He loved Rose, he married Myrtle. The seeds of the latter event were sown in that period towards the end of his final year at university when the accumulated disappointment he had suffered at the hands of Rose had made him particularly vulnerable. Myrtle filled the vacuum which we are told nature abhors and, a few months after graduation, the small occluded diamond that perched on Myrtle’s finger in its slim shank was complemented by a thin band of gold.
Thanks to a late cancellation, they had managed to get the university chapel. The reception took place at one of the smaller of the Victorian hotels lining the narrow road that ran along the cliff. Like arrows from a bow whose string had gradually been drawn to full tension during the four years of their studies, his friends, such as they were, had lost no time in launching themselves upon the world, some in travel to all the usual exotic places, others already embarking upon all the usual types of profession. When the day came, few were able to attend, though it is true that the emails expressing on the one hand the senders’ congratulations to the happy couple and on the other what they presumably considered to be witty apologies for their own absences were not entirely unamusing. And his second-choice best man, no doubt emboldened by the dearth of familiar faces in the audience, managed to exceed the admittedly low expectations they had held out for him. All in all, those who attended agreed that the whole thing might have been far worse.
For the record, Rose had been invited but did not attend. Nor did she send an email expressing congratulations on the one hand and an apology for her absence, witty or otherwise, on the other. Perhaps the event had simply failed to register in her consciousness.
Wedding safely out of the way, he settled down to the serious business of forging a career for himself amidst the groves of academe. Wisely choosing for his doctoral thesis a topic neither too broad nor too complex, he passed with no corrections and took the greatest pleasure in ordering a replacement debit and credit card. He felt that the new honorific somehow ennobled the rather nondescript name that had been his from birth.
His luck did not end there. He was offered, and immediately accepted, a junior position on the staff of his old department at the university. The road to a professorship winked into existence, tantalising him with the prospect of power. Nor was he entirely oblivious to the promise of financial security that such a position would afford him. As he walked back home, imagining how Myrtle’s face would look when he told her the good news, the glass of his bifocals caught the afternoon sun and flashed as if in triumph.
Iron-willed, almost Bismarckian, ignoring the promptings of his conscience which spoke out against the cynical policy he had adopted with regard to harvesting the greatest number of articles from his thesis with the minimal amount of modifications, he chose his journals carefully and with calculation. He viewed it as a victory of realpolitik when, before the year was out, three articles had been accepted for publication. True, the journals were not of the first tier, and there were those among his enemies that questioned whether they were of the second, but, as they say in academia: a publication is a publication is a publication. The watery blue eyes behind the thick lenses took on a faraway look as if contemplating new and alluring horizons (‘like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes…’ remarked the more literary of his detractors with a snigger).
To celebrate his newfound status as a published academic, he had taken Myrtle out to dinner at a renowned seafood restaurant in one of the small fishing ports that dotted the coast in a chain of limewash and red pantiles. They went the whole hog, or rather, its piscatorial equivalent: he had the lobster and she ordered crab. They shared a dozen oysters for starters. The bill came to a quarter of his monthly junior lecturer’s salary. Brushing off the expense in a devil-may-care fashion, he pulled out his credit card with a flourish, smiling to himself as the silver letters of his new honorific gleamed in the candlelight. He fancied that the waitress had given him a cool look of appraisal when her eyes fell on his title (and how could they fail to? Those two raised silver letters had a way of arresting the attention of all manner of employees: supermarket cashiers, for example, railway officials, even the lady in the off-licence on the corner by the Chinese takeaway who was to customer service what Attila the Hun had been to international relations). Emboldened – and perhaps the notorious aphrodisiac qualities of the oyster had also played a role – once home he had taken Myrtle roughly in the lounge, then once more in the bedroom, not thinking once of Rose. Her initial reaction of surprise had rapidly changed to one of noisy appreciation. It was a good memory to have.
He remembered that night now as he stared into the mirror. The face that looked quietly back at him wore the intervening years for all to see. It was like one of those wooden shutters designed to protect window panes from the ravages of wind and salt air that are still sometimes seen in those eighteenth-century fisherman’s cottages that line the streets nearest to the port throughout the East Neuk. Much of the hair was gone, and what remained seemed as likely to hold as the walls of a sandcastle to stand firm against the incoming tide. He had long since accepted the inevitable encroachment of age and would just stare at the mirror in a sort of detached amazement as he noticed its latest depredations.
He came to and looked around the small bathroom in distaste. With little interest, he registered that the front door had just banged shut. He knew that it would be Myrtle, doubtless headed out to one of her committees. She had embraced this aspect of university life from the first, volunteering at every occasion, explaining to him that it would help further his own career. When they had given up trying for children, she had redoubled her efforts in this direction. So successful had she become in this role of arch-organiser that no function, garden party, ceremony or other event took place in the social and institutional life of the university without her administerial input.
Nor did it stop there. She, after all, was not one to hide her light under a bushel when it might be better used to illuminate the way along the dark and tortuous path at the end of which, almost grail-like, beckoned the Professorial Chair. So she had proceeded to direct his life along the most efficient lines for the successful achievement of the quest. His ambition had become hers, and the prospect of being a professor’s wife pushed her onwards when a lesser woman would have long since given the thing up.
