Gillian Adams had not seen Alistair Greenwood for fifteen years, yet, as it happened, she was there when he died. The day before, a warm Sunday in October, she took a train from London to Cambridge. In the afternoon, she was to have lunch at Professor Greenwood’s house.
She had not been back to Cambridge since, doctorate in hand, she had ceased to be a student. She had returned to London many times; crossing the Atlantic was a habit. But something had always held her back from this little hour’s journey on the train. Now, however, she was in London for a sabbatical year: she had no real excuse—no reason—for avoiding Cambridge, and she had been invited to give a lecture.
Gillian looked out of the window. The train from Liverpool Street was picking up speed as it left the outskirts of the city. She saw a dismal jumble of corrugated iron roofs and washing lines enclosed by a grimy brick wall. On the wall was painted a large message: WOG SLUM. The train ran on, past more walls and messages and into one of England’s least interesting landscapes.
There were few passengers, and Gillian sat alone, suspended between two worlds. Cambridge was not just a town north of London; it was its own civilization, dense, polished, enclosed. Her friend Bee had offered to meet her at the station, but Gillian had asked her not to. She wanted to come back to Cambridge by herself, to be alone with her fading recollections before they were overlaid by the fresh colours of the present. Cambridge memories ought to come in shades of grey, she thought: grey windswept skies, grey stones, grimed by the centuries, mist shrouding the fields, rain. But memory did not choose grey; her images were all green and sunlit. The pinnacles of King’s piercing the sky, golden light drenching courtyards and gardens, pale yellow hollyhocks and roses the colour of Jersey cream: these, and the emerald sweeps of lawn and meadow, were the colours of remembered Cambridge.
She mistrusted the selection process of her own mind. What was at work in the dust-laden recesses of memory, opening some boxes but leaving others undisturbed among the cobwebs? She could almost hear tissue paper crackling, as though the recollections that came to her now had been carefully packed, preserved from time’s rust and rot. They seemed to her enchanting and useless, like outworn finery.
She was not sure she wanted them any more, but they were her own: The Adams Collection. A pity that she couldn’t have the whole lot auctioned at Sotheby’s. There were plenty of people who would pay handsomely for a genuine set of Cambridge memories.
And how would it seem to her now, on this blue and gold October day? Would it be a small city in a flat green sea of fields: simply a piece of reality—changing, untidy, connected to the ordinary? Or would it be still separate and cocooned, a lingering dream? She felt reluctant and apprehensive, knowing that to return was to court a sense of loss.
The journey between one world and another is not necessarily a long one. The train slid past an unrewarding view of the university press buildings and pulled into the silent station. On Sunday morning, still quite early, nobody was about. Suddenly eager, she stepped on to the platform and walked through the station past the usual chalked notice of cancelled trains and out of the opposite door. She stood under an enormous sky, brushed here and there with attenuated, feathery clouds. Cambridge lay before her.
‘Grantchester Meadows, please,’ Gillian said to the taxi-driver. ‘Number 51A.’
It took only a few minutes to drive through the southern edge of Cambridge to Bee’s house in Newnham. Gillian peered out of the windows, looking for signs of change and seeing none. Doubtless they were there, but they were not of the dramatic sort she would notice. Station Road, Hills Road, Bateman Street, the Trumpington Road, and then across Coe Fen past a glimpse of the towers and gables of her own college rising up beyond a fringe of trees, and on to Grantchester Meadows, the little street that ran closest to the river in the south-western corner of Cambridge. This quarter of the city was called Newnham, and its outer edge, lying between the Barton Road and the Cam, was a pleasant neighbourhood, she remembered; dons lived there in large houses with pretty gardens. But its quiet streets did not mean much to her, although they lay just south of her college; they were part of the carapace that surrounded the centre where her memories lay.
