R.R. UNDERSUN - NYMPHAEA ALBA
In the end of days, she came to me.
Summer had arrived, but if anything, that only made the storms worse. The hail the clouds had carried in their bellies in winter, that dashed against our windows in a frantic effort to shatter the glass into kindred pebbles, had transformed to humidity and a threatening prickle of electricity down the back of one’s neck. A solar eclipse happened. Very few people remembered. It had been obscured by cloud, so apart from a brief acceptance that perhaps the sun was going to die and it would finally be over, the phenomenon passed without note. Beyond Oxford, in the farther reaches of the country, beaches were abandoned as they became one with the ocean. Home insurance lost meaning. In a year or two, the valleys would be Britain’s great lakes. People lost things to the water: family heirlooms stored in ground floor rooms, the ability to travel, family pets. The first loss always seemed the most cruel. The others, afterwards, began to seem like the status quo.
It was strange to think it had been only eighteen months. (A year and a half. Two infants carried to term. The totality of an Oxford education, excluding the vacations.) One of the first changes I noticed was in the girls. After a few weeks of their hair being ripped at violently by the wind, they began to braid it. Some even shaved their heads. The makeup went too, after a few embarrassing sightings of translucent foundation dripping off their faces in an unexpected downpour. In short, we found out what they really looked like. The rain had washed up their insecurity, their vanity, in plain view. In turn, we discovered how horribly superficial we were.
I’m being unfair. Overgeneralising and assuming the worst of everyone else’s unspoken thoughts. But then, catastrophe had brought out the devils in all of us. And besides, it was around that time that something seemed to change in the air between many of the boys. Feelings which had been hidden grew clearer, like a pattern that had had its dust shroud removed by a trickle of water. I can only imagine the semi-voiced impulse that drove the newly-emerging homoeroticism was a desire to catch at something that hadn’t changed: after all, we already knew what these boys had looked like without makeup, with their faces unobscured by curtains of hair. They were dependable: their lips remained unfairly rosy even when caught in the rain.
Or perhaps it was simply that with the rising waters outside, the confined quarters and the rising apocalyptic urgency, our inhibitions were quickly shucked into the mire with all the other lost possessions, and we were free. But let’s not draw conclusions too hastily.
The second thing to change was the streets. The cobbles vanished first, though for a while one could still walk, pretending they were tiny stepping stones, and return home with only the hem of one’s trousers wet. Soon though, every avenue and secret passage between buildings became its own canal. Some students found it romantic: as we couldn’t very well fly to Venice any more, it had been brought to us. The punts were repurposed, and we would ford the famous Radcliffe Square, now flooded, to get to our lectures.
Water slows the pace of life, rots foundations. We all grew incurably bored and unstable. There was talk of closing the university.
Before university, I used to seek out the largest isolated patches of nature that could be found away from cars, the people that drove them and their unbearably real lives. Triangles of land were the best bet. I would lie down at the centre of the largest uninterrupted triangle I could find and look up at the sky, the leaves and branches waving gently across it. It would bother me, how at the edges the drone of traffic was always audible, day or night. Now noise was inescapable, and less predictable: even in my rooms, the wind howled, hungry for another accident to befall one of us on the water’s edge. Somewhere, a neglected chaplain’s dog howled like Doomsday had come. The ambulance siren was always going off, and passed by with terrible slowness in the fire brigade’s motorboats.
I remember the moment I knew. Or at least, the moment the shadow of the future cast itself across my path and I saw it for what it was. I had been sitting in the garden behind the library, studying outside because the leaves were that special newly-made green, and I was hoping someone particular might walk by, so I might make a passing remark about this. No one passed by, but the wind did renew with a vicious strength, and raindrops sprung from the air, coming to land on my skin. Like blood from a cut, I thought, wiping the moisture from my jaw. And I knew then that all the horror one hears on the news, all our generation’s fears and uncertainty, it wasn’t going to stop. I had assumed someday it would all calm down, but I had been wrong: the seas would only grow stormier.
But where was I? Ah, yes: hope.
Hope had largely left me in those eighteen months. She remained only in verses of poetry, which we liked to scoff at, unable to bring our own sentiment forth from in metred elegance. (It seemed mostly to come out in drunken roars, unshapen, raw.) She lingered in small things also...stamps before they were placed on a letter, flowers growing in high-up cracks on the walls, possibilities. But to my conscious awareness, she was absent. The role call of human emotions continued, but she did not reply, and day by day the other inhabitants of my mind forgot her.
