And men myrtles, part two
"Cup of tea wi' that, Bill, my dear?"
The bustling woman had the teapot under the faucet and began filling it without waiting for a reply. "Bill" Stokes had become a regular visitor to Maisie's Cafe in Castle Street over the past six months. It was a matter of professional pride for Maisie to know her frequent customers by name but it had taken all her cheery guile to prise the information from this one. William nodded with a grimace that bore the faintest intimation of a smile and slid his money across the counter.
He took up the plastic tray and made his way across the room to his usual table in the corner. Maisie watched him go, wiping absently where a little milk had spilled onto the wood-grained melamine. He's a quiet one, she thought. But each to their own. She shook her head sagely and returned to her duties.
The book under his arm made progress difficult and the tray flexed dangerously, threatening to shed his meal - Maisie's all day breakfast best - across the floor. With relief he reached his goal and set the tray down safely on the daisy-patterned tablecloth. He seated himself without removing his overcoat.
It was eleven fifteen - early for the lunch time rush - and there were only three other customers. At a table by the window two women leant together, chatting conspiratorially in lowered voices, gesturing across their tea cups. In the middle of the room a serious-looking young man sat with his head buried in his newspaper. Maisie had disappeared into the back kitchen. Nobody was paying him the slightest attention.
William reached for the salt, applying it liberally and with scant regard for his doctor's advice. He began to eat one-handed, the book held open with the other so close to his face that he had to navigate each forkful past its pages to reach his mouth.
The fare was excellent by cafeteria standards but William barely registered what he was eating. He was engrossed, caught away from his surroundings by a story greater and more terrible than he once would have imagined possible.
He lowered the book and his fork and poured himself a cup of tea from the brown earthenware pot. As he did so he found himself staring at a small almost perfectly heart-shaped mark at the edge of the spout.
It was nothing: Maisie had chipped the thing putting it into or out of the dishwasher - or maybe it was a fault in the glaze. The mark could have no significance whatsoever. Nevertheless its shape - or William's interpretation of it - felt as though it might be important. He had been noticing little things like this a lot recently. Ever since ... Ever since when?
He knew the answer well enough. Ever since that Sunday last September in Wolvercote cemetery. One year and a week ago. Something had happened that morning and though he had never met their like before or since he owed it all - his reawakening as he had come to think of it - to the motley group of visitors at Professor Tolkien's grave.
The tea was hot and William sipped at it carefully.
His attitude towards them, specifically to the Tolkien Society who seemed to have organised the event, had mellowed considerably. He had initially reacted to them with a mixture of resentment and annoyance; the ritualised procession through the cemetery, the readings, plainsong and group responses by the graveside all striking him at the time as crassly affected, self-indulgent and sentimental in the worst meaning of the word. How could they be so sincere in their devotion to a man few, if any, of them could have known personally?
And yet he had not been able to deny his own response to the events he had witnessed. They had moved him in ways he was only now, months later, beginning to understand.
He still visited the cemetery almost every weekend and after tending Joan's grave he would stand in front of Tolkien's plot or sit on the faded, green-painted bench from where he had watched the mystery play unfold. The Piper, tall and blond in his blue velvet cloak. The woman with the faded leather jacket who had first addressed the gathering. The silent ranks of mourners. The singing and the words of power that had caught him up and so far out of himself that he wondered he had ever really come down.
And the girl. He had only to close his eyes in an unguarded moment to see her again. Her pale face framed by raven hair and heavy gothic make-up; beneath the full length fake fur coat the promise of a body so young it terrified him. He shook the thought away.
He found he was staring down at his plate. Against the blue-rimmed china spilt egg yolk had already begun to congeal. Joan used to collect a dozen fresh-laid eggs each Friday from the farm shop along the lane. A cooked breakfast every morning; bacon, two sausage and eggs sunny side up, their yolks not pale like these but the vivid yellow of crocus in springtime. A few bare years and an Age of the World ago.
William had taken early retirement to nurse her. It was difficult but for a time things weren't too bad and they made the best of it with drives around the Derbyshire countryside, days out and weekends away. And there was his beloved garden. Gardening had always been a passion: they had chosen their home largely for the narrow strip of land that ran away from the house towards fields and the river beyond. It was semi-derelict when they moved in, a wilderness of weeds and unsympathetic planting but William had risen to the challenge.
