A train is heading toward a small, rural station in Southern Africa. The area around the station is impoverished, as are the people who live there. In the station, the station-master, the vendors, and the children prepare for the train’s arrival.
The train, from the white, considerably more wealthy area of Rhodesia, approaches the station. A young white woman stretches out of the train’s window to look at a carved lion that an old African man has to sell. The poor villagers flock to the windows of the train, selling items or begging for handouts from the other passengers. Children ask for pennies. Dogs and hens surround the dining car waiting for scraps. One girl throws out chocolates— “the hard kind, that no one liked”—but the hens get them before the dogs do.
The young woman decides the lion is too expensive: three shillings and sixpence. Her husband thinks the price is preposterous also, but his wife urges him to stop bargaining with the old man. She withdraws from the window to sit in the compartment across the train’s corridor. She thinks about the lion she has not purchased and all the other similar carvings she has already bought: bucks, hippos, and elephants. She wonders how these items, which have come to represent the unreality of her honeymoon trip, will fit in at home and what meaning they will take on in her everyday life. She realizes that she has been subconsciously thinking that her new husband was part of this unreality, as if he would vanish as soon as the honeymoon ends.
The bell rings in the station, and the stationmaster prepares the train to leave. As the train starts moving on the track, the old man with the lion runs alongside it, offering the carving for “one-and-six”—only a fraction of what he had asked for before. The husband tosses the money out the window and the old man throws the lion to him. As the train leaves the station, the old man is standing, holding the shilling and sixpence he has picked up from the ground.
The young man enters the compartment where his wife sits, pleased with having obtained the lion figure for so little, and hands it to her. Though she admires its finely crafted features and the ruff of fur around its neck, she holds it away from her. She is dismayed at this purchase because it represents the humiliation her husband has forced upon the old African. She demands to know why he did not pay a fair price for it. He protests that she herself had said it was too expensive. The young woman throws the lion onto the seat in frustration.
A sense of shame engulfs her as she thinks of the price. She feels an emptiness inside herself. She has felt this way before but mistakenly thought it came from being alone too much; now she knows that is not true. The empty feeling is tied up with her new husband and their differing value systems. Her husband is sprawled out on the seat and she remains with her back toward him. The abandoned lion has fallen into a corner.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Nadime Gordimer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.