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I put the holdall with the unreliable handle down carefully on the pavement and reached inside the boot of the car for a cardboard box full of assorted groceries and thrust it into Michael's reluctant hands.
'Oh great,' he said, 'now I can open my very own supermarket.'
'Don't be such an ungrateful little beast,' I replied. 'You know you say the food in college is disgusting and that you're always hungry. And I know you've nowhere to cook anything,' I added as he opened his mouth to protest. 'I've just put in tins of corned beef and boxes of those little plastic cheeses that you like – nourishing protein.'
'Vitamin C,' I said defensively. 'You're to take one every morning. The last thing you want this term, when you're taking your Finals, is one of your colds.'
'Oh, Ma, don't fuss!'
'A widow with an only child is allowed to fuss,' I said firmly. 'Now are you sure you don't want me to help you unpack all this lot and put it away?' 'No thanks. I shall leave it strewn around my room until it all beds down like compost. Anyway, I'm supposed to be seeing Hardwick in about ten minutes.'
Hardwick was a young man I had met in Michael's room several terms before. He had been sitting slumped in an armchair with his feet, in a disgraceful pair of trainers, propped up on the table among the (unwashed) coffee cups, drinking lager from a can. I had assumed he was a fellow student until Michael introduced him to me as his tutor. Oxford certainly has changed since my day.
'All right then, love. I'll drop in tomorrow after I've been into the Bodleian. If you're not there I'll leave a note about Sunday. I think Betty would like you to come over.'
'OK. Of course I'll come. I'd like to see Tony anyway. Cheers.'
He gave me a hug and, gathering up his possessions, disappeared through the small gate into the college.
Since I had, for the rest of the hour, that unbelievable rarity a free parking space in Oxford, I felt I should make the most of it and decided to pop into the Bodleian shop to replenish my stock of postcards (as I get older I find that I conduct more and more of my correspondence on postcards) and then have a little wander around Blackwell's – make myself at home again, as it were.
Outside the Sheldonian a young man in a blazer and a straw boater was sitting on a camp stool with a notice beside him which read 'Brideshead Tour of Oxford £2.50'. As I approached he raised his boater and said, 'Can I interest you in a tour of Oxford?' I looked at him coldly and replied, 'That will not be necessary, thank you, since I am myself a member of this university.'
He grinned. 'Suit yourself,' he said.
I smiled back feeling rather foolish and hurried on. I suppose all graduates feel that they are somehow marked out and special when they are in Oxford and that this should be immediately apparent to all. To be mistaken for a tourist is definitely diminishing.
If I am honest, I must admit that my time at Oxford was the most purely happy of my whole life. That is not to say that I haven't had a marvellous life since – a happy marriage, a son, a sort of minor but satisfactory literary career – but there is something about the days of one's youth, when the world still had the dew upon it and anything seemed possible. I used to come to Oxford by train then. It was not long after the war and although petrol rationing had finished, it was still in short supply and often difficult to come by. In any case, my father was dead and my mother, like so many women of her generation, had never learned to drive. But I enjoyed the train journey from Taviscombe, the small West Country town where I lived – the little train to Taunton and then on to Reading. After I had changed at Reading for the slow, local train, my trunk and my bicycle safely in the guard's van, I would put away my book and enjoy the familiar litany of stations, each one bringing me nearer to Oxford – Tilehurst, Pangbourne, Goring, Cholsey and Moulsford, Didcot, Appleford, Culham, Radley – peering out of the window at the river as it wound lovingly through the countryside, craning my neck to see the University barges and then, always with a sense of excitement, the spires silhouetted against the sky.
But it was not, in spite of a continuing passion for English literature, Matthew Arnold's spires or his 'warm, green-muffled Cumnor hills', or Hopkins' 'towery city', or Hardy's Jude, or even Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson that had made me determined, from my earliest teens, to come to Oxford. It was, in fact, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers' hero, with his wit, sensitivity and, above all, his habit of quotation, who epitomised for me all that was romantic and glamorous in the world outside Taviscombe. My husband used to say, only half joking, that I only married him because his name was Peter and he went to Balliol. So I went up to Oxford in the early 1950s with my head full of romantic nonsense (me, Sheila Prior, actually living in the world of Gaudy Night) and Fate was kind enough not to disillusion me. I had a wonderful time.
One of my best friends, when I was up, was Betty Rochester and we had kept in touch over the years. She had married a doctor who practised just outside Oxford (how I envied her that!) and I was godmother to her eldest child, Tony. I always stayed with her when I had any research to do in Oxford. I have published several books of criticism – mostly on minor Victorian writers, though there aren't many of those left to work on now – and I do a little reviewing for literary magazines, mostly American and Canadian; no one else seems to have the money to keep them going beyond the second issue. I had been asked to write a paper – 'The Home Front Novel: English Women Writers in the Second World War'. It wasn't really my subject, though an enjoyable one, so I was proposing to combine transporting my son Michael and all his gear to college with a little peaceful research in the Bodleian.
