Of my Base Metal may be filed a Key,
That shall unlock the Door he howls without.
Omar Klayyam, The Rubaiyat, Edward J. FitzGerald translation
From the telephone a man's accentless voice said, "Here's a list: Chaucer ... Malory. . ."
Hale's face was suddenly chilly.
The voice went on. "Wyatt ... Spenser . . .
Hale had automatically started counting, and Spenser made four. "I imagine so," he said, hastily and at random. "Uh, 'which being dead many years, shall after revive,' is the bit you're thinking of. It's Shakespeare, actually, Mr.-" He nearly said Mr Goudie, which was the name of the Common Room porter who had summoned him to the telephone and who was still rocking on his heels by the door of the registrar clerk's unlocked office, and then he nearly said Mr Philby; "-Fonebone," he finished lamely, trying to mumble the made-up name. He clenched his fist around the receiver to hold it steady, and with his free hand he shakily pushed a stray lock of sandy-blond hair back out of his eyes.
"Shakespeare," said the man's careful voice, and Hale realized that he should have phrased his response for more apparent continuity "Oh well. Five pounds, was it? I can pay you at lunch."
For a moment neither of them spoke.
"Lunch," Hale said with no inflection. What is it supposed to be now, he thought, a contrary and then a parallel or example. "Better than fasting, auhsandwich would be." Good Lord.
"It might be a picnic lunch, the fools," the bland voice went on, "arid here we are barely in January-so dobring a raincoat, right?"
Repeat it back, Hale remembered. "Raincoat, I follow you." He kept himself from asking, uselessly, Picnic, certainly-raincoat, right-but will anyone even be there, this time? Are we going to be doing this charade every tenth winter for the rest of my life? I'll be fifty next time.
The caller hung up then, and after a few seconds Hale realized that he'd been holding his breath and started breathing again. Goudie was still standing in the doorway, probably listening, so Hale added, "If I mentioned it in the lectures, you must assume it's liable to be in the exam." He exhaled unhappily at the end of the sentence. Play-acting into a dead telephone now, he thought; you're scoring idiot-goals all round. To cover the blunder, he said, "Hello? Hello?" as if he hadn't realized the other man had rung off, and then he replaced the receiver. Not too bad a job, he told himself, all these years later. He stepped back from the desk arid forced himself not to pull out his handkerchief to wipe his face.
Raincoat. Well, they had said that ten years ago too, and nothing had happened at all, then or since.
"Thank you, Goudie," he said to the porter, and then walked past him, back across the dark old Common Room carpet to the cup of tea that was still steaming in the lamplight beside the humming typewriter. Irrationally, it seemed odd to him that the tea should still be hot, after this. He didn't resume his seat, but picked up his sheaf of handwritten test questions and stared at the ink lines.
Ten years ago. Eventually he would cast his mind further back, and think of the war-surplus corrugated-steel bomb shelter on the marshy plain below Ararat on the Turkish-Soviet border, and then of a night in Berlin before that; but right now, defensively, he was thinking of that somewhat more recent, and local, summons-just to pace the snowy lanes of Green Park in London for an hour, as it had happened, alone and with at least diminishing anxiety, and of the subsequent forty hours of useless walks and cab rides from one old fallback location to another, down the slushy streets and across the bridges of London, cursing the confusing new buildings and intersections. There had been no telephone numbers or addresses that he would have dared to try, and in any case they would almost certainly all have been obsolete by that time. He had eventually given it up and taken the train back to Oxford, having incidentally missed a job interview; a fair calamity, in those days.
At least there was no real work to do today, and none tomorrow either. He had only come over to the college so early this morning to use fresh carbon paper and one of the electric typewriters.
Between the tall curtains to his left he could see clouds like hammered tin over the library's mansard roof, and bare young oak branches waving in the wind that rattled the casement latches. He would probably be wanting a raincoat, a literal one. God knew where he'd wind up having lunch. Not at a picnic, certainly.
He folded the papers and tucked them into his coat pocket, then ratcheted the half-typed sheets out of the typewriter, and switched the machine off.
He hoped it would still be working right, and not have got gummed up by some undergraduate teaching assistant, when he got backwhich would be, he was confident, in at most a couple of days. The con fidence was real, and he knew that it should have buoyed him up.
He sighed and patted the pockets of his trousers for his car keys.
The wooded hills above the River Wey were overhung in wet fog, and he drove most of the way home from the college in second gear, with the side-lamps on. When at last he steered his old Vauxhall into Morlan Lane, he tossed his cigarette out the window and shifted down to first gear, and he lifted his foot from the accelerator as the front corner of his white bungalow came dimly into view.
When he had first got the job as assistant lecturer back in 1953, he had rented a room right in Weybridge, and he remembered now bicycling back to the old landlady's house after classes in those long-ago late afternoons, from old habit favoring alleys too narrow for motor vehicles and watching for unfamiliar vans parked or driving past on the birchshaded lanes-tensing at any absence of birdcalls in the trees, coasting close by the old red-iron V.R. post-box and darting a glance at it to look for any hasty scratches around the keyhole-and alert too for any agitation among the dogs in the yards he passed, especially if their barking should ever be simultaneous with a gust of wind or several humans shouting at once.