The sudden thunder of boots on the steel treads of the library stairs announced the end of the hour. Gillian closed her volume of Hansard and drew a deep breath. A passing student stirred a sluggish current of air, leaving a few molecules of locker-room to find their way to Gillian’s nose.
‘A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.’ Thus Disraeli, demolishing the Irish University Bill in 1873. As she checked her quotations, she marvelled once more that the Bill had reached second reading: imagine proposing a university at which philosophy and modern history would be forbidden subjects! It was a weird tribute to Gladstone’s eloquence that the Bill had been debated at all. She gathered up her notes and threaded her way through the narrow aisles to the nearest stairway. No longer at liberty to learn, or, more precisely, to hunt down op. cit. and loc. cit. in these bygone forests, she went in search of light.
It was a glorious afternoon. Emerging from the gloomy deeps of the library stacks, Gillian blinked at the blue sky and the long shafts of September sunlight. Virginia creeper flamed against the library’s granite walls, and the lawn was deep green under the golden leaves of the chestnut trees. She meant to return to the history department office, where there were the usual pressing matters requiring her attention, but half way there she abruptly changed direction.
The Green, a dismal bog in the winter months, was dry and springy underfoot. Brown-limbed students lay here and there, leaning on their elbows, pretending to read; a shoal of cyclists drifted silently along the edge, flashing tropical colours against the grey stone of the old arts building. Gillian crossed the lawn and made her way around the building, now inhabited by a wing of the administration. She crossed Bluff Road, the main artery linking the east and west gates. A broad strip of lawn and luxuriant clumps of rhododendrons lay between the road and the bluffs. Behind the building, interrupting the flow of green, was a neat little rose-garden. To her surprise, there was no one in it. The stone benches, warmed by the sun, were empty, and the late blooms offered up their sweetness for her solitary pleasure. The garden sloped gently to the south, and a few roses blossomed throughout the autumn. Now it was Indian summer, the most beautiful time of the year. Soon it would be over, and the rains would come. She sat down on one of the benches and gazed dreamily into the distance. The flat, green river delta, a patchwork of fields and pastures retreating before an onslaught of sub-divisions, spread out from the foot of the steep scarp that formed the south-western boundary of the university grounds. The river’s northern arm was a glittering ribbon. Beyond it, to the west, the wide blue water ran away to the edge of sight, to blue-green layers of islands and the misty peaks of the Olympic Peninsula. And beyond that, beyond sight, was the blue yonder—nothing but ocean and sky all the way to Japan.
Gillian gave herself up to the luxury of doing nothing. The first flurry of the fall term was past. The new students had lost their bewildered look, the timetables had settled down, the initial epidemic of meetings seemed to be abating. She had had two solid hours in the library today—not bad for a head of department in the last week of September. She cherished hopes of finishing her paper on Disraeli for the conference in London next month. What a pity that she would only have a week there. By the time she had recovered from the eight-hour time change, she’d be on her way back. She hadn’t seen Edward since July, and after the conference she wouldn’t see him again until the end of spring term. A ridiculous life, but they were apparently stuck with it. If they had met when they were younger…but now there was too much at stake. She wouldn’t care to give up her job, her friends, her house and garden for a cramped flat and a man who was never home.
‘Policemen don’t work nine to five,’ was his refrain when she commented on his hours. Neither do academics who publish as well as teach, she thought, but when we take time off, it’s off. We don’t vanish on two minutes’ notice in the middle of a holiday because ‘something’s come up’. And it was quite impossible to imagine Edward living anywhere but London. ‘Rotting out there under the rhododendrons’ was his picture of life on the west coast. Well, it wasn’t hers. Earth has not anything to show more fair…Wordsworth had said that about London, but today she found it apt to the prospect before her.
She kicked her shoes off and swung her stockinged feet in the sun. The heat seeped through the navy linen folds of her skirt. Tucking a stray wisp of her short hair behind her ear, she felt a slight beading of sweat at her temple. It was a wonderful luxury, to be too hot in late September. She tilted her face to the sun and closed her eyes. Her palms pressed on the warm, gritty stone. The texture was pleasant, the solidity soon noticeable to her spare frame. She shifted her weight and looked at the pink stippling of the skin and then turned her hands over. Her only ring, a smallish square-cut emerald set in a plain gold band, flashed green fire. It had been her great-grandmother’s, and her grandmother’s, and her mother’s. It was hers now; her mother’s hands had grown thin with old age, and she had given the ring to Gillian during their last visit. It fitted perfectly; Gillian had inherited her mother’s hands as well as her long bones and dark cloud of hair. The network of fine lines engraved on her skin showed clearly in the bright afternoon light. It was a sight that at times depressed her, a sign of age and the body’s decay, but now it struck her as appropriate: she was used to seeing the ring on a hand weathered by life, not on a girl’s smooth finger.