I propelled myself through the quadrangle, the grass having already died an invisible death below the surface, pausing where the stained glass which lined the windows of the old cloisters met the level of the water. The ripples were breath-taking, red rolling into orange rolling into blue in evanescent marbles swirling around the prow of my boat. My breath caught in my chest. But as always since my arrival in Oxford, a ghost of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland tags around my ears and shoulders, muttering ‘late! Late!’ I was due to return the punt soon. As I took one last look and turned to go, I spied something else on the other side of glass. It was hard to make out, a reflection in the water on the inside of the cloister coming to me through the coloured glass, partially blocked out by the sticky black lines that formed the Virgin Mary’s frame. I knew this was just about where the stone staircase had led up to the Principal’s rooms, before he had moved to more accessible quarters. Yes – those bands of darkness were the stairs, and the light at the top was spilling from the window. But who was the figure that perched on them?
My punt knocked against the wall, red wood and peeling brown paint upon soft limestone yellow, and her head turned. She saw me, or at least my boots, or maybe my shadow. The cogs of my mind were too rusty to compute the angles of reflection quickly. All in a flash, things seemed decided. It didn’t feel as though I had been the one to do the deciding, but so lacking had certainty been of late, I didn’t question the feeling. I didn’t hesitate. I knelt down, grabbing the edge of the boat with one hand to steady myself, and lifted the other to the glass. I held up all five fingers: Wait.
I turned around, my world rocking alarmingly as I did so, balance shot from too much sloe gin the night before. Squinting, I found the entrance to the cloisters, the archway without any stained glass. It was on a diagonal across the quad, and opposite where the porter’s lodge had been before they moved to the second floor. I’d have to be sure they didn’t see me. The cloisters weren’t strictly forbidden: the entire town had become dangerous after it flooded, so it had become too great of a challenge to ban specific locations. Entry was tacitly discouraged, however, not the least because of the practical difficulties involved.
After skimming across the quad, pole sinking into soft mulch, I navigated the prow of the punt into the opening of the passage, clutching at the side of the wall to steer it round. Once inside, I crouched down to kneel in the bottom of the boat, dust gathering on my knees. Still, the peaks of the cloister arches didn’t command enough clearance above the water for me to fit through. I peered down the flooded hallway but couldn’t catch sight of even the tips of the woman’s toes. Drawing my breath deep into my chest, I lay back in the boat, folding my arms across myself. Cold water sunk into the back of my jacket in patches, chilling my shoulder blades.
I reached out and nudged the punt slowly down the hall, pushing off the stone. Light flickered atop the vaults above me, reflections from the water splitting apart in trembling golden webs. My concern at being seen evaporated. The rest of world was locked away: I could have been sailing through another time. One arch, then another, another.
Hoisting my head up, I saw I was almost at the stairway and carefully sat up. The girl I had seen still sat there, as if waiting for me, one leg outstretched down the steps, the other crossed over it. She never met my eyes, but instead spun to stand and ran up the steps. The sight of her lingered like a physical impression etched in wax over my eyes. She was beautiful: unnervingly close to the woman I would paint in my mind, if asked to name my ideal. Pale skin as pure as marble and dark hair caressing her neck in large, rolling curls, the shine on it promising softness. Her dress was light, too, and reached her ankles. It wasn’t quite a ball-gown, but looked like something from a time gone by, with a drawstring cord tightening it under her breasts. And her feet, receding – the vision like a loop – she has worn white plimsolls, stained green. The green of spring grass. I could almost smell it: the heat of the sun just beginning to unfurl, college students eager for summer bowling each other over in fits of childishness, games of croquet with glasses of Pimm’s in hand, friendship tacitly assumed and casually affirmed.
She was laughing. The chortle of a songbird, I thought to myself, perhaps too pleased with the turn of phrase. The sound seemed muted: but then, everything was muted now. Sound waves bounced off of stone to be swallowed by the water, lending a curious hush to the place. Wedging the punt up against the stairs, I stepped out and trotted up the steps as quickly as I could. There was a certain pleasure in the journey, though, which made me linger. It had been so long since I’d come up this way. The old custom was to wait in the hall for meetings with the Principal in which you were to deliver report on your termly activities. This report would naturally be a falsification. Arriving by boat to wander newly empty corridors perverted this in a satisfying way. I felt a spark of energy returning to me and felt its potential to grow into rebellion.
