The group is assembled in the living room on New Year's Eve. Barney is writing a letter, Pearl is knitting, and Olive is playing cards with Roo. They can hear children playing outside and Pearl comments on the noise. When nobody responds, Pearl asks Barney if she included her comment about having "her" (his daughter) trained for dressmaking in his letter. He insists the recipient wouldn't know what to do if he started suggesting things like that, and Pearl declares that he can hardly call the relationship he has with his daughter now "having a family." Barney insists he has kids, not a family, and swats at a mosquito.
Though Pearl is attempting to insert herself in Barney's affairs and change how he does things, Barney resists. This shows that he's still entirely committed to continuing life as he always has, and likely still idealizes his lifestyle as well. It's worth noting that staying in and doing quiet activities like this instead of going out is an indicator of age. However, the group’s valiant efforts to seem youthful show that they're unwilling to admit the truth of this.
Roo says that the ferns on the verandah are full of mosquitos, and Barney suggests they all go to the beach. Pearl deems it too late, but Barney notes that even children are playing outside at 11:30pm. Olive reminds Barney that he hasn't been working all day. Roo insists they go without him, but neither Pearl nor Olive are interested. Barney reminds Olive that she was once the one dragging everyone to the beach, and asks if she remembers the time they stayed out until 7:30 in the morning. Pearl tells Barney to drop it.
The tenseness of these exchanges suggests that the characters don't quite know what to do with this change of tradition. Barney's comment about the children playing outside makes their own middle age stand out in comparison. Olive's unwillingness to fondly remember a past adventure suggests that she's starting to become aware that the past cannot be resurrected, and is noticing that this layoff season isn’t especially fun.
Pearl calls Barney to her to test the length of the sweater sleeve she's working on. Barney resists, saying that the recipient of the sweater is taller and bigger than he is. Olive asks who the sweater is for, and Pearl looks warm and maternal as she replies that it's for Lennie, Barney's oldest son. She assures Barney that once she's done with this sweater, she'll start one for Arthur, Barney's other son. Barney corrects her, saying that they call Arthur "Chippa."
Again, Pearl's desire to use Arthur's given name rather than a nickname shows that she believes that "proper" names are a way to bring individuals like Barney to a more decent way of living. Sweaters are traditionally a symbol of commitment because they take so long to knit, which suggests that Pearl believes she's in Barney's life to stay.
Bubba appears on the back verandah in an evening dress and calls to Olive. She tells Barney that she promised to show Olive her dress. When Bubba steps into the living room, Barney teases her as she explains that she's going to a social club dance with girls from work. She says hesitantly that she'd almost rather not go, but Olive insists that she meet her friends. Barney teases Bubba about meeting a lucky man. Bubba asks if anyone else is going out, and suggests they still try to go visit the Morrises. Barney looks hopeful, but Olive shuts her down. Pearl asks who the Morrises are, but everyone else ignores her as they say goodbye to Bubba.
Bubba's appearance and evening plans make the differences between the generations extremely apparent: the older generation is mellowing, while the younger generation is both excited to experience adult fun and nervous about "leaving the nest." When Olive shuts down Barney's suggestion, it's an underhanded acceptance that the group is getting older and must change, as well as an attempt to idealize their quiet evening activities.
Pearl asks again who the Morrises are, trying to sound casual. Olive shuffles cards and explains that they used to go to their New Year's parties. Pearl suspiciously asks why they didn't go this year, and Olive snaps that the Morrises are Nancy's cousins. Pearl begins winding a new ball of yarn, and Barney moves to help her. He says that he's spent time with many women, but none have knitted him a sweater, and asks the room why. Olive suggests they didn't have time, but Barney declares that they didn't want to.
Olive understands that if Pearl remains unaware of the happy past, she won't have to acknowledge that this year is very different. By admitting that things are different this year, Olive also must admit to herself that she's not actually having the fun she usually does. Barney seems more open to accepting a woman permanently into his life if it means hand-knit sweaters, which shows that his traditions and loyalty are also potentially changing.
Pearl happily says that some women don't want to knit a sweater for an "eagle," which confuses Barney. Pearl explains that it's something Olive said once, and Olive tries to change the subject to no avail. With obvious pleasure, Pearl tells the room that there was a man in the pub who talked on and on about migratory birds, and it was around the time that Olive had started telling Pearl about Roo and Barney. Olive had been wrapped up in this man talking about his birds, and after the man left, told Pearl that Roo and Barney were like eagles coming down for the mating season. Pearl laughs and remains focused on her winding, and doesn't notice that the other three aren't amused.
Pearl's eagle comment recalls Barney's three necessary qualities for women he has relationships with, as it shows that Pearl is trying very hard to accept and deal with the fact that Barney doesn't want to be tied down (though again, the sweater suggests that she still does hope to tie him down). The others' reaction shows that Pearl hit a nerve with this story, and it's possibly truer than they'd like to admit. It sexualizes the situation without taking into account the deep romantic relationships the characters share.