Betty (now Stirling) lived on the outskirts of Woodstock and as I drove up the Woodstock Road I was in my usual daydream of happiness at being in Oxford at the beginning of the summer term when all the trees are coming into leaf and the pink and white and mauve blossom bursts out exuberantly all over North Oxford. I looked for the great copper beech, a favourite landmark, on the corner of Lathbury Road, and there it was, its new leaves a soft haze of mauvish bronze. As I drove round the Wolvercote roundabout I was singing quite loudly. The Stirlings lived in a large modern house, but suitably built of Cotswold stone so that it merged harmoniously into the landscape. The gardens were large and full of unusual and beautiful flowers and shrubs. Robert, Betty's husband, was a fanatical gardener – I suppose it was a good way of relaxing from the demands of his patients, though, actually, he was very much an old-fashioned GP and simply loved house calls and long cosy chats, where he picked up all sorts of gossip, which he joyfully and most unethically relayed all over the village. He was immensely popular and I must say I often wished he was my doctor.
Betty read English at Oxford, as I did, and taught for a while. She and Robert were married when he was still at medical school and she carried on teaching for several years, even when Tony was born, to support them both until he was established. When their second child, Harriet, arrived she gave up her job and devoted herself to being a conventionally perfect doctor's wife – sitting on committees and raising money for medical good causes. A few years ago all this suddenly changed. When she was seventeen, Harriet ran away from home to join the Greenham Common peace women. Betty was horrified at first, but when Harriet came back – she always had a weak chest and a tendency to asthma and really wasn't up to living under canvas – Betty began to take up some of Harriet's ideas. Now she was deeply involved in Women's Rights as well as CND, Friends of the Earth, stopping nuclear waste and other related causes. Robert seemed fairly impervious to all this. He had never greatly cared about his creature comforts and now appeared to subsist on the endless cups of tea offered to him on his rounds and seemed quite happy to take a bit of bread and cheese out to his greenhouse when Betty decided that her time was too valuable to spend cooking and doing housework.
It was poor Tony that I was sorry for. Surrounded by cheerful, extrovert people, he seemed to shrink back into himself, so that he appeared more vague and tentative than ever. He was a slight young man, with fair hair and sad brown eyes behind gold- framed glasses (everyone else in the family had perfect sight). I once said to Michael that Tony reminded me of a wounded spaniel. He snorted. 'A water spaniel, perhaps – he can be really wet! Still, poor old Tony. I'm sorry for him, living in that household and with a sister like that! Imagine wearing a CND badge on your wedding dress!' 'Well, it wasn't a church wedding,' I said, 'and it was more of a caftan.'
'And scattering marigolds all over the place like that – it was deeply embarrassing. I didn't know where to look.'
Michael, like a lot of his generation is profoundly conventional.
'I don't know why she married that young man, anyway,' I continued. 'I thought proper feminists didn't.'
'She was making a commitment,' Michael explained patiently. 'And, actually, she and whatshisname, Hank, are into Greenpeace now. I saw Tony the other day in the Turl and he told me they're in New Zealand, going on from there to some atoll where there's a nuclear testing ground. Aren't you lucky to have such a boring, unadventurous son. You'd be worried to death.'
'Yes, I certainly would. Betty doesn't seem to bother, though.'
'She's far too busy saving the world herself to worry about her family – hence poor old Tony. Promise me, Ma, that you won't go all earnest in your old age.'
'No fear of that,' I said. 'I'm afraid I'm far too frivolous and light-minded, not to mention selfish.'
I really did admire what Betty was doing, though I must confess that I didn't look forward so much to visiting her nowadays, having got set in my ways and used to a more ordered life. Still, I was usually out working in the Bodleian during the day and I made a point of having a good, substantial lunch. Furthermore, I kept a small store of biscuits and chocolate in my suitcase.
When I arrived Betty greeted me enthusiastically.
'Sheila, dear, how lovely to see you! I'm so glad you're going to be here this week – we need all the people we can get for that demonstration at Brize Norton.'
Fortunately I was used to Betty's habit of taking over people, so I merely murmured that it was lovely to be there and mentally vowed that the wildest of horses would not drag me anywhere near Brize Norton. Actually, Betty has given me up as a bad job long ago and doesn't really expect me to join in any of her projects, although she always mentions them hopefully when I arrive, but it is tacitly agreed between us that I'm not really activist material.
'Am I in my usual room?' I asked. 'I'll just take my case up and unpack a few things.'
