By MARTIN SORRELL.
—After Maupassant’s ‘La Parure’
BEES RETURNING TO the hive, said Dr Fox.
Or agitated wasps, said Victor. Or maybe people ripping strips of calico.
Throughout his weeks in St Botolph’s, Victor’s great pleasure was the sky-dance of biplanes and monoplanes from the flying club at the aerodrome further down the valley. Tiger Moths and Chipmunks, he had to assume, as they were the only two names he knew. Those assemblies of spars, struts, and fabric stretched over frames of ash, seemed no more plausible than the model kits he remembered from childhood. Victor’s preferred observation post was the bench on the slope behind the main building, where the beech trees began. He watched and listened to what Jasper, his favourite nurse, thinking it was original, called homesick angels, as they rose, levelled, then headed inland or down the coast and were gone. For a moment, the sky would be still, until there was a new sound of tearing. The greatest part of Victor’s pleasure was that calico music, which he relished as fully as he could by closing his eyes and letting his ears fill with the engine note, which grew as each machine reaffirmed itself over the round hill, then passed directly overhead, descending to the landing strip, sometimes battling headwinds coming off the sea. He learnt to distinguish between the sounds the various planes made. Eyes closed, he arranged them in his head as if he were a composer. He heard them as variations of the colour green, the shifts of green on the hills above St Botolph’s, which, had he had the gift, he would have turned into a symphony.
Eight months into retirement, Victor Woolgar had suffered his third implosion. This time, he’d been despatched to St Botolph’s, the specialist unit on an estuary where the South Downs meet the English Channel. Over eleven weeks, Dr Fox, who called himself and his colleagues a bomb-disposal team, worked at defusing the fissile matter in Victor’s head — the lingering shadow on his infant brother’s lungs; his mother’s indifference to anything after that poor child; his father walking out, finally; Victor taking a tennis racket to the shrine of photographs; his sister’s face marked for life by flying glass.
WITH HIS CONGRATULATORY first, the best degree of his year, Victor had hoped for better than four and a half decades of teaching English, history and whatever Greek and Latin was required in the few schools that employed him – six private establishments in all, Wiltshire, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Kent, Wiltshire again, and lastly Sussex. He couldn’t hold down any position for more than a handful of years at most, and sometimes just a few months. Each new school he found more difficult than the one before. When he retired, his pension in disarray, a teacher in his final school let him have, on generous terms, a two-roomed flat in Crawley. From a side window, he got glimpses of Tilgate Forest.
Victor was discharged from St Botolph’s after breakfast on a morning of blue skies, already buzzing with the planes. The afternoon before, Dr Fox had said his farewells, and, his hand briefly on Victor’s shoulder, had wished him bon courage.
Among the items of mail Victor found in Crawley was an invitation, issued weeks before, to a Gaudy at his old college. It wasn’t the first he’d ever received, but, once he’d phoned the college to find out which of his contemporaries had accepted, it was the first he decided to attend. What made him abandon his resolve never to suffer tea with the Master and the Master’s wife, prayers in chapel, black-tie dinner in Hall, was the news that Robin Desmarais would be there.
AT THREE ON a November afternoon, Victor stepped from the train and walked out of Oxford station. He hadn’t been back in fifty years. He had with him a small cabin-case. In it were the formal clothes borrowed from his landlord, dinner suit, dress shirt, black tie, even the landlord’s black socks. No shoes, though, as those on his feet would have to serve, after a wipe with a tissue. He had soap, toothbrush and paste, razor, prescription pills, and an old vinyl record of Chopin Polonaises played by Malcuzynski. Victor’s idea was to reach his college on foot, but he hadn’t reckoned with the mist and pollution. He got as far as Marks & Spencer, and stopped. He wished he’d caught a bus. He found his inhaler and took two puffs. He looked around. These cloned chain-stores could have been anywhere. He wondered if the old Cafe Formica, as it was known, still existed. It had been his refuge during his first term. There, he would keep a large mug of tea going all afternoon. He sat among the West Indian bus crews, leafing through his Cicero and Suetonius. Once or twice, he went as far as writing bits of his weekly essay. The cafe was somewhere round here, he thought, but after a moment’s indecision he decided it was wiser not to search.
He re-capped and pocketed his inhaler, gripped the handle of his case, and made it through the shoppers as far as Carfax, where he stopped again to let his lungs catch up. He crossed into High Street and minutes later arrived at the portal of his old college. Climbing the steps, he caught his foot but managed to get his free hand to the ground in time to prevent a complete fall. He straightened up and remembered the identical stumble on the same steps half a century before, on his first day. A voice came back to him:
“Off to a flying start, sir.”
Derek – the surname had gone – one of the college porters, ex-Army as he later found out, smiling down at him, that ‘sir’, the sergeant major’s stick.
This November day, however, he was sure that no one, at least no one of significance to him, had witnessed his second stumble. He retrieved his case and entered the college lodge. A heavy man in a designer suit was studying a board on which were pinned the arrangements for the Gaudy. The man turned his head towards Victor, stared, then said:
“Victor Woolgar, as I live and breathe!”
