By Sarah K. Marr
Spanning Victorian Oxford to the London of the 1980s, “All the Perverse Angels” is a novel about the nature of loss and the confusion of love, about the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves
Against the wall the blue lights came and went, came and went, and I remembered. If you really want to feel the drop, you have to close your eyes. And then the car journey, long, winding, through imagined landscapes, and all the while she spoke to me. The this-and-thats of my time away, and all of it hers and not mine because she had earned it and somehow I had not.
She made the pick-up by the glass doors where the set-down had happened three weeks ago. In that abrogation there had been a formal handover. In the collection there was no entry to the building, just a kerb-stop.
There were few material needs in that place. They even provided a toothbrush, wrapped in cheap plastic, with bristles that twisted off on the molars. So the small suitcase was thrown on the back seat and I threw myself in the front and leaned to kiss, but seeing no response faked down to reach my bag and take out water for the drive ahead. When we took a left and not a right I asked where we might be going and was told a break was needed, and so the car journey was long, and wound through imagined landscapes.
Our arrival was a breath, slow and deep. We were in the Cotswolds, she said, nestled as the Cotswolds nestle everything, in warm stone and antiques and second-hand bookshops with cats. The cottage was small, at the end of a path of herringbone bricks running between thickets of cross-hatched twigs, blackened by the fading winter light. On the gate the paint peeled around the ornately serifed “Rose Cottage”. I mourned the flowerless tangles beside the path. Emily stepped through the threshold of the garden whilst I lingered with the cold, watching the moon try to hide behind the smokeless chimney. She was unlocking the door with unfamiliar keys when I caught up.
“Inside,” she said, and she may have been answering or telling me to enter, so I passed by her and in, with a switch clicking as she turned on the dim lights to search out the corners of the room.
“You’re upstairs on the left,” she said and jerked her head towards the thin, white-plank door with the black latch that I opened and, looking back, asked, “We’re not together?”
She shook her head.
Stairs seemed new after single-floor accommodation with en-suite facilities and hot and cold running nurses, although running was never a good sign. Running followed from the buzzing start-gun and ended in inevitable victory for every competitor but one. But there were stairs and they rose ahead, and the space became darker until hesitancy began and the fragile light from below was blocked by her, but she was reaching, I could see, and then brightness returned. Two more steps and a landing with four doors: bathroom, large bedroom, small bedroom, and at the far end another thin, white-plank door with another black latch, and the whole effect made me think of Escher. The white planks would wait for me, so I entered the little room, my room, and found clothes in drawers, dresses in the wardrobe, and linens and towels on the bed.
I wished she had not done it.
“Anna,” said a quiet voice and I turned, not expecting to see anyone. Emily was there. She held me. We held each other. We breathed another breath. I was sorry. She was sorry, if she should be sorry, yes, she should be sorry, so she was sorry, I was sure. She allowed me a smile, and repaid me with one of her own.
“I have to go back to work on Monday,” she said, “but we have the weekend together, and I’ve cleared a lot of my clients. I should be able to stick to a nine-to-five. The village is nice. You’ll be fine here. Are you hungry?”
I nodded and wiped my eyes and whispered my wish that she had not done it, but she just stiffened and told me I needed to eat. We ate pasta and drank apple juice. Our conversation was a shallow exchange of words. The cottage was rented for the next three months, through to the new year. The village was small, but had too many cafés—she had not tried them but they looked pleasant enough—as well as a stationer’s and two bookshops, both terribly overpriced, and one had cheap paperbacks out front, but she could pick books up from the house in London, no, she would go on her own. The room upstairs, past the second palisade of white planks, was an attic space full of the owner’s possessions, and heaven only knew why it was not locked. There was no television, but we could get one, but why would we? So probably not, no, surely better without. There was plenty of food in the refrigerator. Pasta. Juice. Plates. Cutlery. Pills.
