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 closed eyes 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 hand-over, but in the collection there was no entry to the building, just a kerb-stop. I had few physical needs in that place. They even provided a toothbrush, wrapped in cheap plastic, with bristles that twisted off on the molars. So the small bag 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 journey. 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 herring-bone 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 and looked up at the smokeless chimney. She was unlocking the door with unfamiliar keys when I caught up.
“Inside,” she said, and I could not tell if she was answering or telling me to enter, so I passed by her and in, with a switch clicking behind me as she turned on the dim lights to search out the corners of the room.
“You’re in the small room,” 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 living in rooms with en-suite 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 a 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 just an 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 nice—as well as a stationers and two bookshops, both frightfully overpriced, but one had cheap paperbacks out front, or just inside the door and to the right if it was raining, but she could pick books up from the house in London, no, she would go on her own. The room upstairs, past the second cohort 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, could they? 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.
I looked up. “Sorry Ems,” I said. “I was in Venice.”
“You’ve never even been to Venice, Anna. We keep saying we’ll go one day. We could make plans.”
“But they gang aft agley, don’t they?”
Emily took my hand. We walked to the nearest café and out of the freshly sputtering drizzle. Venice reappeared, warped through the drops on the window. A petite woman took our order on an off-white pad. I wondered if Monet’s wife was short: Alice, of course, his second, as Camille had been dead for years when Claude was in Venice. Alice had another three years to go, although she had no idea.
“I thought we might drive to the countryside this afternoon, if the weather doesn’t get worse,” said Emily, between sips of hot chocolate. I took a mouthful of filter coffee through a layer of soapy froth. I swallowed.
“We should go to Italy for the coffee,” I said. “And yes, the countryside would be nice. Did you bring my boots?”
Emily nodded and picked up a local paper from a rack beside the table.
“There’s a book fair in the next village, if you’d rather do that,” she said.
“Let’s let the weather decide.”
The weather toyed with us, lifting the mists with a seductive sun, then greying the world with cloud once more. Back at the cottage we warmed ourselves by the radiator, unimpressed by the dried flowers in the fireplace. As noon arrived the elements lost their playfulness and resigned themselves to sunshine. Monet painted Alice’s daughter, Suzanne, in the sun, and there she stands, under an ‘ombrelle’ and not a ‘parapluie’, though both are protections from extremes.
While Emily made sandwiches I found my boots and went outside to the back garden. There was little in it other than patches of unkempt grass and empty flower beds at the foot of old fencing. A roller stood in the corner, far too big for the place, waiting anxiously, in the hope of a miraculous, lumpy lawn to give it some meaning. I banged my boots against it, filling the air with the sound of leather on metal and flecks of dried mud from a holiday in Yorkshire, making the pigeons take flight in the Piazza San Marco.
The back of the cottage was plain, red brickwork with a name which I knew existed but had forgotten: Dutch bond, English bond, James Bond. Michael Bond. He wrote the “Paddington Bear” books. The cottage was a séance for the ghosts of its previous incarnations: filled-in windows, long-lost doorways. In the roof, which sloped down towards me, a gable-fronted dormer window admired the surrounding fields. It was a later addition to the building, its sill holding only a peepshow of faded wood, unlike the striptease common to its flaking companions on lower floors. The room through the window was invisible. Darkest Peru.
Emily was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, clutching a small rucksack to her chest.
“I’ve been calling you. Let’s go.”
We headed out to the car, and left the lawn roller to its dreams.
“Countryside or books?” I asked, when we were on our way.
“Countryside whilst the sun lasts, then books if it’s not too late.”
I said I thought that sounded reasonable and listened to Emily as she talked about work: her team had been busy, new clients coming in, the chance of a partnership in a year or two, some staff changes. I wondered if he had left. I though that was why she mentioned the staff changes, but maybe I was supposed to ask. Maybe I was just supposed to understand. Maybe we were in Venice and we were sinking, and the deadening of the church hid the sunset from us.
“We’re here. Welcome to the late Neolithic.”
