“That was it,” he said, heaving himself out of his chair. “I thought you’d like to know. The girls were in Belgium last week having a look at poor Reggie’s grave, and they happened to come across your boy’s. They’re quite near each other, it seems.”
Old Woodifield paused, but the boss made no reply. Only a quiver in his eyelids showed that he heard.
“The girls were delighted with the way the place is kept,” piped the old voice. “Beautifully looked after. Couldn’t be better if they were at home. You’ve not been across, have yer?”
“No, no!” For various reasons the boss had not been across.
“There’s miles of it,” quavered old Woodifield, “and it’s all as neat as a garden. Flowers growing on all the graves. Nice broad paths.” It was plain from his voice how much he liked a nice broad path.
The pause came again. Then the old man brightened wonderfully.
“D’you know what the hotel made the girls pay for a pot of jam?” he piped.
The boss is a character defined by those around him; his emotions are pulled in many directions by what he expects of himself and what the world expects of him. This is particularly evident in the conversation shown above. The boss’s response to the topic of his son’s death is at first startled yet composed; he is affected by the topic, but only his eyelids “quiver” in response. He attempts to put up a façade of being unaffected by the death, that he is “over” it to his friend and (I believe) former employee. He has an image to keep up, and he needs to be “the boss.” To him, how he acts in the face of this event can change how his friends and employees see him, and as a result he remains quiet and composed rather than talking gaily as he had been earlier in the piece.
Further evidence of this intention is shown by Woodsfield’s actions. He is performing in the same way the boss is. When his voice “quavers” he quickly changes the subject and focuses instead on a happier (or more generic) subject. He is acting in the same way as the boss to disguise his actual emotions. They are both expecting the other to behave in the same manner, and expect that the same be expected of them.
This struggle to maintain an image is interestingly contrasted later on when it is revealed that perhaps it is not as much of a struggle as it used to have been. He is not weeping, as he expects himself to. He is stunned and confused by his altered response. He believes there’s something “wrong with him. He wasn’t feeling as he wanted to feel.” He wants to feel sad…he expects himself to feel that way and has told himself he should be sad. He expects more of a response, that’s why he put so much effort into disguising his feelings earlier in the piece. This altered response demonstrates the effect of time on death and the confusion that surrounds people’s responses to death. People do not know how a death will affect their lives, but more often than not they think they know.