Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceall þe mara þe ure mægen lytlað.
Violets and primroses have powered up between the paving stones of Beth’s London garden.
‘They appear so fragile, don’t they?’ she says, at the open window, her face to the light. ‘But violets are tough as old boots. They just hang on in there, Anna, and don’t take no for an answer.’
We’ve been getting memories out and looking at them together. They all lead to or from the eclipse. It‘s thirty years since we slouched in the back row of that Anglo-Saxon lecture – and the following day Beth warned me about the eclipse. That’s how I remember my first inkling of what was to come, somehow marked by the weird little drama that concluded the lecture. Byrthnoth the warrior had just taken his death blow. He raised his shield and lo! the men of Maldon fell in gouts of blood by his side; the Vikings were upon them.
We rarely speak of the eclipse directly. We chat our way round the subject, occasionally darting in to dab at it with our fingertips.
Holding out a hand which I take in both mine, Beth says, ‘You know, Anna, I was lying awake last night for ages.’
When I sympathise, Beth shakes her head: ‘No, it can be lovely if you haven’t to get up in the morning, just to lie and meditate and see the people you’ve loved in your mind’s eye. Strange – at that hour, there is a great stillness.’
On the train home to Wales, I see her there by the open window, saying that there’s a great stillness. I’ve seen that in her, the stillness. I don’t know whether it comforts me; I think it does. The train isn’t full: I’ve the luxury of two seats to myself. Sipping coffee, I glimpse my face shadowed in the pane as night consumes fields and hills. Somewhere within the dark reflection of myself hovers the pale stillness of Beth, remembering.
Next day her email springs out.
Our friendship – it’s so dear, it links the time before the eclipse with the time after. Everything else just separates them. I know you used to grieve that I couldn’t love you in the way you wanted – and I couldn’t, and I can’t – but, Anna, what could I do about that? It was better to stand on my own feet anyway, as things turned out. Lying awake the night before you visited, I remembered looking out of the Georgian window in Carey’s flat in Bath, the morning after he finished with me. I was back there seeing what I saw then. But what was it I saw? A fatal fluke of the light, impossible to describe. I’d packed my bag, I was ready to leave for the last time, my heart was absolutely convulsing, but I just stood there looking. Quite calm. Carey got up, hoping I’d gone, most probably, and asked, all hangdog, was I all right? I just shrugged and picked up my case. When I got back to Bristol I sat down at the piano and didn’t play. You came in with a mug of tea; you put your hand on my shoulder. You didn’t plague me with questions. You were just there. We’ve come through a lot, you and I – disappointments, estrangements. We’re like family, Anna, we always will be.
As I read, I see Beth looking out of Carey’s Georgian window (though I never visited my rival’s posh flat, I’m not even all that sure what a Georgian window is like). At nineteen she was slender and tall, hair all down her back, eyes lustrously dark, her whole life ahead of her. In my imagination I’m standing behind her, a silent eyewitness of this private moment. A pearl of a moment, kept for a lifetime. But what was it she saw?
I try to reply but delete everything as being fatuous and artificial.
Waking before dawn I’m left with the hem of a dream: Beth in a system of reflections, framing one another to vanishing point. She’s looking out of that Georgian window. Wondering whether Carey still owns the flat, I hunt down the address and google his name: yes, there’s a Carey Ward listed in Bath.
On the train, looking out into the misty morning, I wonder whether Carey will even recognise me now. Will he let me in? There’s only one way to find out. The sun’s burning off the mist and the city is honey-yellow as we draw in to the station.
Until my legs have carried me there, I’m unaware that Carey’s is the
address in Bath: Royal Crescent, exclusive, opulent. I never liked Carey; Carey never liked me. At least we saw eye-to-eye about that. When he visited Beth, I’d clear off for the day. Carey wasn’t all that bright on the emotional level but he smelt my rivalrous contempt and was doubly gracious. Beth loved Carey so much, I never grasped why. He was an ex-public school boy who still affected his school scarf. And he didn’t love her enough: I never understood that either. Surely the whole world must adore Beth, I thought – not just her dark, amazing beauty but her incomparable heart. I crept away like a wounded dog when she told me finally, after the eclipse, that it was never going to happen between us. It’s not the way I’m made, she said: I can’t help that. But don’t go away, I don’t want you to go away.
