One of Parlabane’s tedious whims was that he liked to take baths in my bathroom; he said that the arrangements at his boarding-house were primitive. He was a luxurious bather and a great man for parading about naked, which was not unselfconsciousness but calculated display. He was vain of his body, as well he might be, for at the same age as myself he was firm and muscular, had slim ankles and that impressive contour of belly in which the rectus muscles may be seen, like Roman armour. It was surely unjust that a man who had drugged and boozed for twenty years and who was, by Ozy’s account, decidedly constipated, should look so well in the buff. His face, of course, was a mess, and he could not see very much without his glasses, but even so he was an impressive and striking contrast to the man who removed my old suit and some lamentable underclothes. Clothed he looked shabby and sinister; naked he looked disturbingly like Satan in a drawing by Blake. Not at all a man with whom one would want to get into a fight.
I wish I were in as good shape as you are, said I, on one of these occasions.
Don’t wish it if you hope to be remembered as a theologian, said he; they are all bonies or fatties. Not one like me in the lot. Put on another forty pounds, Simon, and you’ll be about the size of Aquinas when he confuted the Manichees. You know he got so fat they had to make him a special altar with a half-moon carved out of it to accommodate his turn? You have a long way to go yet.
I have it on the assurance of Ozy Froats, now distinguished and justified as the latest recipient of the Kober Medal, that I am of the literary sort of physique, said I. I have what Ozy calls the literary gut. Perhaps if you had a gently swelling belly like mine, instead of that fine washboard of muscles that I envy, your novel might read more easily.
I’d gladly take on the burden of your paunch if I could get a decisive answer from a publisher.
Nothing doing yet?
That seems decisive, so far as it goes. He sank into one of my armchairs, naked as he was, and though he was clearly much dejected, his muscles held firm, and he looked rather splendid (except for his thick specs), like a figure of a defeated author by Rodin.
No. The only decisive answer that I will recognize is an acceptance of the book, on my terms, for publication as soon as possible.
Oh, come; I didn’t mean to be discouraging. But — four rejections! It’s nothing at all. You must simply hang on and keep pestering publishers. Lots of authors have gone on doing that for years.
I know, but I won’t. I feel at the end of my tether.
It’s Lent, as I don’t have to remind you. The most discouraging season of the year.
Do you do much about Lent, Simon?
I’m eating less, but that’s incidental. What I usually do is take on a programme of introspection and self-examination — try to tidy myself up a bit. Do you?
I’m coming unstuck, Simon. It’s the book. I can’t get anybody to take it seriously, and it’s killing me. It’s my life, far more than I had suspected.
Your autobiography, you mean?
Hell, no! I’ve told you it isn’t meanly autobiographical. But it’s the best of me, and if it’s ignored, what of me will survive? You’re too fat to have any idea what an obsession is.
I’m sorry, John. I didn’t mean to be flippant.
It’s what I’ve salvaged from a not very square deal in this miserable hole of a world. It’s all of me — root and crown. You don’t know what I would do to get it published.
He grew more and more miserable, but did not lose his sense of self-preservation, because before he left he had touched me for two more shirts and some socks and another hundred dollars, which was all I had in my desk. I hate to seem mean-spirited, but I was growing tired of listening to the romantic agonies of his spirit, while forking out to sustain the wants of his flesh.
He earned money. Not much, but enough to keep him. What did he spend my money, and Maria’s money, and Hollier’s money on?
Could it really be drugs? He looked too well. Drink? He drank a good deal when he could sponge on somebody, but he didn’t have any sign of being a drunkard. Where did the money go? I didn’t know but I resented being continually asked for contributions.
Lent, proper season for self-examination, perhaps for self-mortification, but never, so far as I know, a season for love. Nevertheless, love was my daily companion, my penance, my hair shirt. Something had to be done about it, but what? Face the facts, Simon; how does a clergyman of forty-five manoeuvre himself into a position where he can tell a young woman of twenty-three that he loves her, and what does she think about that? What might she be expected to think? Face facts, fool.
But can one, in the grip of an obsession, face facts or even judge what facts are relevant?
I worked out several scenarios and planned a number of eminently reasonable but warmly worded speeches; then, as often happens, it all came about suddenly and, considering everything, easily. As Hollier’s research assistant, Maria had the privilege of eating with the dons in Spook’s Hall at dinner, and one night in late March I met her just after the Rector had said the grace that ended the meal, as we were moving towards coffee in the Senior Common Room. Or rather, I was heading towards coffee and asked her if I could bring some to her. No, she said, Spook coffee wasn’t what she wanted at the moment. I saw an opening, and snatched it.
If you would like to walk over to my rooms in Ploughwright, I’ll make you some really good coffee. I could also give you cognac, if you’d like that.
I’d love it.
Five minutes later she was helping me — watching me, really — as I set my little Viennese coffee-maker on the electric element. Fifteen minutes later I had told her that I loved her and, rather more coherently than I had ever expected, I told her about the notion of Sophia (with which she was acquainted from her medieval studies) and that she was Sophia to me. She sat silent for what seemed a long time.
I’ve never been so flattered in my life, she said at last.
Then the idea doesn’t seem totally ridiculous to you.
Certainly not ridiculous. How could you think of yourself as ridiculous?
A man of my age, in love with a woman of your age, could certainly seem ridiculous.
But you’re not just any man of your age. You are a beautiful man. I’ve admired you ever since the first class where I met you.
Maria, don’t tease me. I know what I am. I’m middle-aged and not at all good-looking.
Oh, that! I meant beautiful because of your wonderful spirit, and the marvellous love you bring to your scholarship. Why would anybody care what you look like? — Oh, that sounds terrible; you look just right for what you are. But looks don’t really matter, do they?
How can you say that? You, who are so beautiful yourself?
If your looks attracted as much attention as mine do, and made people think so many stupid things about you, you’d see it all differently.
Does what I’ve told you I think about you seem stupid?
No, no; I didn’t mean that. What you’ve said, coming from you, is the most wonderful compliment I’ve ever had.
So what do we do about it? Dare I ask if you love me.
Yes, most certainly I do love you. But I don’t think it’s the kind of love you mean when you tell me you love me.
I must think very carefully about what I say. I love you, but I’ve never even called you Simon. I love you because of your power to lead me to understand things I didn’t understand before, or understand in the same way. I love you because you have made your learning the chief nourisher of your life, and it has made you a special sort of man. You are like a fire: you warm me.
So what are we to do about it?
Must we do something about it? Aren’t we doing something about it already? If I am Sophia to you, what do you suppose you are to me?
I’m not sure I understand. You say you love me, and I am something great to you. So are we to become lovers?