But in spite of their combined efforts, he had not as yet had the occasion to replace his honorific with one of even higher stature; the professorship had remained stubbornly in the abstract. Not only that, he had recently undergone the ignominy of witnessing a younger man in the department succeed where he was continuing to fail. It had been a bitter pill to swallow. He would never forget the way Myrtle’s lips had compressed into a thin line when he had finally summoned the courage to tell her. For the next fortnight, she had busied herself every night with a committee meeting.
He went downstairs and looked at the pile of exam scripts that awaited him on the table. Damn! It would take him three hours to get through that lot. He shuddered slightly as he remembered the handwriting of some of his pupils. Perhaps longer. And the book? The thought of sitting down to that was somehow worse; then he would have to confront that awful gnawing sense of failure. Not to mention boredom. Had he not once loved his subject? If so, when and why had that love withered? An answer came unbidden to his mind, but, in a carefully honed reflex action, he pushed it back down into the unconscious, as one swallows automatically when a piece of undigested food suddenly and without warning self-regurgitates at the back of the throat. Damn this! He put on his coat and slammed the front door shut behind him.
He found himself walking down the narrow road which ran along the cliff. He paused by the familiar building and was gripped by a sense of irony. He found a strange enjoyment in the sensation. He shrugged. Well, why not? He went into the bar, ordered a pint of bitter and took a corner table. He looked around the room, taking a perverse enjoyment in the profuse tartan garishness adorning walls and upholstery alike, evidently for the benefit of the foreign clientele who came every summer for the golf. The thought of the book rose unbidden in his mind, making him feel guilty for stealing this moment to himself. But after all, why shouldn’t he? God knows he worked hard enough for it. He took the last mouthful of beer, and, his mind already made up, decided to order another. The spectre of the book receded for the moment, temporarily exorcised. He glanced at the clock behind the bar. She wouldn’t be back for a good hour. He ordered some crisps as an afterthought. He wasn’t sure what, if any, were the arrangements for dinner.
As his pint was being poured, he noticed that a girl had appeared next to him at the bar, evidently waiting to order. He must have been staring, for she turned to him expectantly. He felt himself going red. What was wrong with him? And then he had it. Rose! It might have been her twin standing there next to him. Or rather, the twin of the Rose he had known all those years ago. Absentmindedly, he handed over the money and walked back to his table. He rolled the beer around his mouth, utterly at a loss, and ventured another look. The resemblance was uncanny; it was as if Rose herself were standing there, appearing in his present through some strange kink in time. It was the same blonde hair, just as he remembered it, the same figure. Even her eyes seemed to possess something of the soul, or essential Roseness, of Rose. His Rose. She suddenly looked over, catching him at it once more. He looked away, ashamed.
He looked up. There she was, standing next to him.
The name had escaped from his lips before he could stop it. She laughed.
‘I see. I think you may have mistaken me for my mother. I’m Felicity. Felicity Wright. Rose is my mother. Rose Swain, as she was then.’
Wright? An image of a cocksure shallow type – his name had been Wright, hadn’t it? – with whom Rose had had an on-off thing sprang into his mind. Swine. He managed to gather himself together.
‘Of course, Rose Swain, that’s who you remind me of.’
The girl smiled.
‘She’s Rose Wright now. My father came here as well, perhaps you knew him too – Frederick Wright?’
She was well spoken, expensively dressed. Undoubtedly a good school there in the background. Bastard must have done well.
He shook his head. ‘No, I don’t think I knew your father.’
‘Anyway, I must get back to my friends.’ She paused, then asked brightly, ‘And what name shall I say to Mother? She loves to talk about the old days,’ a delightful look of confusion crossed her face, ‘I mean, her time here.’
He felt as if a shard of glass had pierced his heart. He was aware of a sudden pressure behind his eyes. He found it hard to speak, but rallied courageously.
‘Oh, nobody she would remember, my dear. Now you have a good evening – I must be going.’
And with that he picked up his coat and left, an almost-full glass of beer and an unopened bag of salt and vinegar crisps bearing silent witness to his hasty retreat.
As he walked back home along the venerable streets of the ancient university town, a mad refrain kept running through his mind: She’s Rose Wright now. She did not remain Swain for long. Where, how, why did I go so wrong?
By the time he reached home it had become a mantra, adjusting itself to the rhythm of his step.
The light was on in the kitchen. Through the window, he saw Myrtle seated at the table, carefully studying the papers in front of her. He sighed and opened the front door, the mantra slowing down automatically to reflect his change in pace. He walked into the kitchen and busied himself with the kettle.
She’s Rose Wright now.
She did not remain Swain for long.
‘Committee meeting go well?’
‘Just been out for a walk.’
‘Clear the head.’
‘Better get down to that marking.’
‘It’s got to be done by Wednesday…’
‘…and I can then spend the weekend on the book.’
‘Think I made a real breakthrough tonight. During my walk, I mean.’
He took his tea into the lounge. From the kitchen came the rustle of papers.
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