My puzzlement was met with a grin which I thought it best to return with one of my own. Emily had parked the car to the side of the lane, beside a thicket of trees and a stile in a two-rail, wooden fence. I followed her into the undergrowth and out again, into a soundless clearing. If I tried to speak there would be no sound: I would panic and scream and still nothing would come, as though I were shouting in a vacuum.
“These are the King’s Men,” said Emily, pointing at the circle of stones in the clearing. “There’s a legend that they were changed to stone by a witch. There’s another one around here called the King Stone. Same story.”
The vacuum filled with a hiss of air.
“I’m going to wander,” I said. I stood in the middle of the circle and turned clockwise slowly, ticking off time, stone by stone. They were there when Monet’s wife—Alice, Camille, either—died, when the sun set in Venice, when there was no Venice. They were there for my Venice. I thought of Paul Klee, projecting lines from his drawings, and the more they met higher dimensions, the better. The stones began to run at me, all except one. Against that one Emily leaned back and ate a sandwich. Intellect and soul operate in different dimensions, according to Klee. He said he painted in order not to cry. I walked away.
The path back through the trees continued on the other side of the lane, and I followed. There, alone, captured within iron railings, stood the King Stone. Later, on the journey home, Emily told me the whole story. A witch promised a king that if he could see the village of Long Compton after taking seven strides he would be king of all England. Whilst the king’s men stood, craven, in a circle, he took seven strides and looked ahead, out over the countryside. Alas, his view was blocked by the rising land, and with no village to be seen the witch turned him and his men to stone. Never trust the promise of a witch.
I was the King Stone. I was the King Stone then, and I was the King Stone as a child. The circle was a place of sharing, protection and safety, not pure cowardice. The story was wrong. There, standing alone, was the sacrifice, the one given to the witch in hope of mercy for the others. I sat and leaned back against the railings, looking at the lane and trees. I felt my isolation and carried it back with me, towards the time of the stones, to a playground filled with other people’s games. I had sat against railings before, years ago. They had defined the edge of safety. I let my eyelids fall to the sound of crows.
Tabitha took my hand and pulled me towards the centre of the world. It would be fun, she said, and I was her friend. The centre of the world, and around me Tabitha and her friends and they must be my friends, because we were all part of the same world. Round me they went, rhyming, cross-stepping quickly, ten paces then reversing and chanting, chanting. My eyes stayed on Tabitha, left then right, turn after turn, faster and faster. The held-hands of the circle, clutching, came closer to thighs, then unclasped and arms interlocked at crooked elbows, hands on hips, closer to me with the right then left, faster still, and the rhyming had the sow in the middle, and I was the middle, but the middle of the world, and Tabitha was my friend so surely I was not the sow. They wanted to be close because I was special. Arms around waists and no space between, and the stones running at me, embraces unravelled to fists. Crouching, and friends leaning over, friends of my enemy, and the sky blue, blocked, deadened. My name being called. Anna, Anna, Anna. Everything legs, socks, shoes and I wanted the railings back.
Anna, Anna, Anna.
“Anna. Wake up.”
“I’m the King Stone,” I muttered, opening my eyes.
“You’re anything you want to be. Including hungry, I’ll bet.”
Emily pulled a sandwich from the rucksack and handed it to me.
“Bad dreams again?” she asked.
“Was I asleep for long?”
“About ten minutes. Perhaps we should go home.”
I nibbled at the edges of the sandwich.
“No, it’s early. I feel better now.” Now that Tabitha’s gone. Now that I have my railings. “Let’s go to the book sale.”
“I’m sure. But sandwich first.”
Klee ate sandwiches, I supposed.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached the hamlet to the west of our borrowed cottage. Outside the church hall, men in sensible knitwear were starting to load vans with cardboard fruit-trays full of books. Emily kept the engine running and looked at me, but when I opened my door she turned the key and followed my lead. A bored-looking youth sat inside the porch. He put down his newspaper and resigned himself to selling entrance tickets. In exchange for our twenty-pence pieces we received the kind of coat-check tickets that are used for country-fair tombolas.