Smiling, I took the turning to the left, to the Principal’s rooms. The door was ajar. It creaked when I pushed it back. She stood there before the window but as soon as the door swung open all the way, she disappeared. The whole of her – her dress, her pale skin – shattered like sunlight. The light which took her existed for a few seconds longer until it too was enveloped by the miasma of stuffy, abandoned places.
Gulping, I began to pace round the room. Had I seen a ghost? Was I going mad? Was it a religious vision? But what manifestation of the divine was she? None that I had ever read about, that was certain.
As my breathing slowed, the room faded back into view. The shelves were still occupied with some of the volumes no one wanted. In theory, they were to be claimed later but in practice they were fated to languish here, unlooked for, forgotten. And so all of us, always, I thought. My lips gave a slight treacherous tremble. With the coming of the floods, civilization and society had suddenly seemed so precarious as to be wiped away by the opening of a single river-lock. As individuals, the insignificance of our daily lives had been washed up and left in the open. The drift-wood of the mind. But there was nothing new in the water; it had only showed the way things had been more clearly.
Still not quite ready to return to the outside world with its greater semblance of reality, I turned to inspecting the items that had been left behind. A blunt pencil rested atop the large mahogany desk, and alongside it, a guilty spray of ash from smoking indoors. So these are the things we leave behind us having lived, worked, and breathed in a place for years. A Shakespearean dictionary was upended by the windowsill. In the top desk drawer, an empty shot-sized bottle of Baileys rocked and then rolled, innocent to the goings-on of the world below. In the next drawer down, a crinkly paper packet lay with a piece of paper. I picked up the packet first: water lily seeds. A faded explosion of green centred around the garden store’s logo. The text on the paper was hand-written but had been printed conspicuously neatly. Last Will and Testament. Below the foreboding header, there were only two lines more.
To be scattered over my grave – sunken though soon it shall be.
To Susan I leave
But Susan’s inheritance remained a mystery. The document was unfinished. Perhaps it had a less melodramatic successor, completed on drier premises. I surveyed the seeds again. They were old and certainly out of date. But there was something charming about the packet. I tucked them in my jacket pocket, a lurking reflex from childhood, the boyish glee of discovering treasure in trash, of hoarding, of planning for adventures.
I sat on the desk a while, looking out the window. Where had she gone? The entire experience left me discombobulated in space and time but without the desire to return to my prior state of stability. So, this had been the Principal’s view. Now it belonged to no one. Everything outside was at a different angle: the room was higher than I’d realised. I waited to see if the sun would come out, to little avail. Somehow, it didn’t matter so much where the girl had come from or where she had gone. She had been something special, something undefinable, something that had happened to me. Compared with the dreary way we had been carrying on our lives for the past eighteen months, that meant something. Deep, distant chords had been struck in my chest: I had truly always thought that I was remarkable, even when there was little evidence to speak in my favour. But I suppose everyone believes this.
I made my way back to the boat, thoughts hushed. All my nerves tingled. My soul had awakened from slumber.
When I returned the boat, the porter scolded me til he went red in the face. He droned on about the scarcity of resources, the entitlement of young boys like me, how just because I had been to a public school didn’t mean time didn’t apply to me the same as everyone else –
“This whole place is conducted exactly like a grown-up public school.” I spoke suddenly and without much intention. When he stopped short, though, I continued. “And you know what school I went to because you know my father, so you’re just as much a part of it as I am. And, for the record, you know nothing about my politics.”
At this, he cracked a smile, or rather the smile cracked him, because he transmuted it as soon and ably as he could into a snarl. “If I could have you sent down this indulgent twaddle kind of back-talk, I would.”
I raised my eyebrows and huffed a laugh, pleased to discover a verbal sparring partner. Such exchanges were sure to liven up the dullest of daily tasks. For example, I was certain that the few minutes taken collecting my mail from the pidgeonholes would now be peppered by acerbic comments.
“Your clover makes you look like a nancy.” With that, he lumbered off.
I couldn’t believe I’d let him have the last word. I glanced down at my lapel, where sure enough, I saw a four-leaf clover pinned. I didn’t remember putting it there. I climbed up the staircase to my room, up those uneven wooden steps of whitewashed wood, til finally I reached the landing where the walls shrank in to skeleton proportions. My door was the second on the right.
