for Robert Foster and Nancy Fried
I am come to this town, over which the sun is shining, the insects briefly silenced in the renewed air of the morning, and the turnpike from the capital momentarily empty, for my wedding. I lie alone in a motel room a mile out of town and two from the campus, the wrong end of the wrong street. My future father-in-law thinks ill of me for declining lodging in his home or a college guest-room. ‘English to the end.’ The fact is I do not want to see L until the ceremony begins. We parted a month ago in an Oxford humid with the vapour of the Upper Thames Valley, a city empty of acrimony and bicycles for the long vacation. By midday the sun had driven the haze from the river. ‘You never did tell me about the Shinka.’ ‘The air is clearer in September in Virginia,’ L replied, hand on my flesh, laughing.
From the air, their town is like a cross laid on pasture, Seventh and Main intersecting at the church and the public park, where the marquee already stands. Seventh leads north to the campus, Main runs out east to the pike, past the motel where I look out of my window at the plain blue sky. For all the junk that scars the highways, this land in early fall is still an Arcady of sorts, purple and green and the ochres of benign decay. Don’t tell this to the people: they’re too intent on lawsuits, playgroups, tenure and recession.
The quadrants of the cross are filled with the grids of smaller residential streets, but the pattern is broken by the irregular spacing of the houses, some set far back in their plots, some obliquely to the road. And so lush grow the trees and shrubs their dappling outweighs the angles of man.
I met my future father-in-law only once in the past, and that at Oxford. My college and his being in some obscure way twinned, he came over in Michaelmas Term to join a celebration of our not so longevity. The two foundations add up to less than fifty years, and Fellows of Magdalen affect incognisance of our Charter. L had fun with the intros: ‘President, I’d like to introduce the President.’ To my bourgeois way of thinking this smacked of disrespect for persons, but then I was not born into academic life. President and President were effusively joyous at the forthcoming further cementing of their special relationship, viz, our nuptials. I felt a need to remind our man I was not his biological offspring. ‘A college is a family,’ he said. No wonder L goes on so about kinship. L’s father is in fact a Yankee, but translated to Virginia when the college there was searching for a messiah to draw brains and money after him to revitalise what was in essence a seminary in decline. This he did with Kennedy-style vowels and panache, and in Kennedy-style so estranged his wife she scuttled back to Boston to find she was nothing there without him, took an overdose of the wrong stuff and rubbished her mind for ever. This I learned not from L but from Newsweek.
So L’s mom will not be with us this day as I am wed in the little white Episcopalian church to the President’s daughter. Nor will her Bostonian kin, who took against him when he went South and registered Republican, not knowing this was the only decent thing to do in a county where the Democrats stood to Goldwater’s right. But the faculty is with us, in toto by the looks of it, for their President has told them he has got something special: DPhil Oxon weds DPhil Oxon. Commonplace in Oxon, less so in Va. Special the college is in other ways: he moved first to scrap the syllabus and transform the place into a kind of Medieval slanging-match chamber, assigning a mere Hundred Great Books as All You Need to Know. This brought in the money and the college is rich, the faculty is rich, the students are rich and the town is rich. Some of this richness has already descended on my Oxon alma mater and some is shortly to descend, I know, on me.
I have no memory of kissing him in life. Of Goethe’s eagle nose and big ribcage, they said he looks in death as strong as he did alive.
I am glad he is not shrunken. It was the stillness troubled me at first: habits of seeing (his rising falling chest in sleep) upturned by this final immobility. At the door my pace had halved; I was shy of this encounter. As his face hove into view, it seemed I strolled barefoot on velvet to the narrow end of his box.
From the air, their land is like an unclasped necklace laid along the western bank of the Upper Nile, their settlements the dark beads on the patchy grass, strung together with the fine hair of cattle routes and trails.
Shinkaland is a dual kingdom, reigned over in alternate quinquennia by a spearmaster from the North or South, while his oppo the pretender sulks it out in ritual wilderness waiting for the battle of the fifth dry season to restore the throne to him. Turn and turn about, it is the throne that moves and not the king.
Five minutes I remained at the foot of the coffin, until I understood how unequivocal was the stillness and the silence. And I the only person in the room. I moved round to the side and touched his hand: toneless clean chilled meat. Another minute gazing on the face (some kind of plastic peeking out the lips). Then I raised my hand to bring it down to his brow and ah! there was stone.
Her I did not want to see at any stage. Her senses had waned as her body had withered. We dismissed each other long ago with no word passing. On my last visit she had said: ‘You must be regretting having married me.’
I told her who I was.
‘If it’s that far gone, I want to go.’
On me and L, to be exact; but I never thought to be on the receiving end of so much material wealth. L says it is part of a big thank you to her pop.