Hour by hour in the evening and at weekends he had dug and shaped the earth, guided as much by heart as skilful husbandry. To Joan the garden was simply William's thing - a man needs a hobby - as occupying but essentially arbitrary as needlework and reading were to her. But for William, though he could not have put it into words, his "hobby" went much deeper. Perhaps it answered some genetic urge - hadn't his grandfather worked on the land?
Whatever the motivation as the years turned he wrought himself a haven from his little plot of land. A narrow lawn wound the length of the garden in an echo of the river that lay beyond the neighbouring fields. On either side deep country-cottage borders ranged gaily against high beech hedges that shut out the world and in the autumn glowed gold and russet-brown.
And the sound of your hair
The words came to him unbidden, lines from some poem or other he had read once years before. And with them returned the first flush of his love for Joan, whose red-gold hair he had first adored. So long ago.
But hard on the memory's heels came another. Like a thunderhead it advanced from the edge of consciousness. Panic rose in his chest. He knew what was coming: tried but could not forbid it.
Vision blurred and he was back in his garden tidying the borders. A Saturday afternoon in Springtime. The wooden handle of his grandfather's hoe was warm and smooth in his hand; half a century of utility. Earth clung to the blade as he worked the topsoil. He stopped and stood up straight, leaning on the hoe and squinting against the pale sunlight. It was getting on; five o'clock maybe. Time to go see what Joan wanted for dinner. She didn't have much of an appetite these days but perhaps he could tempt her to something.
He kicked his shoes off inside the kitchen door and hung up his jacket, then scrubbed the earth from his fingers at the sink. Good, honest dirt. He entered the lounge still drying his hands. Joan lay asleep on the couch. He paused in the middle of the room wondering whether to wake her.
In the cafe nobody paid any attention to the old man in the corner, head bowed over his half-eaten breakfast. Had they done so the women by the window or the serious young man might have noticed the tears running down his reddened face.
William stared down at his wife and for the first time saw truly what she had become. Her hair no longer shone with golden light but fell lank about a face rendered hard by months of pain and barely suppressed fear. Stretched out on the couch lay not his Joanie, mistress of his heart, but something he could not name; frail and terrible and wild in the depths of its need.
In that moment hope died in William's heart. Two years would pass before the end but nothing would ever be the same for him again. Unable to hate Joan for changing he despised himself for hating what she had become. If she noticed the change no word of it was ever spoken. His guilt he assuaged with an unfailing and selfless dedication that in time took on the nature of an obsession. Nothing was too much trouble for Joan, no sacrifice too great for him to make if by it he could ease her suffering a little while.
They travelled widely while she still could, while they could afford to: short holidays abroad; consultants and quacks in half a dozen cities to hold the fear at bay. They sold the car: that and the last of their savings took them twice to Lourdes. The second pilgrimage marked the end of all pretence. Joan was so ill that there were days William could barely stand to look at her.
On their return they cashed William's pension, sold the house, her jewellery, everything. Joan moved to a hospice on the outskirts of Oxford. For William there was a bedsit in the student quarter, half a mile from Joan and a million from anywhere his heart would have recognised as home. He holed up and waited for the end. It didn't take long. It took a lifetime. Now Joan was gone and he spent his Sundays tending her grave with his little trowel. Good honest dirt.
William pushed the plate away from him with sudden disgust. He drained his cup in one motion, took up his book and headed for the door. Maisie called out, Bye dearie. See you next week. But he was gone.
After his experiences in Wolvercote Cemetery William had wanted to discover more about this JRR Tolkien, author, whose grave had been the focus of whatever it was that had happened. The name was vaguely familiar to him but it took a bus ride into Oxford to discover that Tolkien had been a writer of fantasy; father, some blurb writers wanted to boast, of the entire modern fantasy genre. Like that was something to be proud of!
As far as William was concerned fantasy nestled in the lowest echelons of literary achievement alongside Science Fiction and the historical romances that Joan used to read so avidly. Only the revelation that Tolkien had been an Oxford don persuaded William to borrow The Lord of the Rings from the library.