It was Peter Wiston. Television’s Peter Wiston.
“Young Victor Woolgar! Well well well!”
Because Victor had occasionally caught sight of Peter on screens in school common rooms, there wasn’t for him the same surprise. They had first met on the day of Victor’s stumbling arrival. Victor had found the set of rooms he’d been assigned and there was Peter, stretched out on the sofa, muddying it with his shoes. They’d been paired, it seemed, simply for alphabetical convenience. During their year of enforced co-habitation, the one interest they’d shared was to know when the other would be out.
NOW, FIFTY YEARS ON, Peter Wiston was enclosing Victor’s right hand in both of his, holding it fast.
“It’s fantastic to see you, Vic. You haven’t changed a bit.”
Peter had the jowls of success, and that sheen which sometimes Victor had noticed on celebrity parents at school functions.
Peter Wiston turned back to the seating plan on the board.
“I’ve been placed on High Table, for my sins. Next to some Undersecretary at Defra.”
“That should be interesting.”
“Ponds and fucking ditches?”
“You never know.”
“Listen, what say you we have a swift pint before the shenanigans? The Buttery, six-fifteen?”
Victor agreed, which would make it only his second-ever visit to the beer cellar. The first had been one evening in his final year when he’d descended with Robin Desmarais and Ralph Jenkins. Robin and Ralph, Ralph and Robin, inseparable, joined at the hip, known first by the porters then the whole college as Rest and Recreation.
Peter smiled at Victor and seized his hand again
“Victor Woolgar! Old times, eh.”
He picked up his valise and left the Lodge to find his allocated room.
Victor cast his eye down the board, and checked for Robin’s name. It was there, and so was Ralph’s. Victor found Robin’s room number, then his own. He took hold of his case and went out into the front quadrangle. He’d been given a room on one of its coveted staircases, all worn stone and dark oak. In the bedroom, Victor laid out his dinner clothes. He put his pill bottles in the bathroom, and the Chopin record on the table. He looked at the black and white photo of Malcuzynski, leaning his elbow on a Steinway and holding his cigarette the way Robin used to, both of them to the manner born. Victor read the sleeve notes once again: Chopin’s incomparable genius, Malcuzynski’s towering talent, Poland’s tragic past. He shook four pills from their bottles, went to the basin and swallowed them with a glass of water. Then he addressed his reflection in the mirror. He spoke out loud the rehearsed words:
“Robin, I stole something from you fifty years ago. I offer no excuses, only the apology which I hope you will accept. ”
AFTER LUNCH ONE DAY in their third term, Victor had knocked at Robin’s door to ask if he might borrow – what item had he chosen? – his electric kettle, just for five minutes. Ralph had been there, of course, as well as two students from another college. Ah Victor, listen to this, Robin had said immediately, and he’d placed Malcuzynski on his gramophone. His eyes stinging in the cigarette smoke, Victor had wondered how was it that human hands, human fingers, those reptilian extremities, could move with such grace over piano keys. Or flick a cigarette lighter open and shut. After Malcuzynski had finished playing, Victor had asked Robin if he himself played Chopin on his clavichord. Surely not the instrument for Romantic music. Robin had gone over to the clavichord, sat down, and announced his ‘favourite Nocturne’, which he had then played without interruption to his audience, now absorbed. Victor had never imagined that Robin would show a serious side so openly as happened in those five minutes. The glibness was gone, the facetiousness, the quick recourse to banter. But as soon as he’d finished, Robin had reverted to form. He’d giggled and started to play Chopsticks.
What Victor did three hours later had been with him ever since. He’d returned to Robin’s room, almost certain it would be empty – Robin and Ralph would be out on the town — and pretty sure that it would be unlocked. It was. The aroma of recent coffee and cigarettes, cups discarded half full, ashtrays brimming, books and shoes strewn about, filled Victor with a further pain he didn’t understand. He’d gone over to Robin’s clavichord and placed his hands on the keyboard, holding them there a moment, immobile. He’d heard music in his head but couldn’t play a note. So he’d got up again and had seen Malcuzynski staring at him from the record sleeve propped against a sofa cushion. The disk itself still lay on the turntable. On what Dr Fox would later describe as a premeditated impulse, Victor had lifted the record and slid it into its sleeve, and had gone out, closing the door behind him with care. If he could, he’d have wiped his fingerprints.
Victor had been ready with alibis, but to his surprise Robin hadn’t mentioned the missing record once. He’d gone on as always, suave, witty, entertaining.
Two years later, all exams finished, degrees obtained and the very last day of Oxford life upon them, Victor had taken his leave of Robin and Ralph. Promises to keep in touch had been exchanged. After that, Victor had seen neither of them again.
NOW, HALF A CENTURY on, he resolved to visit Robin in his room before dinner in Hall and say the words he’d practiced in the mirror. But first, he’d have to endure Peter Wiston and the Buttery.