The vista here is breathtaking: the sweeping curve of the famous Palladian façade, ochre in sunlight, facing the green. Some houses in the crescent have been linked to form an opulent hotel with a white-gloved doorman in a top hat. Tourists cruise the pavement, craning up at the many-paned sash windows. I push open the wrought-iron gate. There are three bells, one for each apartment. What am I going to say? Hi, Carey, you won’t remember me, why should you, I’m a mad person who fell in love with your ex-girlfriend thirty years ago, and I just want to look out of your window, do you mind?
I thumb Carey’s doorbell. A woman’s voice: ‘Had you booked to view, Madam? I’m about to lock up – but I can allow you a brief glimpse.’
Which is all I want. To see out of Carey’s space, along Beth’s eyeline. It has been on the market for some time, the estate agent says.
These windows are treasures in themselves, I’m informed, for this is original glass, over two centuries old. The Princess of Lamballe and then the Duke of York and Albany looked out of these windows: it gives them a value. I treat the estate agent to my basilisk blue stare. Nevertheless, she feels I may be interested to know that the planet Uranus was discovered from this very back garden or it might have been the next one along. Angling herself beside me, she appraises my frayed jeans and my window obsession.
‘Of course a view like this is worth, literally, millions,’ she says, in case I hadn’t twigged that the apartment is likely to be way out of my league.
Unqualified light streams through soaring panes into the eggshell blue, high-walled interior. For all her irksome spiel, the agent’s face is calmly luminous and the green weave of her suit collar turns emerald, reminding me of when my mother’s cataracts were removed and she’d study the nap of a cushion as if absorbed in a book; also unfortunately decoding the stains that had lain undetected in the fabric for, presumably, years. But what met Beth’s eyes eludes me.
‘Have you seen enough?’ the estate agent asks. ‘Make a formal appointment to view at leisure, if you’re genuinely interested.’
‘I’ve seen plenty.’
One final glance at Carey’s expensive view. The sunlight’s suddenly milky; colour wanes. Mist spreads across the vista of lawns and trees, swallowing into its softness and silence people and dogs and taxis and a passing gull; a mist so dense as to dissolve altogether the grid-like bars of the Georgian window, clouding the interior of room and eye alike.
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I’d spent half an hour binding up her hair in a complex weave of plaits, tiny side-plaits tributary to the thick braid falling from a knot at her crown. I had to admire my handiwork. Beth’s face without its framing tresses looked bare and tight: well, it was tight because the plaits pulled. Her eyes watered and narrowed and her eyebrows seemed to lift in frozen surprise.
He’d been got rid of apparently. Bloody Carey. So I might stand a chance.
Up there in the back row of the auditorium, we were sure of being inconspicuous. Tiers of terminally bored students ranged down to where the dark-gowned professor was repeating what he’d said annually for decades: surely he’d actually been present at the Battle of Maldon, a craven scribe annotating verbs as mail-coated warriors slaughtered each other. The guys along the row from us were licking their thumbs to flick through the sports pages, tempting Professor Hapgood to eject them. Which he never would, for Happy lived in mortal terror – of us as a Viking mob, and even more of us as individuals.
Nobody really listened. Happy was a musty and muttering old bookworm. He’d not yet said anything that might make a difference to my life.
And then he did. It was electrifying.
‘Failure,’ he said. ‘The poem celebrates failure.’
And he stepped out from his defensive position behind the lectern. Pausing, Happy removed his reading specs and confronted the two hundred and fifty of us. The slumped audience sat up and took notice. At which Happy retired to the shelter of the lectern. Coughing, er-hem, he covered his mouth and slicked back his oiled hair, what there was of it. He searched, blinking, for his place. ‘Ah yes. Here we are.’
