The lovely thing about this book is that it doesn’t tell you which of the two poets wrote which poems.
The bird tile is by Mike Levy.
The lovely thing about this book is that it doesn’t tell you which of the two poets wrote which poems.
The bird tile is by Mike Levy.
In a spirit of ‘all’s well that ends well’, I present this alternative view of the beginning of the Summer section.
Peter opened his eyes. Sunlight, creeping down the hall and through his open door. He reached out a hand for the clock on his bedside table, and connected instead with something soft. It was a crumpled polo shirt. Ah, yes. He had not undressed neatly. What had he slept in? Pants. Logical enough.
He drew the polo shirt towards him, sending a glass of water tumbling to the floor. Peter cursed. It spilt but did not break. Leaving it to soak into the carpet for the moment, he shook the shirt experimentally; the clock rolled out. He squinted at it. Eight fifteen. Ridiculous. By rights, he should sleep for another three hours and wake with one hell of a hangover. Not that he was complaining about that last one. Fine. He would go back to sleep. He rolled over and hugged the pillow to him.
But he was feeling remarkably alert, and the awareness of that spilt water tugged at him until he got up and put a towel down over the puddle. Then, of course, the glass had to go back to the kitchen. He shrugged his dressing gown on and went upstairs.
Colette was in the kitchen, drinking her horrible weak tea. She raised her mug to him in salute. ‘How was the Theology binge?’
‘Good, thanks, yes,’ Peter said. ‘How are you?’
She twisted her mouth into a nervous grimace. ‘It’s results day.’
‘For you, maybe.’ He smiled, thinking of his solid 2:1. ‘Are you going up to campus soon, then?’
‘When I’ve had some breakfast.’
‘Do you mind if I come up with you?’ he asked on impulse. ‘I could do with a walk and a look at the Grand Union Stores, before I leave this place forever.’
She regarded him for a fraction of a second too long. He stopped a sigh. Would she ever trust him? But she said, ‘Of course; why not?’
Why not indeed? Peter said: ‘OK, I’ll go and get dressed.’
They went to the Chemistry floor of the Science block first. Peter had never been further inside than the foyer in all his three years at Stancester; today the great glazed atrium was like a greenhouse. Colette led him across the hall, up a flight of stairs, over a bridge and along a corridor. At last she came to a halt opposite a small gaggle of excited first-years. ‘Here.’
She slid past the group and scanned a list headed ‘SECOND YEAR’. Peter also looked, but could make nothing of it: the marks were listed next to the students’ identity numbers, with no names mentioned.
‘Ah,’ Colette said grimly.
Peter followed her finger with his eyes. ‘Fifty-one. That’s OK; it’s a 2:2.’ He knew his voice lacked conviction.
‘Could do better,’ Colette said.
It was true; they both knew it. Peter said, ‘You’ve had a hell of a year.’
She nodded. She was on the verge of tears. The first years moved off, chattering happily; presumably they had all attained the forty per cent mark necessary to progress. In second year marks counted.
She was looking at the board more closely. ‘I didn’t actually fail,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure that it was possible to fail the whole year on one set of exams. I just didn’t do as well as I should have done.’
He had hoped never to see her look so bleak again. Her head was tipped forward; her shoulders drooped. She was wilting in the heat and disappointment. He risked putting a hand on her shoulder. She sagged under the weight of it.
‘Do you want to go home?’ he asked. ‘Or to the pub, or something?’
She shook her head. ‘Even the Venue won’t be open yet. And I can’t go home.’
‘Why on earth not?’
‘It’s kicking-out day for halls. Which means it’s moving-in day for Lydia. Her parents are coming down to drive all the stuff over to our place from Wycombe, and then take her home. I can’t be there when they arrive. We agreed on that last -‘ She sniffed and let the sentence trail off.
‘They surely won’t be here this early?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘Would it be worth giving her a ring, to see if they are? And, if not, you could go over to Wycombe now and say goodbye before they get here.’ Inspiration struck. ‘And then -‘
‘We could go to the beach.’