'Yes, dear, of course. I'm afraid Cleopatra's in residence there as usual. Honestly, she's getting worse, the way she's taken over that room. You are about the only visitor we can put in there now.'
Cleopatra was Tony's cat, a Burmese whose imperious disposition made her difficult to live with. Fortunately Betty, like me, was a doting animal lover and Robert – although professing dislike of all pets – had been known to make a special trip to Oxford market to buy a particular kind of fish to which she was partial.
I went up to the pleasant back bedroom overlooking the garden. There was a huge Magnolia soulangeana in full bloom outside the window and a mass of double cherry, both pink and white, just beyond. The room itself was impeccable, with gleaming furniture, fluffy white towels and fresh flowers. Mrs Rogers, who 'did' for them, knew what was due to the Doctor's position, even if his wife didn't, and Betty didn't seem to feel that it demeaned Mrs Rogers to do the housework, so everyone was happy.
As I entered the room I was greeted by a harsh cry and I went over to speak to Cleopatra who was in her usual position on the broad windowsill above the radiator. She was sitting on a pink velvet cushion (placed there specially), paws tucked neatly underneath, but as I approached she got up and arched her back, stretching her long legs and raising her head for me to pay my usual tribute. I stroked the soft fur under her chin and she gave a muted wail, then sprang down and stood beside my suitcase expectantly. I opened it and produced the cat treats that I always brought, breaking them into pieces for her. She crunched them noisily while I washed my hands and tidied my hair.
'Are you coming down?' I asked. But having finished her treat she jumped into my open suitcase and, curling up on the one blouse I had that creased if you simply looked at it, regarded me smugly.
'Oh, Cleo!' I said resignedly and went downstairs.
I found Betty surrounded by posters and leaflets, which she was stuffing vigorously into envelopes. The kettle was shrilling noisily in the kitchen so I said, 'I'll make the tea shall I?' I came back with a tray, cleared a corner of the table and poured us both a cup.
'There are some biscuits somewhere,' Betty said absently.
'Not for me, thanks. Now tell me – how is everyone?'
Betty embarked on a long saga about Harriet's environmental activities in New Zealand. 'Though, of course she won't be able to go on the trip to that atomic island now that she's pregnant.'
'No! Oh, Betty, how lovely – you'll be a grandmother! When's the baby due?'
'Early in September.'
'Goodness. Well, they'll have to give up darting about the world like this now.'
'Oh no – Harriet will just put the baby in one of those sling things and take it about with them. It'll be frightfully good for it being part of life like that. Think of African babies on their mother's backs!'
'Poor little things,' I said, 'they always look dreadfully uncomfortable to me!'
Betty laughed. 'Oh, Sheila, you really are out of touch with modern life – it's all those dreary Victorian novelists of yours.'
'I suppose Robert's working too hard as usual?'
'He seems to thrive on it. Dawn till dusk. The matron at Evenholme was quite disagreeable about him calling to see old Mrs Clark at quarter to seven the other morning.'
'And Tony – how is he?'
A shadow crossed her face.
'I'm a bit worried about him,' Betty said. 'He's been very upset – well, you know how he takes things to heart.'
I was immediately concerned. If Betty, who was absorbed in other things, had noticed that there was something wrong then it must be serious.
'Whatever's the matter?'
'Something rather awful happened at the library and he can't seem to get it out of his mind.'
Tony worked in the Bodleian. Not in the old, grand Duke Humfrey part, but the New Bodleian, housed in the rather undistinguished building put up between the wars on the corner of Park Street. He loved his work and being part of the Bodleian and all that that implied. I believe he was very good at his job, since he was conscientious, reliable and meticulous, and Room 45 was his own little kingdom. Only there did he really seem to come alive.
'There was an accident and a woman died. It was worse, really, because it was someone we knew. Do you remember Gwen and Molly Richmond?'
'Molly sings madrigals with your group doesn't she?'
'I remember. They live in that lovely cottage at Great Tew. We went to a coffee morning there once. I met Molly but I don't think Gwen was there.'
'It was Gwen who died.'
'How awful. What happened?'
'Gwen was a librarian – retired of course. She must have been over seventy because she was up – I think she was at St Hughes – before the war. She was at the Bodleian for a bit and then, after the war, she worked abroad. She came home to England a few years ago and lived with Molly at Great Tew. Anyway, she was asked to go back to the Bodleian to do something to some catalogue or other. She was working in one of those little rooms where they store things, in Tony's part of the library and some shelving collapsed and she was killed.'
'What a dreadful thing!'
'The trouble is, it was Tony who found her.'
'Oh, poor boy!' I exclaimed. 'No wonder he's upset – it must have been a dreadful shock.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cruellest Month"
Copyright © 2010 Hazel Holt.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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