Confirming his prejudices he at first found Tolkien's style awkward and naive; as far as it was possible to be from the eighteenth century French novels he was wont to read in their native tongue. The Shire in particular annoyed him with its cloying rural simplicity and by the time the Long Expected Party was over he was ready to throw the thing away in frank disgust. How in heaven could these people find - whatever it was that they found - in such nonsense?
But it was not so simple. He might condemn the book in whatever manner and for whatever reasons he liked. It was, after all, just a book and he was entitled to his opinion. He could not, though, so readily dismiss the legacy of that September morning. What it had done to him.
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
William need answers. He needed to understand. And so he persevered, putting aside his distaste and doggedly refusing the temptation to skip ahead. It was a discipline, perhaps, that sprang from his gardening. In a garden you could not skip ahead. You could only plant and hope - or plant and hoe as his grandfather had liked to quip. Samwise alone encouraged him. He wondered if Tolkien had much time for gardening.
It took William three weeks intermittent reading to reach Bree. Two more took him to the last Homely House. Somewhere along the road he had his Damascus moment. A month later he wept with Sam at the Grey Havens as the last ship took his dreams across the ocean. The next day he returned The Return of the King to the library. He bought himself the latest one volume edition of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Carpenter's biography.
From that moment William read voraciously, resenting anything that hindered his immersion in Middle-earth. Three times he journeyed with Frodo; Hobitton to the Havens. The Silmarillion was more difficult but he found there in concentrated distillation the essence of Otherness he was beginning to recognise as readily as the sight of the home he no longer knew or the smell of a garden.
Passages moved him suddenly, unexpectedly to tears and with an absence of self-respect that went far beyond his years he cared little where he wept. Behind his own closed bedsit door; on the bus or the Oxford train; propped at a corner cafe table, silently sobbing; in the public library.
To an outsider it might have seemed that he was burying his pain at losing Joan. Running away. But far from bringing comfort and distraction the books highlighted everything that was missing in his own life. He read of Fellowship and was alone; of courage and knew himself to be weak and pathetic. Of love and was unloved. Tolkien had written of Man, when he is enchanted. It wasn't an easy thing to believe in.
It was getting dark by the time William returned to the first floor room he steadfastly refused to call home. He placed The Lord of the Rings on the mantelpiece and emptied his pockets - keys and wallet and loose change - into a pretty china dish that had once graced Joan's dressing table. Three paces took him across the room to his tiny kitchen. He shook the kettle and set it back down on the hob with a crash that splashed water onto the cracked enamel. It took three matches to light the gas. He threw his overcoat and jacket onto the bed and stood at the window in his shirtsleeves while the kettle came to the boil.
There wasn't much of a view. His room overlooked the short paved yard at the end of which a gate gave onto a cinder track and the railway beyond. Doubtless inspired by the modern rash of television makeover shows the landlord had painted the brick wall that separated his property from its neighbour a pale shade of blue. A lightweight two seater bench and three mock stone tubs completed the transformation.
Two of the tubs had stood empty for as long as William had been living there, their contents having long since succumbed to the elements or - more likely - neglect. The third tub, pushed hard against the painted brickwork, boasted a holly bush some three or four feet tall.
William had rarely been down there. In the beginning Joan had been his only concern; he drove away the guilt and the pain running errands or at her bedside in the hospice it took him two buses to reach. Even when he had a moment he could not have sat there while she languished alone. She would not have minded - or known had he chosen not to tell her - but it would have felt like a betrayal.
Since Joan died he had ventured down once or twice on sunny afternoons when the other residents were out at work but he had been unable to relax. It was not what he called a garden: the hard flagged do-it-yourself austerity of the place depressed him and there was no greenery save the holly in its fibreglass pot.
From where he stood at his window its leaves were almost black against the wall which shimmered cold and unearthly under the light of the security lamp by the back door. Something about the image compelled him. That afternoon in the library he had reached the West Gate with Frodo and the Company. Ithildin and moonshine. With them he had dared the monster in the pool. Passed the door-wards, two ancient hollies, and entered the darkness.
Speak, friend, and enter.
The whistling kettle broke William's concentration. By the time he had made his cup of tea the moment had passed and he returned to the window only long enough to draw the cheap yellow curtains. On the windowsill in its plastic pot the oak tree raised two tiny leaves towards the night sky.
