I rose to my feet and smoothed down my jacket. Some of the others had spoken ad libitum—and, indeed, ad nauseum—but it was not my custom to be unprepared, I had my few sheets of paper. I cast an eye over my typed notes. The page reassured me. The type, the neat margins-they were as reassuring to me as an embrace. I walked to the podium and took my place behind it. The room was suddenly very dark, though there were candles and small lights at every seat. That confused me. The darkness usually drew me to it like an accomplice, we knew where we stood with each other. Tremors, tiny spurts of nervous electricity swarmed up and down my body, dizzyingly. The sensitive spots, the tips of my fingers, the insides of my wrists, my knees, all tingled. My head seemed full, my sight obscured, but I took some deep breaths so I could see faces, eyes. They were waiting; solemn, encouraging, sad.
The podium was familiar to me, scene of many a wrestle with the reluctant brains of my undergraduates. I was accustomed to looking out into that odd twilight. Each other day, it reminded of my unwarranted trials, the efforts I made to strike a light in their brains, to be a figure remembered fondly after years. The wood was casual and shiny under the palms of my hands, where I always gripped it, leaning forward to emphasise a point. I knew that I might pass unnoticed in the corridor, in a public house, on the street, but what did that matter when the real world was my podium, the universe the dim shape of seats and doors? Who cared that I was brushed past by the long tresses and wide, bright mouths and long, slim legs and, well, so on-that was only in the sunshine and the wind and the littered streets. People existed in my audience and it was from them I drew sustenance. Only when I had hurried back to the sanctuary of my rooms did I ever doubt my success-did they see my brilliance? Would they remember my cutting remarks? Or would they faintly remember an overweight and dowdy academic prone to spite and sulks? No. No. No.
I began to speak.
I had worked a long time on this, my touching tribute to Clara-it must have been a few months that I laboured over it. This would be her last accolade. It had to be a good one. My own thoroughness pleased me; after a few false starts I had decided to start from the outside in. The public persona, then Clara as a friend, as recalled by we few who had known her. It was a generosity on my part. I was quietly aware that that fact would be acknowledged and appreciated. I was sharing her with them. I was giving them for a brief few moments a shining sapphire; they could hold the treasure in their hands thanks to me, weep at her grave that this jewel no longer reflected light. It would be my doing that they could stand like sentries by her tomb and sound the Last Post for a fallen star.
I spoke of Clara’s achievements, listing the honours heaped upon her shining head from the time she was a child, drawing attention in particular to those areas where her achievements had so noticeably outshone my own. I did not want it ever to be said that everyone noticed that I did not mention the awards we had both striven for and had been swept up with her now-famous smile, the jobs we had both applied for when she puzzled over which offer to accept and I tried to feel grateful for whatever second-rate place came my way. Clara had been ambitious, a fact I openly referred to and made into a virtue rather than the failing I had really felt it to be. Clara was cold, now, unfairly cut off in her prime and what kind of begrudger would I be if I had not praised her every characteristic? Everyone knew she was ambitious and I knew many admired her for it, for her determination, her single-mindedness, and that was the tone I took. I did not tell those anecdotes which would have shown Clara as the shark she sometimes imitated. Anyway, if she had been a man, I reminded myself, I probably would not have thought her a shark. Beware your own prejudices. I probably would have admired her strength of character.
They were listening to me, avidly. There was not a sound from the theatre. A muffled cough, a mere clearing of the throat. None of the usual whispers and sighs and sneaking out the side door which usually accompanied my speaking. For the first time in eighteen years, I had unwavering attention. I moved in a little closer.
The family had been a close, tightly knit one, and I saw the relatives preen themselves. A cliche, but a dearly beloved one. A handful of sisters, their fluttering and chattering anchored by an indulgent brother at either end, presided over by the pale, elegant, strong-willed mother and the rich father. Clara had remained close to them, her successes and triumphs had reflected on them, and their praise stayed in her eyes long after the metal had tarnished and the accolades dimmed. She had had another family too, in a way, I reminded my audience as though I had just thought of it myself. Her friends. I tried my hand at the casual, the slightly slangy: They were, I said, a pretty eclectic bunch. Many academics, of course, from all disciplines, Clara was a true seeker after knowledge. Not content to stay within the confines of her own field of research, she spread her net wide and drew the cream of every subject into her friendship. I knew she would have liked that way of putting it, she prided herself on her ability to draw influence from so many subjects, deriding those who walled themselves in with language and convention, would talk drunkenly and spitefully of her detractors who called her a butterfly-minded flirt and did not recognise the boundlessness of her abilities.