Colette’s mood lifted as the train drew out of Stancester and pelted south and west into Devon. She felt happier still when they left the express at Exeter. A soft breeze floated through the station as they waited for the branch line train that would take them down along the Exe estuary to the coast. Perhaps, Colette thought as she wandered up and down the platform, she had just needed to get out of Stancester, away from the expectations and the pressure and the dead heat.
The Exmouth train was short, only two carriages, and warm and lazy. She leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes for a moment or two, trying to fix Lydia’s image in her mind, those dark eyes concerned and loving and anxious; that tawny hair dishevelled in the bustle of last-minute packing, with a cobweb caught in it from goodness knew where. She tried not to think about how Lydia had jumped at every footstep in the corridor, every little whistle or chirrup from her mobile phone, tried to remember instead the exact sensation of having her in her arms. She sighed, noiselessly. Eight weeks!
Sitting up and opening her eyes, she looked sideways at Peter, who was frowning at the Church Times crossword. He looked up at her and smiled. ‘How are you doing?’
‘Better, thanks. I don’t deal with heat so well.’
He nodded. ‘Sea breezes, that’s the answer. We’ll have a nice day at the beach.’
They did. They ate ice creams; they bought buckets and spades and built sandcastles. Wandering down to the water line, Colette picked up her skirt and paddled, the water swirling cool around her ankles. She gazed out to sea for some time, then glanced back up the beach to see where Peter was. He had stretched out on the sand and was dozing.
‘Peter,’ she said, when she had trudged back up the beach and sat down beside him.
He removed the newspaper from his face and blinked up at her. ‘Yes?’
‘Are we friends?’
‘Of course we are. Didn’t I let you stand me an ice cream?’
‘So you did. Clotted cream and all.’
‘Clotted cream and a little plastic spoon to eat it with. That’s proof enough of my devotion, I should say.’
Colette laughed. ‘It wasn’t your devotion I was questioning. It was whether you still liked me the way I like you, even though I don’t like you the way you like me in the other way.’
‘Mrmph,’ Peter agreed. ‘Well, obviously. If it was just the other way, I wouldn’t have let you get the ice creams. I’d have insisted on buying them myself.’
‘Actually I think I might be over you. I did throw the spoon away, after all.’
‘Really?’ This was encouraging.
He sighed. ‘Not really, I’m afraid. At least, I did chuck the spoon, but I’m not over you. I’m sorry. I know it’s awkward.’
‘I’m sorry, too.’
‘That’s all right. You can’t help it. Nor can I. We just live with it, don’t we?’
‘We do.’ She wiggled her feet in the sand, enjoying the dry powdery warmth between her toes.
‘In fact, we only live with each other for another week, so I wouldn’t worry. It’s much easier these days, anyway, now you’ve got Lydia.’
‘Oh. Good,’ she said, feeling warmth spread through her at the sound of Lydia’s name.
‘Well, obviously it’s a lot easier for you. I just keep going as I was before, but you’re happy, and that’s a bonus.’
She shook her head. ‘You’re such a gentleman.’
‘I know.’ He smiled and shut his eyes again.
‘Once upon a time,’ she said, idly, ‘there was a knight who wished to marry a beautiful princess. Her father told him, fine, you can marry her, but first you have to complete seven impossible tasks. No problem, he said. Bring it on. OK, said the king. The first impossible task is this: go away and never come back.’
‘Exactly,’ Peter said. ‘At least, that was the way you were playing it.’
‘Well, yes.’ She picked up a discarded lolly stick and doodled in the sand with it. ‘I didn’t expect the princess to take matters into her own hands and come after me. And in the mirror version you play it straight. Metaphorically speaking.’
‘Quite. I’m here. In body, at least. Not so much in mind.’ He yawned.
Tentative: ‘Like I was, back in March?’
‘I didn’t want to bring that up,’ he said.
‘Nor did I, particularly. But I want to apologise.’
‘Fair enough.’ He sat up and extended a hand to her. ‘Shake?’
She took it. ‘Of course. Friends?’
‘Good.’ She smiled. ‘Sorry – well, sorry it’s been so awful.’
He glowered. ‘Stop apologising.’
‘OK, then. Thank you for today – this was a really good idea.’