“We’re supposed to close in about an hour, but there’s not many come out today, so… Still, there’s a few left set up, so…” He nodded to his right, towards the inner door of the porch, and went back to the events of the day.
“Thank you very much,” Emily said, in a voice so bright and lilting that it could only be sarcastic. Newspaper-man did not respond.
Inside, the hall was lined with folding tables, a few of which stood empty. One held a battered tea urn, which must have seen VE-Day celebrations, and a sponge cake filled with jam and ennui. The remaining tables held books. Emily gave me her “we could just leave” look, but I moved away to the first table, where shabby Penguin paperbacks jostled each other to attract my attention. I ignored their orange brashness and picked up a hardback from a stack towards the rear.
“‘On the Butterflies and Moths of the Balkan Regions’ by Edward F. Cousins. London. Nineteen hundred and three,” I read aloud.
“Fascinating. Are you familiar with his work?”
“Well, I usually prefer my Lepidoptera from more northern territories, but… What can you tell me about the author?”
“Edward F. Cousins,” I began, “was a distant relative of the Earl of Garthorp-Mundum and came to the title in later life, through the unfortunate deaths of many family members in Africa, in a terrible giraffe-based incident at a wedding.”
“Oh,” she said, “I knew about that, of course. It was the money from the inheritance which allowed him to pursue his hobbies.”
“Well, apart from being a voracious collector of even the most dangerous butterflies …”
“Apart from that…” She paused. I think she must have realized that she was happy. “Apart from that, he used to record animal noises on wax cylinders and play them at parties. Oh! and he juggled goldfish on Sundays.”
“He sounds like a dreadful man.”
“Yes, I think I agree. Put down the book, Anna. We shan’t have any part of his ill-gained legacy.”
I put the book back in its pile and gave a little nod to the lady seated behind the table. She did not look up from her hardback, and seemed lost in historical romantic fiction, but, as we moved away, she said, almost inaudibly, “Goldfish? It was puppies.”
We giggled our way around the rest of the hall. The offerings were the usual: cricketing stories, railway ephemera, collections of ghostly tales, a leather-and-gilt Burckhardt on the Renaissance, an India-paper Gombrich on art. As we left, Emily held my hand, cautiously at first, as though it might be too cold to touch, but then with an ease born of familiarity. We stopped by the car and kissed. Emily had left the circle, joined me alone on the floor, across the lane, by the railings.
“Shall we talk about it?” I asked.
“Which it? It him? It me? It us?”
I shrugged. “Any. All. I know we tried before I… before, but maybe now?”
“You need to rest. It’s getting late. I’ll make dinner.”
We drove home listening to the radio. A cold snap, said the weatherman. I thought of Dire Straits. “And my radio says tonight it's gonna freeze. People driving home from the factories.” I thought of snowmen in the garden, years ago, before Tabitha and the railings, long before Emily. I had blond hair that made my eyes shine pale blue. I would play and grow tired. At night, my parents turned off the bedside lamp once my eyes were closed. Sometimes I’d wake up in the dark, and call, and my mother would come and tell me to be brave. Or dad would come and switch on the light and tell me I was already brave enough. I was always good enough when he was around, but he was not around, and Emily said that I needed to rest my blue eyes, so we were not talking in the car.
I fell asleep with the light on, again, that night. It was still on when I awoke the next day.
The note on the table said, “Gone to church. Food in cupboards and fridge. E.” Whilst she ate of the body which was given for her I satisfied myself with Cornflakes and milk. I took her to see “The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise” once, at the Musée d’Orsay. Vincent van Gogh arrived in the village, Auvers, just outside Paris, in late May, eighteen ninety. He had two more months. In those two months he painted a new canvas each day. Maybe he thought the painting would chase away the inevitable, and painted in order not to die. Or did he always know how long he had, and counted down the blank canvases remaining to be filled?
It was sunny outside. The lagoon had gone and I headed outside to the little village polder, down the lane, towards the church. Singing, faint and subdued, came from within, drifting over the graveyard, a hairbreadth above the headstones. I stopped to listen. The tune had an ordinariness which robbed it of identity, reduced it to a primal, religious declaration.
