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On this as on almost every Sunday evening, I find a message from my acquaintance on the wall of the third cubicle of the Gents beside Christ Church Meadow. For a while we experimented with chalk, but everything is cleaned so regularly these days that it was often erased. So we make do with a thumbnail dug discreetly into the soft surface of the paint.
This whole place has become so bright and neat that it's hardly like a proper Gents at all. Toilet rolls on all the holders, clean basins, polished wooden seats, and a one-armed War veteran who sits reading John Bull and smoking Capstan Full Strength in his glass cubicle. But he's gone now. It's past eight. The plangent sound of evensong bells carries through the tiny frosted window.
I do the obvious thing one does in a toilet—delaying the moment of looking like a child with a last precious sweet—and then I study the mark. It's two thumbnails this week, which means the abandoned shed by the allotments past the rugby grounds in an hour's time. I mark it with my own nail so that we'll both know it's been seen. A trail of other such marks run across the cubicle wall; what amounts nowadays to my entire sexual life. I see here that week in February when I was suffering from the influenza that still seems to trouble me, and tottered from what felt like my death bed to make the cross-nail sign that would inform my acquaintance that there was nothing doing. (I could have left no mark at all and simply not turned up, but we deviants are still human. That would have worried and inconvenienced him.) And here—Oh, happy, dangerous days!—is the special triple-mark that meant a back room in the hotel of a sympathetic but understandably wary proprietor. Good old Larry Black at the Crown and Cushion. He's gone now, of course, has Larry. Quietly taken one night for the shocks and needles of the treatment centres around Ramsey and Onchan on the Isle of Man. So many have gone now that it sometimes seems that the rest of us are ghosts, going silently and unseen about these last fragments of our rituals.
The paint, like everything else in this country that once used to be so shoddy and municipal, is fresh, scarcely a year old and soaped-down twice weekly. A single erect penis raises its lonely head as I look hard for graffiti, and there are a few swastikas from that little man in Germany. Still, and almost lost from sight in the shadow of the cistern, an offer is made of intimate services at a specified time and date. I can't help but smile at that. Could anyone be so naive? More probably, it was done as a half-sad joke, much like the fact that I and my acquaintance still use this place for our own discreet messages; a tiny monument to other, freer, times. Although, I reflect as I pull the chain, they hardly seemed free whilst one was living them.
I clunk back the lock and step out into the sweetly disinfected Jeyes Fluid air. I wash my hands, studiously ignoring the young man who stands at the stalls, humming to himself as he urinates splashingly. Above him on the wall, with what, if you didn't know this country, you would surely imagine to be ironic intent, hangs a photograph of John Arthur. He gazes warmly across his desk, looking younger than his forty-nine years despite his grey hair. A file lies open before him. A pen waits in his hand. Papers to process. Lives to change. The photograph is brass-framed, well-polished. It could fit in the best drawing rooms in the land. Of course, no one has dared to deface it. I straighten my tie and the lapels of my jacket as my reflection lies over his on the glass, and smile warmly back at him.
To pass the required hour whilst early summer darkness thickens, I return up St Giles to the Eagle and Child. There, I drink Burton's beer and tamp in a moist pipe-full of Four Square Ready-Rubbed beside a pleasant but unseasonable inglenook fire. From beyond a leaning doorway drift the strangulated cries of upper-class voices. There are a few genuine academics still left at Oxford, although Williams has gone, Lewis contents himself with the income he makes from children's books, and it's said that Tolkien soon hopes to do the same. But, still, the insults fly about Beowulf and The Cloud of Unknowing. Sham that I am, I content myself with studying the pages of today's New Cross which, because of its Modernist leanings, has a freer hand than the supposedly more intellectual papers.
The front page is filled with the text of John Arthur's Victory Anniversary speech to the cheeringly patriotic crowds in Sackville Street, Dublin, and with speculation about the as-yet-to-be-announced celebrations for Trafalgar Day this autumn, which is also his fiftieth birthday. It, and a photograph of the man not dissimilar to the one in Christ Church Gents, barely detain me. I flick instead past Modernist Tips For Mr. and Mrs. Newly-Married and photos of the Hyde Park Jamboree towards the central pages and the Cross's leader column, which often has an almost supernatural prescience. Look at the way the Government responded to its pleas for compulsory identity cards. Look at the timely suicide, in his cell, of De Valera ... For a while as the Latin and Middle English put-downs from the dons in the room beyond become more convoluted, I can't help feeling that I'm the true historian here. That, just as theCross's masthead promises, the clumsy phrases I'm reading will be the stuff out of which the future will be made.