‘Wasn’t it?’ he agreed happily.
‘Took my mind off things. Except for how I’m talking about them to you now, of course.’
Peter stretched his arms high, bracing his back against the seawall. ‘Ah, yes, that’s the other thing, isn’t it? The princess actually does have a real father.’
‘Yup. And I’m not even asking him for her hand. I’m a wuss.’
Peter looked at her severely. ‘I thought you were doing this voluntary exile thing for her? So that her family wouldn’t catch on and give her hell this summer?’
‘Yes, that was the idea. But I still feel like a wuss.’
‘You’ll just have to swallow your pride and be a wuss, in that case. You can be chivalrous and sneaky at the same time. It’s practically the definition of courtly love.’
She laughed. ‘I suppose so.’
They bought fish and chips and ate them on the station platform, waiting for the train back to Exeter. Colette fell asleep on the express, only waking when Peter shook her shoulder, gently, as it drew into Stancester.
‘Ouch,’ she said.
‘Yup.’ She craned her neck, trying to see how pink her back had gone. ‘Oh, well. I’ve got some after-sun stuff, at home.’
‘Safe to go back now, you think?’
‘Should be. She’ll be half-way back to Hastings, by now.’
‘OK,’ Peter said, thoughtfully. ‘OK.’
A neat stack of boxes and bags in the corner of the sitting room betrayed Lydia’s recent presence in the house. There was no rational reason to go into the sitting room, so Colette, feeling Peter’s sad, understanding, eyes on her, proceeded straight up the stairs. He followed her as far as the kitchen; she went on up to her room.
She chucked her sandals under the bed and her bag on the desk. It left a little trail of sand behind. She winced as she stretched her arms, and felt the sunburn on her shoulders. There was still sand between her toes; she sat down on the edge of the bed and wriggled them to try to dislodge it.
‘Colette!’ Peter called from downstairs. ‘Tea? Cake?’
‘Tea, yes please; cake, no thanks,’ she called back. How Peter could even think about eating after such vast quantities of fish and chips… She sighed. Odd how the minor discomforts combined to make contentment. Her results seemed less disastrous now. Summer retakes; that wouldn’t be so bad. And Lydia… Lydia had left Stancester, and was probably back in Sussex; they wouldn’t see each other for nearly two months now, but after that… She thought of Lydia’s things, boxes piled up in the sitting room, to be moved into Olly’s room in September. Not Olly’s room, at least, not for much longer. Lydia’s room, soon: the room next door. Would it be weird to go downstairs to look at the boxes, count them, perhaps, to let herself think that Lydia had been standing there only a couple of hours ago?
Just as she was reluctantly deciding that it would, Peter appeared. ‘Tea oop, love,’ he announced, in a woeful parody of Becky’s accent. ‘Hey, hey, what’s up?’
‘Something in my eye… sand, maybe,’ she lied. ‘Sorry.’ She grabbed her pyjama top and wiped her eyes on it. A folded piece of paper fluttered to the floor.
Peter handed it to her. ‘Something of yours?’
Lydia’s cramped, tangled writing. Colette pounced on it. ‘Oh! She’s left me a letter.’
Peter turned around and tactfully began to eat his cake while Colette read the note.
Writing this very quickly – Mum and Dad think I’ve gone back to get something from my book box. Just wanted to say 3 things:
1. I love you.
2. Thank you for going out today. I feel awful for kicking you out of your own house, but you were right: they’d have known straight away if they’d seen the 2 of us together.
2a. I love you.
3. I’ve nicked your pink cardigan. I hope you don’t mind – I had to have something to prove you still existed. Let me know if you need it and I’ll post it back.
Goodbye, my darling. I’ll phone you whenever I can. September seems so far off!
All my love – Lydia xxxx
Reaching the end of the note, Colette threw herself face down on the bed and howled. Peter patted her ineffectually on the shoulder. ‘Is it – all right?’ he asked. ‘Either way, there’s tea here.’
‘Oh, yes,’ she gulped. ‘It’s as all right as it can be.’ She sat up, blew her nose, and reached for the mug. Far too strong, of course but none the less welcome.