I genuinely admired her abilities. I would make jokes—admittedly rather heavy jokes—against myself and how I found that keeping track of the policies and historical facts on which my interpretations were based was quite diverse enough for me. The only other subject I really tried to understand was pathology. I wanted to know exactly what it was that had taken Clara from us. The excessive bleeding? The initial shock of her accident? The crack in her skull? I had heard one or two mutterings about morbidity but the doctor I spoke to said firmly that sometimes in such cases, the grieved can be comforted by exact knowledge. I was not really one of Clara’s close friends, I should admit. I often hinted at a closer friendship than I could really claim, I dropped her name occasionally, when my confidence needed boosting. She invited me to her house a lot, that is perfectly true, I am not making that up. But it was either on my own, when we would cook and drink and she would tell me everything and then fall asleep, or else it was at one of her infamously big social gatherings. I was not invited to the more select dinners, the high-brow parties. Once-but please, bear in mind that this was when I was very young, really, very young indeed, no more than twenty-eight, really-I had brazenly decided to gatecrash. Why should I not be invited? I thought, grimly clutching my bottle of cheap red wine and being jounced along on the bus. Are we not friends? I walked up the road. Does she not respect me, ask my opinion? I walked past the house, turned and came back. I have heard her quote things I said, she has introduced me to her clever friends. I stood in the doorstep with sleet in my face, trying to get myself to press the door-bell. Suddenly a voice rang out, someone had come into the hallway and switched on the light. I fled to the garden and—really, I honestly could laugh at it afterwards—hid there for a few hours, terrified of discovery.
If I couldn’t lay much claim to being in the inner sanctum of Clara’s friends, there was no denying me my place as a colleague, a professional friend, a fellow academic. I was living proof of Clara’s wide-ranging interests and the influence, I made clear, she had on those of us who did not research her subject. I could bemoan, as an academic, the blow her death had dealt the University as a whole, the deprivation of the student body at large. But it was the effect of her unique enthusiasm and wisdom that had educated me—I did not mind admitting to having had my own vistas widened by so admirable a light that even I, concerned as I was with colonial histories, with the Canadian west, could appreciate in some degree the void her death had left in the world of Jacobean literature.
I spent hours looking for this quotation, this right quotation. I am almost afraid to use it—what if l chose badly? What if I, unaccustomed to the ripeness of seventeenth century language, misunderstood some vital point and this moment of triumph, my apotheosis, is spoiled by a snigger and reality? But I could, too, have scoured those teasing words and run my own hoe down those rich, decadent lines. There was something in there for me, I was convinced of that. Some little present had my name on it, and I could have found my gift if only one small thing had been different. What that small thing might have been, I had no idea. But my wings were deformed stumps. I could feel, almost physically, the bandages that twisted and crushed. One changed twist in the double helix, a chromosome split here or there, could have sawed through the hardened cast and let me stumble into the light. I was always almost there, but something leaden in me thwarted it.
I saw tears, glittering down pale cheeks, being caught in handkerchieves. I felt my own throat swell, I had to steady myself. I coughed, and there was a sympathetic clearing of throats. A young woman, about twenty years old, slipped up to the podium and handed me a glass of water. I got a terrible shock when I saw her. She was so young, so beautiful. Tawny hair, cobalt eyes now filled with blood-tears, I mean tears-she looked exactly like Clara. I took a sip of the water. The silence seemed boundless, endless, engulfing, but I pulled myself together. Putting down the glass I smoothed my hand over my heavy black clothes, and apologised for the interruption. I let the catch stay in my voice for a moment and then I cleared my throat.
We were getting to the home stretch now.