She paid the driver, got out, and stood for a moment in front of Bee’s house. It was not large, and the space in front of it could hardly be called a garden. It was a terrace house on the inner, not the river, side of the street; built of red brick, with two bay windows vertically stacked, it had a squat, cramped look. The white paint on the door-frame was blistered and peeling. She rang the bell and waited. Above the door, a semicircular pane of glass was veiled by a dispirited spiderweb, but the spider had decamped, leaving behind only the translucent exoskeletons of old victims.
Beatrix Hamilton opened the door, drink in hand. ‘Hullo, Gillian. You’ve come just in time.’
Gillian stepped into the dim interior and barked her shin on a box of ill-assorted domestic items. ‘Hullo, Bee. Just in time for what?’
‘For the third act,’ said Bee, slamming the door. ‘I’m leaving the doll’s house.’
Gillian could think of nothing to say; conventional regrets and brittle wit seemed equally inappropriate.
‘But don’t think you’ll be in the way. After all, it’s not the end of an era, it’s just another divorce. And we need a demilitarized zone.’
‘How’s Toby?’ Gillian asked, as it passed through her mind that Bee’s house was unlikely to prove a comfortable retreat from the rest of Cambridge.
‘When he gets over the irritation induced by any disturbance of his routine, he’ll be relieved.’
‘Fed up. Leave your suitcase by the stairs and come into the kitchen. Toby’s gone off. In every sense. What do you want? Coffee? I don’t suppose you want whisky; it isn’t usually what I want on Sunday morning.’ She led the way down the dark corridor to the kitchen. ‘By the way, Herr Professor Alistair Greenwood expects us at one.’
It was just after ten o’clock. ‘Coffee, please,’ said Gillian. ‘If it’s a typical Sunday lunch, there will be oceans of drink. I don’t want to disgrace myself in Greenwood’s herbaceous borders.’
‘How do you know he’s got any?’
‘He’s bound to. Whoever heard of an English gentleman without a garden? I didn’t know you were coming to lunch— I’m glad. Is Toby coming too?’
Bee was filling the kettle. The small kitchen was brighter than the corridor, but it had a stale, disused air. Dirty coffee cups and a variety of glasses crowded the counter next to the sink, and a jumble of empty milk bottles stood by the back door, but nothing in the room invited one to think of food, except perhaps the presence of a refrigerator. Gillian guessed that there would be ice in it, and something horrible and mouldy in the vegetable drawer. A table occupied one corner of the room; on it rested a cardboard box containing stacks of computer paper and a coffee-pot.
Bee found the coffee and retrieved the pot. ‘Yes, we’re both coming. A gesture of courtesy, I surmise, since we’re putting you up. A fringe academic like me would never be invited, otherwise.’ She glanced up from her search for the coffee filters, and her look was almost hostile. ‘I may add, we’re being terribly civilized about the divorce. No shouting, no smashed glass. Just a little knife play in the dark.’
The kettle reached a spitting boil and a scalding burst of steam pushed up the lid. ‘Why has Alistair Greenwood invited me to lunch?’ Gillian inquired.
‘Noblesse oblige, my dear. Professor Greenwood is a public monument, and the public must be allowed in sometimes. Well, not the public public, but interested scholars.’
‘How terribly flattering.’
‘Indeed. But one goes. You wouldn’t turn down an audience with the Pope, would you?’
‘Not if I were promised a good lunch.’
Bee smiled a little. ‘You’ll certainly have that. But I shouldn’t count on enjoying it.’
‘I’m not. I’ll probably be too nervous.’
Having at last assembled everything necessary to produce a potful of coffee, Bee dumped some hot water into the filter, rinsed two cups and set them on a battered tray decorated with a series of Victorian views of Cambridge. ‘Or too angry. By the time you finish your third glass you’ll want to bludgeon him with his own Burgundy bottle.’
‘An alluring prospect. Why will I?’
