I don’t know what got into me. Why did I accept the invitation? Mortally wounded amour-propre, most likely. After all the years of struggle and indifference, when finally an invitation comes, what was I supposed to do? The other invitees were to be writers and critics whom I had either abused out of earshot, or else in print. Some of them had stabbed me in the face in articles, columns, or reviews, and, nothing could stop me speculating, behind and in my back as well. There was likely to be that magazine editor who had serially rejected my work. There would be members of interview committees, reporters on manuscripts for publishers, and figures from the prize club. There was sure to be the critic who had stolen my ideas, all of them, and not a word of acknowledgement in his footnotes. I must have been mad to say I would. Our host, the notable poet-critic, had once interviewed for a job I desperately needed to get. It could even have saved my second marriage … All right, I know; but it might have given it a third or fourth chance. Still, when he came out as the successful candidate, I immediately took steps to leave the country. There is only so much you can take, I mean take with dignity intact.
But now he was inviting me back, into his haunt, as it were. It was to be a brain-storming session, a high-level get-together, something of that sort: thirteen characters gathered round a conference table, being expected to thrash out the state of things, as if it were a matter of life and death. But whose life and whose death? Sleep-walking out of a fourteen-hour flight, I was feeling like the thirteenth invited as I made myself known at the porter’s lodge and followed the directions across a couple of courts to my semi-luxurious guest room up two flights of a narrow turning staircase.
The view from the row of high arched windows was of the splendid variety. It extended across meadows in all their summer glory, meadows guarded and overlooked by ancient oaks, as far as the slowly sliding glint of the distant river that gave this place its name …
‘Just look at this venerable pile – ’ I’d exclaimed on first entering its great front quad, ‘ – of shite!’ said the pre-jaded wag beside me; and indeed there were drawbacks to being educated in such surroundings.
So here I was back in my old alma mater! The surface facts hadn’t changed that much; but all the time I stayed in that spacious tall-windowed guestroom it was like I was living with the ghost of some person I just might have been, somebody sulking by a marble faun or outside a jolly corner restaurant. As that feeling came back more strongly I recalled having tried, just a few years back now, to garner a tad of fellow feeling from one of my old drinking pals.
‘The slights don’t ever really heal,’ I admitted. ‘I’m scarred for life.’
‘Oh get over yourself … and move on like the rest of us,’ came back his tart reply.
Down across its local version of the Bridge of Sighs, out for my usual pre-breakfast constitutional, so useful for their moments of inspiration or vision, I headed for the meadows beyond the college’s long oak drive. Here were the old signs of so many muted histories those trees had indifferently witnessed: civil wars, popular risings and nights of long knives, and here was I back again in the checkered shade of the sandy towpath’s tree-shaped shadows.
No need to hurry, no one caring if I lived or died – or so I thought. I could take my time about it, dawdling along to make each moment stretch on like those shadows. Ahead were the college boathouses set back from the river’s brink, their activities getting under way, individual oarsmen and women bearing the pointed boats above their heads, frail craft which would float them out on the current, as if to make me quote and remember.
This early down the river, then, an oarsman was backing fast into his morning while a bike-rider with megaphone was bellowing words of advice at the rower. Another emblem there! Here the people who were doing it couldn’t even see where they were going, while others, not in their element, were giving advice about how it should be done. There would always be that possibility of the coach on his bike riding smack into a tree, as if in Carry on Studying or Gone with the Window, but that didn’t look likely to happen as both of them sped on around the river bend. That rhythmic oarsman looked like he might have been anyone backing into a future he’d only know for sort of certain once he had left it behind.
Whodunnit fashion, we did not have a shortage of candidate victims, this thirteen of us to be precise – and all with a portfolio of reasons to be bumped off. There was our host, the quintessential poet-critic, receding, with love handles turned to middle-age spread. There was our Internet magazine founder, all pixels and dpi numbers, suffering from permanent headaches and eyestrain. The print journal editor, who naturally looked down on the ‘virtual reality’ man, wore sunglasses, and handed out subscription flyers like they were going out of fashion. The jobbing reviewer had deadlines to meet and would slip off to his room intent on converting the press release into an original article. There was our short story writer with a twinkle in his eye – no, not me, I’m just trying my hand at the genre, typing out whatever comes into my head. The grand dame of verse had deigned to put in an appearance (between an Australian prize judging and a guest lecture in Finland). The professional nationalist was here with his holier-than-thou fringe benefits. There was a career feminist, of course, properly irate about being in a minority of two. Naturally the permanent writer-in-residence barely knew where his next meal was coming from, and indeed had to get back to a sheaf of grant applications in his room. The academic hit man was escaping from some poor fool’s graduate thesis turned book proposal which he had lined up in his sights. The exhausted head of department was in need of a haircut, a style-rethink, and a ten-year sabbatical to get those skeletons out of his cupboard. Then there was our American scholar, fresh from a formalists-versus-free-verse symposium, full of the latest manifestos and agendas. Our London literary man about town would be writing up this get-together for his weekly column, while the story’s narrator, me myself I, had been flown in from another time zone for reasons as yet to be revealed, or revealed to me, at least. Of course, these were all kind-of-colleagues and, one or two of them, almost I might have said friends. Down there on my pre-breakfast walks, it was like they had all combined with the host’s pressed invitation to give me a moment’s pause. Past flaked edges, undulant willows, equivocal bends and shallows, I might just have the chance to pull that past together, roll it up into a ball, like some failed draft, and chuck the lot right into that murky intellectual waterway. Then those past-resented years might become all one and be lost in the missed opportunities, betraying more than enough to recall what little I knew about the art-and-life divide.
