Monday, 17 October 2011

The Best Blessings of Existence 20

In which Emma B notes that the curtain is raised.

It is difficult buying clothes for your own wedding – let alone the nuptials of others – and well-nigh impossible when the principals are Lionel Kerridge and Araminta Bellwether.  What Araminta would wear for an occasion when Hymen’s saffron robe would be put on for us, was anybody’s guess and, in the circumstances, it was best not to.

A trip to Laura Ashley was called for and resulted in the purchase of a full-length sage green velvet dress with a dropped and fitted waist; delicate buttons at the wrist and a scooped neckline that was graceful rather than vulgar.  She added a simple silver chain and a pair of the most exquisite little white ankle boots with granny heels and side buttons - from the famed ‘green boots’ boutique next door to Bunter’s.  The overall effect was medieval – and quite charming.  Paul had insisted on driving and they arrived at The Henry Mercer College in good time. They crossed the second Quad, weaving their way past wisteria and the gargoyles on the drainpipe at the entrance of the Baronial Hall.  It was two-thirds full and she began to get her bearings.  She noticed a portrait of her favourite Prime Minister amongst the alumni gracing the walls – and recognised Mr Proudie at the far end of the Hall, next to a portrait of Elizabeth 1st and a large and unlovely hog roast.

The guests were an ill-matched assortment of academics; representatives from the fringes of publishing, literature and media (she fancied she recognised Granville Colyear, Presenter of the new arts programme Gallery Glimpses), ex students (was that Romaine Hince from the M. Lit course?) and the finest from The Falcon, The Trade Winds wine bar, Bunter’s, The Bear and The Bat and Belfry.  In such circumstances, mingling was out of the question and they didn’t.

Paul, who had been particularly sullen on the journey, now perked up, courtesy of a large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and a sudden hush heralded the entrance of the bridal party; the newly weds; Lionel’s maiden aunt; Percy, Frances and Major Bellwether - who was equipped with regimental medals and a full complement of arms and legs.  The new Mrs Kerridge clasped her husband’s arm. Araminta was dressed in knee-length red satin with a matching bolero.

She glanced with quiet satisfaction at her own sage green velvet, took a glass of Sancerre and suppressed a sudden desire to throw the contents over the black shift and picture hat of Frances Hunt.  She walked up to Mr Proudie and the hog roast.  She had not seen her old palaeography tutor since completing the MA, but he beckoned enthusiastically and helped her to a platter of pork with a Cotswold honey dressing.

They were joined by Romaine Hince who had just been accepted for a PHD conversion at Oxford.

Romaine, a Little Dorrit clone who had never ventured a toe over the threshold of 14a Wellington Parade, had seemed destined for drudgery as a University librarian.

Her performance in the Dickens and Imprisonment seminars had been pedestrian – unlike her own tour de force, praised for its imaginative economy by Dr Kelleher Greene.  But now Romaine in her drab grey kilt would taste the fruits of Oxford whilst she served time in an educational equivalent of The Marshalsea, teaching The Chrysalids to the second CSE set….

Something was very wrong……

Paul joined them, balancing a field mushroom and puff pastry triangle alongside a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.  He had searched in vain for an absent Aiden Cleghorn and began a spirited disquisition on the joys of schoolmastering at Chudleigh, punctuated by references to Veda Plumb; Basil Bunting; Grigor Ryvensky and numerous other luminaries from the parking lots of literature.

Professor Newbolt cleared her throat:

Chudleigh – ah yes – well, you have my sympathies. It must be tremendously frustrating coping with an institutional requirement to cram and over-prepare. We really find, nowadays, that the most exciting young people come from the maintained sector where they are allowed to develop their own understanding rather than regurgitate the predilections of their teachers.