‘Most people do. Or so I hear, not ever having had the privilege of his august company. He’s an arrogant bastard, as you must know. But maybe you’ll like him. You always had a weakness for the silver tongue, as I recall.’ She looked vaguely about. ‘I’m sorry. There aren’t any biscuits.’
‘Never mind. I don’t want any.’
‘Good. I must pull myself together and do some shopping one of these days. Toby’s been dining in college, and I’ve hardly been eating at all. He’s moving into rooms there, and we’ll rent the house.’
‘Where will you live then?’
‘Some grotty little pigeonhole further out. That’s all I’ll be able to afford. University drudges are notoriously underpaid.’
‘What are you doing nowadays?’
Bee picked up the tray. ‘The same old thing. Supervisions. I have about ten students. I see each of them for about an hour a week, or sometimes two, and they bring me their essays on El Cid and other monuments of Spanish lit. I keep my hand in. Somehow it’s easier to go on with research if one has a formal connection to university life—even such a minor one. And it’s necessary to earn one’s keep.’ She marched down the corridor in front of Gillian. Now that her eyes were more accustomed to the gloom, Gillian noticed that the corridor was made darker and narrower by bookshelves all along one side. At the far end, next to the front door, was the sitting-room. This too was rather dark, although it faced south.
Frayed curtains were partly drawn across the bay window. The room was cold, untouched by the bright October morning, and smelled strongly of the books which lined three of the walls from floor to ceiling. It was a damp, papery, mouldering smell, not unpleasant, but impossible to ignore. The chill pressed upon them like the wintry air in a disused chapel, and Gillian had a sense of being entombed among the books as she envisaged the slow spread of brown spots through their leaves, the dust settling untouched on their spines.
‘Will your pigeonhole have a library?’
‘You may well ask. I don’t know what I’ll do with all these. I never look at them now, but I can’t bear to part with them, or even to put them away. And I haven’t even acquired very many in the last few years.’ Bee put down the tray and sat with an air of exhaustion.
In the room were two immense and hideous armchairs, a moth-eaten Victorian sofa, a heavy old oak desk, a gilt clock, unwound, and a Georgian tilt-top table badly in need of polish. A threadbare Turkey carpet covered some of the floor. Bee got up and pushed back the curtains, and more light came in. The carpet, in shades of blue, glowed feebly back at the sky.
Gillian stepped over a paint flake as big as a butter plate. She looked up. Over her head drooped an enormous curl of thick paint. It sagged away from the ceiling, and where the paint had detached itself, cracked, stained plaster could be seen. Gillian sat down, shifting her chair away from the curl. It looked stable enough, even eternal. But there was a film of dust on the table, and the cold air was very still. Perhaps the loose paint, like the drawings at Lascaux, would be unable to withstand the acidic heat of humanity pressing into the room and would disintegrate as they sat there.
Bee passed Gillian a cup of coffee. ‘So you’ve come back to Cambridge at last,’ she said abruptly. ‘How does it feel?’
‘I don’t know yet. I just got here. Edgy, I guess.’
‘It won’t be strange and new. It hasn’t changed.’
‘Oh, come on. Of course it has—women in men’s colleges, no gowns—’
Bee shrugged. ‘It doesn’t feel different to me. Yes, there are women students. But the gentlemen up there in the stratosphere hardly take any notice. They don’t need to. Cambridge is still elitist, closed, run by a bunch of old men living in some other century—like your friend Greenwood. And there may be female students in large numbers, but female fellows are about as common as female bishops. It’s a men’s club still.’
Gillian regarded her friend thoughtfully. It was many years since they had lived in Newnham College. Then, the bond between them had been, like the friendships of boarding-school, a compound of humour, domestic intimacy and common hardships, and it had seemed unbreakable. They had met each other at intervals after Gillian left Cambridge, and, relying only a little on the schoolgirl existence they had once shared, had easily found themselves again at no great distance from where they had left off. But now it had been three years since their last meeting, and a barrier stood between them. An astringent directness in Bee, which had once brought them together, had changed quality, had shrivelled and hardened. Life had been a burden of disappointments— how many was not yet clear—and her anger had become indiscriminate. Gillian smelled disaster in the air and was assailed by the conviction that it would have been wiser not to come to Cambridge at all. She searched for something to say. ‘You should visit North America, Bee. Spend some time at a few non-elitist universities like mine. You would think more kindly of Cambridge.’