I started to feel sleepy by early evening. The world slowed down a little to give me a chance to reflect and recover. There were magazines stacked on a bookshelf and I flipped through one, looking at the pictures amongst a haze of grey alphabets. People were going to parties, babies were being born, weddings and horse races mingled. All from ten years ago and the faces of the people looked happy but their expressions could not tell me anything beyond the instant. There was no continuity, no flow, challenge, development. I needed art. The haze danced and I was asleep in my chair, not knowing until awakened gently, led upstairs, sat on the bed. The door closed. The light was on as I felt the cool of the pillow on my cheek, off for the morning’s opening of eyes.
Saturday was Claude Monet: “San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk”. He painted the view, despite his initial reticence, across the Venetian waters to the island, and the church which stands upon it. The church is an absence, lit from behind by the setting sun, a gap in the oranges and blues. No, not exactly that, because Monet was not using any black paint: the shadows are just the darkened colours of twilight. The church is a deadening, a stopped conversation, as if one had shouted into a cave and heard no echo.
Emily and I walked down the lane in the early morning, with mist rising all around, binding the walls of our own church, a few yards from the cottage. Emily talked of history, of Levellers and smallpox, but I was in Venice by then. It had rained during the night, before or after my light was turned off, but the timing did not matter because the rain left puddles and they reflected the reality of nature. The water was the levelling of all things, the lagoon from which rose buildings and trees and a yapping dog passing by on the end of a thin lead. I stopped. My reflection stopped. Emily stopped.
Friday, 14th October, 1887
Today I have missed Father greatly. What a curious admission: I had always thought that the first days of college would fill me with nothing but excitement, and that any homesickness from which I might suffer would linger in the shadows until the solitude of night. It is undeniable that the house is dispiritingly plain and indistinguishable from the other buildings in the vicinity—red brick and sandstone quoins are seemingly prescribed by good taste in North Oxford—but it is also too small for one to feel truly alone. Perhaps I miss Father because I know he would have enjoyed tonight’s reception: he would have made the perfect chaperon.
At the start of the evening we girls crowded together in one corner of the room, finding safety in numbers. Yet, whilst we giggled like schoolgirls—a less than charitable observer would be correct in claiming that we are little more than such—Lady Diana Fitzpatrick entered the room, escorted by a certain reverend professor of divinity, whom I understand to be a friend of the family. Unwilling to have our juvenile natures exposed by this contrast, the rest of us began to circulate in a more appropriate fashion, much to the evident approval of Miss Callow and the other ladies for whom the running of the college has become such a calling.
How shall I describe Lady Diana? She is, in general, unassuming, which description runs somewhat contrary to her arrival this evening. On our first meeting, yesterday, at a small gathering of the students, both old and new—and even then numbering only sixteen in total—she introduced herself as “Miss Fitzpatrick, but my friends call me Diana.” I am only aware of her title because one of the other girls, whose name I now forget, delighted in sharing it with all who remained within earshot after Lady Diana’s departure, as if her society knowledge were likely to increase her own social standing.
Lady Diana is undoubtedly beautiful. Her hair is blonde, but not of that garish hue which might suggest its achievement through the application of some form of oxide or acid; rather, it is the colour of pale honey, and the perfect match for her blue eyes. She appears young, but possesses that quality which I have seen in others of an aristocratic pedigree, that her youth does not disguise a mature beauty, but complements it perfectly. In truth, I find myself somehow lessened in her presence, as though the standards of those around me are adjusted to accommodate her comeliness and deportment, depreciating the value of any charms which I myself might presume to possess. I should have imagined that this would engender feelings of resentment or jealousy, yet I find myself approving of her, as though it is only appropriate that she exist just as she does. Although our social circles have little in common—conceivably only our attendance at college—I have hopes that I shall enjoy her company over the coming months.