‘Are you working this summer?’ he asked.
Colette knew a deliberate attempt to change the subject when she saw one, but she humoured him. ‘I haven’t sorted anything out yet, but I probably will. Why?’
‘I was just thinking: you could come and stay with me if you happened to have a free week. Tonbridge is only about an hour from Hastings, you know.’
Everything I know about black and white photography, and about putting people in front of vehicles to liven up a composition, I learned from my father.
By dint of not speaking much, they got through the next few days without allowing the atmosphere to contaminate the rest of the household. Peter was counting down the days to the end of term – so, no doubt, was Colette: Sunday (he went to chapel; she went to Wardle Street), Monday (that was all right; that was her heaviest day of lectures); Tuesday (although at some point they were going to have to meet to hand over the vice-presidential duties, damn it); Wednesday (there was no escaping AngthMURC, though he was very late, telling himself that the chapel needed a thorough sort-out after the last Evensong of term); Thursday (and then he had lots of reading to catch up with for his dissertation).
Thursday. Almost Friday: it was getting on for one in the morning. Peter had long since given up on Thomas Aquinas, and was alternating between an aimless wander through Wikipedia links in one browser window, and a ten-page argument about the role of women in the Church on the Stancesternet forums in another. He should, he supposed, go to bed, but he could not quite be bothered. The thought of traipsing upstairs to clean his teeth, and finding a clean pair of pyjamas – any pyjamas, come to that – was exhausting in itself; so he sat there, and clicked, and clicked.
He jumped when he heard a sound – small, scraping, metallic. A key, fumbling for, and turning in, the front door lock. Becky and Colette, back from clubbing. Becky’s attempt to take Colette’s mind off – whatever it was. Peter stood up and stretched the cramp out of his right arm. Better go out and make sure everything was all right.
In the corridor, Colette was leaning heavily on Becky. ‘’m gonna throw – up –’
‘No, you’re not. Not until I can get you upstairs.’
A bitter giggle. ‘Oo-er, missus.’
‘You didn’t throw up in the taxi. I’m very proud of you.’ Becky hoisted Colette’s arm around her shoulder, and they lurched up the stairs together. He could hear her saying, ‘Not on the landing, either.’
Ought he go and help? Becky seemed to have things well in hand; and he did not deal well with people throwing up. He compromised by calling, softly, up the stairs, ‘Need any help, Becky?’
‘If you wouldn’t mind finding a bucket…’ she replied.
A bucket. That was easy enough. He shoved his feet into slippers and went out into the back garden. There was a builder’s bucket out there, last used for dousing the sparklers on Bonfire Night. It would be far easier to clean than the mop bucket, should the worst come to the worst.
By the time he had tipped the slime out, rinsed it under the outside tap, dried it off, and hauled it upstairs, Becky had managed to tidy Colette up and put her into bed. She was standing over her, now, making her drink a pint of water before going to sleep. ‘You’ll thank me in the morning,’ she said.
Colette groaned faintly. Peter handed the bucket to Becky and retired discreetly downstairs. ‘Good night,’ he said, as if everything were perfectly normal.
He sat down on his own bed. He needed to think. This was not normal, not normal at all. Other students went out and got hammered and threw up, but not Colette. She knew when to stop. Other students dyed their hair outrageous colours, but not Colette. Her hair was a perfectly nice colour as it was. Other students – well, no, they didn’t, unless you counted Ali, last year – but nor was it at all like Colette to have thrown herself at him.
He had, he noted in passing, got it bad. A disinterested observer would have said that Colette was looking terrible – no, to be fair, she had looked passable enough when she went out, but she had come home with black circles under her eyes, smudged lipstick, the badly dyed hair falling lank around her face, and miserably unhappy – but he would have asked her out in a heartbeat, had he thought she was remotely interested. (Well, he supposed, she had been, in a way, but he had known then, and knew now, that it was false. He was too proud for that. He knew very well that her interest in him was merely a sign of her unhappiness. That just went to show that there was nothing to hope for there.) He rubbed his eyes. Thinking about her, a furious, longing, tightness spread across his chest, something that was not entirely sexual, but that was more than a friend’s vicarious anger.
