Goldsmiths, University of London
‘What are we supposed to do?’ I said, tottering on my heels in the huge house.
‘Go and mingle!’ Shelley said.
It was a snowy night near to Christmas and there was a rare merriment in the air. I’d lived in this provincial English town since September and found it dull: even though it was only a couple of hours on the train from London and was pretty big, everyone – from the university lecturers to the shop-keepers – seemed boring.
But the snow had sexed things up. In the taxi on the way here, Shelley and I had commented at the way the children – normally invisible – were busy making snowmen underneath the streetlights and the red-faced locals were actually smiling as they sauntered along the hoary pavements. Unprecedented.
This party felt unexpectedly riotous. The sounds of laughter, the loud chatter of high-minded artists and professionals and the smell of alcohol wafted towards us, both beckoning us -- and intimidating us with its unusual rowdiness.
‘Go on then, mingle!’ I echoed to Shelley.
She pushed me forward and giggled. I wobbled in my tiny shoes – which my feet bulged out of -- and then returned to my position at the foot of the grand staircase. ‘I can’t. I don’t know anyone.’
‘Yes, you do! You know the Senior Tutor. And you’re wearing a sexy dress. Any of those men would talk to you.’
I squinted because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. But my sight was good enough to see the greying, bushy brush of our Senior Tutor’s hair bobbing about the Great Poet, who towered like Glastonbury Tor above everyone else. Even the Famous Novelist, who was quite tall herself, barely seemed to reach his shoulders.
‘It would be so nice to feel a part of this. We’re not even supposed to be here. We’re not even writers or lecturers,’ I said.
‘The Senior Tutor invited us,’ Shelley said.
‘Only because he’s generous.’
‘Only because he wants to see you all dolled up.’
‘He’s not like that. Don’t you remember he wrote that whole piece about how writers should have good wives to make them coffee and rub their necks while they’re working?’
‘I think you’d do a better job than his current one. You’ve got stronger arms!’ Shelley said.
‘Oh God, look, he’s coming over here!’
The Senior Tutor jaunted into view. His eyes glinted in that friendly way they had for anyone who interested him. I was sure Shelley was wrong about his intentions; he didn’t exude a sexual excitement, but more of an intellectual one. Every conversation for him had the promise of talking about the next great thing in the literary world. Which certainly wasn’t anything I’d written. Like Shelley, I was doing the MA in the Modern Novel, not the much more prestigious and funky MA in Creative Writing. Shelley was the only person I had told about my writing, but I hadn’t shown her any of my bad confessional musings about my boyfriend break-ups.
The man who accompanied the Senior Tutor was much shorter than him, well dressed in a suit, with silver hair and a spritely manner. This little man thrust himself before us. He was small, his eye-line was barely above my cleavage; something that didn’t seem to bother him.
The Senior Tutor said: ‘Minor Poet, can I introduce you to Shelley and Rachel? Technically, they’re not supposed to be here’ -- his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled -- ‘what with this being a party for my Creative Writers to mingle with agents and publishers. But’ -- he was still grinning -- ‘they’re awfully well-informed about Modernism. It’s very rare... to find any student in England these days who has read Thomas Mann in the original German.’
‘Well, that’s because I am German,’ I said, twiddling with the silver tassels on my dress and laughing nervously. The Minor Poet and Shelley chortled, but the Senior Tutor seemed embarrassed. ‘Oh yes, of course! But your English is so good, you count as a native in my book. Was one of your parents English?’
‘No, both German,’ I said but the Senior Tutor seemed to ignore my point.
The Minor Poet took a step closer towards my chest, putting his hands behind his back. I could see now that if he had been larger and wasn’t wearing huge spectacles, he would have been a handsome man. Maybe he was in his late forties or early fifties like the Senior Tutor but his tiny size, ridiculous glasses and oleaginous demeanour made him seem older somehow. He said: ‘Senior Tutor, I know exactly why you asked them here, they’re so awfully pretty!’
‘Are you the author of ‘Purgatorial Shadows’?’ Shelley asked.
The Minor Poet abandoned his post by my breasts and leapt towards Shelley, the black spangles of her dress glittering in his glasses. ‘This is marvellous! A person in England who actually knows my work!’
‘I read about you when I was researching the Great Poet’s work for my dissertation,’ Shelley said.