The lychgate was old, its dark wood textured by years of brushed-on preservative, its stone foundations dressed with lichen. It was wide enough to contain a bench, pressed up against one side of the woodwork and seemingly held in place by cobwebs and trapped leaves. I sat, listening. The hymn rose, fell, faded in and out.
Van Gogh’s church is all curves in a wonderful balance. His church buckles and looms, but never seems precarious. In places it resolves into straight lines—a buttress, the windows of the tower—which provide subtle anchors for the building. My church was everywhere perpendicular, or, at least, that’s how I saw it. The fault might have been with my eyes, or Vincent’s.
The hymn came to an end and I rose and walked on, to the main street of the village. All was golden, weathered sandstone. Later it would be busy, with tourists turning off the main road, chuntering down the sloping street, filling the parking spaces, peering from behind guide-books, eating ice cream, scolding children. But in the glow of the morning light it was mine. It was an unwanted present, something thoughtful and considered, for which I ought to have been grateful, to have expressed my gratitude, but for which I held no real love. It was the jumper from an aunt, grudgingly worn every subsequent Christmas.
At the bottom of the hill the road levelled, taken across a narrow stream by a humpbacked bridge. I wandered down and stood, looking into the waters below. The current was quicker than usual. The stream, which could be no more than a rill in summer, was swollen with recent rains, keeping the polder safe. A winter leaf, brown and dejected, came down the stream towards me and on, under the bridge wall. I used to play Pooh-sticks as a child. The race was fun: the my-stick your-stick tension after the drop, the cross and wait for the reappearance of the runners. But it was the eddies which really built the excitement: the Starry-Night swirls that had the potential to catch and submerge. Sometimes you could see them, waiting, but sometimes they hid themselves under the bridge, like trolls, plotting to grasp anything which passed. I stepped across and waited for the leaf to show itself. Blue-green. Venice, receiving cargoes of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Blue-green. Venice, bringing ultramarine to Europe. Brown.
The churchgoers were leaving as I walked back up the lane. By the door of the church a cassock and alb hid a small vicar, who shook hands with his parishioners as they departed. Emily was already at the lychgate.
“It was a wonderful service,” she said. “You should try it sometime.”
“I think I’m cursed to die outside the faith and unshriven.”
“Well, anytime you want. What have you been doing?”
I told her as we walked the short distance back to the cottage. We sat in the front room with cups of tea, watching the religious stragglers go by at the end of the garden.
“That’s Mabel Tamerlane,” I said, pointing at an old woman in a faded blue coat. “She left the village when she was young to seek adventure.”
“Did she find it?” Emily took a sip of tea and gave me a quizzical look.
“Oh, yes. Her life is full of tales of derring-do, illicit liaisons, and intrigue. There was a certain summer in Samarkand which would shock you. But she came back here, in the end, about twenty years ago, and now lives with memories and wonders if she should ever have left in the first place.”
“And how do you know all this?”
“There are two names carved in the gate of the church, Mabel and Arthur. I’m inquisitive, as you know, and happened to run into the village historian whilst playing a solo game of Pooh-sticks. So, I asked about him about Mabel. He’s a strange fellow.”
“Everyone does. Some say he lost that leg in a bar fight, but the truth is that it got caught in the rigging of a whaling ship, in the treacherous waters around Nantucket. These days he drinks, to forget.”
“You win,” I said, and raised my cup in a toast to the victor.
Emily met my cup with hers in a porcelain clink.