There was something funny about the shape of Professor Hapgood’s head. A dint in his forehead. No scar, just a reminder that something had banged rather catastrophically against his skull at some earlier date. In the War perhaps, though it was hard to imagine Happy bearing arms.
‘To continue. Now, the thanes, you see, the thanes can only stand and die. That’s it. They’ve driven off their horses so there can be no retreat. Come swiftly to us, warriors of war, Byrthnoth invites the Norsemen.’
Snaring his lapels with his thumbs, Happy began shambling to and fro behind the lectern, murmuring. Beth paused in the task of unravelling her painful plaits, half her hair curling snakily, the other half still in chains. ‘Has something happened?’ she whispered and squinted, craning forward. ‘I can’t see.’ Three paces west, two paces east. Then the murmur ceased. A standstill. He abandoned the lectern altogether.
Professor Hapgood hadn’t an original bone in his body. He’d never trusted himself to venture a view without remarking that Sprott or Quail had opined this or that. Whatever it was that prompted Happy’s break-out – and weeks later the stroke that carried him away – it must have been a searing wound that thrilled through every nerve in his body and dwarfed the constellation of fears he’d carried through life. Later I heard he’d been declared Dead Wood by the Dean: a relic of an anachronistic scholarship.
‘My dear young people,’ said Happy – and he stood in his nakedness before the phalanx of students. He tilted forward, a short man with a paunch, on tiptoe. He opened his arms; the dusty gown became a pair of dark wings. ‘Consider Maldon. The heroic moment. Consider what the dying Byrthwold tells the dying troops: Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mara þe ure mægen lytlað.’
We stared over the throng at a tiny actor on a distant stage. Beth rubbed her eyes. ‘I can’t see,’ she said.
It meant, so Happy explained, that our will would be harder – our heartskeener – our minds more determined – as our power lessened.
For lessen it would. It could not be otherwise.
Happy gave a curious little jerk. And another. A pencil rolled off the lectern and the clatter of its fall echoed through the auditorium. Folk were all round him in a moment, sitting him down, offering water, but Happy bounced to his feet, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead. ‘Ha ha, not dead yet,’ was the last thing we heard the professor say.
‘That was amazing,’ I said.
‘I couldn’t see properly,’ you complained.
‘No, I couldn’t really. We should’ve been at the front.’
Next day you confessed: ‘Anna, there’s something badly wrong with my eyes.’
‘Is it conjunctivitis? Let’s have a look. Can’t see anything.’
I hung around in the corridor of the Eye Hospital while they shone lamps into your dear, beautiful eyes. Your parents came and wept. It turned out you’d been denying the lessening of the light for nearly a year. It had been a gradual thing and the doctors could eke out your power to see for some time yet. You said, I’m glad Carey and I finished, Anna. I’d have leaned on him and he’d have withdrawn. It’s better this way.
And I agreed, with hectic fervour, for somewhere within the passionate sorrow of Beth’s catastrophic loss, I thought it gave me a chance.
She’s not expecting me. Even if she’s at home, there’s likely to be a student with her, deep in study of some complex sonata that may take all day to explore. If so I’ll wait. I’ve learned patience, waiting for Beth. Hanging around beyond the time when it made sense to wait, for any fool could see that the case was hopeless.
I let myself into the back garden, long and narrow, secured by copper beech hedges that keep a rustling remnant of the old year’s leaves while new buds break open. The carpet of violets and primroses, well past its prime, still offers patchy vestiges of colour. The piano sounds from indoors: some modern piece I can’t pretend to understand.
Wandering to the end of the garden, invisible from the house, I curl up on the bench near the ivied wall where she showed me the sparrows’ nest one year. I get comfortable, bunching up my cardigan for a pillow. I drowse, then I must have slept. Because when I come to, the low light is auburn on the wall and my friend is crouched at the border, braille-reading the blue and white starry faces of anemones. I’ve no idea what I’ve come to tell her.
Beth’s hair is white and the student has gone and the music is over and we are entering late middle age and here I still am beside her.
’ most recent novel, Awakening
, was published by Parthian this spring.
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