There’s a little game going around where you get a theme for the week. I’m not much of a team player, but I got interested in the varied responses to this week’s topc: guilt.
I’m not very keen on guilt either, but confession is quite another matter, and I am rather hoping that is what our ring master really meant. Otherwise guilt is pretty boring, right?
My confession of the week comes up just because it is newly 2009, a nice round anniversary of 30 years since my senior year in college (which came in just a little late, because I was on the Seven Year BA Plan) . It’s also coming up to thirty years since I left the US and moved to England.
By 1979 I had quit dropping out and had been on the straight and narrow for a while. I went back to school and made good grades. Early in the new year I got a call from my best friend (who might not be my best friend anymore, but I still hope she is). I had applied for a major, all expenses paid, scholarship to attend graduate school in England. I had to apply from my home region, which was California (though it wasn’t really my home; that’s another story) and that’s where my friend was calling me.
I had already won what I figured was second prize –a free round trip flight to San Francisco, where I would be interviewed at the British Embassy.
There weren’t cell phones in those days and my friend telephoned me at my boyfriend’s house in LA, where I had gone after the interview. I was especially glad for the free ticket because my mother was living in Germany and for the second year in a row, Christmas was a makeshift arrangement. California seemed like a good plan, especially if someone else was paying.
When my best friend called me she put on a serious sort of voice. She said the letter had come. I answered, trying to be brave, I didn’t get it, right? There was a long pause and then she screamed, Yes, yes you did!
It was a happy moment. Next, there were things I feel bad about – like telling my boyfriend he couldn’t come with me – but that’s not what I want to confess.
I flew back to the other side of the country. My best friend and I had a flat on Mass Ave in Cambridge above a shop that sold “Hot” Coffee. We always thought the quotes made it sound like a rumour. I went to classes and took exams and meanwhile began to pay attention to foreign affairs in a way I never had. I was going abroad, a sophisticated word meaning most definitely not in Kansas anymore.
There was a revolution going on in Iran, and in England, charming literary folk that they are, they were having what is still known as the Winter of Discontent. I watched the news and worried about who I might root for in a threatened election. I was pretty sure the Conservatives couldn’t be right, but was puzzled between Labour and the Liberals.
Of course my friends all knew I would soon be off to England, and a few took delight in bringing me fresh information. You know that country you are going to? It’s falling apart.
I watched the tele too. Where I was going the garbage wasn’t being collected and the dead weren’t being buried. Far as I could see the whole country was on strike.
One bitterly cold day I biked back to our flat, picked up the post, and trudged up the stairs. It was so cold in the flat I turned on the gas oven. Hovering over it I opened a letter addressed to me. It said I would be pleased to know that I was being sent to study in Edinburgh.
I wasn’t at all pleased to know! I was cold and I wanted to go to Oxford. Dead bodies on the street were bad enough, but Edinburgh was practically in the Artic Circle.
I consulted a friend who had held the same scholarship recently. He said, Everyone wants to go to Oxford. The scholarship committee try to spread people out. You need to make a good academic case of why it is important to you to be at a particular university, and then they will listen.
I did mean to make a good academic case, I promise. I was planning to study the 19th century English novel and I went to the library to find out who was on the faculty at Oxford working on that subject, so I could take out some books.
I scanned down the list and came upon the name Mr A O J Cockshut, which, I am sorry to say, made me giggle enough that I had to leave the library.
Finally we get to the confession:
I left the library, bicycled back to my cold flat, pulled out my typewriter and answered my letter. I wrote that I was tremendously grateful for the opportunity to attend Edinburgh University, but, as it happened, I had set my heart on studying with Mr A O J Cockshut of Oxford University whose work and scholarship I especially admired.
I later came to know A O J as Tony. He focused on the ceiling as he spoke and kept, along with his wife, a painfully thin mistress who always followed him several paces behind. After twenty years or so the mistress faded away, or died of an improbably broken heart, and the wife remained. While he was a Fellow of the college Tony was famous for mainly admitting red headed girls to study English. After one year I ditched him as supervisor for someone considerably more distinguished. Tony retired years ago and kindly invited me to his party. I went, but I could tell he wasn’t certain who I was. He repeatedly asserted that women never turned down offers of marriage. I thought it was a curiously emphatic, but not inconsistent, position to take on such an occasion.
These days I see him every couple of weeks taking a shuffling walk in the University Parks. I know he doesn’t recognize me, but even so I have tried nodding. I should know better. He has never once met my – or anyone else’s – eye.
Maybe he feels guilty about something.