We talked about plans for the day until we came to the conclusion that it was a day with no need for plans. She would potter around the cottage, maybe go for a walk, prepare some papers for the following day. I thought I might go to the bookshop, the one with the cheap books which would be outside if the weather remained fine. First, though, I needed to rest. I slunk upstairs to my room and lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about his bedroom, the one he painted, the one in the Yellow House at Arles, with the angles, and the walls falling in from above, and the two closed doors. He told Theo all the colours of the room, the ones he applied with no shade or shadow: butter-yellows, lemon light-greens, scarlets, lilacs. Time has worked on the pigments. The lilacs have faded to blues, the floor has darkened. There is a patch of his ceiling, in a far corner, the same colour as the walls. My ceiling had cracks in the whitewash, running along the paths taken by the timbers above, or bisecting the space between them. Either way, the inflexible plaster had lost the battle. Still, it had done better than the Yellow House, damaged by bombs during the Second World War, demolished without reprieve.
I wanted to open more doors, to go into the hallway outside my room and see what lay beyond. Vincent had a guest room through one of his doors, ready for his friend, Paul Gauguin. The other led to stairs. In the cottage I had my own choices, and I wanted to turn left to the thin, plank door and open it and go up so that my stairs led only down. There were mysteries up there above me, mysteries that bent beams and cracked plaster, and walls which fell in, and I wanted to see them myself, to see them faded and darkened.
Sunday was Vincent, and pills, and sleep.
Friday, 14th October, 1887
Today I have missed Father greatly. What a curious admission: I had always thought that the first day of college would fill me with nothing but excitement, and that any homesickness from which I might have suffered 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 only 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, has a younger sister who had formed an acquaintance with Lady Diana at an equestrian retreat in Hertfordshire.
Lady Diana is undoubtedly beautiful. Her hair is blond, 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 long-haired 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 cannot recall our exact conversation but he was disarmingly gently-spoken and I do recall that I had started to talk of my interests in literature, with more abandon and less care than was usual, before I noticed our Mrs. Taylor approaching. 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 our prior discussion, a certainty exacerbated by the realization of the impropriety of those subjects on which I had been so happy to expound 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 created 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. Lady Diana, however, seemed perfectly aware of protocol. True, she introduced herself to me, but we had already met, as I now understood she recalled perfectly well.
“We must find time to talk soon,” she said to me, with a wonderful smile and 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 to me. The reverend professor, as ever, found himself governed by her decisions as to the path of her circulation around the room, 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. The don—I assumed him to be such from his solitude and distracted nature, and the scuffs on his shoes—the don to whom she was talking looked unremarkable, and it seemed odd that she should have headed 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 having a quite heated discussion on a subject 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 gaze 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 headed out towards 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 followed his wife.
Sounds returned to fill the room around me—the clinking of glasses, indistinct conversation, 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 in the street. I left as I had arrived—after saying my goodbyes to Miss Callow—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 furnishing are sparse: a bed of the creakiest iron, on which rests a thin mattress with which I fight nightly in order to tame its more egregious lumps; an oak desk—with a slim volume of unremarkable 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, reminding me where I am as I write this.
Saturday, 15th October, 1887
Elizabeth and I breakfasted together. Breakfast is taken in a small room overlooking the garden to the rear of the house. It is a most tranquil spot. There was a single servant to assist with the meal. When one considers how many people are resident in our little college, it is remarkable that we employ only two maids-of-all-work. I had supposed that the intention was to reduce the weekly costs for the students. There is some element of that, as I pay 12s. each week for lodging, and the same again for board. However, Elizabeth has it on good authority that the lack of domestic servants is intended to bring the students together in their sharing of everyday tasks.
Elizabeth also informed me that the undergraduates of the university refer to us as “bonnets”, and that our acceptance here is far from universal. John Ruskin himself, only a few years past, refused to allow “the bonnets” to attend his art lectures, arguing that such discourse was of no use to the female mind. According to Elizabeth, Mr. Ruskin claimed that we should “occupy the seats in mere disappointed puzzlement.”
In truth, I find it somewhat difficult to comprehend my status as a student in this ancient university. Some lectures I may attend, some I may not, the decision seemingly at the whim of the lecturer, with Mr. Ruskin merely one particular case to demonstrate the rule. I face no residence requirements such as those imposed upon the men in their colleges. As for examinations, the university has seen fit to allow women to take certain of them, but by no means all. The small body of women to which I so delightedly belong forms a secret cadre—by no means a complete regiment—in Oxford, sometimes accepted but oft-times spurned. We, its members, are subject to a level of caprice which, I like to imagine, arises from the more Machiavellian actions of those who would see our integration completed, but who recognize the small steps which one must take to achieve that fine ambition.
