“What you maybe don’t know is that I always go into a decline at times like this—saying to myself that surely it would be far easier just to sit still and forget the whole thing, but then I think of a fourth consecutive year in Durham and plow on.”
—Reynolds Price, in a letter to Wallace Kaufman, July 8, 1961
AFTER DEBARKING FROM the Queen Mary and clearing customs on the Southampton dock by ten in the morning, I leapt aboard a train for Oxford with my small borrowed trunk and one suitcase. In the three years since I was last in England, British Railways had surely not upgraded the third-class car I rode in—musty gray upholstery and a good deal of empty space. Nonetheless I reached my destination—Merton College’s thirteenth-century entrance lodge—just in time to collide with my tall old teacher and friend Nevill Coghill. He swept me up to join him for lunch in the Senior Common Room. The new scout for the rooms on my staircase, one of the several men that served the “young gentlemen” in the still all-male colleges, carried my bags along to my former rooms in the ancient Mob Quad—the same two rooms with an overstuffed sofa and chairs (that suggested ancient Rome more than medieval Britain) and windows on the college chestnut tree and Christ Church Meadow with its cows and football-playing schoolboys. Oxford was, mostly, unchanged. There had been a lot of cleaning and refacing of college buildings—the coal-black Virgin on Merton Chapel turned out on washing to be very beautiful—but my old rooms seemed quite unchanged and full.
In the SCR it was a welcome surprise to find my old love Matyas already seated at the table. He’d walked over from his own college on the chance that I might have arrived by then, and here now I was (the trains mostly ran on time). Still his dashing self, though a little weary around the eyes, Matyas beamed his expected magnetism; but slight signs suggested that his intervening trips to his family home in Eastern Europe had saddened him appreciably (and in what ways did he see that I’d likewise changed after my first three years of teaching at Duke?). Well, Common Room table was hardly a place for private talk between us, but other talk there was aplenty—and in quantity and quality as I’d hoped.
In a matter of minutes then, I was enveloped in what I’d anticipated so strongly (though my student friends were gone)—the compelling but unpretentious melding of mind in mature male voices. Not that I’d been entirely deprived of good talk in America. Lately in Macon, Warrenton, Raleigh, Durham, New York, and a few other places, I’d felt delighted and instructed more than a few times by a wide spectrum of several brands of good talk. But in no other place had I sat with others as enthusiastically devoted as these few men round a long broad table to genuine discourse. In addition to weeks in my old rooms again, I’d been made a member of the Senior Common Room; so with any luck at all, I’d just commenced a fourth year of this.
My main hope lay in Matyas though, a don from Eastern Europe with whom—in my last visit to England—I’d experienced an intense romance, one that I thought had at least some amount of love on each side as well as sexual contact of a highly exciting new kind. In days when few dons traveled to the States (and none seemed to emigrate, as hundreds do now), we’d kept our mutual awareness alive by my gift for long-distance longing, by frequent letters, and my own hell-bent intention to meet back here as soon as my slim funds would permit.
After lunch Nevill suggested a walk round Christ Church Meadow, so Matyas and I joined him under a sky that by then was brilliantly clear and hot for June. Even the regulation loud red geraniums were lusher than I remembered; and as we passed those on the window ledges of student rooms in the Christ Church Meadow building, Nevill said “It would seem a sizable pity, wouldn’t it?”
I asked “What would?”
With a wide wave of his huge right hand, he said “Just to end it now, with all this around us.”
In five days on the ocean, I hadn’t quite heard that the Western powers and the Soviets were once again shaking their hydrogen bombs at one another over the still divided city of Berlin.
Refusing for now to cloud the day, I remarked that such crises had been far from rare in the reign of Khrushchev, but Nevill said that this one somehow felt especially ominous.
Matyas laconically agreed. Since the Soviets ran the Nazis out of his homeland and seized all power there, he knew a good deal about them.
Nevill had fought in the trenches of World War I, but now he grinned. “Wars tend to begin in gorgeous weather. I remember 1914 clear as now.”
He’d lent a sudden chill to our walk, and as we finished one round of the Meadow, Matyas peeled off for an afternoon appointment, arranging that he and I would dine that night in his rooms in his own college. It was I who’d introduced Matyas to Nevill back in the spring of 1958; and I knew from our letters that, since Matyas often dined in Merton—where he had a few pupils—he’d come to enjoy Nevill’s company. As he walked away then, Nevill and I stood for ten seconds and watched his departure through the War Memorial Gardens and out through the tall Meadow gates. We didn’t say as much, but I know we were silently granting Matyas’s compelling physical power.
When he was finally out of sight, Nevill turned to me and said “Ah, Matyas, yes. I know he’s expected you.” If the older man knew more than that, he kept his own counsel.