Tonight’s reception was described by Miss Callow as a chance to show her new girls to Oxford, to which she added—with a touch of venom I thought—“Or at least to those who are progressive enough to accept our presence.” She was accompanied by her assistant, Mrs. Taylor, who, in the circumstances of such a small and new college, seems to be a general factotum in matters administrative. I find Mrs. Taylor to be a somewhat fussy woman: is that the price one pays in order to be valued in an academic environment, when one is not oneself defined by academic achievement or position? Certainly, she has shown nothing but a good-natured desire to be truly helpful to the girls since the day of our arrival, and one cannot find fault with that.
I, like so many of the girls, spent the start of the evening in our corner. This was as much the fault of those who failed to introduce themselves, and those who ought to have effected introductions, as it was the fault of our playing the ingénue role. Lady Diana’s arrival created an atmosphere of more relaxed, though always formal, geniality, and introductions began in earnest. The men fell into two categories: those who were fellows of some college or other and thus untrammelled by duties of affection—though more through righteousness than statute, it seems—and those who were in the company of their wives. In the whole evening I met only one man who broke that rule, or so I thought. He was introduced to me by Miss Callow herself and, had I been less occupied with portraying the epitome of etiquette, and less distracted by the laughter of Lady Diana sounding from the far side of the room, I should have supposed immediately that this Matthew Taylor was the husband of our own Mrs. Taylor. I was, however, both occupied and distracted, and found myself, at least for an exciting and enticing first few minutes, talking to what I presumed to be the only “single” man at the affair.
Mr. Taylor is tall, four or five inches taller than am I, and I myself am often described as “willowy” by Mother. He was dressed smartly and entirely in keeping with the occasion, and yet somehow the cut of his cloth, or the looseness of his tie—which exposed just the slightest twinkle of collar stud—gave him what I can only describe as a poetic air. I should not want to give the impression that he is a louche individual: he had none of the extravagance which one is likely to associate with the Romantics. Yet there is, indeed, something romantic about the man. His eyelids droop—no, “droop” is too strong a word, and suggests a slow-wittedness in his character which is most certainly not the case—his eyelids hover above grey-green eyes, as though he is only recently awakened and taking in the start of the day, anew. I found myself quite disarmed and momentarily lost all concern for correctness. Indeed, so pleased was I to be conversing with one who confessed himself to be “an artist of little importance” that I poured forth a torrent of opinions on literature, leaving few pauses in which the poor man might say anything more. I spoke of Warber! It was perhaps a godsend that our Mrs. Taylor approached when she did. As she stepped closer with a low “Mr. Taylor?” it dawned upon me that this must be the man’s wife, and the light-hearted “Aha! Hello!” with which he greeted her was all that was necessary to confirm my unremarkable, and much delayed, deduction.
There can be few people who have not experienced that intense burning sensation which accompanies a redness of the cheeks sufficient to guide the ancient ships at Alexandria. Now, as I grew suddenly voiceless before Mr. and Mrs. Taylor, I felt just such a fire. Mrs. Taylor, doubtless curious at the silence which befell our small group, bore a quizzical expression and I began to think, desperately, what one ought to say in such a conversational lull. I was saved by Mr. Taylor—thank heavens!—who turned to his wife and explained that we had been talking about my literary interests. My relief was short-lived: I became certain that Mr. Taylor intended to share with Mrs. Taylor all the details of those interests, a certainty exacerbated by the impropriety of those subjects on which I had expounded mere moments ago. Mrs. Taylor would hear of Warber, and of his book, and the thought of that was so unbearable that I even considered the pretence of a swoon to create a distraction. Ah! but I should have placed more faith in her husband, for he delivered a précis which gave me an air of erudition with no sense of impropriety whatsoever: I was the daughter of a publisher and, as such, in possession of a natural curiosity for the history of our country’s literature. Mrs. Taylor had, then, nothing but a kind smile for me, and yet she did not follow with any kind words but asked my forgiveness as she needed to take her husband away from my company. Mr. Taylor thanked me for a most pleasant discussion, and turned to his wife without another word. I watched as she took his arm and walked with him—or led him, I believe—over to Miss Callow where clearly, since they left a few minutes later, they must have made their farewells.