Visions of the Oxbridge set; the wheel-backed chair and the spare bedroom came deliciously to mind as Dr Kelleher Greene took up the theme, citing the case of Nathaniel Bilbie who had disrupted the Shelley tutorial cycle, spouting complete garbage about the Ode to the West Wind and undermining everybody else.  But his writing was derivative and he had narrowly escaped a Third.  She remembered Bilbie – an odious jerk on the fringes of the Wellington Parade set who had made a crude pass at her in Freshers' week. He wore a necklace of sharks’ teeth and had been apprehended by the Vice Chancellor after frolicking in the Senate Fountain post Finals, wearing pink crotchless panties and a green sombrero.

It was a fitting end to an inglorious career and she shot a gleeful glance at Paul but he had wandered off.

Pork, chicken supreme and bouef en croute were succeeded by tarte au citron; almond ratafia biscuits; stilton and fruits.

She nibbled a fig but did not feel hungry – and neither did anyone else, judging from the discarded plates littered with mounds of half eaten food, some and some not, garnished with cigarette butts.  This was not the case with the drink however, and devotees of Bunters and The Falcon were exhibiting the effects of unlimited alcohol at Lionel’s expense.  Boisterousness was beginning to shade into belligerence and she noticed that Aunt Sarah and Major Bellwether were avoiding this grouping, unlike Araminta who was at the centre of a type of drinking game involving the launch of a garter in the direction of the podium as Percy started to speak.

Frances was nowhere in sight.

In retrospect, she felt that the speech merited is own memorial – as a testimony to the liberal education and intellectual freedoms championed by Cambridge.  Whether or not it was appropriate as a wedding oration was an entirely different matter…. Percy began with a toast to the bride, a compliment to Major Bellwether for having sired such a treasure and encomiums to the groom, the college and the catering which was all as it should be.  Waiters distributed glasses of champagne.

Then with a nod to the scholarship of the groom and many of the guests, the Best Man commended the state of marriage itself:

as seen by our greatest writers.

A murmur of approval met Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediment
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds

and Francis Bacon’s A man finds himself seven years older the day after his marriage garnered a rueful laugh from Lionel.

But William Faulkner

Apparently, men can be cured of drugs, drink, gambling, biting his nails and picking his nose but not of marrying

met a chillier reception and she noticed that Araminta’s smile had a fixed quality as Percy quoted from Oscar Wilde

Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage makes her something like a public building…

But the conclusion, from the wedding of the Knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale:

I seye ther nas no jape ne feeste at al;
Ther nas but hevynese and much sorwe
For prively he wedde hir on a morwe
And all day after hidde hym as an owle
So wo was hym his wyf looked so fowle……..

produced a profound silence – after which everybody discovered that, delightful as it had been, time’s winged chariot beckoned and it was really time to leave…..

She had not seen Paul for the past hour and circled the groups, hoping that he would be capable of driving. This was a bone of contention because she had wanted to book a hotel room and make a weekend of it. But no; he had been obdurate, resulting in a certain froideur augmented by the absence of the wretched Cleghorn.  And, she reflected, with an ignoble frisson of satisfaction, he had not carried the palm with Professor Newbolt and Dr Kelleher Greene. They had been more interested in the progress of her Sixth Formers than the exploits of the nauseating prodigies of Chudleigh.

This in itself merited an extra glass of champagne and she took one before resuming the search.

He was not in the hall; not in the Quad.

She rounded a corner toward the second staircase and saw that the door to the Porter’s Pantry was slightly ajar. She walked in upon Paul and Frances Hunt, sitting on a table and drinking Merlot.

Why – hello, darling – bottoms up! said Paul, waving a glass.
It was so deathly dreary in there – nobody of any interest, so I bribed the Porter to slip me a couple of cases of this very fine wine!  So when the coast’s clear, we’ll head for the car and you can open the boot!  How was old Percy?  Frances says (smirking) he was scratching the quill and burning the midnight oil.I tend to wing that sort of thing --- glass of the hard stuff and I’m away!

Glass of anything and you’re anybody’s, she thought, noting that Frances Hunt’s lipstick had migrated to her teeth.  They left the room in silence and headed for the car. She selected a Roxy Music cassette and they drove off to the strains of She Sells. Percy’s speech had been really rather good, she thought, but on reflection, he might have included an additional quotation from Wilde:

Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.

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