Nevill had bought a small car in my absence; and after I’d had my customary postlunch nap and unpacked a little, he drove the two of us out to Thame for tea. Like many occupants of sun-deprived countries, he was capitalizing on the brightness of the day. The village itself was of no special interest to me; but in my old car trips to London, I’d always craned, when passing through the surroundings of Thame, to discover the rambling medieval house which Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (the acting Oliviers) had occupied for decades. Despite the reports of the coming collapse of their long marriage, they were the chief Britons who still aroused celebrity feeling in me (and had done so since I first saw her in Gone With the Wind in 1939 and the two of them in That Hamilton Woman a little later); and I was hoping to see each of them onstage before the year ended.
Still, Nevill’s good talk—and his unintrusive questions about my life—held me later than I’d planned. Back at Merton then in early evening, I raced to the spanking-new showers in my old scout’s pantry on the ground floor of Mob 2 and availed myself of actual liberally streaming warm water. When a few college members came in to shower near me, I was reminded of another trait of the local times. Once dry, these young gents each resumed the underpants he’d worn to the shower. There was still no sign of the American middle-class obsession with clean laundry against clean skin. Pristine myself, though, I turned up at seven at the unshut outer door of Matyas’s new rooms in his across-town college.
The outer door was called an oak. And this oak had a special meaning for me. More than a few times three years ago, Matyas had shut us in behind his oak—the universal Oxford sign that no one was to knock or, in any other way short of fire or civil mayhem, disturb the occupant. I knocked on the inner door; and it took Matyas at least two minutes to answer, a delay so unusual that I wondered if he had someone else with him. When I entered, however, we embraced at last—a cooler greeting than I’d expected. Matyas indicated a handsome chair he’d just got in London, then stepped aside to pour us white wine. While he was apart I looked round the pleasantly large sitting room, a good deal brighter than his former quarters across the quad.
When he rejoined me, he noted my interest and told me, at unnecessary length, the history of various new objects (I didn’t ask whether he or the college had paid for the elegant furniture).
Before we could turn to anything more interesting, Matyas told me that—if it was all the same with me—we’d eat in his rooms and not go out.
“All the finer,” I said.
Then he came to his point. First, he gave the downcast laugh that, with him, mostly signaled bad news. Then he moved on in an accent that had decidedly thickened in the trips he’d made to Eastern Europe since getting his British citizenship at the time of our last meeting—“Rey-nolds, there is just one important thing.”
His long pause enforced a slow “Yes?” from me. I felt what I guessed a student might have felt as he finished reading a mediocre essay to this demanding tutor. Whatever was coming, the fault was mine.
“Lately I’ve met a charming young woman, almost my age. She’s also not British, she lives in London, and I suspect that we’re growing closer.”
No such relation had been mentioned in his recent letters; and I was more than surprised, though I strained to conceal it.
As soon as he led me to the long new teak table, he began to serve dinner. I recall only that we began with mushrooms à la grecque, a first for me and impressive, and that Matyas talked on and on with only occasional one-word responses from me. Not even the most ardently dedicated Gatekeeper of Western Morals could have sat and silently watched us for that first half hour and left with any suspicion that, three years ago, we’d been fervent lovers through a spring and early summer—unreserved possessors of one another’s bodies—and that I, at least, had sensed something durable under way in the interim.
Well into the main course, Matyas had reached what he plainly felt I’d understand as his central news—he wasn’t now planning to resume our old relations while he was hoping this new connection was going to work (whatever work would mean).
More than ever, I felt how much older than me he apparently felt; or maybe now I was the don and he the frantic student. What I felt though was far more like a pluperfect fool, a fool who might be shown the door shortly. But I sat on, through salad and dessert, and heard a good deal that the regular letters of three years had omitted—omissions that I had not suspected in my reckless craving.
Matyas had experienced more than several intervening affairs here, in London, and on the continent. Eventually all his philandering (as he saw it and he’d after all begun life as a devout Catholic boy) had resulted in degrees of futility and self-loathing that led him—when he met the young woman he’d mentioned—to experiment with the possibility of a long-term heterosexual union. Something, yes, that might become a marriage with a home and children—an all but universal reality that he hadn’t experienced since he was sixteen.
After four courses of such revelations, I’d begun to feel fed up with more than a lesson in my sustained foolishness. For the first time in my life apparently, I’d agreed to be lied to. To be sure, there’d been one hard letter that virtually accused me of having led him back astray (at a time when he was in his mid-thirties). Still I couldn’t see why he let me plan this costly fourth year while I leaned like a dope, approaching thirty, on the expectation of something I longed to continue. Even more than my foolishness, on the spot I learned how a great many men—and women, no doubt—find it all but impossible to tell a close friend a disappointing truth.