I spoke of Clara as a personal friend, how good she had been to me. I didn’t have to exaggerate her generosity, and wit, her popularity. There was some movement now, a small shuffling, rustling of clothes as people moved in their seats. Not from boredom, I knew that, they were still listening to every breath of this shining portrait of their lost friend. Perhaps it was discomfort, perhaps those now weaving their ample behinds on the seats were those who had known both Clara and me, and were the ones who now perhaps recalled the way they had spurned me in favour of her. How they had listened politely, bored, to my remarks, then returned back into the luminescence of Clara’s smile. They thought I was prickly, they endured me as one of kind Clara’s odd friends. Did they know me? Did anyone? What was my name, then? But even I couldn’t have answered that. My name? My real name, the name that signified who I was, what I might have been, that part of me that would have been the same no matter which life it was into which I had been born. But was there such a part? That question was unforgivable. My name. My real name. The me that would have been had I been Clara.
Maybe it was remorse; even slight remorse would show that they had come to recognise the truth, that though Clara might shine brighter, I was as worthy as she. Clara always said the truth was the most important thing to her, truth and knowledge. She would be pleased, then, that even her death had caused a lifting of a veil, a truth to be recognised. Her death would be the cause of a general realisation that I was not as humourless as they had assumed, that my brand of wit might be a little too subtle for the mass, but that that was not to assume its absence. Her wide circle of friends and acquaintances now bonded in grief, could only miss her scintillating conversation and diverse interests (while I always noticed the glazed eyes, the stifled yawns as I floundered through my theories on Canadian colonialism). Those who had put me in Clara’s shadow now nodded as I spoke, a mumbled wave of an agreement when I said sadly, tearfully, that we had our memories and her work and she would not have wanted us to grieve for her.
I nodded myself, remembering the times in the dark when we had discussed death over port and cigarettes. She had always said she was not afraid to die. I wondered now. What had been her last emotion? Had she seen death approach? Or had her eyes been turned inwards as usual, her mind filled with herself, her latest conquest, her work? Who did she think of last? Was it possible the last image in her unusual mind had been me? Or had it been one of her more worthy colleagues, those who made the same kind of jokes, in the same kind of voice. Those who sat comfortably round her table, moving their paunches discreetly out of the way as they reached for food and drink. Holding the state of the world and other people’s conditions up for examination, to pass the time, without being laughably naive enough to express concern. Had she thought, maybe, of one of her own coterie? One of those fresh, bright young things, who laughed eagerly in her company and looked for ways to impress her, who had, conveniently, been fascinated from childhood by whatever subject she suggested. That had been, I think, one of the unspoken perks of her job. The adoration. The warm flesh that yearned to be like her. The fresh, teasingly rasa minds which wanted her fingerprints. The glowing mirrors which showed her own beloved face over, and over, and over again.
Or had it been me?
I moved away from the podium, to loud applause. Quite a number of people stood up, some just raised their hands above their heads as they clapped, to show me, presumably, that they had been impressed. 0 dullards! 0 botched and crooked simpletons! A simple stroke of my pen, a simple luring word and single movement of my hand, and now look at you all. I caused all this, this overflowing emotion, I have articulated the unspeakable.
A few of Clara’s colleagues made their way towards me, one of them in tears. I shook her hand quite sincerely, patted her shoulder and said, almost in tears myself, that at least we had had the good fortune to have known Clara, and, though it may have sounded cruel, to have known her at the height of her powers, of her beauty, of her fame. It is a hard thing to say, I said, but if you knew that Clara was destined either to have died in that wreckage of damaged masonry (for which I was fairly certain her shattered family would substantially sue the University) or have become old, senile, terminally ill, which … ? Poor woman couldn’t answer, couldn’t even nod wisely, simply sobbed and blubbered on my hand.
The relief, of everything, suddenly clasped me about the knees and I felt weak and giddy. Solicitously, the SubProctor came to greet me, and members of the faculties, mine and Clara’s, gathered around to express their sorrow. There was a rustle and mist of misery as the SubProctor disengaged himself to approach the podium and my hand ached from all the silent sympathy. Really, by the time I sat down, I was quite sorry I had pushed her.