Springtime in Oxford is vulgar, anyway, but something about this particular spring in Oxford is having me on. Really, these cherry trees are absurd. One wonders if just quite so many flowers are necessary. It is almost as if the cherry trees on the Woodstock Road are trying to prove something--some sort of floral brag, swanking to the other, less advanced vegetation. Very Oxford in a way. Could I work this observation into the novel? "Only in Oxford do the cherry trees try too hard." Good opening for the Oxford sequence?
My meeting with my new supervisor was not a success. Dr. Alexander Cardman. "Call me Alex," he invited almost immediately. He referred to me as Edward without permission.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Thirty-one. How old are you?"
"Thirty-three. And you've been writing this thesis for...?"
"For, oh, six years. Seven. Seven and a bit. I left Oxford for three to teach. Then came back."
"Teach? Where was that?"
"Abbey Meade. It's a prep school in Wiltshire."
"Ah." I could hear the sneer forming in his brain. "And you came back--"
"To finish my thesis."
"I see..." I was disliking him quite intensely by now. He looked as if he had gel in his hair. The small, trimmed goatee was rebarbative, and the faint west country burr in his voice struck me as an affectation.
Summertown. The Banbury Road. I push through the front gate of "See Breezes" [sic] to meet my new student, Gianluca di Something-or-other. He is blind, so the language school has told me, and he needs to be walked to my flat. Not every day, I hope.
A cheery plump woman opens the door and leads me through to a living room, where Gianluca sits. He is a tall boy--eighteen or nineteen, I would say--with thick blond hair and a weak-chinned, sad face. His eyes are open, and as I introduce myself and shake his hand they seem to stare directly at me, disconcertingly, with only a faint glaucous, bloodshot hue to them.
We walk back to my flat on the Woodstock Road. His right hand rests gently in the crook of my left elbow, his left carries a briefcase and a folded white cane. We don't speak, as he had said, in good English, that he needed to concentrate and count.
We stroll through Summertown's shops and halt the traffic at the beeping pedestrian crossing. Along Moreton Road to Woodstock Road and then a hundred yards or so to the house.
"Ring this doorbell," I say guiding his hand to the gleaming brass knob, "and I'll come down to get you."
In the hall Gianluca stops and sniffs the air.
"What is this place?" he says.
"A dentist's," I say, as breezily as I can muster. "I live on the top floor."
Felicia has gone to Malaysia for a week to try to sell Internet stocks in the Pacific Rim market, or something. Perhaps it's bonds, or fluctuations in other stock markets, that she's selling; or she might even be selling other people's hunches about fluctuations in stock markets in the next decade. I don't even try to understand. She has given me the key to her house so I can feed her tropical fish while she's away. When she left at dawn she kissed me good-bye, told me she loved me, and said, ominously, apropos of nothing, that she thought I would make a wonderful father. I suppose it's as close as she'll ever get to issuing an ultimatum.
"There is," I read, "as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coal and diamonds--"
"Please," says Gianluca, "there is a preface by Conrad, no?"
"Could you please begin with that." He taps something into his little portable Braille typewriter, and I go back to the beginning. You would think that to be paid fifteen pounds an hour to read Joseph Conrad's Victory to a blind Italian boy is, well, money for old rope, but I find my heart is curiously heavy with prospective fatigue.
In our first two-hour session we manage five pages. Gianluca listens with almost painful concentration and asks many, many questions, the answers to which he doggedly types into his Braille notebook. I walk him down to the front door, where he unfolds his white cane and sets off back to "See Breezes" with an amazingly unfaltering step. As I turn back into the hall, Krissi, the actually not unattractive, New Zealander dental nurse, leans out the door of the surgery and says, "Mr. Prentice would like a word at end of business today."
As I plod back upstairs to my little flat beneath the eaves, I think that "end of business" is a classic Prentissian trope and that I must add it to my collection.
I think, perhaps, that I was at my happiest in Nice. Nineteen years old. At the Centre Universitaire Mediterranean. No family. No friends. No money. Just freedom. My frowsty room in Madame D'Amico's apartment. The young whores in the Rue de France. The French girls. The Tunisian boys. Ulrike and Anneliese. All those years ago. Jesus Christ.
