Instead of the usual blog, a short story, for a change. A gift. The season demands it. I hope you enjoy it.
She scratched the paint off the woodwork with her fingernails. There was a hollow, there, on the side of the bannister. Wedged inside was a piece of paper, yellowed by time. A youthful poem in faded ink and, at the bottom, the familiar signature of an old friend. A friend who had believed in him. Believed in her.
* * *
“You’re not a poet,” Jonathan said. “No one will publish these. Trust me, I’ve been in the business long enough.”
Heather felt something cold in her belly. She reached for the green hardback notebook on her husband’s desk. She felt suddenly resentful, not because Jonathan had, once again, put a wet blanket on her poetry, but because he just sat there, already fully absorbed by his new novel, typing mechanically. He could at least hand her the notebook back – show some kindness – instead of leaving it on the corner of his desk. She wondered if he actually saw her standing there. Jonathan had an extraordinary ability to switch off his surroundings, even when these included Heather, and concentrate on whatever he had to do at the time.
“I am going to make Christmas pudding,” she said deliberately loud. Jonathan continued typing. She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him. Say something. Tell me I should have made Christmas pudding months ago. Look at me!
Heather kept glancing at her notebook on the kitchen table, whilst mixing the dried fruit and spices. She needed its company. She walked over to the counter to turn up the radio.
Once in Royal David’s city...
The treble’s voice rose up to the fan vaulting in King’s College Chapel like a moonbeam. Heather wished she had gone to the carol service there. As an undergraduate, she had gone every year. Thinking back, she realised she had not been to carols at King’s since her marriage. Jonathan was a fellow at Corpus Christi and for the past ten years, she had attended services there. The college which boasted alumni like John Fletcher, Christopher Isherwood and Christopher Marlowe. The college of great poets and playwrights. She did not like the Corpus choir. She always found women’s voices in a choir too strident. Of course, dining at High Table, Heather could not say that she preferred trebles. It would have been undiplomatic.
Of course, no one actually forbade her from going to King’s. It was just another unspoken rule Heather had imposed upon herself in recent years. In order not to embarrass Jonathan. One of the youngest and most respected Corpus Christi Fellows. A brilliant historian and a successful novelist. The BBC were about to dramatise one of his historical novels. That was all the Master and Fellows had talked about at High Table for the last few weeks. Naturally, they were proud of their celebrated Corpustle. Why should they not be?
A light dusting of sifted flour settled on the glossy green notebook. Jonathan’s words echoed in her head – “You’re not a poet. No one will publish these.” Heather was angry for allowing herself to be so demoralised. After all, as an undergraduate at Pembroke, she had won poetry competitions. She had been invincible. She tried to remember the precise moment when she had lost all that; when she had first felt afraid. After she had married Jonathan, she had continued writing for a while, even submitting a few of her poems to agents and publishers. Rejections did not deter her at first. She knew it was the normal course of things in the beginning. Jonathan had been very supportive. In fact, he had offered his advice as an already established writer. First, on how to approach people with a view to publish; then, on how to present yourself as a poet. And finally, on how to write a publishable poem. Heather had been grateful for the interest her husband showed in her work. He seemed to know that it was not enough to write from the heart. One had always to bear in mind the public taste of the moment. So Heather altered her writing style. She wrote every new poem according to the new trend then presented it to Jonathan for constructive criticism, after which she would go back and rewrite it. She needed her husband to guide her, help her, correct her lack of business sense.
That was all in the first three years of their marriage. Since then, she had got into the habit of showing Jonathan everything she wrote. And she resented this habit. He never liked what she wrote. Her long, slanted, Parker fountain pen handwriting would come back littered with tiny biro annotations between the lines. Like spiders, crawling all over her writing. In spite of that, Heather did not manage to have her poems published. In fact, she had not submitted any for years. Jonathan – and she – did not think they were good enough.
Adam lay ybounden
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
Heather had liked that carol for as long as she could remember. She found its simplicity appealing and unexplainably familiar. She remembered that she had a shiny penny in her purse. She took it out and washed it in the sink.
And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took
As clerkès finden written in their book.
She held the penny in her hand and tried to make a wish but could not think of one. She dropped the penny into the pudding mixture and gave an anti-clockwise stir with the wooden spoon, without making a wish. She then poured the mixture into a ceramic basin and proceeded to tie the greaseproof paper over it.