‘Ah, yes, I fear I will only be remembered for who I knew, not what I wrote,’ the Minor Poet said. Then, in a strange gesture, he bowed like a gallant knight before Shelley, twirling his arms as he did as though he was placing a cape before her feet. ‘But I am much obliged that you thought to consider me.’
His bizarre movements disturbed the Senior Tutor; he made his excuses and headed back towards the Great Poet. The Minor Poet waved him off. ‘Bye! Don’t worry about me! I’m awfully happy here, thanks very much.’
Then he moved his head from side to side as though he was a hunter in the jungle. He said in a low whisper: ‘So do any of you girls smoke?’
‘I do,’ Shelley said.
‘Can you see a small dumpy woman with a gimlet eye nearby?’ the Minor Poet said.
‘Good, that means we can sneak outside! Bring that bottle!’
Shelley and I looked at each other, trying to decide what we made of the Minor Poet. Even though the guy was small and old, he seemed fun, somehow; the droning voice of the Great Poet could be heard now declaiming verse in the library. Everyone else had fallen silent. We followed the Minor Poet through the deserted kitchen out into the garden. It looked gorgeous there. The snow lined the high brick wall which sealed the house and grounds off from the outside world; it fell in fairy-tale fashion through the bare branches of the large trees which fringed the garden , and coated the ice on the ornamental pond giving Cupid, who was flourishing his bow above the frozen water, a white wig. Lights from the house shimmered on the silvery lawn making it seem like a white carpet rising into the night. Shelley and I shivered in our skimpy dresses.
‘Quick! I need a fag to warm me up!’ the Minor Poet said.
Shelley got one out of her purse. The pair of them lit up. I poured us all a drink from the bottle. The Minor Poet gulped down the wine in one go and asked for more, in between taking desperate gasps from his cigarette. He said: ‘Do you know -- if I wasn’t married, I’d be dead by now.’
‘You would?’ Shelley said. She leant closer towards him, clearly thrilled by his confession, which I found a bit creepy.
‘I’d be doing this every moment of every day!’ he said, peering at the ciggy and drink in his hand like they were naughty children. ‘She stops me, you see; she knows all my hiding places, she knows every little trick I get up to. Except that she wouldn’t guess that I still can charm two beautiful women into the snow. That would be beyond her credulity. But here I am! Partying in the snow with two of the most stunning women I’ve seen in my life!’
‘Well, not for much longer! It’s freezing out here!’ I said. ‘And this snow is ruining my heels!’
‘Oh stop fussing!’ Shelley said. ‘This snow is worth it. I was feeling really depressed the other day. It was so grey and cold and boring. I couldn’t get on with any work. The magic seemed to have gone from life, and then the snow came and it’s changed everything!’
‘Like what?’ the Minor Poet said.
‘I just feel now like life is exciting, romantic, and wild! Isn’t the snow the most gorgeous thing you’ve seen?’ Shelley said.
‘Not as gorgeous as you!’ the Minor Poet said, stroking her goose-fleshed arm. The fag in his hand dropped ash onto the snow.
‘Shelley, come on, let’s go inside.’
I pulled at her other arm, the one not being pawed by the Minor Poet, but she wouldn’t budge. ‘You go inside.’
‘Yes, we’ll keep warm here!’ the Minor Poet said, now rubbing his cheek against her arm. ‘Leave us the bottle!’
I hesitated, not quite believing that Shelley could be so rash. I mean, I’d seen her get off with a couple of guys since we’d been doing the course but she’d been much more far gone than this -- and they’d been attractive.
I stuck the bottle in the snow because Shelley was too distracted to take it: she was now taking off the Minor Poet’s glasses and kissing his white eyebrows. It was a truly frightening sight. He was gazing at her, moonily. ‘I’ll tell you something,’ he said in a low voice. ‘If my wife dies... well, you’ll be the first person I’ll call!’
Shelley hooted with laughter and put her hands down his trousers. I went inside.
The kitchen was dark and deserted, but the library was glaring and jammed. However, the mood seemed more subdued now that the Great Poet had disappeared. Somehow it felt as though the excitement had evaporated. I wandered around for a bit, trying to find someone to talk to. Every other student was a creative writer, and even though I knew a few of them, none of them wanted to know me because I wasn’t a lecturer, publisher or an agent. I thought about returning to the garden to see what had happened but I couldn’t bear the thought. So I made a plan: I’d go to the loo and leave. Shelley could make her own way home.