‘I don’t want to think more kindly of Cambridge. I’ll leave that to you.’
Gillian drank her lukewarm coffee. ‘I don’t know what I think of it. It’s been too long, and there’s something unreal about it—either in my mind or in the place itself.’
‘In both. In both. That’s where the snare lies. You tell me what you think when you’ve been here for a few days.’
Gillian put down her cup. ‘ Why don’t you leave Cambridge, then?’ she asked directly.
‘That’s like asking a woman why she doesn’t leave her husband.’
‘But you are leaving your husband.’
‘Believe me, it’s easier.’ Bee laughed without mirth. ‘Listen. Being in Cambridge has been, for me, the definition of a life. Marriage could never be that. And as for Toby, he’s hardly the man I did marry. His little academic talent has dried up on him, and he’s taken refuge in all the pompous old rituals of exclusion that survive in his benighted institution. We don’t see anything the same way any more. You’re not married, I suppose?’
‘No.’ But she hadn’t ruled it out. She thought of Edward, whom she hadn’t seen in four days.
‘Do you mind being alone?’
‘No. I quite like it most of the time. And I haven’t taken a vow of chastity.’ She was finding the conversation difficult; their withered intimacy cast a shadow of expectation between them, each question, each answer, was exposed and bare, a rock upon which nothing grew.
‘Are you seeing someone in London, then?’
‘Yes.’ Gillian made an effort. ‘Edward Gisborne. He’s a Scotland Yard detective.’
‘I’m not. He’s probably pursuing some miscreant through the sewers right now. He catches murderers, among other things.’
‘Really? How convenient. We’ll ring him up after Greenwood’s lunch then, when we’ll need him.’ They both laughed. For a moment, Gillian glimpsed the old, acerbic but friendly Bee.
‘What’s he like?’ Bee asked.
‘Wonderful,’ replied Gillian shortly. ‘But perhaps impossible.’ Bee offered her the smile of a comrade in arms. ‘I know the feeling.’
Then the door opened, and Toby Fox came in. Bee stiffened, and the light died out of her eyes.
Toby was breezy. ‘Hullo, Gillian. Long time and all that.
How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks. And you?’
Toby was a physicist, but she had forgotten what sort. He was short and slight and attractive in a consumptive, poetical style accentuated by an intentional raffishness of dress and manner. His skin was pale, but his hair and eyes were dark, and his thick, straight eyebrows gave his face a serious look. His movements were quick, as was his speech, which ran with glittering opacity over rough surfaces like rapids in a stream. She had noted that years earlier, when she had first met him; it was a verbal style one encountered frequently in Cambridge. His clothes hadn’t altered either: he was wearing battered brown trousers and a grey cardigan that was out at the elbows. In Gillian’s view, this sartorial approach was somewhat depressing, but it was a distinct improvement over that of the American scientist, who tended to favour drip-dry shirts with plastic pen holders in the breast pocket, and, with mysterious frequency, trousers that were too short.
He reached two fingers into a pocket and twitched out a flattened cigarette and some matches. Lighting up absently, he dropped into a chair and answered Gillian without a glance at Bee. ‘Oh, splendid. I’m about to join the jolly company of bachelors—rooms in college, wine, women, brilliant intellectual repartee every night. I’m an enviable fellow, wouldn’t you say?’ ‘Would you rather be in a bed-sit off Mill Road?’ Bee inquired acidly.