Ne had the apple taken been
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our Lady
Abeen heavenè queen.
“That smells nice.” Jonathan was standing in the doorway. “Need any help?”
“I’m nearly done,” said Heather. “I just have to steam it.”
She took a tea towel, smoothed it over the basin and wrapped the string around the lip.
“Let me tie that for you,” said Jonathan. He lifted the corners of the tea towel and started tying them together.
“I said, I don’t need your help!” Heather nearly shouted, grabbing the basin away from him.
She saw her notebook fly towards the counter with a crash. Too loud a crash for a cardboard cover. The raw Christmas pudding lay splattered over the ceramic pieces of the broken basin. At first, Heather could not move. Then she stepped over the magma of dried fruit and egg, and picked up the green notebook which lay on the floor, its cover spread open and pages creased underneath.
Blessèd be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen
“Why are you so jumpy? What’s the matter?” Jonathan’s voice was impatient.
Heather crouched down and started clearing the mess on the floor. “Oh, God,” she said. “I can’t face doing this again. I’ll pop out and buy one before the shops close.”
“Are you all right?” asked Jonathan.
“Yes – just tired. I’ll feel better once I’ve had some air.”
Jonathan left the kitchen, with Heather scrubbing the floor. As she put on her duffel coat, she heard the quick tip-tap sound of his typing.
The chill of dusk was a welcome sensation on Heather’s face as she cycled down Silver Street and along King’s Parade. It was unusually cold and crisp, and Heather felt grateful for being spared the usual mild and wet Cambridge Christmas. She locked her bicycle at the back of Corpus Christi , and rushed to the Marks & Spencer on the Market Place.
Heather picked off the shelf the first Christmas pudding she saw. She did not want to have to choose from the half an dozen or so different types. She wanted to have enough time for a stroll before going home.
On the Market Place, vendors were packing up their stalls. A man strode past her, carrying a small fir tree. She followed him with her gaze, as he rushed past Great St Mary’s. She was sure he had a family waiting for him at home, with mince pies, tea and the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg. He had children waiting for him at home. Children who would have to be cheated into going to bed early, to give Father Christmas the time to leave brightly wrapped parcels at the foot of their beds. For years, Heather had fantasised about how she would instruct her own children to leave a glass of sherry and a mince pie on the mantelpiece for the night. Children she still did not have. Jonathan kept saying they had plenty of time.
Waves of treble voices filtered through the stained glass window of King’s Chapel. Heather sat on the low wall on King’s Parade, trying to catch the errant sounds. She shuddered. The temperature was dropping and she stood up again, and walked slowly along King’s Parade, towards Corpus Christi.
“May I have the key to the chapel?” Heather asked at Corpus Christi Porter’s Lodge.
“Of course, Mrs Fleming,” said the Welsh porter. “And how is Dr Fleming? At home, is he?”
“Yes, he is doing some work. I thought I’d take a walk and sit in the college chapel for a few minutes. I’ll bring the key back.”
“You stay as long as you like. I’m off shortly, so just leave the key on the desk here. Happy Christmas. Give my best to Dr Fleming.”
“Thanks, I will. You have a good Christmas, too,” said Heather.
The college chapel was dark, except for the moonlight streaming in through the large, stained glass window. Heather refrained from turning on the lights. She did not want any passing Fellows noticing the lights from the Court and walking into the Chapel out of curiosity. Instead, she fumbled around the vestry for a couple of candles and a box of matches. She lit the candles and placed them into holders in the choir stalls. They gave sufficient light for her to see her own handwriting in the green notebook she took out of her bag. Heather could not explain even to herself why she chose to sit on the hard bench of the choir stalls. The Fellows’ seats were wider and made more comfortable by padded velvet. The candlelight threw dancing shadows over Heather’s handwritten poems. Jonathan would be wondering where she was. She would have to go home soon. Her mind wandered as she drifted into sleep...