Puzzled by the clover, I took the packet of lily seeds out of my pocket. They seemed abruptly foolish, seen in the light of all my real possessions. Perhaps I would mount the packet on my pinboard. Yes. If my friends noticed it while visiting, I could wax lyrical about wandering the empty corridors, the total freedom provided by civilian abandonment, if only one had a little nerve. It would be an unjust misrepresentation of the truth – but it would be something to say, nonetheless.
I opened the window a crack and, tearing through the aged paper, poured the seeds out. If there were tiny ripples, I was too far up to see them, though maybe the wren skimming from branch to branch below got some excitement from the flurry. It was only then that I recalled the line from the paper in the drawer: ‘to be scattered over my grave, sunken though soon it shall be.’ Well, the Principal was still alive. In a flash of whimsy and sentiment, observed dryly as if by a detached stranger, I thought the seeds ought to be freed to the elements once more.
The afternoon and evening were quiet. Stress levels ran high around the campus. Everybody was somewhere else. I retired to bed early to thumb through my thin volume of Sappho’s works and wonder if I would dream of the woman through stained glass.
Nothing grew in the pond outside my window. I didn’t remember any dreams of her. Yet somehow both the water and my sleep were subtly disturbed. Changed. For the better? I don’t know. I wasn’t sure it was yet possible to know.
No one left the centre of town anymore. Arguably, we hadn’t before, either, but now we felt trapped. The familiar sights, so well-loved by many of us even before our arrival here, these church spires and sculptures, today woke the same tenseness in my throat that I imagine a bird might feel, readying for an attack on the bars of its cage. Of course, some students did travel farther upstream: they were the same ones who, before the flood, would spend their afternoons hunting through vintage stores down Cowley Road. No matter where they went, they always wanted to brag about it after. As if setting foot in Bombay Emporium had opened their minds in the same way as a real trip to India. Mostly, though, it was the townies who roved round the outskirts. They had canoes, and families aboard, and probably flooded living rooms full of a lifetime of detritus. I did envy them the canoes, though.
Although usually I spent my days at lectures just down the road, returning the punt by the appointed hour, and then the college bar or my room, there was one spot I considered a special vice of mine. I had never gone to Carfax tower before the floods: then, it had been overrun with tourists, or else experts on Anglo-Saxon Christianity brandishing informational leaflets at the entrance. These days it was empty enough for an occasional visit. I climbed the sandy, worn steps up and out onto a square platform of stone. I liked to sit down in the troughs of the crenellations, wedging my narrow hips between the stones, kicking my feet out over the diluvian mayhem which the city had become. Young trees stuck up skinny, wavering branches which the water swirled around in strange circles and dimples. From this vantage point the water picked up some of the colour of the limestone architecture, blending its usual steel-grey into a murky green. I fished in my jacket pocket momentarily and withdrew my pipe. Tobacco and lighter from my trouser pocket. I prodded the tangled fibres into place and lit the bowl, settling into a satisfying sulk. I would stay here for an hour or two at a time, brooding, daydreaming, smoking. I didn’t worry about falling.
Up here, it felt important to let time move slowly. Below, every moment was occupied, a constant rat race of minds until one could almost hear the pitter-patter of strained thought through the dormitory walls. Time didn’t exactly vanish up here: the bell-towers still tolled every quarter of an hour. It was that I felt conscious of each moment as it passed. This, I believed, was a rare quality of experience to even lapse into in the modern world.
There is another tower visible from here, the church tower of St. Peter-in-the-East, which belongs to St. Edmund Hall. Someone was standing in the top of the tower.
This struck me for two reasons. Firstly, though whoever it was could only be said to be acting as unusually as I was, I thought I was right in remembering that there was no roof access to that tower. I’d had a tutorial in Teddy Hall once and had asked if I might venture up: at the top of the tower was a professor’s office. It wasn’t open, even to students of the college. Secondly, from this distance I could made out voluminous black curls and a white dress. My heart beat more keenly in my chest, as if it were begging me to remember something.
She hadn’t seen me. She was dancing: spinning and twirling around as though she wasn’t seventy feet in the air, even pitching over when she ran out of room for her steps at the walls, back bent like a bow before a graceful recovery. My breath hitched every time she looked like she might go over the edge and I let it loose in a sigh when she spun or trailed her arm up in lofty circles. She might as well have had a string wrapped around my chest, all the way across Radcliffe Square and Queen’s Lane, held between her first two fingers. It was her, I had no doubt of that. She still wore the same dress, fluttering slightly in the breeze. Like a snowdrop, I thought, if they stayed into summer. If they didn’t vanish someplace in the grass and then go forgotten til the breaking of the next frost.