William sat with his drink in the aged armchair. Normally he would read a while before going to bed but not tonight. He felt too on edge. He closed his eyes and tried to relax. In his mind he was standing again before the tidy grave plot. The stone gave only the year of Tolkien's death but William knew he had died in a Bournemouth nursing home on Sunday the second of September. The date was important precisely because it was not the date the strange troupe had chosen to visit the author's grave the year before. If they had intended to mark the date of his passing they had missed it by nearly three weeks.
The discrepancy annoyed him. Scared him. Each Sunday for the past month he had attended the cemetery in hope, in almost desperate expectation that they would return. Without fully knowing why he needed their return. Three times now he had sat hunched on the wooden bench well into the afternoon, impatient and disenchanted, until he could no longer convince himself they were merely late. Dis-enchanted. Now there was a word. Tomorrow was his last chance. If they failed to show he might never see them again. Might never know the truth.
It took him a long time to fall asleep. He lay there like a child on Christmas Eve but the thought only made it harder for him to settle. And what do you want from Santa, little boy? A miracle.
When he woke it was a quarter to eleven. He dressed quickly, cursing himself for forgetting to set the alarm clock. No time for breakfast. He left the house at a run. The bus was disappearing into the distance as he rounded the corner. Bugger. He waited twenty minutes then decided to walk. The next bus overtook him with a mile to go. William eventually arrived at the cemetery, breathless and frustrated, a little after half past twelve. Late. You're too bloody late.
He stood a long time by Tolkien's grave. All about him the short turf was trodden down in a broad arc facing the grave. A collection of wreathes and flowers lay off to his left. He had missed them. Bugger. Shit. Bugger. He felt empty. He hadn't even been over to Joan's plot. He didn't know what to do.
He hadn't heard anyone approach. He span round but it took several seconds for recognition to dawn. The long hair was shorter now, and blonde where it showed beneath her beaded woollen hat. In place of the fake fur coat she wore a shapeless knitted thing that hung almost to the ground - but beneath her untidy fringe the eyes were the same.
William struggled to compose himself, as if in so doing he might conjure some pleasantry or greeting to answer the impossible immediacy of her and subdue the panic that threatened to engulf him. Nothing came but as he fought for control he was acutely, painfully aware of how he must appear to this girl. Old. Untidy. Lecherous. Already in the few seconds she had been standing there he had stared her up and down, appraising her young body. Too young, William. Too young. He couldn't help himself. Even now he was staring at where the open coat draped her small breasts. With a physical effort he forced himself to look her in the face, only to find that she was staring at the grave.
"You were here last year." She spoke without looking up; softly, sadly, with the hint of an accent William could not quite place. More than the words, the timbre of her voice gave him pause. His awareness of her and of himself altered in that moment; he was focused now utterly in the moment, on the two of them, together before Tolkien's grave.
"Yes I was. You too?" He grimaced at the stupid question but when she turned and looked up at him she was smiling.
"I thought you weren't coming. This year, I mean. I looked for you but you weren't there."
She gave the slightest tilt of her head in the direction of the standpipe. He had been standing there when she and the others had trouped by. One year ago. She remembers me.
"I was late. I missed the bus." It seemed a lame excuse despite being true but the girl turned suddenly solemn.
"Really? That's such a shame. It was wonderful. Best ever. Denis was in great form."
Who? William wanted to ask but he felt embarrassed, awkward. Was Denis the cloaked stranger, perhaps, who had read so movingly the year before? Or the singer whose plainsong rendition of Galadriel's lament had overwhelmed him? He decided to risk asking but she had moved on.
"Everyone was here. There was a camera crew and everything. They stayed out of the way." As she turned away sunlight spilt little rainbows from the glass beads on her hat and revealed copper highlights in her hair that William hadn't noticed before. "Over there by that seat -"
She lifted one arm out straight before her and pointed along the path. Beneath the shade of the high hedge that bordered the cemetery was the wooden bench from where he had watched the previous year's performance. He shifted his feet so he could see her in profile. She was squinting against the light, her fringe in her eyes.
"There were three of them. One with the camera, one just stood there and one with a sound thing - you know, a microphone on one of those poles ..."