* * *
Roderick knows he must make haste. He whisks a stack of sheet music off the oak table. His surplice is on the bed. He needs that, too. Run, run downstairs into the Court. He wonders if Kit is still sleeping. They drank much ale, last night, at the Eagle. The icy wind takes his breath away as he runs through the thick snow. A lady and a squire are standing outside the Porter’s Lodge at King’s. Roderick runs across the street and is narrowly missed by a coach. The coachman swears at him. He takes a leap to avoid the horse, slips and falls flat in the snow, his sheet music scattered around. His gown is soaked and his elbow is grazed. He gathers the sheets of thick paper from the ground. The paper is wet and the ink traced notes are leaking down the staves. The choir master will be angry. Thank Heavens, the damage is small. He can still read the alto part. He runs into the chapel and takes his place in the choir stalls, amidst laughter from the other King’s choral scholars because there is a tear in the sleeve of his gown, where he fell and grazed his elbow. He must stand so the choir master does not see it. After the carol service, he will go back to College and ask one of the buttery girls to sew it up before tomorrow. He cannot have a torn gown on Christmas morning or his father is certain to hear of it.
Adam lay ybounden
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
The flame from the candle flickers on his music, making it difficult to read. It flickers on the faces of the Provost and Fellows sitting in the wood-panelled seats. It throws dancing shadows on the face of the Dean, as he reads the first lesson. He has a kindly face. No sign of Kit anywhere in the stalls. Maybe he is late. No. Roderick knows he will not come. Kit does not like attending church. Nevertheless, he could make an exception for Roderick – his friend.
The choir master glares at him, a finger on his lips. His counter tenor voice soars too high above those of the others. He drops his voice but the verse he has just sung too loud lives on. It rises to the fan vaulting where it quivers awhile before dispelling in the cold air.
Here they are, twelve men and fourteen boys, singing carols for their supper. It is his singing at King’s that pays for Roderick’s degree in Law at Corpus Christi. The tenor next to him elbows him in the ribs and whispers in his ear. There is a smudge of blood on the sleeve of his surplice. He must have injured his elbow worse than he thought.
And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took
As clerkès finden written in their book.
It is dark in the street when he leaves King’s, and very cold. He runs back to his college, taking care not to fall again. He throws his scores on his bed, then goes to Kit’s rooms. Kit has lit a fire and is roasting an apple on a skewer with one hand, a scribbling quill in the other. As usual, he wears a doublet of the latest London fashion and not the sober academic dress expected of students. A black doublet with fiery red lining. “Writing a poem, Kit? May I read it?”
Kit continues writing without looking up but Roderick can see the beginning of a smirk. “Later, dear boy. Later. Here, roast this apple, will you? You can eat it when it is done.”
Roderick is peeved but has learned, over the past few months, not to interrupt Kit whilst he is prey to the writing Muse. Taking the skewer from Kit’s hand, he sits by the fireplace. The sudden warmth through his soaked, cold clothes makes him shudder. Kit looks up. “My dear boy, you are drenched!”
As though to second his statement, Roderick sneezes violently. Kit bounces up from his chair and proceeds to strip him of his gown and clothes down to his undergarments and hangs the wet gown and doublet over the fireplace. He washes the dried blood from his elbow. Kit is but three years his senior, yet he always treats Roderick as though he were much younger. Kit reads him his poem. Once again, he has forged music out of words. They roast more apples over the fire.
Kit asks, “And what about your poem?”
Roderick takes another bite from the apple. He wishes he could write poetry. His feeble attempts at verse are always disappointing, and he tears up the paper almost as soon as he has scribbled on it. His most recent composition is in the pocket of his doublet. He reaches for it and sees that it has been spared from water damage. Kit reads his mind and his usual impish expression gives way to a warm smile. “Go on, my friend,” he says, “read it out loud.”
Roderick feels shame for his sad lack of talent. He reads fast, for it to be over soon. Then he throws it into the fire.
“No! For God’s sake boy – you are such a fool!”
Kit leaps out of his chair and grabs the burning paper. He blows on the smoking flames that are devouring it fast. “Do not ever, ever do this again!” he shouts. “It is like burning a part of your immortal soul!”
Roderick tries to take the piece of paper from him but he keeps it away from him. “My boy,” he says, “you have the gift of poetry and it pains me to see that you do not believe me. How can I make you believe?”