After breakfast I discovered, waiting on the slightly battered oak table in the hall, a letter which—its bearing no stamp—I took to have been hand delivered. I returned to my room and read, along with the usual formalities, the following, in the refined hand of Mr. Taylor:
“I do hope you will not perceive my writing to you so soon after a formal introduction to be an impertinence. I found our conversation yesterday evening to be thoroughly fascinating, and it was most unfortunate that other business required my early departure. Perhaps we might meet to continue our discussion? Although the weather is rarely fine at this time of year it has been sufficiently warm in the past week to allow for a suggestion of the Botanic Garden as a suitable meeting place. I find it to provide a wonderful sense of openness and vivacity, and I endeavour to take a turn there most afternoons.
“I am most keen not to trouble you in any way, so let us say that I shall be in the Garden after lunch, between one and two o’clock, all this coming week, and should you be so kind as to accept my offer, I shall be waiting to meet you there on any day you may choose.”
I have spent the rest of today thinking about Mr. Taylor’s letter. I do so want to talk with him again, not least as it is so rare that one finds a person, be it man or woman, with whom one can slip into easy conversation on matters close to one’s heart. There is something which causes me to trust him, to an extent which seems both perfectly natural and inexplicable. By early afternoon I had decided that I should definitely not accept his offer: to do so would be highly improper. Now, however, there is something in the flickering light and shadows of my room that drives a certain sense of adventure—of possibilities—within me. It is that same adventurous spirit which drove me to come here in the first place, and which I share with Father, without whose support I should never have found myself in this room. I am persuading myself that he would be proud of a daughter who expanded her horizons, and that I ought not to dismiss so quickly a meeting with Mr. Taylor but, instead, find some way to ensure that it might take place whilst retaining all possible propriety. Tomorrow I shall ask Elizabeth if she will act as chaperone. She is an older woman—I confess that I have thus far been remiss in asking her what brought her here, or how she came to find herself able to adopt the student life at her age—and, as an older woman, she would seem to be an appropriate choice.
Sunday, 16th October, 1887
Elizabeth and I spoke together this morning, as we walked back from chapel. She had much to say about Mr. Taylor and, aside from her acceptance of his handsomeness and agreeable demeanour, none of it was favourable. It is generally believed—I should say that Elizabeth believes it is generally believed, for such is the nature of rumour—that Mr. Taylor is an incorrigible philanderer and seducer of women. She attributed this information to “whispers” but from whose lips these whispers came she could not, or would not, say. She has heard tell from some that Mrs. Taylor is a perfect angel, enduring her marriage for the greater good of appearances and reputation. From others she has reports that the angelic Mrs. Taylor is the worst sort of Xanthippe, a scold from whom Mr. Taylor seeks shelter in the understanding arms of others. Elizabeth’s tone, however, suggested that she tends towards a belief in Mrs. Taylor’s possession of a flawless halo.
Thus it was with some surprise that I received Elizabeth’s agreement to accompany me to the Botanic Garden, an agreement made with little of the reticence which her reporting of Mr. Taylor’s nature led me to expect. Were I to guess the reason for this contradiction, I should venture that it comes from an irrepressible curiosity, of the sort so often associated with those in whom rumours roost, and from whom rumours fly. There is a rare and valuable currency in those incidents which one can claim to have seen with one’s own eyes, or to have heard with one’s own ears.
So, it is decided: Elizabeth and I shall visit the Garden on Wednesday, shortly after lunch. Oh! I do have a sense of excitement, but it is tempered with a concern that Mr. Taylor and I shall not be permitted to continue our conversation as we might desire, for we shall be within earshot of one in whom a confidence is not to be left for safekeeping. Even so, in preparation, I spent the afternoon reading Warber in my room, with Keats ready by my side so that anyone who entered without pause would find me only lost amongst the nightingales.