An unnamed English visitor to a South American country which seems to be Brazil unintentionally becomes involved in the lives of Stefan Woroszylski, a Polish laboratory assistant at a remote industrial development project, and Barbara, his English wife. Barbara insists upon inflicting on her fellow Englishman the "emotional confusion" built up over two years in a strange country. In contrast, Stefan is relatively comfortable in Brazil, since several Poles are there.
The daughter of an admiral, educated in a convent, Barbara desperately misses the active social life associated with her upper-middle-class background. Even with a husband, three children, and a fourth on the way, she is lonely in a place so different from that to which she has been accustomed, not only in Kensington but also in such places as Malta, Gibraltar, and Alexandria. "Perhaps I’m just not the pioneering type," she explains to the narrator. Barbara does all she can to inform the narrator of her former status so that he will "perhaps, later, commiserate with her for her present circumstances."
The narrator can sympathize with Barbara up to a point, especially when he accompanies Stefan on a hunt for wild dogs: "You can judge your distance from civilization by the state of the dogs: Tonight we were very far away." This distance becomes even clearer when Stefan declines to finish off a dog he has wounded because of the expense of the extra bullet, explaining that the dog’s "friends will kill him for us." The distance increases when Stefan interrupts a dinner conversation between Barbara and the narrator to tell his guest about the quality of the local prostitutes.
The Woroszylskis live only one hundred yards from Fernando and Doralice Ferreira, but Barbara is almost entirely isolated from them and everyone else in the settlement. The wives consider Barbara an incompetent housekeeper and mother and feel only contempt for her. Barbara looks forward to a ball at the local British Club in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 11. She imagines that she will find there those who will "accept her in the way she wanted to be accepted as a person."
Stefan takes the narrator on a tour of his world: a meal of cabbage and sausages, heavy drinking, and the Polish prostitutes at the Bar Metro. The narrator narrowly escapes spending the night with one of the whores. Barbara later thanks the narrator for looking after her husband: "You boys seem to have had a whale of a time together."
The Woroszylskis have difficulty getting into the ball since Stefan, in his shabby brown suit, is not dressed properly. Inside, because Stefan flirts with a seventeen-year-old blonde, Barbara tries to make him jealous by dancing closely with the narrator, but they are forced to leave shortly when the girl becomes upset by Stefan’s advances.
The narrator suspects that Barbara’s patience with her philandering husband has finally come to an end. When Fernando brings her to him looking forlorn, the narrator expects her to say that she is leaving Stefan. Instead, she reveals that her husband has decided to return to Poland. Stefan’s exile will then have ended; Barbara’s will continue, probably for the rest of her life.