After the service we process to the marquee, a huge and heavyweight affair with steps at the entrance up to the raised floor, across which we pace to gain a second level of ascendancy, a long dais on which stands the top table. From behind it we raise our glasses to the assembled dons, still in their academic dress. Here we have a view through the open wall of the entrance out onto the green of the public spaces where the wedding gifts stand ready on their floats to be drawn past for our approval. The President waves his hand and the first trailer grunts into motion, pulling a yacht. Nothing grandiose, not an ocean racer, but a 24-foot plump-bellied sloop, twin keels, cabin, radar; a domestic little craft. ‘Let’s call her Edwina,’ L says, feminising her tutor’s name. I am gratified to remark she has about her throat the simple silver necklace I bought her (out of the death grants) as a parting gift; and on her body the black silk moiré dress she bought in Fenwick Street on that same trip to London. Sleeveless, and dropping to just below the knee, it shows me (and the faculty) the curve and bulk of her buttocks, her almost not quite large enough breasts. For all the sun and the clear air of September in Virginia, she is pale.
Next the convertible, white exterior, cream leather inside. A beauty, as the guests agree. They applaud it louder than the yacht. For the hi-fi they stand in silence as the everlasting mortality of Mozart fills the centre of the town. And then the lesser gifts, the furniture, the linen (enough to last a lifetime), the china sufficient for a banquet, the plate. We all take wine and sit for the President’s speech.
He ends with ‘Intellect and culture wed beauty and riches,’ which miffs L for a moment until we see it can split more ways than one and she laughs, hand on my flesh. I stand to respond when there is some slight turbulence at the back of the crowd. A couple are making their way forward: a man in a trilby – a trilby? They have tried too hard, too tweedy, English to the end. My mother’s hair, which never has gone grey, is bright among the dark gowns of the faculty. She waves. I try to work out what to say. Thank you for coming. You’re looking well. (Exceedingly so for people straight out of terminal wards.) Ask them where they’re living.
‘We’re having a fine old time,’ my father says, ‘moving around, staying in hotels.’
I do not have to tell them yet I’ve sold the house.
‘This is a nice party,’ my mother says.
‘I’ve just got married.’
‘That’s very nice, I always thought you would.’
I look round for L to introduce her. My father raises his hat to the faculty. The smile on my mother’s face fades as she stares hard at the spot from which my wife is gone.
When an old spearmaster begins to fail, he tells his people he wants the end to come. Not to die, but to enter the land. They seek to dissuade him; it is a harrowing task. He will have none of this. Only his spirit is of use to them now. Heavily they begin to dig the pit, lower him in on a stretcher made of reeds and cattle hides. Around the pit they build a palisade, and outside it the women gather. His sons come together to hear his last advice as they build a covering for the grave. At any time they would welcome him back to a natural death. He talks as they tip in soil and dung. The last ramblings of the old are testimony for the Shinka, words for clods as the spirit enters the earth. The women howl at the palisade. The spearmaster is quietened as the sand passes his lips. Then they party for a week.
I kissed his brow and left.
Come the season of the wars, those Northerners residing in the South return to the matrilocal homes, and of course the reverse, where they dig out their spears and their stubby swords, weave headdress, mix body paint from red sand and their cattle’s urine, make mounds of food, gallons of beer, practise their formation dancing, retrain their voices. The forces of the pretender cross the border and march to the far end of the kingdom, ignoring the throne; and back to the border, again ignoring the throne.
The forces of the reigning spearmaster watch in silence; then carry the throne with their king atop it to the border where, with a lot of noisy ethnic whooping, balls and breasts a-jigging and a-bouncing, anachronistic thwacks of steel on stave (rifles left at home) they fight. As soon as someone’s hurt they stop, patch him up with leaves and reeds, begin again. As in the Flanders mud they battle back and forth for days to gain and lose a hundred yards. The king is toppled, the pretender grabs the throne. Then they party for a week. This carry-on, Edwina says, is a total social prestation in which exchange and conflict bind the dual polity.
My father, drink in hand, trips on the steps to the lawn. With the courage of the dead I seize a knife to skewer the heart. Thin trickles of blood mess up my wedding dress. They carry him to the white car. Stained leather occupies my mind.
I am alone in the church. A curtain rises to disclose two white coffins upright aganst the black damask which obscures the altar. A shaft of mauve light strikes diagonally down from the rafters. Priests move like cream about the nave, their purple hoods and vestments emitting pencil beams of gold. A dirge from no one fills the spaces. Behind me stands a row of citizens, their visages deformed: ears for eyes, nose inside out. The coffins begin their dance, in and out of the mauve beam. I order these things.