Toby ignored this. ‘So, charming and successful Gillian, what are you doing on this crumbling isle?’ Gillian looked covertly at Bee, whose face was closed like a coffin. The word successful had had a sting in it. Toby went on: ‘After all, I was born here, you’ve got no such excuse. You, the historian of our halcyon days, why do you come poking around in the ruins? I should have thought we’d entered the province of the archaeologists by now. There’s plenty for them to do, excavating past glories, while we sit like old men remembering the conquests of youth.’
‘Historians no longer walk alone, Toby. We couple with archaeologists and all sorts of strange bedfellows. Besides, I have a taste for decay.’
‘So do the English. But then we’ve had to develop a taste for it. We haven’t got anything else left.’
‘The predilection was there anyway. Think of the English notion of a formal occasion: dinner jackets that have turned green with age and wine that has turned brown.’
‘Rather that than pink dinner jackets and Coca-Cola.’
‘It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different. I am glad to say that I have never seen a pink dinner jacket.’
‘No, I suppose not. America simply can’t be as awful as we wish it were.’
‘No,’ Gillian replied equably, ‘it’s not. But the northwest, in particular, does create an appreciation of the subtle virtues of decline. Everything there is so new. It feels flimsy and one-dimensional—makes one long for the rich odour of decay.’
‘You’ve come to the right place, then. Decay we can provide in abundance. Any flavour you fancy.’ Toby stubbed out his cigarette.
‘What about Cambridge?’ Gillian asked. ‘It must be relatively untouched.’
‘Untouched. Yes—that’s exactly the problem,’ said Bee.
Toby cut in. ‘Do save it, Bee, until you two are alone. I simply can’t face “Women in Cambridge” again. Especially on Sunday morning.’ Bee raised her eyebrows at Gillian as if to say, ‘See?’ Toby went on talking. ‘Of course we don’t feel the pinch to the same extent as many other places, but it’s unquestionably there, especially in the poorer colleges. We find ourselves obliged to make unpalatable choices. We can’t hire additional fellows as we’d like to; my college needs another lawyer, for example. We have to find £100,000 to repair the organ, and the chapel needs a new roof, which will doubtless cost the same again. All the stonework wants cleaning. The list is endless. Until you’ve seen the Bursar’s reports, you simply cannot imagine how expensive the upkeep of these old college buildings is. And there are other problems.’
‘Why, yes,’ Bee remarked. ‘Times are hard. You were complaining just the other day that the wine at dinner was only a Rhône. Where are the Beaunes of yesteryear?’
‘Precisely, my dear,’ Toby drawled. ‘We really must find a benefactor to endow the cellar, or God knows what we’ll be drinking in twenty years’ time.’
‘So are the colleges doing a lot of fund-raising these days?’ Gillian asked.
‘I’m afraid we have to. But at least we don’t yet select our Masters on the basis of their skill with the begging bowl, as I understand American universities do now.’
‘Perhaps not. But you wouldn’t turn down a great big vulgar American donation, would you?’ snapped Gillian, her irritation getting the better of her.
‘Of course not. The bigger and more vulgar, the better.’ He turned the subject. ‘What about London, Gillian? You lived there in the Sixties, didn’t you? Don’t you find it different now?’
‘That’s hard to say. I probably had a different perspective on it then. And one’s soundings are so parochial, you know. A single well-remembered building is torn down and one is instantly certain that the whole city is being destroyed. But I suppose London feels more extreme these days—both the richness and the poverty are more conspicuous. It reminds me of New York, where everyone talks constantly about the problems, and how expensive it is, and the deterioration of everything…and yet life keeps going on all around at a fantastic pace, fecundity defying the mourners. I think London is a marvellous city.’
Toby was tenderly straightening a squashed cigarette. ‘Mm. Well, London will always look better from the vantage-point of an American salary.’
‘Don’t complain,’ said Bee. ‘At least you have a real salary.
You’re not underemployed, like me.’
‘You can thank Mrs. Thatcher’s education cuts for that.’ ‘Nonsense. Thatcher hardly ripples the surface here.