Today, though, the leader is nothing more than a general rant against the French and their expansionist tendencies in the Middle East. Recently, there have also been threats and arguments with them about the security of the Channel Isles, and the ownership of the land Britain has regained in East Africa, but, all in all, the whole thing has an unconvincing air. The French are foreign in a way that the Irish or the rebellious Indians and Boers never will be, and thus are much harder to hate. It's still difficult to imagine that we could ever go to war against them.
I tap out my pipe on the edge of the grate, and ponder and then decline—my bladder being the perverse creature it is—the prospect of a second pint of Burton's. Still, I feel light-headed as I stand up. Ghost whispers fill my head, and my hand trembles noticeably as I bear my empty glass towards the bar.
Outside along St Giles, twilight has descended, yet the warmth of this early summer day remains. Bicycles whiz by. Bats flit around the street lamps. A few of the newer or expensively refurbished pubs already boom with patriotic songs. A convoy of trucks lumbers around the cobbles, filled with bewildered-looking conscripts on their way to the sprawling camps in the southeast of England.
I pause to relight my pipe as I pass St John's, fumbling through several matches, then drawing in one sweet puff before something foul catches in my throat. I lean spluttering against a wall and cough up out a surprising quantity of stringy phlegm onto the pavement, watched over by a small but disapproving gargoyle. Odd, disgusting habit—hawking and spitting. Something that, until recently, I'd only associated with old men.
There's still some life out on the playing fields. Undergrads are wandering. There are groups. Couples. Limbs entwine. Soft laughter flowers. The occasional cigarette flares. Glancing back at the towers of this city laid in shadows of hazy gold against the last flush of the sun, it's all so impossibly beautiful. It looks, in fact, exactly like an Empire Alliance poster. GREATER BRITAIN AWAKE! I smile at the thought, and wonder for a moment if there isn't some trace of reality still left in the strange dream that we in this country now seem to be living. Turning, sliding my hand into my pocket to nurse the encouraging firmness of my anticipatory erection, I cross the bridge over the Cherwell as Old Tom begins his long nightly chime.
Despite all the back-to-nature and eat-your-own-greens propaganda, the shed at the far end of the allotments and the plots it once served remains abandoned, cupped as it is in a secret hollow, lost by the men who went to the War and never came back again. Tangled with nettles and high grass, rich with sap and cuckoo spit, the whole place has a satisfyingly disreputable air. It would make an ideal haunt for a boyhood gang. But there are no brown-skinned savages here, no secret rituals—none, anyway, other than those that I and my acquaintance perform. Delinquency per se is out of fashion: although far stranger ceremonies than ours, it seems to me, have been shamelessly enacted at Carfax in broad daylight and outside New Buckingham Palace.
I lever open the shed door and duck inside. As always, the dim smell reminds me of my father's old shed. Tools and seeds and sweet dry manure. But no sign yet of my acquaintance as the floorboards creak beneath my feet and I risk striking a brief match to confirm that all is well. Unchanged. That potting bench in the shadows. The dangling webs of long-dead spiders.
The match stings my fingers and hisses out. I wait. The darkness, even as my eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, becomes near-absolute as night settles outside. The Christ Church bells have long since stopped chiming. Only some more distant tower ripples a muffled shipwreck clang. The late train to London rattles by in the distance, dead on time. The last grasshopper gives a final trill.
My acquaintance is late. In fact, he should have been here first. As I pushed back the door, his younger arms should already have been around me. The first anticipatory explorations of flesh against flesh. He trembles often as not when we first lock together, does my acquaintance. After all, he has so much more to lose.
Despite the darkness and the secrecy with which we pretend to cloak our meetings, I know exactly who my acquaintance is. I have followed him home. I have studied the lights of his house shining through the privet that he trims so neatly each fortnight, and I have watched the welcoming faces of his wife and two daughters as they wait at the door.
Checking, occasionally, the radium glow of my watch, I let a whole hour slide by as the residue of early hope and fear sour into disappointment, and then frank anxiety. But what, after all, do I know of the demands of being a father, a husband? Of working in some grim dead-end section of the Censor's Department of the city Post Office?
At ten, I lever the shed door open and step out into the summer night, leaving my long-forgotten libido far behind me. The stars shine down implacably through the rugby Hs as I make my way back past lovers and drunks and dog walkers into the old alleys. I turn for a moment as I hear the whisper of footsteps. Could that be a figure, outlined against the mist of light that seeps from a doorway? Could it be my acquaintance? But by the time I've blinked, it becomes nothing—an aging man's fancy: the paranoias of love and fear.
Then quickly along Holywell where an owl calls, and onwards under the plane trees to my college and my quad, to the cool waiting sheets of my room deep in the serene heart of this ancient city.