She came to a stop at a corner, one arm outstretched, the other folded in so her fingers met her collarbone. So rigid was her pose, I was sure she might be about to jump. My eyes went wide. It was a familiar feeling: when, having absentmindedly watched someone go about the daily orbit of their life, you saw that the status quo had been disrupted and you did nothing. It might be something like a tear, wiped hastily from the corner of an eye which had been eager release it. Or a joke, casually dismissing dreams tenderly held the summer previous. And all the questions it would have been right to ask, unasked. Because it made things easier. So, then, today: would I stay an observer, silent in her demise as I had been while the planet sunk underwater, while everyone around me began a slow and torturous mental descent to meet the water halfway?
I shouted. Just as she was beginning to teeter, thighs rolling forward to meet the top of the wall, my voice flared awake from its hibernation, curled where it had slept under my Adam’s apple.
The sound shocked me as it rang out over the city, not the least because I hadn’t known what words I would speak before I opened my mouth. It sounded powerful. In fact, it was the loudest thing I’d heard for months. It possessed a radically different quality to the choral music or soft classical piano one would hear through music room walls so often. I cleared my throat, feeling the rawness left behind there, blinking.
She was gone. Three seagulls swooped away from the tower.
Had my eyes deceived me? Had my shout frightened her over the edge, had I not seen her fall? Was it the mind playing tricks, desperate to create its own fiction in this inescapable city, to alter the reality inside if we were unable to leave its limits?
The tobacco in my pipe had burnt itself down into ash and embers. I knocked it out on the tower wall and hurried back down the steps, reluctant to be seen after my shout. My mind was blank. Perhaps from now on I would smoke in my chambers, to protect me from the confusing illusion-work by blue skies seen from a different view and avoid any embarrassing public displays.
It was a nice day for punting, the kind of day we would’ve gone punting on for fun in the beginning. Back then it had been a special occasion. We would pool into the corner stores to find whatever champagne they had, take photos with waterproof cameras and accidentally knocking into houseboats along the sides of Christchurch Meadows. Perhaps the punts were happier now: they were used all year round and no longer relegated to rustling against one another, chained together in their docks for the colder months. I rolled up my sleeves and let the sun warm my freckled forearms.
Had she really jumped? Had she been there at all? I tried to distract myself by counting bricks in the wall, but before too long the buildings fell away and stone heads rose up in their place. In a semicircle, the heads of emperors and philosophers formed a sculpted phalanx around the Sheldonian Theatre. The black iron fence they had once sat atop had receded under the water. In a decade or so, perhaps a new wave of tourists would come by, and wonder if they had bodies like the moai at Easter Island. A seagull was hopping from one head to the other, lifting its wings briefly in midair. I grounded my pole firmly against the current, surveying the seagull. It was impossible to say whether it was one of the same ones from the tower and still more impossible to suggest that the girl had turned into the seagulls somehow. Regardless, the bird had discovered the best Hopscotch course in the south counties.
These things we had thought our great monuments, swallowed by unremorseful floods, were now open as a playing field. When even stone surrenders, we are forced to accept that our institutions were not as well-founded as they seemed. I looked the bird in the eye, watching the delicate rise and fall of its breast, the lazy journey of its eyelids down to meet then up again to open. For the second time, it seemed she had shown me the way. I didn’t care if this only amounted to two events close in time, a trap for those insensitive to the reality of happenstance temporal contiguity. I tethered the punt to the black pole of a street sign. The arrows pointing to Gloucester Green threatening to pummel my thighs. I walked to the end of the boat, resting the pole inside.
I stepped onto the first emperor’s head, balancing carefully on the rounded stone. I wondered if he could feel it, his bones twisting in a dusty grave someplace. There was no one about. There was no real consideration. I simply jumped, the beautiful lift-off that a lack of hesitation that gives one. Giddy as a child, I ran across the heads, feet sometimes slipping, the muscles in my thighs burning from steadying myself. The decanal code subverted, the apocalypse nigh, and I a witness of a potential suicide: but something about it brought me irrepressible joy. I eyed the top of the Sheldonian theatre: an octagonal white chamber with a domed roof and windows on all sides. I’d always wanted to stand up there and look out. Perhaps I could scale it from the outside: I could see potential handholds and footholds, maybe even a route to the top. The world was a little closer than it had been before.