Peter was already there, among faces Victor had trouble recognising. Names were proffered with the handshakes, but it didn’t help. Peter decreed that the first round of drinks was on him. Victor requested a pineapple juice, which caused smiles. Someone said: ‘Same old Vic’. He said nothing. He didn’t explain that alcohol and his pills were absolute enemies. Peter Wiston pushed his way through to the bar, where he waved a £50 note at the young Russian who was struggling to keep up with the orders.
Then there was a new voice descending the stairs. Victor recognised the light nasal pitch. It had to be Ralph, Ralph Jenkins. Almost immediately, there was another voice, a deeper register. That was certainly Robin. Victor drained his pineapple juice and asked the circle of drinkers to excuse him. At the foot of the stairs, he said:
Ralph had put on weight. Robin, however, had lost it, lots of it. He looked as if he now lived exclusively off air and tobacco. And he was entirely bald, eyebrows included.
“Victor, you haven’t changed a bit.”
Victor would have liked to say as much to Robin.
Ralph took charge: “Libations! What are we all having?” A single-malt for Robin, a pint for himself, another pineapple juice for Victor.
They found somewhere to stand. They tried to talk, but the noise made it tricky. Robin and Ralph did most of what running was possible. There were constant interruptions. People from the past, grown red and heavy, boomed and waved, and Robin and Ralph answered with waves and smiles and calls. The practiced fluency Victor remembered. They managed brief sketches of their lives: the marriages, the children, the grandchildren. Ralph had finished up as Far East director of a luxury goods company, based in Singapore. Robin had been in the Diplomatic Service, until his health had forced him out early. Now he divided his time between a retreat in Lyme Regis and a flat quite handy for the Royal Marsden. Victor said as little as he could about school-teaching or Crawley. He asked if Ralph or Robin had been invited onto High Table. Neither had. Then Robin announced that in roughly thirty seconds’ time, he’d have to give in to the siren call of mistress nicotine. Victor asked if he might join him. Come then, said Robin, let us rise from the underworld like a pair of creaky Orpheuses.
“That’s a colourful touch, Robin.”
“Well I thought for a Gaudy…”
They laughed. Victor guessed the rainbow splashes were a gesture of defiance, two fingers to ill health.
Robin produced a packet of cigarettes covered in large-letter warnings.
Victor asked, “Are those the same as you used to smoke? Gold something.”
“Flake. No, they disappeared long ago. ”
Robin took out a second cigarette.
“No thanks,” said Victor. “I gave up the day we left Oxford.”
He watched Robin, the snap of the lighter, the filling lungs, the words and smoke expelled together.
“Very wise of you.”
Victor wanted a lead to the Malcuzynski record.
“Robin, do you still have that clavichord?”
“No, alas. It vanished with that bastard Tom Menendez.”
“The ‘My friend in Jesus’ Tom?”
“The same. Quite the wrong college for him, rugby songs all night. So I let him take it back to his room. As my granddaughter would say, end of.”
Here was Victor’s lead.
“Robin,” he began, but instead of the line he’d prepared, three different words emerged:
“I’m so sorry.”
And then he stopped.
Robin released smoke into the night, dropped the cigarette and crushed the butt underfoot.
“My own silly fault, Victor. I should have given them up. Like you.”
There was a sudden clash above their heads — “Ah, summoned by bells. In we go”.
Victor asked Robin to go into dinner ahead of him. He needed a pee. He crossed the courtyard, went through an archway, found a lavatory, locked himself in, and sat waiting for the hubbub outside the Hall to subside. Once he was certain all the diners had settled in and the doors had banged shut, he emerged and made his way as quietly as he could to his room. He changed out of his formal clothes, which he folded and packed into his case. He checked around him, then went out, leaving the key on the table. Under his free arm he had the Malcuzynski. He made for the Goodrington Annexe, and went up to the room Robin had been given for the night. There wasn’t enough clearance to slide the record under the door, so he left it there, propped up. He went back down to ground level and stepped out. He closed the top button of his overcoat and set off across the lawn. By cutting into the cobbled lane by the Real Tennis Court, he avoided the main gate and the Porters’ Lodge. He reached the railway station without stopping.
Two hours later, as the Crawley train was crossing the Thames and gathering speed past the ghost of the power station, Victor guessed that by this stage the Undersecretary from Defra would be bringing the evening’s rites to their high point by proposing a toast to the college, the Master, absent and departed friends, and that Robin, in need of nicotine, would be slipping out while glasses were charged and old men struggled to their feet.
Martin Sorrell is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University. Among his publications are Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems, Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems, Federico Garcia Lorca: Selected Poems (all OUP), Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry By Women (University of Exeter Press), and Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Oneworld Classics). He is a frequent contributor to the Fortnightly Review’s New Series. His Apollinaire: Selected Poems (OUP) is due in November 2015 (US edition follows).
Note: The text of ‘La parure’ is here.