CAMBRIDGE in November. I have bumped there on the country buses to celebrate
our birthdays, Jane’s and mine.
This is an ancient custom. We are each other’s oldest friends in every sense
of the term, and in this instance ritualistic, going over the same ground,
resuscitating those who have gone before, arguing a bit, forgiving a lot, and
firing off cheerful declarations of affection.
She will cook us a fine dinner; but before then we are to inspect the
refurbished Fitzwilliam Museum to find out where they have put our favourite
Being 90, Jane is autocratic. Charming young attendants bring a wheelchair,
and I drive it from gallery to gallery, from lift to lift, from Brueghels to
Freuds, the great glass doors being swung open before us. And, of course, as
Jane has a special veneration for them, we have to pay our respects to the
Roman emperors, older friends even than I.
No time to dawdle. No time to catch my face in a Roman mirror or read the
labels. The latter restriction suddenly reminds me of being taken to the Sydney
Aquarium by my brother, and being slowed down by all the information. "Come on!
There’s no time to read." With Jane in the Fitzwilliam, I notice that
there is plenty of time for the emperors and their battered noses.
We have tea in the new and marvellously roofed restaurant, Jane now
enthroned in the wheelchair, pretty girls in attendance, and surely a curator
hovering near. "Do you believe in heaven?" Jane asks during dinner: "I don’t."
She has arranged "one of those ecological funerals", but with "bell, book and
candle, of course". Of course.
I take my usual November walk round Cambridge before coming home. It is
perfect, the grey-gold stone, the lingering smell of fireworks, the leaves on
the college lawns, the undergraduates in Ryder & Amies measuring themselves
for gowns, the persistent whiff of Reformation in Great St Mary’s, the vast
glories of the Botanic Garden peeping through its gates, the dark Backs, the
worn walls, the risky old men on bikes, the autumn alleys, the beautiful faces,
the new hopes.
Then the ride to Bury St Edmunds, bus-talk like a parrot house. I make a
dash to the cathedral to sit in my stall for a few minutes. It has a new
cushion embroidered with a quill pen, not a computer. It is the feast of St
Leonard, my birthday saint. He was a French hermit whose official Life is
historically worthless. Like his Lord, he did his best "to open the blind eyes,
to bring out the prisoners from the prison and them that sit in darkness out of
the prison house".
The Wormingford roads are slippery with leaves and shallow puddles. The days
are alternately dull and brilliant. We tidy up the grass round the American war
memorial for the laying of the wreath. Far too many names to read out, but we
will listen to "ours" in the church and sing hymns redolent still of the Great
War, and I will receive the British Legion standards at the altar, and push the
mourning and guilt forward into the current conflict, as I fear the Church will
do until kingdom come.
What God makes of it all, one dare not imagine. Best just stick to the
poignant language, the perennial rite, the ineradicable memories, the strange
sense of love.