‘I love Colette,’ he said to the empty room. It was the first time he had admitted it out loud; which did not make it any the less true, or serious. He loved her grey eyes and her deceptive vagueness; he loved her cynical smile and the way she would pounce on a flaw in an argument and maul it until only the bare bones of the truth were left. She would never love him back; he would never stop loving her. One day, he supposed, he would be grateful to have her simply as his friend – assuming they could be friends, now. One day he would have the grace to pray for that to be the case.
Somebody tapped at his door. ‘You still up?’
‘Becky. Come in.’
She sidled into his room, shivering in her skimpy top and miniskirt, and her hair looking greasy with the raindrops caught in it. ‘Well. That was a disastrous idea. I was trying to take her mind off it all, but I suppose you just take it with you, don’t you?’
Peter forbore to comment on the sense, or otherwise, of Becky’s plan. ‘She’s not herself,’ he said, jerking his head upwards.
‘No.’ Becky shut the door and leaned against it, arms crossed.
‘Do you -‘ he hesitated ‘- have any idea why?’
She nodded. ‘She’s trying,’ she said, with a pomposity that betrayed the fact that she, too, had been drinking a little too much, ‘to get back into the closet. And it’s too small for her. She’s a fucking butterfly. Of course she doesn’t fit back into the chrysalis. And it hurts so much that she’s drinking to stop it hurting.’
‘Why is she even trying?’
Becky gave him a look. ‘Oh, come on. You of all people should know. She’s head over fucking heels in love with fucking Christian Fellowship Lydia. Why you thought it would be a good idea to introduce them in the first place…’
Peter ignored the bait, and the sickening certainty that she was right. ‘Did she tell you that?’
‘No, but it’s obvious. It couldn’t be anyone else; there’s nobody else she’d pretend to be straight for. I’ll tell you something else, too: Lydia knows.’
‘Oh, no.’ Peter was fond of Lydia; he did not want to think that she might be capable of driving Colette to the edge, knowing that she was doing it.
Becky nodded. ‘I can’t make sense of it any other way. Think about it. If, in the ordinary way, you have a crush on someone you see a lot of -‘ her eyes flickered over Peter ‘- and you know it’s not going to go anywhere, for the perfectly reasonable reason that you’re pretty sure the other person isn’t interested, what do you do? You ignore it and hope it goes away. You don’t pretend to be someone completely different, someone who wouldn’t even think of fancying that person in the first place.’
‘That’s what you think she’s doing?’ Peter said, disregarding the too-accurate description of his own approach to things.
‘I’m sure of it. And who would she go that far for? Somebody who was bothered by her not being straight. For obvious reasons, she doesn’t hang around with too many people like that. I mean, even Lydia wasn’t bothered at the beginning, and I know Colette told her straight off, because she told me she had. So if she wasn’t bothered then, why is she bothered now? Because she knows that it’s not general any more, it’s specific, and Colette fancies her. Specifically.’
‘Somehow Colette’s worked out that Lydia knows – she might even have told her, it’s the sort of bloody stupid thing she’d do in a misguided attempt at being noble – and has freaked out and is trying to undo it all. Of course it’s not working, because that’s the toothpaste you can’t put back in the tube, but you try telling her that.’
It sounded horribly plausible. ‘Shit,’ Peter said. ‘What do we do about it?’
‘Hope she gets over it during the Easter holidays. Otherwise, buggered if I know,’ Becky said. ‘Buggered.’ She nodded morosely a couple of times, and left the room.
In our house Carl Sagan is a great favourite. We particularly enjoy his demolition of the ‘life on Venus’ theory, and the appearance of any logical fallacy is greeted with ‘Conclusion: dinosaurs!’
Never mind Venus, we don’t seem to have any dinosaurs in the house, but we did have some ammonites.
Well, anything within reason.
Well, anything within reason about Speak Its Name.
You can ask me about Wheels, too, though that’s almost certainly not going to be its name, and I might not answer due to a) being paranoid; b) not actually knowing the answer.
But seriously, if there are things you want to know about me and my writing, comment on this post, and I’ll do my best to give an interesting and coherent answer.