If there was anyone around to see me or anyone who knew what I thought I had witnessed, they would have called me callous. Disrespectful. I was both of these things. But then, no one really gave a damn about me, so I didn’t see that it mattered very much how I chose to abuse the strange freedoms all this destruction had brought. Beyond that, a belief had begun to take hold of me with the delicate yet inescapable tendrils of ivy, that the girl I’d been seeing was neither flesh and blood nor a hallucination but rather a message. Perhaps, too, there was the shade of change hanging about my outburst on the tower earlier: a lurking idea that I might try to reach out to others in their times of trouble. To be more than an observer. Maybe tomorrow, I would be a better person.
After I had skipped and hopped along the heads outside the Sheldonian as long as I dared, savouring the scuff of my boots against the monuments, I ducked into the Turf tavern for a pint. The establishment had marvellously been kept dry by the high walls of the buildings around it, the snaking alleyways one had to traverse to get to it, and a few emergency measures. I took my customary bench and table to the left of the tree outside. A man leant against it with a drink on either side of him: a glass of red wine and one of cola. I surveyed him over my stout. I must have looked a second too long, because he began to speak to me.
“Alright there, boy, nice to see someone has their priorities in order at this time of day...” It was two in the afternoon. “You look well smart.” He sniffed at this and screwed up his mouth.
I shuffled self-consciously in my jacket.
“Could I bum a fag? Of course a man ought to keep his own supply but these days, these days...”
“I’ve got pipe tobacco.”
“Give us some, I’ll have a rollie.”
I did as he asked and watched, perplexed, as he began the complicated manoeuvre, finishing by licking the thin white paper rather more enthusiastically than was necessary. He babbled on until I offered him a light. I would’ve ordinarily avoided conversations with strangers, especially ones with that tell-tale alcoholic flush which ran the risk of reminding us where all the heavy drinking would get us in a few decades. Today, thought I was shaken. I felt like speaking. I began to tell him about the emperor’s heads.
“It was like–” I ran my fingers over my chin, thinking how to put it “–like we’d been respecting the effigies of these men for so long. They were there as commemoration but also as decoration. Who chose those weird expressions, anyway? Well, the structure of everything flipped in my head and I realised the way you interact with places you look at everyday isn’t predetermined. It can be totally changed.”
He chewed his lip thoughtfully. Appreciatively, even. The topic of conversation turned to the waters rising, which was all anyone outside the university ever really talked about anymore. It was a perfect substitute for the English discussions about the weather, enlivened by the addition of a sense of quiet urgency.
“So, I drink every day. Oh, and smoke, too. Really it’s a, a most...” his eyebrows squished themselves together as he considered me “...felicitous! excuse.”
I smiled encouragingly.
“After all, I’m going to die soon, and even if I can’t bring myself round to accept it, I can make sure no bottle goes undrunk.”
“And here’s to that!” I clinked glasses with him.
“And anyway! What’s death but a last act of play?” A brief scowl had crossed his face but it melted away into a curious, unresolved smile. He leant back against the tree, satisfied.
“I think you mean the last act of the play.”
But he was finished talking. I took my leave. Still, when I was alone in my room later that night, with the waters slowly taking up more inches under the windowsill, and thought of people using my head as a stepping stone, the misturn of phrase comforted me.
I lingered at the end of my afternoon class, waiting until the other students had left. I asked a few unrelated questions as a pretence to stay. I took a deep breath. It would be alright; Dr. Bambridge was my favourite Professor. He’d been teaching me from my first term here and had an easy, warm air about him. Most importantly, he let me get away with making glib remarks in class. Cautiously, I began to unveil my troubles to him, careful not to reveal too much. “I suppose there’s no two ways about it. I keep seeing things, surprising things, there one moment and gone the next. I don’t want to go to the counsellor about it.” The words had a curt, bald ring to them once they’d left my mouth which I hadn’t intended.
He nodded. “Quite understandable. With the papers always harping on about student mental health here, they’d probably pack you off for a good long while. Professionals and all that. These ‘things’ you see...are they distressing? Scary?”
I shook my head, eyes settling someplace on the floor by Bambridge’s shoe. The green carpet, patterned with diamonds made up of dots, was old enough that thin fibres of fuzz were visible poking up above the rest of the matted surface.