Cambridge is the reason. Cambridge—as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever bloody well shall be, so far as I can see.’ Bee glared at them both.
‘Amen,’ responded Toby. ‘What else should it be, my dear? And what’s more, I hope that it remains sufficiently cushioned to be unrepentantly elitist in its choice of faculty and students. You can’t have a good university without a restrictive admissions policy. They’ve tried that in America. That’s the trouble with America: they try everything. Everyone, with the exception of those children of the left who never grow up, recognizes that any country—every organization of human beings—needs an elite to run it properly. This place is a factory which produces that kind of elite. If you destroy it, dilute its quality, the world will be the poorer. And what will you gain? Another Salford. The world has no need of more Salfords. If you believe that the intellect produces anything of value, then you have to believe in Cambridge: you must support the existence of places which give the best intellects the best opportunities. You must ensure that they prosper.’
‘I’m not arguing about the existence of Cambridge. I’m objecting to its prejudices. I don’t believe women should be excluded.’
‘Hardly anybody does.’
‘Oh, really? I’d say it’s one of the commonest beliefs in Cambridge. It’s just less acceptable to say it out loud now.’
‘That’s something, anyway,’ Gillian put in.
Toby sighed. ‘Oh, very well, ladies, “ Women in Cambridge” it is. But really there’s no need. Only three men’s colleges are left, and there’s a pitched battle being fought behind the walls at Pembroke.’
‘Is that so?’ inquired Gillian with interest. ‘Anyone dead yet?’ ‘All of ‘em,’ said Bee, sotto voce.
Toby laughed tolerantly. ‘I’m sure some of them hope to be before six centuries of scholarly monasticism are tossed into the dustbin. And why shouldn’t a couple of men’s colleges remain? There are two women’s colleges. Besides, something like thirty-five per cent of the undergraduates are women now. That looks irreproachably egalitarian to me. More qualified female candidates can’t be found at the moment. It would be mistaken from every point of view—including yours—to lower the entrance standards in order to admit more women. For that matter, the same goes for students from comprehensives. The best we can do is admit as many as we can who are able to meet our requirements. Otherwise we’ll be cheating them—and ourselves.’
‘Save the speeches,’ Bee said tiredly. ‘Women students aren’t the front line this decade. What about women on the faculty? What about fellows? Lecturers? Where are they?’
‘I can see the dust of their marching feet on the horizon, my dear. Doubtless the place will be overrun with intellectual amazons at about the same time the wine runs out.’
‘Oh, what’s the point?’ Bee muttered.
‘My sentiments precisely. I shall retreat and leave the field of honour to you.’ He got up and moved towards the door.
Bee put down her half-empty cup. ‘I’ll go and change.’ ‘Into Dr. Jekyll, I hope,’ said Toby, firing a Parthian shot from the hall. Bee got up and brushed past him without deigning to reply. Gillian sat dolefully in her chair, while Toby hovered in the hall near the door, fiddling with a match. It would not light. ‘Damn!’ he said fretfully, trying another. It sputtered, flared and went out. ‘I’ll have to find some more.
I don’t know why I bother to smoke these things; they’re so healthy they taste of nothing. I’d better dress, I suppose.’ He gazed about, as if expecting a set of clothes to materialize. Then he wandered off, tossing a final remark over his shoulder. ‘You must be looking forward to your lecture tomorrow, Gillian: your chance to enter the arena fully armed.’
Alone in the chilly room, Gillian thought to herself that he couldn’t always have been so poisonous, or presumably Bee would never have married him. What had done it? Was it just the soured marriage? She sat still, listening for the sound of mould growing. A flat film of smoke drifted and swirled slowly in the light from the window. Then a faint creak above her head made her look up at the curl of paint, which was swaying ever so slightly and seemed to droop a little more. Gathering up the cold cups, she carried them down the dark corridor to the kitchen and went hesitantly upstairs to find her room.