I open my eyes next morning to the sight of my scout Christlow bearing a tray containing a steaming pot of Assam, a rack of toast, my own special jar of Cooper's Oxford Marmalade. Even as the disappointments of the previous evening and the cold aches that have suddenly started to assail my body wash over me, I still have to smile to find myself here.
"Lovely morning, sir."
Christlow drifts through diamonds of sunlight to place the tray astride my lap. The circled cross of the EA badge on his lapel winks knowingly at me. It's bronze and red enamel, and I'm sure it's grown larger recently. I'm unclear, though, what that signifies. A change in style, or has Christlow risen to some yet more elevated position within the ranks of the Oxford and Aylesbury District Branch of the Empire Alliance? I sip my tea and smile at him as he purses his fat lips and prepares to say whatever it is he's planning to say to me this morning.
"Oh, by the way, sir. You asked me to remind you of your appointment today."
"I have it down on the board, sir. In the office. Just the way you told me to. At ten o-clock, you were seeing your doctor. Unless, of course, you've—"
"—No. Yes." I nod in my pyjamas, a dribble of spilt tea warming my chin—all in all, a good approximation of an absent-minded professor. "Thank you, Christlow, for reminding me."
In that scarily deferential way of his, Christlow almost bows, then retreats and closes the door. With a sound like distant thunder, his trolley trundles off down the oak-floored corridor. And yes, I truly had forgotten my appointment. The dust-spangled sunlight that threads my room now seems paler. Once more, the whispers come into my head. I am touched by the cold hands of ghosts. Memories of hopes unfulfilled, the sweet aches of love in empty sheds, and voices, loves, lives, the brush of stubbled lips which tremble at first with lust and fear, and still tremble in the sated moments afterwards as they murmur of school nativities, trips to buy paraffin heaters, the burnt roasts of Sunday lunches ... They all come back to haunt me.
Walking along High an hour later filled with an odd feeling of destiny, I have to squeeze my way through the queue outside the Regal for the day's first showing of Olivier's Henry V. Many, like Christlow, wear EA badges. But all ages, all types, both sexes, every age and disability, are gathered. A mixture, most bizarrely of all, of town and gown—undergrads and workers—the two quite separate existences that Oxford so grudgingly contains. Can it just be that the film is as good as everyone says it is? Or is it that the more entertaining stuff from Hollywood is so strictly licensed that people will watch anything these days?
Beyond the junction of Alfred Street I push through the little door beside the jewellers and climb the stairs to the surgery. The receptionist looks up without smiling, then returns to stabbing a finger at her typewriter. The posters in this poky waiting room are like the ones you see everywhere. WITH YOUR HELP WE CAN WIN. NOW IS THE TIME. JOIN THE EMPIRE ALLIANCE—BE A PART OF THE MODERNIST REVOLUTION. And there's a fetching painting of the towers and spires of this great dreaming city aglow at sunset, much as I saw them yesterday. THIS SCEPTRED ISLE. When, I wonder, has the Bard been so popular?
"Mr. Brook. Doctor Parker will see you."
But the receptionist's eyes are averted as she searches the typewriter for another letter. I push through the doorway, blinking. Doctor Parker is totally new to me. He looks, in fact, almost totally new to himself. Fresh-faced, young and pinkly bald, he stares through me as I slump down opposite his desk in a creaky wicker chair. Our discussion revolves at first around who I am, and then which doctor I had seen when I was last here, which was a Doctor Cole, as I recall, who was as old and brown as this man is pink and young.
I have no one but myself to blame for taking my chances with the National Health Service. I could have availed myself of Doctor Reichard, who comes to our college every Wednesday to see to us dons, and is available at most other times, since, on the basis of a stipend granted by George I in 1715, these attendances comprise his sole professional duty. But my complaints—shortness of breath, the cough, the odd whispering that sometimes comes upon me, the growing ache in my bones—sound all too much like the simple ravages of age. And I nurse, also, a superstitious fear that my sexual leanings will be apparent to the trained medical eye.
"Sorry about this ah ... I've only just got ..." he says as he rummages in the files around his desk, his face pursed in what looks like prissy disgust. "You're the ah ... The columnist, aren't you?"
"I was," I say, giving my customary shrug to indicate the time that has passed—it's been eight years now—since I and the Daily Sketch finally parted company.
"What was it?" He pauses, faint dust rising around him. "The Fingers Of History?
"Figures of History."
"Of course. Used to find it handy at school. You know, Life Of Cromwell. Cut up what you'd written into pieces, then stick it back together again. Metaphorically, of course. And my main interest was always science." A pause as a waxy sheaf of what I suspect are my X-rays clatter to the floor. Then another thought strikes him. "And you knew him, didn't you? I mean, you knew John Arthur ..."
Excerpted from The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod. Copyright © 2005 Ian R. MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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