Being out of the loop – and how – I wasn’t finding it at all easy to catch on to what the others were talking about. The topics of conversation in any such microclimate shift as unpredictably as the weather in this north European archipelago. The prizewinners come and go with the publishing seasons, each receiving their due portions of resentment and bile. Attempts to link by direct analogy the current styles with equally current burning issues and persuasions could only hold conviction for the weeks that were a long time in politics or, for that matter, literature written for the moment. After all my years away in a species of economic exile, I hardly knew the names of the players, never mind what games they were playing.
Ever the tactless unbeliever, I’ll have slipped up in the brainstorming sessions themselves.
‘We murder to dissect,’ said the poet-critic at our first bout, ‘if I may quote a phrase.’
‘Live dissections have been reported in certain experimental conditions,’ I put in with a meaning inflection.
‘You’re not comparing us to concentration camp doctors?’ asked the man about town, with his familiar politesse.
‘Absolutely not,’ I said, ‘just trying to lighten up the session here, folks.’
And at those agonising moments with their twelve pairs of eyes all turned upon me, there as I coughed to get into an exchange about something or other, I could see it in their faces. It was obvious to me at least. I was to be the chosen victim, as clearly as if I’d been tied to a stake with the big black stewpot heating up below me. ‘If one of you doesn’t get your just desserts first,’ I had to prevent myself saying out loud.
‘It’ll be just another case of Ars longa, vita brevis,’ the academic hit man would smilingly say, and apropos of what seemed nothing.
After the first few sessions, it was true, I could sense that from various quarters of the room people were going out of focus, their voices falling silent. The short story writer, occasionally scrawling a note of some kind on the back of the programme, hadn’t said a thing for some hours. Like the Cheshire cat of children’s literature fame, and from hereabouts too, the grand dame of verse had effectively disappeared. Whatever happened to her?
‘She just had to split early,’ our host explained. So that was one name to cross off my list.
‘But isn’t it supposed to be enjoyable?’ said the Internet magazine founder. ‘Art, I mean … isn’t it supposed to be enjoyable?’
This was in response to a rallying call from the poet-critic inviting us to make more strenuous moral enquiry into the ideals of disinterested contemplation. I’m afraid to confess my stomach rumbled even as he spoke.
The college food was, it has to be admitted, no less than could be expected; we were lucky not to have been mysteriously poisoned, one and all. Breakfast was taken, for those that could stomach it, among gaggles of the senior citizens there for a gerontology conference. Three-course lunches were held in a common room, allowing conversations with neighbours to escape from the official topics on our programme, but equally putting paid to much intellectual effort once the dishes had been ingested.
Dinners were served on the undergraduate benches in college hall …
But it was the evenings in the pub afterwards when my being out of the loop was most painfully revealed. And that was when the so-called state of things actually got thrashed out too. As soon as we had settled down to our first drinks, while the laughter and gossip began to circulate, one or other celebrity’s name would never be that far from somebody’s teeth. ‘He’s had it now,’ the academic hit man might say. ‘Oh, she’ll get what she deserves,’ said the professional feminist. ‘So-and-so’s totally shot,’ said the nationalist poet.
‘Well, I didn’t know there was a backlash going on against so-and-so,’ I naively blurted out.
‘A backlash?’ said one of the survivors. ‘There hasn’t even been a front- lash, as far as I’m concerned.’
‘God, I could kill him,’ said the head of department.
‘Why?’ our token woman, the professional feminist, now reduced to the role of love interest, glumly enquired.
‘Because he’s gone and taken my name in vain!’
‘Oh, calm down; we all of us have a more famous crime writer with just the same handle,’ said the perpetual writer-in-residence.
‘If we don’t have a pop star as well,’ I said, me myself I.
Naturally, my fellow-talkers had it in for the usual suspects; but if, like me, you haven’t the time or patience to keep up with the review and letters pages of the weekly journals, let alone the quarterlies and little magazines, it’s not that easy to tell whom the usual suspects might be.
Being out of everything, anyway, you don’t have a lot of evidence for thinking that other people are expressing opinions behind your back, and indeed the more likely thought is that you are being treated to the usual non-benign neglect. However, as those talking shops continued, I began to pick up the occasional hint, and actually started to wonder whether I was not myself being suspected of something – if not quite yet counted among those usual suspects to be rounded up by the thought police.