He steepled his fingers, considering me over their tips with a strange twinkle entering his eyes. “Perhaps you’re overly tired? Insomnia can do strange things to the mind. It’s happened to more than a few students. And I know some of you have started doing funny things with herbal liqueurs...absinthe analogues...it’s been anarchy since the floods.”
I huffed a laugh. Jackie Eldric’s herbal liqueurs were a favourite of mine. There was nothing quite like it to make everything melt into treacle, to let one’s oppressive sense of self grow quiet. “No absinthe lately,” I said.
“Hmm.” He didn’t believe me, rightly so. “Well, the stress gets to us all.” When I still didn’t move to stand up, distressed at having revealed something so incriminating for such little useful advice, he flapped his mouth several times before speaking. “Ms. Vargan – the geography tutor, you know? – did mention something to me the other day.” His speech had become halting and his voice lower, as if making a confession.
I nodded to encourage him. I did know the geography tutor. She was a very beautiful single mother. I expected he listened to everything she had to say.
“She mentioned, ah, energies shifting. Because of the rebalancing between the water and the moon, the tides have changed. We’ve evolved with those two forces constant, not to mention gravity, so perhaps it’s not so unreasonable to suggest a disruption in those might cause some upset to personal equilibrium.”
I tried to keep my face impassive, thinking that really it was quite unreasonable.
“But anyway, what use is that speculation? I say, if you’ll take the Roman recommendation, go to the baths. The old museum, you know.”
I thanked him and took my leave.
In the end, I did go to the baths. I trusted the dead glory days of Italy more than the power of the moon any day. But I took a long time making the decision. I hadn’t been to the Natural History Museum since the waters came crashing in. I’d been afraid to, imagining that great hall underwater with its stone pillars stretching up to the sky, each one hewn from a different type of stone, that temple of science looking more reminiscent of the final reckoning in heaven. Barring, of course, the dinosaur bones which would float about, dismembered, the plaster cast of a T-rex’s skull knocking at your knees. And through the Natural History Museum lay the Pitt Rivers Museum. I could visualise only too well the glass display cases, the shrunken heads, the masks from the Noh theatre, all released to bob in dark waves. The Egyptian boats could finally sail once more in this afterlife of times, the jackal figurine slowly rotting but still above the water, its eyes the last bit of paintwork to disappear. The ghostly aisles could be wandered only by the drowned.
Walking in the doors, I shook myself, trying to clear the cobwebs of my macabre imaginings. The Natural History Museum had been turned into swimming baths. All the fossils were gone, no doubt chucked to languish in the darkness of the Pitt Rivers, now closed off. In the makeshift changing rooms, I put my shirt, trousers, and shoes in a locker. I crossed my arms over my bare chest. It was an unpleasant discovery every time I saw myself naked, that the air of possession I had thought my own in fact belonged to my clothes. My body was pale, despite the delicate sun streaming through the windows, turning my shoulders the colour of creamy daffodils. (Not the cheerful, vibrant ones – the ones that look like they’re halfway out of this world and into the next.)
I sat on the steps on the long side of the room for a time, legs in the water, watching the razor-edges of light glide over my skin with invisible currents. I sucked in the warm air like it was medicine, or else tobacco fumes. I did a few laps through the middle. People left me alone – I was more conscious of my self than they were. There were pretty girls, who I resolutely disregarded. How did girls act so comfortable wearing only bikinis? Perhaps it’s because they never wore armour, so they can’t feel that strange vulnerability in its absence, born to me through the machinations of history.
A voice dragged me out of my thoughts. Someone was singing. The noise was coming from the giant steel doors which stretched up to the ceiling, shutting away the underground museum. I frowned. The doors were complete with engraved curls, in true Oxford indulgence, but lacked keyholes or hinges. I clambered out of the water and walked along the perimeter of the room. The song continued. I paced obsessively by the tiny windows in the wall. They were the type of notches you would shoot arrows out of in a castle but they bore panes of hyper-reinforced glass. This allowed little rays of light to fall through into the Cimmerian waters below. At certain angles, you could see through to the objects inside. So, they had been abandoned after all. Perhaps it had been too late to save them. Or maybe the university had taken the opportunity to wash its hands of the accusations of colonialism the anthropological collections housed inside invariably brought.