Dr. "Alex" Cardman handed me back my chapter "Social Consequences of the 1842 Mines Act in South Yorkshire, 1843-50."
"What do you think?" I asked. This guy did not frighten me, I had decided.
"There were fifteen errors of transcription in your first quoted passage," he said. "I didn't read on."
"It's only a draft, for Christ's sake."
"Even a second-rate examiner will refer you for that kind of carelessness," he said, reasonably. "You don't want to get into bad habits. Bring it back when you've checked everything." He smiled. "What made you so interested in mid-nineteenth-century mining legislation? Pretty arcane subject--even for an Oxford doctorate."
Its very arcanity, you fool, I wanted to reply, but instead I chose a lie, hoping it might cancel the Abbey Meade blunder. "My father was a miner," I said.
"Good God, so was mine," he said. "Tin. Cornwall."
interviewer: You don't seem embittered, even bothered, by the attack in the Times by Sir Alexander Cardman.
me: It's a matter of complete indifference. Wasn't it Nabokov who said the best response to hostile criticism is to yawn and forget? I yawned. I forgot.
interviewer: It seems unduly personal, especially when your book has been so widely acclaimed--
me: I think people on the outside never fully realize the role envy plays in literary and cultural debate in this country.
Prentice is wearing his tracksuit and trainers: he likes to go jogging at the end of a day's dentistry. I offer him a glass of wine, which he, surprisingly, accepts.
"South African chardonnay," I tell him. "Your neck of the woods." Prentice actually comes from Zimbabwe. He has had his gingery-blond hair closely cut, I notice, which makes him look burlier, even fitter, if that were possible. He is always very specific about not being identified as South African, is Mr. Prentist, the dentist.
"I prefer Californian," he says.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Prentist?"
He smiles, showing his small, immaculate teeth. "Bad news," he says. "I have to put the rent up. From next month." He mentions a preposterous figure.
"That's a"--I calculate, trying to keep the rage out of my voice--"a one hundred and twenty percent rise."
"The going rate for two-bedroom flats on the Woodstock Road, so an estate agent informs me."
"You cannot call that broom cupboard where I work a second bedroom."
"Market forces," he says, sipping, then nodding. "This is actually an excellent wine."
Felicia is unnaturally blond, has a tendency to plumpness, and is devoted to me. I taught her for a term when she was at Somerville. We had an affair, for some reason. She went to work for a bank in the City. She came back to Oxford three years ago. I think, now, that she came deliberately to seek me out. She makes twenty times more money a year than I do.
My as yet unfinished novel. Five years in the writing. Which today I have decided to retitle Morbid Anatomy.
interviewer: Why did you resign the Trevelyan Chair of Modern History?
me: I did not approve of the new syllabus.
interviewer: It had nothing to do with internecine strife within the history faculty, professional jealousies?
me: As far as I was concerned, it was purely a matter of principle. It was my duty.
Gianluca looks at me--his sightless eyes are directed at me. I read on, hastily: "'Meanwhile Schomberg watched Heyst out of the corner of his eye'--ah, notice that glorious Conradian cliche--"
"Why is Heyst so passive?" Gianluca asks. "It's like he's stagnante..."
"Same word," I say, wondering why, indeed. "Well, he's a bit of a drifter, isn't he, Heyst?"
Gianluca types, I suppose, "Heyst = drifter" into his Braille notebook.
"Going with the flow," I improvise. We have reached page sixty-seven. I don't think I have ever paid so much attention to a text, and yet I can remember almost nothing. Each day it's as if I'm starting on page one again.
"He meant to drift altogether and literally, body and soul, like a detached leaf drifting in the wind currents."
Mrs. Warmleigh has left her Hoover on the stairs. I go to look for her and ask her to move it, as Gianluca is due.
"The blind boy? He's amazing, that one, the way he comes and goes. Fantastic, it is. Bless him."
I concur, wearily. Mrs. Warmleigh has a warty, smiley face and, oddly for the cleaning lady in a dentist's, many pronounced gaps in her famous smile. "Warmleigh by name, warmly by nature" she says, at least two or three times a week.
"You'd look at him," she goes on, "and you could swear he could see. Amazing."
A nasty little sliver of suspicion enters my mind.
