following! Thanks for the post ,Edison

Thank you so much for utilizing time to publish “Café Shorts: Katherine Mansfield
A Dill Pickle | Real Time Short Stories” cityofgreenwoodmn .
Many thanks for a second time -Brian

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