Olive tries to recover and says that the eagle analogy fit in with what the man was saying, but Pearl keeps giggling and tells Roo and Barney that she had no idea what to expect with everything Olive said about them. Pearl smugly says that Olive talked as though the town would float once the men arrived, and says that Olive had the Sunday boat trips made out to be beautiful. Pearl says the boat was objectively terrible, and Olive insists she didn't give it a fair chance. In reply, Pearl insists she gave Christmas in Selby a fair chance. Barney asks what was wrong with the house in Selby. Pearl admits that it wasn't bad, but she expected a palace. Roo chimes in that Selby is fantastic, but Pearl remarks that the house doesn't have electricity.
Finally, Pearl insists that Olive's idealized layoff season is, in reality, nothing to write home about. Olive's offense stems from her intense desire to maintain her idyllic vision, which cannot handle Pearl's criticisms. However, the fact that Roo and Barney jump to Olive's defense of the traditional layoff season activities indicates that they too share Olive's idealized memories and desire to cling to them for as long as possible. Essentially, they're not yet able to critically wonder if Pearl might be right, and if the layoff activities are objectively not fulfilling to them anymore.
Olive throws her cards down and tells Pearl to stop making her out to be a liar. Pearl is surprised and says she was only voicing her opinion, and Olive retorts that Pearl has too many opinions. Roo tries to convince Olive to finish her hand of cards, but Olive angrily declares that staying up until midnight is silly and she'd rather go to bed. Barney insists she stay, and suggests they get Emma in to play the piano so they can have a singalong.
By deciding to give up and go to bed, Olive truly betrays to the reader or viewer that she's too old to keep up the charade. She's incapable of and unwilling to consider that the layoff season isn't fun anymore, and chooses a comparatively adult way to deal with these emotions.
Barney calls for Emma, who's sitting outside. He offers her money to play any tunes she likes, and she agrees as long as there's "no muckin' about." Barney organizes everyone on the sofa as Emma enters. Olive whispers that Emma will no doubt play only her favorite songs. Emma takes off her ring, puts it on the piano, and says she'll only walk out in the middle of the singalong if they don't take it seriously. She sits, massages her fingers, and calls the others to their feet. Pearl asks if she has to join, and Emma insists she does before announcing the first song (her favorite). Olive tells Barney she told him so, and Emma takes offense.
Unlike the rest of the layoff season traditions, Emma remains comfortingly (if annoyingly) predictable. Notice, however, that Emma's comment that she won't tolerate "mucking about" is an underhanded request for the others to behave like adults and not treat the singalong like a game. This suggests that Emma is aware that the group is growing up and changing, and is giving them opportunities to act their age or betray their emotional immaturity.
Emma glares angrily at Olive and then starts playing the introduction to the song. She begins to sing and the others join in feebly. Emma stops, annoyed. She plays the first note a few times and tells the others to try again. The second time is better, though Pearl doesn't sing and just stares incredulously at the others. After a few lines, Emma stops again and says fiercely that someone is singing flat. She glares at Pearl, who looks exceptionally irritated. Emma continues her witch hunt and Barney tries to ask her to just play and not give them all singing lessons. Emma says that singing flat is mucking about.
Though the singalong isn't introduced as an entirely normal layoff season event, it is normal and traditional for everyone to participate fully—something that Pearl, as an outsider, is completely shocked to realize. In this way, even though Emma wants the others to take it seriously and behave like adults, Pearl shows that she views the singalong as a childish activity that's absolutely ridiculous for adults to enjoy.
Olive asks Emma if maybe she's singing wrong, but Emma insists she's never hit a wrong note. She shares that even the conductor at the community choir would agree: he gives Emma a solo every year for her birthday. Olive suggests the conductor does that as a joke. Emma bursts out angrily and resists Roo's attempts to calm her down. She puts her ring back on and storms out, calling the group amateurs. Pearl deems it the shortest singing session on record and returns to her knitting.
Olive's incessant attacks on Emma's singing show that she too is capable of ruining someone else's idealized visions. Emma also responds very similarly to the way that Olive did to Pearl's attacks. This shows that the pain of having one's idealized memories and beliefs taken down like this is painful regardless of one's age; it's not something unique to one generation or another.
Roo tells Olive she shouldn't have made fun of Emma's singing because it's the one thing she's proud of, but Olive says that Emma never apologizes for hurting her. To try to save the tense situation, Barney suggests they open some beer. Olive jumps on the idea and calls Pearl to the kitchen to help her make snacks.
Barney still wants to try and turn this unfortunate evening into a fun and fulfilling one, as he too is desperate to recreate his idealized past and not accept the reality of the present. Though Olive agrees, her attitude suggests that she doesn't believe this night is salvageable.
Barney and Roo discuss Emma's fussiness. There seems to be a guarded air around the men as Barney asks how the paint business is. He laughs and says he might be joining Roo at the factory since his money is already running out. Roo says that Lyman's is small and Barney might not be able to get in there. Barney says he can go a few more weeks with what he has. He suddenly becomes very animated and tells Roo that some of the “boys” from the gang are in town and they all met up in the pub that morning. They're in town before heading out again to pick fruit. Roo seems unconvinced that this was a chance meeting, and Barney accuses Roo of being overly suspicious.