"A boom." He spoke without meaning to, barely listening to what she was saying. But his remark broke the moment. She let her arm drop to her side and turned back to face him.
"Is that what it's called?"
"I think so."
Her lips - pale this year without the carmine lipstick - pursed in the smallest of pouts as she pondered this new piece of information. "Sounds a bit Entish, doesn't it?"
"You know. Entish. Boom! Boom! Haroom!" She declared the words slowly and as deeply as her voice could manage.
"Ah, yes. Like Treebeard you mean? Very good." He smiled then, allowing himself to be caught up in the moment. "Or Basil Brush." Now it was her turn to look confused.
"Brush. The puppet." Panic opened once more beneath his feet. He dared an impression - "Boom! Boom!" - and regretted it immediately. She was delighted at his attempt but none the wiser.
"Sorry, I don't ..."
"It's all right. You're too young." Damn right, you old goat!
She stared at him as if awaiting some further explanation. When none was forthcoming she turned back to the grave.
"I wish I wasn't, sometimes. So young, I mean."
William waited for her to continue. He hardly dared breathe. She was quiet now; distant. It was disconcerting how quickly and utterly her moods changed. Like being with two people at once.
"I wish I'd known him, that's all. I read somewhere he got his stories from the Elves. They met him and told him all their tales and he wrote them down and had them published and that was how he did it. I know it's silly - but it's a lovely idea, isn't it?" She glanced back as if afraid William thought she was being stupid.
A year ago he would have thought precisely that. Stupid and naive. Elves and goblins, dragons! Christ! Life wasn't like that. No need to invent monsters when cancer could rip your life apart with so little warning. Life was like that. But things were less straightforward now. Tolkien and the Elves: of course it was ridiculous - but such things, he had discovered, could not be dismissed so easily. Something had changed. You, you daft sod. It's you that's changed! And he knew it was true. Being here was proof of that. Being here with her. He didn't even know her name. He smiled down at her upturned face.
"Yes, it is. A lovely idea."
An hour later they were still together. William couldn't recall either of them suggesting a promenade but here they were in the outskirts of Wolvercote or wherever, walking and talking together on a sunny Sunday in September. In truth she was doing most of the talking but if she noticed his awkwardness she did not let it show. She was a third his age and they had never met before today - did last year's encounter count? What about all the times he had thought of her since that day? - but she talked as though they had been friends for years. As though there was no problem. Perhaps she was right. He wished he could believe that.
They talked mostly about Middle-earth. William was amazed how much she knew of Tolkien's tales; she had characters and places and nuances of story committed to memory in such a manner that they bubbled forth as she talked. He felt a fraud allowing her to assume that he shared her passion, that he was like her. One of them. A fan. Yet he had read The Lord of the Rings three times in the past year and discovered he had absorbed more than he imagined. He found himself being drawn into the discussion almost without meaning to. Their conversations turned this way and that. One moment they were discussing Bombadil - You know he's a nature spirit don't you? - the next debating what might have happened to the Ring after Gollum fell with it into the fire.
"I suppose the Ring itself melted but surely all that magic -" The way she said the word William knew it was something she believed in. "Surely the magic didn't just go away ... or maybe Gollum and the Ring sort of fused in all the heat and got melted in with the gold and it ended up in some seam of gold in the rocks when the mountain cooled ..."
"Do you mean the Ring might have survived?"
"Why not? Well, not the Ring but the gold. And maybe someone could find the gold and make it into something and then that would release all the power and magic ..."
It seemed so fanciful and one part of William observed the exchange with a knowing sneer. Look at you, Bill Stokes! Playing the fool over a pretty girl. Talking out of your arse because you fancy hers ... His new half, the half that was a year old and could trace its birth to Wolvercote cemetery, did its best to ignore the admonition.
"That could be what Tolkien meant when he said that it couldn't be a final victory even though Sauron was gone. That the evil could return again ..."
"Where did he say that?"
"It was in one of his letters ..."
It turned out that William knew far more about Tolkien the man than she did. He had only read his Letters and biography once but he had a mind that retained such details.
At last their conversation stilled into silence. William realised he had no idea where they were or even in which direction they had been heading. North, perhaps. He thought he could remember turning left as they came out of the cemetery gates. He looked about him but could see nothing to help him gain his bearings.
