It was in mid-October, a few days after the Michaelmas term had begun and when the freshmen were starting to find their way about Oxford and to feel that one day they might even belong there. Anne was beginning her third year. Remembering her promise to Harvey, she invited his sister, Jenny, for a meal. Although she was in the middle of an essay and the deadline was looming, she asked Jenny round for supper. She made a chicken curry. Harvey had always liked it, so perhaps his sister would.
Jenny arrived, exactly on time (‘Punctual, perhaps she is different from her brother’) and she seemed younger and more vulnerable than Anne had expected. But then as the years pass, new university students, like policemen, do look younger and younger. To Anne, Jenny seemed more like a schoolgirl than a university student. Jenny was keen to listen to everything that Anne could tell her. (‘I never knew whether Harvey was listening to me or not. But no, that’s not fair. He did listen when it was important.’) They talked about book lists and lecturers, and then Anne asked Jenny about Harvey.
‘How is he?’
‘Fine, but he doesn’t go into details.’
‘But he does write, then?’
‘He writes to Mum. She insisted on that before he went. She knows where he is. She’s the only one.’
‘So where is he now?’
‘Mum told me that he’s in Greece. I think they should be in Athens now. They are going to visit the Acropolis.’
‘Ah yes, the Acropolis.’
So he is in Greece. Among the olive groves. In the land of Aphrodite. Wait though. She was from Cyprus, wasn’t she? Aphrodite rising from the waves. Who painted that? Botticelli? He is in Greece and here am I, on my own, braving the mists and rain of England in October as the nights begin to draw in. Ah well. On we go. We have to go on. Yes, we have to go on.
The meal went well. In fact, the evening went well. When it was over Anne went into her bedroom, walked over to the large world map on the cork board on the wall by her bed, took a red pin from the dish of red pins on her desk, and put one in Athens.
She saw quite a bit of Jenny as the weeks went by.
I saw the film ‘The Queen’ the other day. You know the one. Sylvia Syms was in it as the Queen Mother. She was an old lady! Just imagine! I last saw her in ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ back in the fifties. She’s still going strong though. We have aged together. Over the same years. She was beautiful in that film. In ‘Ice Cold’ I mean. How we age. Outwardly anyway. Inside we are much the same. And the inside matters much more, doesn’t it.
Talking of films, a great comic actor died the other day. He took his own life, which makes it all doubly sad. Yet he had made so many people laugh. But the loud guffaw, the belly laugh, is an empty laugh. Ephemeral and empty. Comedians are often sad, aren’t they? Feste is melancholy. ‘What’s the point?’ wrote another another comedian, in his last diary entry before he too committed suicide. So sad. He had made people laugh loud and often.
The quiet smile from the heart is surer.
So what is the point? Gerald Priestland, who was wise in these matters, described an incident when driving in London one morning. He braked and stopped at the zebra crossing and made a sweeping bowing gesture to a girl who was waiting to cross. She smiled and curtsied and walked across the road. And that was it. A gesture, a little detail in the day, between two people who had never met before and would never meet again, and it mattered. It does matter. There’s the point.
Read the last lines of ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’. It’s one of that African series by that Scottish writer. What’s his name? Alexander something. Ah yes. McCall Smith. Alexander McCall Smith! Quite an impressive name, isn’t it, when you say it out loud, though I may have got it wrong. With a name like that you are destined to stand out! Yes, the last paragraph. I’d lend it to you if I could find it. It’s on one of my shelves somewhere. How many of those Botswana books are there? Six? Or is it seven? Perhaps there are more now. I really must gather them up and put them together on the same shelf. In the correct order. I’ll do it sometime. Yes, that is what I will do. I really will. How those books show what the point is! I wish those comedians could have read them. Read the last lines of ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’. Yes, look them up. It’s worth the trouble.
Have you read them now? Well then, that is the point, isn’t it.
Back to films, then. And back to school days in Waterbury. In the winter on Saturdays rugby was cancelled when the weather was really bad. And it had to be very bad because I remember playing in snow, and cold it was out on the wing when the forwards had all the game to themselves and the ball hardly ever came out to the backs. Snow was unusual, though, but playing in the driving rain was normal. But when the weather was really atrocious, even rugby was finally called off. Often a run was planned but if that too was cancelled then the cinema was considered. Everything depended on whether the film was regarded as suitable. Then came the wait. Will we boys be allowed to see the film or not? What sort of film is it? And then finally the word went round that we could go. Marvellous! We walked down to the Odeon in pairs in our navy macs and we filled the balcony. It was heaven on earth! Those moments when we were out of the institution, in normal life, on an equal footing with everyone else in the world, were paradise. They were very few but one of them was the cinema on those rare Saturday afternoon when rugby was cancelled and even a cross-country run was impossible.
I must be getting my affairs in order. Well, you never know and I don’t want to give a lot of work to whoever has to clear up. Who will that be? It may well be Anne. I don’t want to give her work, but I hope that she is the one who does it. She won’t just throw things willy-nilly into a sack for the dustman to collect. She will take care of my old books even if she never reads them. I must get things straight ‘in case I miscarry’ as Samuel Pepys said when he was doing much the same thing though he was much younger then than I am now.
I’m not talking about my will. I did that a few years ago though it took me some time to get round to it, I must admit. It’s not the most agreeable thing to do, is it! No it’s my books and photos and old letters. I can’t throw them out because they mean something to me. But they mean nothing to anyone else, and I don’t want to leave a lot of worry for whoever has to go through it all. I have a lot of things to tidy up, and I must tackle it in a practical way. I’ll start tomorrow. I’ll get up at seven and be at it by eight. Good. That’s that then!