It’s a shake-up to be at University when you have just left school. You meet people unlike any you have met before. I was an old teenager who saw ideas as magic wands. If you found a good idea, you could cast a spell and change everything. So I would talk to anyone who was strange to find out what had made them different.
One of my early friends was a tall boy, Simon, who was studying physics. I would visit his room in our hall of residence and wrangle about God, Man and the Universe. It was always in the autumn afternoons after the morning lectures. The late sun would be slanting into the room, where I slouched on the bed, cradling a mug of tea, and he sat upright in a flimsy armchair. Occasionally, he would take a mouthful of tea from the cup by the leg of the chair. The stiff, formal and precise way he did this reminded me of a fastidious stork.
We would analyse Buddhism and it was always in the air that I was the novice and he was the master. I bore this rather well, I think, but it snagged at the back of my mind and meant I was never quite comfortable in his presence: never enjoyed his tea and biscuits, but ate them as a traveller accepting hospitality in a remote land. I have a tendency, which has persisted until late in life, of deferring to those full of confidence, for I have always been full of doubt. How can one really be certain of anything? Full of mindfulness, he would adjust and nudge my remarks onto the correct path. We would talk about Quantum Physics and again, I would let myself feel inferior, grasping for insights with which he had long been familiar:
“So, in the end, it simply boils down to symmetry and asymmetry.”
Had I discovered some divine truth? He nodded primly, gratified I had finally stumbled onto the secret of all things, not just theoretical physics. Some reminiscence of a smile on a summer’s day strayed across his thin lips. I felt sick in my head the way you can feel sick in your stomach. I left in a hurry.
A few days later, I was returning to my hall of residence from a second-hand book-shop, where I had picked up a bound volume of a gentleman’s magazine published in 1759. To my continuing delight, it contained a contemporary account of the storming of Quebec City by General Wolfe. I had many cares in the world: knowing already that my concerns were slight and of no account to anyone but me. Besides books, my consolation was that I was young and felt sure of enough time to win in the end.
My residence had won many architectural awards and was therefore hideous to look at, consisting of two lopsided cubist wings for accommodation and a central section that contained a spacious lobby, with a common room and a dining hall on a floor each above. Despite the ugliness, its design meant that the residents mixed: people would issue from the cracked wings to eat, watch television, collect their mail, or go out; and they would all meet in the middle somewhere and start conversations. The best thing was the predominance of glass. There were no dark places. You could look out from the lobby or common room and see everyone that approached.
I was now walking up the long central pathway that bisected the two diagonal wings and ensured you could not avoid anyone setting out from the hall. I recognised the woman who was just setting out. We had met in the middle somewhere and I had invited her with a group to have coffee in my room or had been part of another group that had sipped rose-hip tea in Cressida’s room. Although she was not running, I could hear quick, little gasps. Even at a distance, her eyes were intent upon me and were loath to monitor her feet on the steps that carried her down towards me. She looked pleased to see me, but the pleasure was curiously constrained, held in like a delight that must be mastered.
“You’re a friend of Simon Newton, aren’t you?”
“A good friend.” She seemed certain about this.
I was about to demur, to point out that I had certain reservations about him, that we were detached to some extent, when she could not help herself and broke in on top of me:
“Have you heard the news?”
“No, what’s happened?”
“He’s had a terrible accident.” She yearned to see the shock in my eyes. I’m not sure that I gave it, but she was sufficiently self-starting to ride over my ambivalence:
“He crashed his car last night—came off an icy bend. He’s in intensive care. It must be a dreadful shock to you?”
Was it? I felt it ought to be. I was embarrassed that I could not play in her drama and be distraught at her news. I was empty and wondered what to say to hide this. She read my silence as stunned grief and began pouring out phrases she must have rehearsed on her own, while anticipating situations like this. I waited for it to subside and released myself on the grounds that I needed to digest the news in isolation. She looked satiated. Yes, she looked fulfilled and she let me go. She skipped on down the central pathway. I remember: I turned to watch her.
When I got back to my room, I lay down on my bed. I recalled the sunny afternoons in his room, when we had drunk tea and he had looked down with a blend of sorrow and contempt on my submarine ignorance. I was sure I wasn’t mistaken in my reading of his face. He had looked above earthly woes and smug in a world of contemplation. Could this complacency have made his accident? There he is, speeding along a winter road; there is ice about, but he drives as normal, haughty over brute matter; so he loses control on a bend and crashes. My malicious mind forced the puerile question on me: had he been guilty of an asymmetric response?
His better friend, Dave, visited him in hospital. Dave let me know by implication that Simon was a goner. I didn’t know him well enough to visit him. But I felt a pang when he died. Mainly, it was the waste of his girlfriend, who was comely and blonde. I wondered if I could capitalise and recoiled in disgust and then infeasibility.
There are two things I can not get rid of, besides my own small feeling about his death: his quiet enjoyment of his superiority and the urge of the girl to tell me bad news. They had both used my presence to nourish themselves. And in each meeting, I had fondly believed I had held a detached position in the face of illusion. But I had been only a child listening to another child.
Copyright © 2003 John Lewis.