"I'm thirsty." She had been listening attentively for the past five minutes as William told her of Tolkien's time in Leeds but now her mood had changed again. Her tone was immediate and demanding.
"I don't know if there's anywhere ..."
"I do," she said. "Come on!" She took his hand in hers and led him away to their left down a narrow alley.
Out of the sunlight it felt cold and forbidding; a million miles from the world outside. The high redbrick walls were old and weathered, here and there adorned with spray paint and an assortment of coloured chalks. He strained to read the graffiti in the dim light as they passed.
"What -?" William hesitated, wanted to stop, but she only laughed at his protest and drew him on. He could easily have pulled his hand from hers and stopped but he didn't dare. He was getting breathless. His head swam. You're too old for this. Bloody hell.
The alley gave out into brilliant sunlight but she didn't stop. Left, then right and on and left again. At last she halted and let go of his hand. Wheezing and dizzy, it took William several moments to regain his breath and his composure. They were standing at a cross-roads. Rows of nondescript housing stretched away in both directions. Nobody was abroad and he still had no idea where they were but despite his misgivings it all appeared reassuringly normal.
It was then that William noticed the building. A lumbering three storey timber and brick structure, it dominated the junction diagonally across from where they stood. William stared in amazement. At first glance it appeared totally out of place and yet he had the feeling it had stood far longer than the post-war houses that now surrounded it. It belonged here.
Whatever its pedigree the building was clearly a hotel or public house. A board swinging from a bracket on the wall declared it "The Journeyman's Arms". There was some sort of device or painting above the words but from where he stood William could not make it out.
"Come on, then." It was the first time she had spoken in half an hour.
"You want to go in there?"
"Yes. I want to do some serious drinking!"
She said it so seriously that William was suddenly scared. What on earth was he doing here? Was she even old enough to drink? Seeing the look on his face she burst out laughing.
"It's okay, I can drink a small amount of alcohol very seriously!"
Before he could protest she took his hand again and led him across the road like a little boy. He found himself fascinated. The wooden beams of the building looked ancient, genuine. Perhaps they had once been preserved with pitch but the warped and fissured timbers now glowed a russet brown where the sunlight lay across them. In between, the red bricks were small and uneven, far older than those in the alley. And there was no graffiti. William traced one finger between a line of bricks. Mortar trickled down the wall in a silver stream.
Tolkien is the truth.
He looked round at the girl in mute appeal. He had to squint against the light but she seemed to be smiling benignly back at him, either unaware or unresponsive to his distress.
"Come on, then. It's your round!" She dropped his hand and was gone.
William hastened around the corner and followed her through a heavy wooden door. On the lintel the name Wllm Maloney, Proprietor was picked out in gold paint. He half expected to find himself in the smoky darkness of the Prancing Pony but the room inside was light and airy. A jukebox played quietly in the far corner. He didn't recognise the tune but it was banal enough to be a current chart hit. Seems okay.
Most of the tables were taken but they found one free by the window. She sat down and folded her hands in front of her. William removed his coat and draped it over a chair. Then he hesitated, unsure of the formalities. It had been a long time.
"Err ... what would you like to drink?" Lemonade. That would be safe. Maybe a shandy.
"I'll have half a half of bitter, please."
"Sorry - you want a half?"
"No silly, a half a half - a quarter of a pint!"
Without warning she stood up and strode across the room in the direction of the jukebox. William watched her go, dismally aware of the shape of her backside beneath the long knitted coat. At the last moment she turned left and went through a plain wooden door William could only assume was the Ladies. She's been here before.
He stood by the table, uncertain whether it was safe to leave his coat unattended. She returned a few minutes later. She seemed amused to see him still standing there but sat down again without a word.
"I'll just get the drinks, then."
He found the barmaid in conversation with young two men propped at the bar. Each had a half-drained pint glass in front of him. William's heart sank. He couldn't possibly order a quarter of a pint. Not in front of these two. The barmaid turned to him with a smile as he approached.
"Yes my dearie, what can I get you?"
In sudden inspiration he ordered two halves of best bitter, asking for one of them to be poured into a pint glass. The barmaid didn't bat an eyelid. Perhaps it was not so unusual a request. William paid for the drinks and returned to the table in triumph.
Continued here ...