I went up the grand staircase to find the bathroom and discovered two people sitting on a bench situated in the nook of a large bay window which overlooked the garden. It was the Great Poet and a small dumpy woman. They were peering down into the garden, engrossed in conversation. I squinted and could see, even without my glasses on, that Shelley and the Minor Poet were in full view and were doing things that shouldn’t be observed in public.
‘Let’s be honest Agnes, he’d fuck a door after a few drinks,’ the Great Poet said.
‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ the woman sighed.
I hesitated for a moment. I could just keep walking, right into the loos, and pretend I didn’t hear or I could protest. But I was sick of being invisible. ‘Hey, that’s my friend you’re talking about! She’s not a door!’
The Great Poet and Agnes twisted their shoulders around to look at me. The Great Poet frowned. Now I was so close to him, I could see he was a perfect Heathcliff; his scruffy grey jacket, white shirt, green tie and black trousers scarcely seemed important because you could sense the body underneath.
The only thing striking about his dress was the fact that he was shoeless and was wearing thick blue socks. He had very big feet. I’d read that he loved hiking for days through the countryside with nothing in his pockets but a penknife, sleeping in ditches and foraging for food. With anyone else, this would make him a tramp, but this guy was genuinely elemental. His stare thawed my icy skin.
‘Now -- who have we here?’ he said.
Oh fuck, I thought, I really shouldn’t have said that to him. I giggled and trying to put on my best pout, and act the dopiest I could, I said: ‘I’m Shelley’s friend. She’s a clever person. She’s doing her dissertation on you!’
‘I fear she’s not too bright if she’s going to get involved with my husband,’ the woman said, pointing at the snow-encrusted window.
Now, normally I am almost a stereotypical German girl and not given to flare-ups; I’d already intervened with an entirely uncharacteristic outburst, and wasn’t intending to say anything more. But once again, my indignation caught me off-guard. . I said: ‘How can you just sit there and watch that? And talk so calmly? He’s your husband! He’s trying to fuck my friend!’
I put my hand over my mouth as I realised what I had said. Fortunately, both of them seemed unfazed. Agnes was a luckless looking woman with a pudding-bowl haircut and a face rather like a pumpkin; her wide mouth and button-like eyes were not attractive. She seemed strangely energised by her husband’s behaviour, waving her hands about in the air and chuckling as she said: ‘We all have our moments! Now, if you excuse me, I think I will I’ll have to go down there and break them up before he gets his wee willy winky out!’
The Great Poet, who clearly liked her, patted her on the back and then indicated, with a frightening flash of his dark eyes, that I should sit down. I remained standing with my arms folded. He may have been the most attractive man I had ever met in my life but I wasn’t going to be seduced. I wasn’t like Shelley. I wasn’t going to be some patriarch’s plaything.
‘You think there are different rules for poets, don’t you?’ I said, levelling a steely glare at him.
He shrugged. ‘Perhaps I used to think that. I’m not so sure anymore. I think such generalisations are not very helpful. You have to look at these things on a case by case basis.’
‘Your language is a bit clinical for a poet’s, isn’t it?’
‘What am I supposed to do? Write a poem about the Minor Poet’s indiscretions?’
‘It might make a good poem!’
The Great Poet laughed. ‘I think it’s more of short story than a poem.’
‘Making love in the snowy garden is kind of lyrical,’ I said, intoning in a mock poetic voice: ‘Their limbs wrestled in the snowy flesh of the lawn.’
But then I ran out of poetic things to say.
He laughed even louder. ‘That makes it sound like a Mills and Boon novel!’
‘Oh dear, I’m very rubbish at poetry.’
‘But do you write?’ the Great Poet said. He got up from the sofa and moved towards me so that his socks touched the tips of my wet high heels.
‘I don’t know. I write a lot of things, but it’s all a jumble, lots of different thoughts, ideas, fragments of stories and poems. I’m not sure what form they are.’
‘That’s good. Some day you may go back and rework that raw material.’
I turned away from the Great Poet and looked through the window, wincing as I saw that the blurry shapes of Shelley and the Minor Poet were still entangled. I said: ‘It’s so embarrassing. I can’t believe Shelley would be so stupid!’
‘Don’t worry. Your friend has made him a very happy man. Do you know he was thinking of killing himself only a few days ago? He and I have been the best of friends for many years, I love him dearly. But my work, which is no better technically or artistically than his, has been praised to the high heavens; his has been ignored. He can’t even get a publishing contract now. I sometimes wonder whether it’s because he’s so small.’