The warbling melody continued, wordless, hauntingly beautiful, charting a journey to valleys and mountains and high climes of cloud in the vibrations in the air, lilting up then halting to spiral down to solemn depths of emotions I could give no name. I craned my neck, closed one eye. In the middle distance, I could see a music box, mahogany, seemingly balanced on something in the still water. Its golden gears ticked round endlessly, just visible above the surface. The old gramophone which broadcast its tune, though, was half underwater. This must be what lent the sound its warped tone, the reverberations slowed and stretched like molten glass. On the side of the music box, there was a painting of a girl. I blinked furiously, trying to make it out. Though the paint had flecked away in places, I could still see. After a few moments, the sun shifted behind my shoulder, casting the scene into better relief. It was her. The white dress, drawn in by a chord at the chest, fluttering down to delicate feet. The black hair brushing her shoulders. One arm extended to the side, the other folded in to her breast. Her lips and cheeks were audaciously rosy, the kind of pink seen only in art and on real flowers.
All the exhibits in the Pitt Rivers Museum have plaques, made of brass, engraved with a short story about the item in question. There was no way to know what the music box’s plaque said but I could imagine all too well. Pandora’s Box. Hope still flutters inside.
My skin had dried. The baths were closing. I put my clothes back on and wandered into the flooded streets, the sun fading over the tops of the buildings. I had the strange, pleasurable exhaustion that often stretches across one’s body after an afternoon swimming in real ocean waves. My questions were unanswered, my mind heavy, but my heart was now curiously light.
It had all been an illusion. A creation of my mind, driven by boredom with the world and most importantly with myself. The flood had not brought hopelessness in its wake. Hopelessness had bubbled away within me for many years, surviving in the quiet moments of even the driest summers. And I had found the source of my illusion, but not an explanation. I would never know how I had seen her outside in the light, living, breathing. I harkened back to my feeling that she was a message, conveyed without words. She had always been an illusion but I had believed. And there was power.
Like all of our certainties, a mirage of probability, a well-educated gamble which reality in ninety-nine cases of a hundred will not break. For me, the mirage was broken. A well-meaning foot stepping into a puddle that reflected a whole world. But the floods had already shown us how futile our certainties were: there had only been a sixteen percent chance of this eventuality. I remember them saying so on the television. I was glad that I had believed in the mirage I saw through the glass, that I had not lingered too long on calculating the statistics of insanity, that I gave up the gamble in favour of the game.
She had always appeared off away somewhere, unreachable, vanishing cruelly when I came to where she had been. But even now, even where I saw her watery grave, pumping out a last serenade into the darkness, she was not really gone. The search for her had instilled in me a secret sense of hope which might, in time, grow. Even on these flooded lands.
In the years that followed – and they were, it must be admitted, short years – the whole quad bloomed with lilies. No one knew I had been instrumental in the unexpected growth: my occupancy of those quarters was remembered mostly for the guilty trail of ash I left on the windowsill and for my generally insufferable presence. But those lilies became a new sight to see, an attraction, something blooming in the heart of Oxford where we had all been trapped. They were proof that in nature, something new could find space, even as the foundations of the old libraries crumpled, rotting, and our fickle hearts were diseased, weakened with love and smoke and port.
It had been an accident, a schoolboy error. No real credit was due to me. After years of scheming how to get my name on the honours boards posted around college, this proved somewhat refreshing. Change occurrences were marvellous. I tell anyone who will listen nowadays.
My name is not important. As I was once told over a formal dinner in an unsolicited barb of truth from the girl sat across the table from me, boys like me are dime-a-dozen in Oxford. And those lilies brought each of them private joy, which they smothered under their scarves and carried home and told their mothers about. Some things don’t change. And if it became a new tradition to leap hand in hand on the philosophers’ heads when the waters warmed, it was nothing to do with me. I had been alone in my chase. It was her, showing us what we always knew. Deep underneath.
In time, everything I saw that summer no longer seemed so strange. A strange fiction grew in my mind which made perfect sense to me but was not endorsed by the realms of common sense. That music box – Pandora’s Box, as I thought of it as privately – churning out its last melodies in the dark in a city now connected everywhere by water. She seemed to me a reflection, a reverberation. A pattern of light transported and transmuted by the waters, cast onto stone, through stained glass, finally to fall on my naked eye! A message of hope with a few glitches. I think of it as being much the same as the way reflections of light will dart about suddenly, disassembling themselves before reappearing on some high-up wall. As if they’ve a life of their own.
So yes, it was the end of days. Days and days and days make up the years we had left, and years turned out not to be so long as I thought once. She came and shattered into sunlight, some of which stayed with me, and in the waters, too.
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