Roderick’s eyes well up. He does not know if he should believe him. Kit sits by him and starts reading his poem aloud. Roderick’s words sound better when uttered by Kit’s voice. Then Kit picks up his quill and writes something at the bottom of Roderick’s poem. “Come,” he says, and leaves the room, still holding the poem. Roderick follows him into the chilly staircase. “Look,” Kit holds up the partially burnt parchment. Under the last verse, he has written Roderick’s name, then added, “These verses were saved from the fire by his friend and fellow poet” and inscribed his own signature.
Roderick wonders what folly he is about to commit. Kit proceeds to fold the paper several times until it is the size of a twig. He points at a tiny crack in the wood of the staircase bannister, right next to the wall. Carefully, he slides the poem into a cranny in the timber. Roderick asks why he is doing this, and whether he has gone mad. Kit smiles, a twinkle in his eye, and says, “One day, when you and I have been driven apart by life, you will need reminding that you have a great gift. This sheet of paper will then serve as witness. Only remember to look for it here.”
Roderick is about to jest but Kit’s face is suddenly sad. “I beg of you. If you remember nothing else, remember this.”
Roderick says nothing. He follows Kit back to his room. It is soon time for supper. They do not speak of poetry anymore. Roderick sits and stares into the fire, laughing at Kit’s jests. He laughs but his heart is heavy with a sense of foreboding. He knows – as certainly as he has a soul – that he will not write any more verses. Suddenly, he sees himself again, years later, as an old man with social responsibilities, a family he does not love and many dreams he let go of after he left Cambridge. He thinks back to his youth, to his friend Kit – the poet, the Muses’ darling. Kit was murdered, they said, in a fight over a tavern bill. He remembers that he has hidden something in the staircase outside his college room. Some joke. He cannot remember what exactly. Roderick just knows that, were Kit still alive, he would be disappointed to see what he has become. Or not become. He wishes. He wishes. But what use is it now? He is an old man. A tired man.
* * *
Heather was woken up by the violence of her sob. A dream so real. Was it a dream? Or a memory? Of course, it was a dream. A strange dream. Yet she could stop sobbing, overwhelmed by a sense of longing. Kit. Kit. How disappointed you would be if you could see me now, she found herself thinking. Words that made no sense to her mind. She was shuddering in the cold of the dark chapel. What time was it? Nearly nine. How strange that she had fallen asleep like this. Jonathan would be worrying. She blew out the candle stubs and walked out of the chapel, taking care to lock it again. Heather’s hands were shaking as she turned the key. She must stop crying. She must go home. Her husband is waiting. She must hurry.
She could not help herself. Her legs carried her into Old Court. It had started to snow and large flakes were settling on the lawn. Heather ran up the staircase with a feeling of exhilaration. There, the bannister from her dream. She scratched the paint off the woodwork with her nails. There was a hollow, there, on the side of the bannister. Wedged inside was a piece of paper, yellowed by time. A youthful poem in faded ink, and at the bottom, the familiar signature of an old friend. Kit.
‘These verses were saved from the fire by his friend and fellow poet.’
A friend who had believed in him. Believed in her. Heather breathed in the smell of the old parchment and thought she could detect the scent of roasted apples.
* * *
When Heather left home the following morning, she had packed only a small rucksack. Jonathan had offered her money to tie her over but she did not want to take anything from him. She kissed him goodbye, unlocked her bicycle and wheeled it through the snow. Every step of the way, Heather wanted to turn back, afraid of the future. But she kept walking. The sun glowed on the Cambridge snow like a promise. She took it as a sign.
Heather had not thought of where she would go or even where she would sleep that night. However, the one unwavering certainty was the poem scribbled on a piece of ancient paper, which lay folded in the pocket of her duffel coat. The bell tolled at King’s, announcing the Christmas Morning service. The choir would be singing carols. Heather locked her bicycle outside the Porter’s Lodge. She walked across the lawn, her boots crunching in the snow and stepped into King’s Chapel. She wondered if Kit could see her now.
©Katherine Gregor 2012
A few notes:
* It is customary for English Christmas pudding to be made months beforehand, to allow for the brandy to seep into the dried fruit.
* The College of King’s College, Cambridge broadcasts a ceremony of nine lessons and carols, worldwide, every Christmas Eve.
* It is customary to throw a penny into the Christmas pudding mixture, then stirring it one, anti-clockwise, for luck, and making a wish.
* High Table is the table reserved for senior members of the college, in the dining hall.