‘You think he’s never made it because he’s short arse?’
A melancholic smile wrinkled the Great Poet’s lips. ‘Yes, I do think if he was a foot taller he would much more successful.’
He sat down again and stared through the window. I found his honesty both touching and reassuring: he wasn’t taken in by the bullshit that people spouted about him. I sat down beside him and together we gazed down at Agnes as she strode out into the garden. Seeing that the Great Poet wasn’t looking at me, I whipped out my glasses from my handbag. The world sharpened as I put them on: Shelley was lifting the poet off the ground and was twirling him around slowly as they kissed -- a long, lingering kiss. They were so preoccupied that they hadn’t seen Agnes stomping towards them like a storm trooper.
‘Your friend is strong,’ the Great Poet said.
‘She works out at the uni gym every day.’
Then Shelley let him drop to the ground. As he buried his face in her chest, Shelley saw the approaching woman. She tapped the Minor Poet on the shoulder but he ignored her. However, he didn’t disregard his wife’s thump on his back. He fell into the snow. Seeing the game was up, Shelley tottered away.
Agnes knelt down by her husband, checking to see if he was all right. Then she took his hand and helped him sit up.
He became conscious of the world around him; that anyone peering through the garden windows probably saw him. He clocked that the pair of us were looking at him, then pretended that he hadn’t seen us. Shaking off his wife’s hand, he got to his feet -- with a little difficulty, he was not young -- and dusted the snow off his tweed jacket. He toddled towards the house, with Agnes following. She looked up at us, shrugged and went indoors.
Both the Great Poet and I saw that the gleaming cigarette packet and the bottle had been left in the snow.
‘Tomorrow, I’m going to explore the snowy landscape,’ the Great Poet said. ‘I’m going to walk from here to London.’
‘That’s a long way. Won’t you be very cold?’
‘I’ve got some very good walking boots.’
‘Why do you do it?’
‘It’s the only way I can write.’
‘But I read an interview with you where you said you only took a penknife.’
‘That’s right. I take no paper. I memorize everything as I’m walking.’
It made me think that the Minor Poet probably wrote in a safe, warm study, tended to by his wife, in much the same way that the Senior Tutor recommended all writers should be. The Great Poet had no such solace. I’d read his love life was a complete car-crash, a trail of broken hearts; his first wife had taken their little boy back to America with her, and he’d never seen the child again.
‘Do you think those cigarettes have gone soggy?’ the Great Poet asked.
‘I thought you didn’t smoke,’ I said.
‘I don’t normally, but I feel like a fag tonight.’””
‘I don’t smoke either.’
‘But you might enjoy one tonight?’
‘I might,’ I said, eyeing the Great Poet with a degree of suspicion. Was he making a pass?
‘Shall we try to get them?’ he persisted.
‘I’m not walking out in the snow in these shoes again. ’The Great Poet looked down at my poor feet, red and bulging in my wet stilettos.
‘Wait there a sec,’ he said and darted upstairs, disappearing into a room in the upper landing. He emerged a little later carrying a pair of large black socks.‘You can wear these, and I know I get you a pair of boots too,’ he said.
I followed him downstairs.
Dangling the socks like a lantern before him, he laughed as we snuck past the party in the library; I could see that the Senior Tutor and a few others were clearly searching for him. We ran to the kitchen, where he put on a monstrous pair muddy black boots and handed me a pair of much cleaner ones. I took off my heels and was about to put on the socks when he told me to wait. He took a tea towel hanging from a nearby peg and knelt down and dried my ravaged feet. He did this both tenderly and vigorously so that he warmed my toes in the process. It was one of the most erotic things to happen to me in my life. I leant back and just enjoyed the sensation of his strong fingers kneading my frozen extremities. Gorgeous relief. Then I put on the socks and laced the boots.
‘These fit perfectly! Whose are they?’ I asked as I stood up.
‘They’re the Senior Tutor’s! He never wears them, although he’s forever promising me he’ll come for a hike with me,’ the Great Poet said, grinning widely at his triumphant surmise.
He grabbed a thick coat from the back of the door and slung it over me without saying anything more. Shutting the door quietly behind us, we ventured out into the garden, my feet sinking with a crisp crunch into the snow, dry and warm in the Senior Tutor’s boots.