Needless to say, I have done my fair share of hatchet jobs … and the problem with these kinds of symposia, as I soon discovered, was that they resembled nothing so much as a trial by jury, a jury of your victims. We were all expected to come face to face with our corpses and accusers and then discuss the niceties of analogous cases and crimes with precisely those same people.
The overworked head of department was next to disappear, and no need to ask what had finished him off. I sadly deleted the name from my list.
So there we were involved, after hours of shiftless searching for some common ground, in the delicate question of whether any of these little crimes should even so much as be mentioned. Would anyone or anything ever be brought to book for the decimation that had occurred, a decimation of which this was no more than a sideshow? I had long since abandoned all hope.
By the next-to-last day, though, I settled on the policy of admitting to everything – even the things I had not done. That way no one would accuse you of anything else, or so I thought.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, to one of my victims, ‘if those words of mine did cause you pain. Mind you, we are paid to say what we honestly think, are we not?’
I even found myself apologising for the case where I had been credited with a book review filed by another of the suspects. It was none of my doing, and you know how it is with newspapers. They hadn’t even printed a correction and apology. I was sorry, but that didn’t make the hate mail for his character assassinations any less painful to receive.
And what of the ten other victims remaining? Would I still have to pick one? Just one? Would a thought experiment do the trick of assuaging my thirst for … for what exactly was it? I was saying this to myself as I tried to access my e-mail in the college student computer room. Sitting at the screen beside mine was the American academic, firing off messages to the @marks on his global network. I had been granted a couple in my time. He could send acceptances and rejections of manuscripts in seven keystrokes, initials included. Now that’s what I call efficient dispatch.
Later the same day he took a little more time to explain over a drink exactly what was wrong with one of my more recent critical publications. What it amounted to was that I had dared to express a limiting judgment about the senior academic who had taken him under an extended wing and helped him to a tenure-track post somewhere in the desert places of the South by South-West. I found his unexpressed loyalty almost touching in its creaturely gratitude. Needless to say, I attended to his arguments – ones being shouted at me over the beer-hall foreground noise – about how my premises were way wrong, how my conclusions should be less drastic … ‘God, I could murder you,’ I thought, and smiled my most open-minded of smiles.
At the dinner to celebrate our symposium’s end, there was certainly relief at having reached that far without any actual bloodshed. Even here, though, our host had failed to appear. Had he been imagining all this time that we would bond better without his oversight, by giving us the chance to talk about him behind his back? If so, his ears could not have been burning. We disposed of him with that old quip: ‘If there’s one thing worse than being talked about … it’s being not talked about.’ Still, there were a few comic moments at our would-be feast of mirth – like the sight of an entire fellowship trying to fight its way into a hors d’oeuvre of unripe avocadoes. Some were chewing manfully at the flakes they had chipped off, while others were pushing them disgustedly away, as if at a dinner staged by that multi-person Portuguese writer what’s-his-name.
As we chattered about this and that, the absent, indeed, seemed on or near everyone’s lips. Naturally, we did mention in passing the two characters we had lost along the way. Among the others were family members missed back home, with whom the participants were anxious to be reunited. Since the death of my parents and the inevitable divorce that came as a result of my expatriation, I have barely any to speak of. So that excuse for disappearance just could not arise. If I could survive the last night’s drinking, I would be heading back to the airport first thing the following morning and subjecting myself to one more long-haul flight.
Darkened oil paintings of the immortal dead in broad gilded frames were pointedly ignoring us from the high-panelled walls. They were the usual mixed bunch of great poets and scholars who had helped to create the very language we spoke, most of their names lost in the mists of information
overload – though able to be looked up should the need arise. There was the one with the eye-patch like a buccaneer, another with skin the colour
of Stilton cheese, a third whose reputation for obscure sexual practices had recently eclipsed the renown of his overwhelming lyrical gift. Some of their names were practically there on the tips of our tongues. But most of us were pointedly paying them back by pretending they were not there too.
‘Yes, it seems we’re all on the point of …,’ one of our number began on the far side from me.
Now was my moment! With all our survivors gathered together and in something resembling festive mood, now was the time to do it pat! That is exactly what I was thinking as I gingerly slipped a hand into my inside pocket, feeling around for the murder weapon, but where had it got to? Where was my poisoned red felt-tip pen?
‘Don’t do it,’ said a voice beside me; but she was clearly talking to somebody else. Well, of course, of course you’ve already guessed that I didn’t do anything of the kind. We really didn’t deserve it, did we? No, a murder is just too good for the likes of us. That’s what I found myself thinking. Far too good for us, wouldn’t you say? It would make all this typing have a point, would make it approach a satisfactory end. Ut doceat and all that …
Yet there at this pause in the flagging conversation, as I looked up from the ruins of the meal on my plate and around at the dining hall table, the din in the room for a moment stilled, as if for a parting grace, or coup de grâce, it seemed there was really nobody to kill; we were all as good as dead already; or at least that there was, and had been for some time, an intangible corpse amongst us, the lifeless body of the real victim there in our midst.