Roo's suspicions show that the trust between him and Roo is absolutely compromised, and Barney's meet-up with the “boys” (intentional or not) only makes it seem as though Barney is actively turning away from his friendship with Roo. When Barney asks about getting a job in town, it shows that he too is beginning to grow up and is willing to consider a less masculine city job—assuming it allows him to maintain his idyllic layoff season lifestyle.
Barney tells Roo that he told the boys Roo was working, but didn't say where. At Roo's prompting, Barney insists he kept it a secret because he thought Roo would want him to. Barney continues that the boys want to go out with Barney and Roo sometime. Roo asks if Johnnie Dowd is with them, and when Barney says he is, Roo says he won't go. Barney angrily says that Johnnie isn't holding a grudge and would like to see Roo, but Roo stubbornly refuses. Barney says this puts him in a "fine spot," and when Roo tells Barney to go without him, Barney says he won't go alone.
Remember that Johnnie is much younger than Roo. Simply keeping this in mind suggests that Roo feels threatened by Jonnie primarily because of his age. This shows that Roo is struggling with the obvious signs of his own decline as well as with Barney's betrayal. Roo's stubbornness, however, is an immature quality that keeps him from finding a mature and level way of dealing with these changes.
Barney sobers and quietly admits to Roo that he didn't walk out with him up north, but insists he's never slipped in his loyalty except for that one time. Roo says that the one time was the one time he needed Barney there.
Again, Roo's unwillingness to accept Barney's remorse shows both Roo's immaturity and his “growing pains.” He needs Barney more than ever because things are changing, but being together is difficult for the same reason.
Barney asks if he can make it up to Roo, and suggests they go north with the boys to pick grapes. Roo is incredulous that Barney is suggesting they walk out on Olive and Pearl, but Barney says that this year hasn't been much fun without Nancy anyway. Disgusted, Roo moves away from Barney and accuses him of running off once the fun leaves. Barney angrily insists that Olive definitely isn't enjoying herself, and though Pearl seems to be doing alright, she doesn't know how it used to be. He pleads with Roo to speak to Olive about it.
Notice that Barney is trying to make Roo recognize that he's still loyal to him: he's insisting they leave together, and framing it in a way that makes it seem as though Barney is "saving" Roo from the drudgery of this bad layoff season. When Barney finally states that things aren't the same without Nancy, it's actually an important realization for him, and is proof that Barney is potentially maturing too.
Roo stands over Barney and reminds him that they come here five months out of every year for the layoff. He asks what Barney thinks Olive does during the other seven months, and insists that she doesn't go out with other men; she waits for the next layoff season because the layoff is so special to her. Roo says that knowing that and not wanting to let her down is what made him come back this year, and he wants to hear nothing about picking grapes. After a moody pause, Barney asks what he should do when his money runs out. Roo tells him to get a job. They begin to argue again when they hear Olive and Pearl coming with trays.
Finally, Roo reveals the most important reason why he wants to follow through with the charade of this layoff season: he loves Olive too much to disappoint her. Though in practice continuing the layoff season isn't necessarily the most adult decision, when Roo places Olive's dreams and desires above his own, it shows that his love for her at least is quite mature. However, this also suggests that he idealizes the relationship he has with Olive—something that will have dire consequences.
Olive and Pearl enter with plates of sandwiches and snacks, and Olive cheerfully notes that they have time to pour drinks before midnight. Roo suggests they call Emma, but Olive says that Emma will join them if she feels like it. Olive sits beside Roo and apologizes for being dramatic earlier. Roo soothes Olive as Barney offers them glasses, telling them to drink before they start kissing. Pearl giggles and pours herself a beer, and Barney pours one for himself. Fireworks begin going off outside and Roo and Pearl turn off the lights inside.
Again, Roo demonstrates his increasing maturity by suggesting the group be inclusive and welcoming to others, while Olive shows the opposite by not following his lead and behaving generously. Olive's apology here suggests that her relationship with Roo might actually be as strong and loyal as Roo thinks it is, and further, that it's based on mutual respect and affection.
They all watch the fireworks for a few minutes and Olive says to Roo that she's glad they didn't go out. Barney raises a toast to happy days and glamorous nights, which makes Pearl choke on her beer. She starts laughing as the others look at her curiously, and Pearl laughs at the suggestion that this night is glamorous. Pearl turns to her beer and seems unaware that the others are looking at each other with bewildered looks. Olive breaks down crying and Roo tries to comfort her. Barney stares into his beer and looks ashamed as the clock chimes midnight.
Pearl sees the night for what it is: a sad, tense night. This mirrors her view of the entire layoff season and shows that she still refuses to buy into the idealism of the others. Similarly, Roo and Olive's willingness to go along with the toast says that they do still believe the idealism, though their reactions to Pearl's laughter suggests that for all their attempts, Pearl's harsh view of their sad reality is wearing on them.