A jet took off from the airport a few miles away. It droned loudly overhead and then faded eastward. Gillian’s thoughts ceased to wander and focused on the variety of noises that penetrated her sanctuary. A nearby car roared over a basso continuo of distant traffic. Something—a ventilator?—hummed loudly on the roof of the administration building. Voices faded in and out again. If you shut off these sounds, she supposed, you would only uncover layers of noise that were now masked. The city was never quiet. In fact, it seemed noisier than ever nowadays, with car alarms whooping in the dead of night every time a cat jumped…Not to mention the plague of boom cars thumping and whining through the streets. Even in the inactive hours before dawn you heard screeching sirens and the distant rumble of trains, and the peculiar shuddering noise of the fridge. There was somebody shouting now. In fact, a lot of people shouting. Let them shout. She fixed her eyes on the view. Perhaps she would leave early this afternoon and read that article in Past and Present. It would be pleasant to sit in her study at home, with the last of the afternoon sun coming in. She thought the shouting was growing louder. It was louder. Whatever it was was coming closer. Damn it all, why must people shatter a perfect hour with that infernal howling?
She stood up and made her way back to the garden entrance and along the side of the building. A wide walkway ran past the front steps. The road, empty of cars now, swept by the administration building and angled away to connect to the road from the main gate. The gate was rustic but imposing: two tall columns of yellow cedar surmounted by a lintel, stripped bare and left to weather. Beneath this allusion to the mighty forests of the coast (and the mighty forest industry) was a spectacle.
‘Oh Lord,’ Gillian muttered. She’d forgotten that today was Triumph Day.
A parade of soap-boxes rumbled slowly towards her. A mob of red-jacketed young men, shouting boisterously, seethed about the vehicles, flooding the road and the grass verges. Rolls of toilet paper rocketed upward from the throng, unwinding as they descended. The trees were festooned with the pale streamers.
A crowd of students had gathered at the gate to watch the procession, and more were coming across the lawn. Spectators craned out of the open windows of the administration building. Close by, a large young man with a videocamera on his shoulder was walking backwards parallel to the line of vehicles.
‘Gillian Adams?’ asked a voice at her shoulder. She turned and saw a vaguely familiar face, a tall, tanned man with thick blond hair and spectacles. He was…he was Ham Ridgeway’s old college room-mate, who was doing some research here during the fall term. Economic history, Ham had said. What was his name? Rasmussen, something Rasmussen.
‘…er, hello, Dr Rasmussen.’
‘Dick. What’s going on?’
‘Triumph Day, I’m sorry to say. The engineering students’ annual frolic.’
He inspected the approaching swarm. ‘What’s the matter with it?’ ‘Among other things, it’s always been a nasty display of sexism,’ said Gillian.
‘Really?’ He looked amused. ‘But I detect the Medusa stare of feminist disapproval. Haven’t you turned them to stone?’
A cardboard cylinder sailed past their heads.
‘Obviously not. Actually, I don’t know what they’ll do this year. Nobody does.’
‘Why Triumph Day? Have they won a race?’
‘No. They race each other in those chariots, and the winner then rides his at the end of the parade. The parade is their tradition—like a Roman triumph, the Romans being such great engineers, you see. They ride under the arch and all round the campus, and the mob follows them, hurling obscenities and toilet paper. They’ve been doing this for decades, and warding off all protests with the sacred word “tradition”.’
The lead chariot was abreast of the building now, closely followed by several others. Far more sophisticated than the soap- boxes Gillian remembered from her childhood, they were wildly and absurdly various, cobbled together from bathtubs, kayaks, car parts, electric fans, tricycle wheels, and domestic detritus of every kind. They were loud and gaudy and improbable. The students clustering along the parade route stared and laughed and kept well clear of the road, where a squall of toilet paper and beer was raging.
The crowd was a lot smaller than it had been in the past, but in the past there had been considerable advance publicity for the event. This year there had been none. Most of the audience was male, Gillian noticed, but there were women in the crowd, too. She tried to read the expressions of the faces nearest to her. There were people laughing raucously, but nobody was relaxed. Tension was strung along the road like telephone wire. Heads turned to look towards the gate, as if waiting for something to happen. A few young women looked scornful. Others were giggling—new students, maybe, who didn’t know what came next…or denied the implications.
