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The Warp

May Balls

A drowsy heat hangs over Oxford and the air is filled with the throb of huge bands. I sit overlooking the church from my window seat, my arms strained by climbing back over the tall steel spike-topped fence one has to top if returning to college after midnight, the moon shining across an empty garden, and I think of a dance I had with Lucy, snatching her from the arms of her partner to whirl once round the room. ‘If there were dances to end every day,’ I say to her. ‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘provided that you were always there to dance with.’

Now the air is shrill with the skirl of bagpipes, the massive band-throb is momentarily silent. As we continue to dance, Lucy’s partner, who has paid a huge amount of money to bring her here, approaches and says, ‘There’s a place over there, Jeremy, where you can get a drink. Why don’t you go and have one?’ So I go off and wander into a cellar lit by candlelight where I am surprised to see a young woman I know whose partner was less assertive than Lucy’s, so I dance with her for the rest of the dance. Lucy and her partner go home.

We went to a number of dances that summer; to Oriel, rather too confined in space, to University’s dance held in their hall, to St Johns held in a white-blue tent in the garden, to Christchurch held in their dining hall. At New College Lucy was my partner for all evening, there was a dance floor in the garden under my window and from here we watched.

Stars falling among the trees on the mound, Mark Tennant wandering lantern in hand along the mediaeval walls like an old-fashioned watchman, or lighting his special gift of a curtain of silver fire. There were other fireworks that, seen from the side, looked like candelabras, others that surprised by their constant changefulness.

Lucy and I climbed the city wall and gazed down onto the dance floor, sitting together in a niche. We returned to eat in my rooms, hearing the band strike up from underneath, and we sat for long after that looking out on the frenzied dancing below us. Then we went down to the garden to dance across the grass towards the trees, towards Magdalen tower, into the darkness.

Finally, back on the dance floor at dawn, mist rose through the boards between us as we danced.

‘Now Lucy has left me. Only her scent on my hands and on the window seat to remind me of her. As I look out leaves scatter and I fancy the whole garden seems to float up from below in the passing wind. The crows sing raucously on the mound, and soon this room will be disbanded, nobody will remember that I ever lived here. My gilded candelsticks and Persian curtains will be wrapped up in crates. A sabre like patch of sunlight moves across the lawn and up the mound, the air is cool and with a touch of autumn.

‘I sit on the window seat, watch couples wandering down the mediaeval lane far below and stop in the shadow of the church. The evening is cold. The crows call tumultuously and a sorrow comes over me. Cast now by the moon, not the sun, a pallisade shaped shadow moves stealthily across the lawn.

‘I feel an unusual emotion - that I long to get closer to the earth than I have been before, to render myself up to its tilt and sway, to give myself up to something greater than myself.’

Lucy came to stay at Eye and I wrote; ‘I have been in love for the whole summer. Lucy and I have been riding through the meadows, across the hills and along woody paths to half-forgotten, half-abandoned churches or driving obscure tracks in the Welsh mountains where ponies snort and canter off into the mist at sight of us.

‘It was a rainy blusterous day, the weather was wild and we found it difficult to control our horses. In Ashton the blacksmith said he couldn’t shoe our horses for two hours so we rode into the Middleton woods, holding hands from the saddle, along the dripping woodland paths, and in the teeth of the gale cantered down to a church on the further side of the woods. We tethered the horses and went in. On the nave arch ‘OD IS LO’ was written, the rest concealed by smoke from oil lamps. From the top of the tower we looked across at stormy Clee and then I noticed that my horse Beauty had escaped from his tether. We ran down the stone steps and were able to catch him, and then cantered off back homewards, in the teeth of the gale.’

On another day we drove to Llanthony Abbey in the Black Mountains, abandoned by its monks, fallen into ruin, and Gothicised by Walter Savage Landor who left it because of his extreme unpopularity with local people. Deep mists rolled over us from the mountains which rose steeply all round us. In the small inn that is built among the towering ruins, we sat on high-backed chairs in a long dark vaulted room and ate at one end of an interminable table whose other end was lost in shadows.

‘I’ve never seen such a haunted place,’ said Lucy as we looked up at the cracked Gothicky window at the top of the tower. Round each of the tower rooms were narrow stone passages leading into dark abysses and there was what looked like a built-in cupboard in one room, but if you opened the doors you saw the sky high above and a long long drop below.

My parents decided that it was time to give a dance at Eye. Days before, my father was in the garden arranging places to sit out, here in an arbour and there in a small shed he arranged sitting out places which later would be graced with cushions and ornamented with foliage. A single spotlight gave flood lighting to the facade of the house. As the evening approached the house began to glow. The martins who live under the eaves of the house begin to sing, thinking that the dawn had come. Later, when a slight drizzle came, the spotlight, which stood on a wall beside the churchyard, exploded.

Lucy and I went to my room, faintly lit by the reflected spot-light, and through the light drizzle saw two figures walking, hand in hand, out to the caravan circling among the branches of the weeping ash, then climbing in.

My father gave me a lizard skin, left over from binding one of his books. Two feet long, it lay, a sinister yellow among the tasselled cushions of my window seat. One afternoon, when I was lying on the grass beneath the cascading downward branches of our weeping ash, I wrote;

‘Nunc vividi membra sub arbuto

Stratus, nunc ad adrae bene caput sacrae.

‘I long to go myself to Arcadia, that world

‘Where shepherd boys pipe as though

They never would be old

with the heroine disguised, but recognisable, at the end of a long avenue of trees.’


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