“You will see them again through the window to your left,” said a voice beside me, and I gave a little start. Lady Diana spoke with a cadence shaped from the same honey as her hair. I looked at her, feigning a lack of understanding of her comment. She cocked her head to one side, as if she were daring me to deny my interest in the Taylors, but placed her hand on my shoulder before I could utter a word in my own defence. She introduced herself, and I thought that she had forgotten my being at the college’s small introductory soirée only yesterday. I was about to say something to that effect when we were joined by her chaperon, the reverend professor, who expressed slight distress that his evening’s charge was causing him to follow her around the room.
“We must find time to talk soon,” she said to me, with a tilt of the head, and then she moved off. I watched as she made her way over to a gentleman who stood by the very window she had indicated. The reverend professor, as ever, found himself governed by her decisions as to the path of her circulation, but she waited a respectable distance from this new gentleman, and it became evident that she knew the reverend would never allow himself to fail in his duties. So it was that he hurried past her and effected the necessary introduction, helpless to do otherwise. It was then that I came to understand that Lady Diana was perfectly aware of the formalities and that, in introducing herself to me directly, without the intercession of her chaperon, she had announced a perfect recollection of our previous meeting.
There was nothing singular about the don to whom Lady Diana was talking—I assumed him to be a don from his solitude and distracted nature, and the scuffs on his shoes—and it seemed odd that she should have proceeded so purposefully towards him. Then, from the smallest of glances back to me, I divined her purpose. There, in the small garden, framed and bisected by the woodwork of the window, appeared the Taylors. Husband and wife were no longer arm-in-arm, and appeared to be engaged in an argument which caused them, before they had even left the grounds, to cease their progression and face each other. Whatever the subject, first Mrs. Taylor and then Mr. Taylor, following her gaze, looked back at the college house. I was sure that they must have been able to see me, but could not avert my eyes for fear that my spying on them—for it was spying—would become an even more indisputable reality. Yet they did not linger on the building for more than a few seconds before Mrs. Taylor turned swiftly back to the path and made for the street. Mr. Taylor faltered, then thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers, in a gesture which suggested equal parts resignation and resolve, and pursued his wife.
The sounds of the room returned—the clinking of glasses, indistinct mutterings, the gentle crackle of logs on the fire—and I looked around. The evening was coming to a close and guests were leaving. Most of the girls had a short distance to walk back to their lodgings, which are in the college house itself. Others have private arrangements within the city: their number includes Lady Diana, whose carriage was almost certainly waiting for her. After saying my goodbyes to Miss Callow I left as I had arrived, in the company of another student, a Miss Elizabeth Ashdown. She and I made each other’s acquaintance on first arriving at the college, as our porters clashed on the narrow staircase of the house. We left our rooms simultaneously on hearing their assorted and creative oaths—eager to see what was causing such a terrible commotion—and shared an immediate bond. I think that she and I shall be fast friends.
My room is on the top floor of the college house, one of three garrets which I can only presume were originally intended for the lower type of servant. Elizabeth is in one of the others and the third is being used as a storage room, although I do not doubt that it will be converted to some form of bunk within the year, unless the college plans to move to larger premises. The furnishings are sparse: a bed of the creakiest iron, on which rests a thin mattress with which I fight in order to tame its more egregious lumps; an oak desk—with a slim volume of undistinguished poetry under one leg for balance—accompanied by an overly decorous chair; and the usual collection of wardrobe, chest of drawers, washstand, and washbowl and jug, these last being of the Chinese-blue variety with few enough chips to be serviceable but too many to be desirable. In the glow of the gaslight it looks thoroughly wretched. Oh! but the view through the little window! The spires stand white beneath the moonlight.