‘It’s a tad anachronistic,’ Dick observed, ‘at least to a stranger.’ ‘Most natives think so too.’
‘Then why does it go on?’
‘Just because it always has,’ Gillian said impatiently. ‘Besides, applied science is the richest faculty on campus. Bob Frost—the Dean of Engineering—knows how to get money. He has a lot of pull, and he’s a fan of “the tradition”. And it’s a display of his power, in a way, since so many efforts have been made to stop it. He and the president and a couple of the heavy-duty governors are buddies. We—the faculty, I mean—don’t have a vote on the issue. Like many other things, it’s in the hands of the administration.’
The man with the video-camera panned across the confusion, then he sped away to the main gate, where a huddle of darker figures moved suddenly into a gap in the scarlet-hued parade and spread out. Forgetting Dick, Gillian moved towards it, skirting the leading edge of the crowd, which was making too much noise to notice what was happening further back. Now she could see. A line of pickets had blocked the entrance to the university: they were women. Maybe a dozen or fifteen of them. They had linked arms across the road. Some of the engineers who had passed through were turning back, screaming at the picketers. More surged forward from beyond the gate, and a scuffle broke out as one or two tried to force their way through the line. On the other side was the tail of the parade: a sort of wagon, pulled by students, and last of all, the winning chariot, obscured by the crowd except for the flag of triumph that fluttered over their heads.
Gillian hurried towards the gate, but before she could reach it, a red wave engulfed the line of women. A din of angry voices rose. Through its unintelligible roar, Gillian heard women chanting in unison: ‘No Go! No Go!’ And contrapuntal male yells: ‘Break the line! Break the line!’ And then one voice braying above the rest:
‘Shoot the bitches!’
She craned around the heads in front of her but could barely see what was happening. She glimpsed the line as it swayed and broke. Then the protesters were shoved roughly off the road, and the engineers pushed the wagon through. There were three women in it, huddled nervously together, clutching the wagon’s sides for support. They wore heavy make-up and harem pants; gold tassels dangled from their breasts, and gold bangles glittered up and down their arms. They were chained to the wagon by wrist and ankle.
‘Who are they?’ Dick asked in astonished tones. ‘They’re not students, surely?’
‘Those are the captives,’ Gillian replied. ‘The so-called “slave women”. I believe that in Rome they walked in the dust, but that’s neither here nor there. No, they’re not students. I’m told the engineers hire them.’
‘Oh, hookers,’ Dick said, relieved.
Gillian scowled, but his eyes were on the women and the milling crowd. ‘They rode along stark naked a few years ago. That’s been stopped, at least. The other prisoners—the ones pulling the wagon—are students,’ she added. ‘They’re captured in the dorms.’
Six young men, roped together and lacking the red jackets sported by the engineers, jerked the wagon along the road, as the engineers gave it a hard shove from behind. Dark patches of sweat blotched their T-shirts, and their faces were crimson with effort or perhaps embarrassment. They moved on. The winning chariot, trailing clouds of toilet paper, rolled through the gate and down the road, the red flag, emblazoned with a large E, fluttering behind. A rearguard of engineers straggled after the flag, turning to jeer at the dishevelled picketers. Ahead of them, the women in the wagon had recovered their poise. They waved at the camera like homecoming queens.
Gillian turned back towards the gate, a little stunned. The drama was over; it had only taken a couple of minutes. The parade marched on. Probably the students on the far side of the Green— gathering now to watch the parade cross the campus to the Applied Science Complex—didn’t even know what had happened. She glanced at the faces around her, where a volatile mix of excitement, anger and fear was vividly registered. A few students had rushed towards the mêlée, but most had shrunk back, separating themselves from the engineers and the women alike.
Gillian walked towards the scattered picketers regrouping on the grass. The women had been shouldered to the edge of the crowd, and several had been thrown bodily on to the kerb. Most were on their feet already, feeling for bruises.
‘I didn’t think they’d be so brutal in front of the camera,’ one said, rubbing a bruised elbow.
‘They weren’t brutal, by their standards,’ another retorted, tucking in her shirt. ‘They broke the line and pushed us and called us whores and dykes, but they didn’t beat us up.’
‘Someone punched Linda.’
A few feet away, a dark-haired protester was hunched over, clutching her chest and groaning. Another crouched beside her.
‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ she kept asking. Gillian bent down. ‘Do you want a doctor?’
The hunched woman shook her head without looking up. Her friend encircled her with a protective arm. ‘Assholes!’ she shouted after the departing parade.