Felicia started talking about children on the day of her twenty-eighth birthday. We had been "going out" for two years by then. I asked her why she chose to live in Oxford with its tiresome, lengthy commute to London when, on her salary, she could have lived in town, conveniently and comfortably. "I was always happy in Oxford," she said. "And besides, you're here." The logic doesn't hold up. She came back to Oxford, bought her little house in Osney Meade, and then we met up again, and, as these things will, resumed our affair. There is a character in Morbid Anatomy loosely, very loosely, based on Felicia. I think she dies in a plane crash.
This is vaguely shaming, but I know I have to do it. Gianluca leaves and thirty seconds later I am out the door, following him. I watch him for a while and, as he waits at the pedestrian crossing, I use a gap in the traffic to overtake him. I jog ahead up through the Summertown shops until I have a hundred-yard start on him, and, hidden in a doorway, I watch his progress, steady and sure, toward me. It is true, as Mrs. Warmleigh had observed, without the white stick there would be nothing in Gianluca's stride or progress to tell you he was blind. Is it a sad subterfuge, some mental problem? I find myself wondering--wondering with slowly stirring anger rather than commiseration, as I'm a significant victim of this subterfuge. Or is he merely partially sighted and playing it up for more sympathy?
I let him go by. "Oi, mate." I disguise my voice with a bit of Oxford demotic. "You drop vis money."
He turns. "Excuse me?"
My empty palm proffers an invisible ten-pound note.
He steps toward me, his eyes moving. "Some money?" He digs in his pocket, producing a wallet. He is blind, all right, blind as a stone, stone blind, bat blind, and a small pelt of self-loathing covers me for an instant. "I dropped money?" he says, fumbling with his wallet's zip.
"Gianluca?" a girl's voice calls. We both turn.
"Gianluca," I say. "Is everything all right?"
"Edward," he says with relief, "I thought someone talking to me."
The girl is up to us now, and she takes his arm. She's small, with wiry brown hair and a mischievous look to her face, half laughing, half smirking. She wears black and she's smoking.
"Is my sister, Claudia," Gianluca introduces us. "This is Edward. Claudia is coming to stay for a few days. She walk me back home."
I reach out to take her proffered hand, once she transfers her cigarette.
"Gianluca has told me everything about you."
"Not everything, I hope," I say, looking into those thin brown sightful eyes. And I know.
It is a kind of watershed, I realize. When you know instantly. And when the other person knows you know. It is, in its own way, an infallible sign of adulthood--a threshold crossed. All your imagined, wistful, striven-for worldliness suddenly coalescing into a simple, blunt, adult recognition. The last shreds of adolescent insecurity finally gone. From now on there will never be any doubt or ambiguity. You can look into a person's eyes, and, wordlessly, the question can be asked--if you want to ask it--and you will know the answer: yes or no. End of story.
interviewer: You didn't find that the Nobel/Booker/Pulitzer/Goncourt inhibited your creativity in any way?
me: On the contrary. I found it liberating. And the check was very welcome too. (Laughter.)
I left Cardman's rooms and wandered out into the quad, holding my error-strewn chapter rolled up like a baton, like a truncheon, in my hand. The afternoon sun obliquely struck the venerable buildings, picking out the detailing of the stonework with admirable clarity. The razored lawn was immaculate, perfectly striped, unbadged by weed or daisy, almost indecently, absurdly green. I realized that I hated old buildings, hated honey-colored crafted stone, hated scholarship, hated arrogant young dons with their superior ways. So much hate, I reflected, as I crossed Magdalen Bridge, can't be good for one. The leaves of my chapter helixed gently down onto the turbid brown waters of the Cherwell.
I walk through Felicia's neat, bright house, trying to imagine myself here. Where would my things go? Where would my desk be? Everything is neat, neat, neat; everything is tidy and neat. Even the cuddly toys on her bedcover are neatly arranged in descending order of size. Predictably, I search her laundry basket for a pair of soiled knickers to masturbate into but find only tights, cutoff jeans, and a rugby shirt--and somehow the autoerotic moment is gone. Dutifully, I feed her dazzling, frondy fish, trying to analyze what I feel for Felicia, with her decency, her baffling, uncritical devotion, her compartmentalized mind, at once cutesy and clever, our fundamental incompatibility...I could just about fit in here, I suppose, but where would baby go?
Copyright © 2005 by William Boyd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.