The college of Marshouse (of course, pronounced Mar-zh-oos) sits furthest away from the dreary fens, its high walls and gothic spires casting semi-circumnavigating shadows across the cobble street apron throughout the day. It is constant, a paradigm, sentinel of the cogs within. It is haunted, no doubt – at least stained by its doubled history of intrigue and achievement. No place could house what Marshouse has housed and not incur an imprint of some sort. Although it was history now, the stone engraving above the old main gate was still marked with the legend Iustum, Necar, Reges, Impious; a medieval oath pledging the assassination of all heretics, be them king or pauper. Iustum et purum was now on the Marshouse coat of arms: ‘The Just and Pure’. Outsiders tended to call the fellows simply, ‘those bloody-minded Jesuits’.
The Poetry Chair was offered to Kenneth Naseby in the late summer of 1980. He had crossed the aisle, many felt, from the dreaming spires to the gargoyles of Marshouse. He was not in the habit of lying to himself, but he said he had done it for his wife.
Naseby had been a famous man, a name known beyond the pink of the atlas in the days of the Empire. But he had come to terms with his current predicament some years before. He had not published a new poem in fifteen years. It had all been editorials and book reviews. His colleagues consulted him less and less on matters needing authority. His ambitions, such as they were, were no longer poetical. He was dry; in his sixties by now, his poetry behind him, and he did not possess the required majesty to put hope in a Yeatsian twilight.
If Naseby knew the reputation of Marshouse it was not only because everybody knew the stories and the history. If he knew the dangers of the proposition it was because the place had privately fascinated him for as long as he could remember. In recent months he had heard the faculty at Marshouse referred to time and time again as ‘the family’. Behind his closed expression there was a tingle to his bones. He listened to the offer, his grey-blue eyes looking over the rim of his wine glass at the man who had made it.
Sir Russell Gavin sat opposite him at the restaurant. Gavin was the Counsel of Marshouse, its provost, its mind, its pulse; he was both the cloak and the dagger. He was a big man; he took a seat with a groan, and always leaned back, looking down the bridge of his nose at people who were at eye-level to him. Gavin was a broad academic, of the type who was always going to be more interested in politics than research, and he spoke always as if from behind his hand. Naseby could see the enjoyment the big man took in matters of intrigue, no matter how trivial – from electing the Poetry Chair to discussing the wine menu, Gavin was connecting dots and mentally building columns from pros and cons. His mind was agile, where his body was far behind. Naseby remembered that Kant had written about his techniques for avoiding depression, that he dispelled it by sheer force of will, by remaining energetic – his famous daily walks at 3.30pm on the dot – but also Kant gave much credence to the benefits of breathing only through the nose. Gavin breathed through his nose, even when eating.
‘So that is a yes?’ Gavin said.
Naseby placed the wine glass on to the table and ran his bottom teeth along his top lip.
‘I had been wondering about these dinners,’ he said.
‘These dinners?’ said Gavin. ‘We are friends.’
The friendship had seemed unlikely to Naseby. Naseby’s wife had suggested caution.
‘Marshouse keep to themselves; you know that,’ she had said across the breakfast table. ‘You have to wonder why any of them start reaching out.’
Naseby did not look up from his newspaper.
‘Perhaps he’s lonely,’ he said after a sip of his tea.
Marshouse was an enclave, a monastery for the frowning intellectual. It had been a Jesuit hideaway in the sixteenth century; an outpost of anti-protestant plots and assassin agents of the Vatican who would slide up from France in their black cloaks. The history of the place was one of murder and darkness. It had also produced several prime ministers. As a university college it was a place where the air was slate grey, and the walls were high, and the grass lawns kept very short. Sir Russell Gavin held a post that had, in its original incarnation, been created by an envoi of Mandelejo, the Bloody Cardinal. Naseby knew his history.
‘How did he offer it to you?’ said Naseby’s wife, scraping butter onto toast.
‘He said I was the finest living poet in the English language.’ He slowly turned the page of the broadsheet and his eyes scanned the verso.
‘And you accepted that?’
‘He was paying for dinner. I didn’t want to appear ungracious.’
He sipped his tea and the sun shone through the window warming the checked plastic table cloth, the wireless played Mahler in a low trickle, and the toast was perfectly browned. There was a time when he would have told his wife the news the moment he had come home from dinner, but she had already retired for the night. They no longer shared a bed, but had separate rooms, the doors to which faced each other at opposite ends of the landing.
They had met in Oxford. Adele was in secretarial college, Kenneth was at Keble reading philosophy. During the war Naseby had refused to fight. Adele was not a conscientious objector, but she felt tied to an admiration for the courage of her husband’s stance. He was offered prison or a low-level Intelligence position in London, and he took the job rather than the incarceration. Adele had nowhere to store her repulsion at his decision. Too much of a coward to even refuse to take part, she thought.
‘Do you think I should accept?’ he said.
‘Would we have to move there?’ Adele said.
‘Aren’t you bored of Oxford?’ said Naseby.
‘Possibly not bored enough for Marshouse,’ said Adele.
Naseby turned the page of his broadsheet once more.
‘We have a female prime minster,’ he said.
‘What has that to do with anything?’
‘It means sometimes circumstances can look different, even if they are very much the same.’
At lunchtime Naseby called Gavin at his office and accepted the position. Gavin explained there would be a vote, but that nobody else would stand. It was just a formality.
A week later the vote was held and Naseby was confirmed in absentia.
‘The vote takes place in the council chamber, and only members of the Chamber can step inside. So I thought it would be pointless in dragging you all the way down there for that,’ Gavin said at dinner that evening. ‘And I much prefer coming to Oxford when I can. Don’t let that become common knowledge.’ He laughed heartily.
The three of them – Naseby, Gavin, and Adele – clinked glasses across the middle of the table.
‘My husband, modest as he is, would not tell me how you persuaded him, Sir Russell,’ said Adele. ‘He has always been such an Oxford man.’
‘I think Marshouse entices in its own way, Mrs Naseby.’
‘Please, Sir Russell; call me Adele.’
‘Adele,’ Gavin’s lips fattened into a smile. ‘Your husband is a brilliant man. I could not have persuaded him, nor dissuaded him.’
They drunk more wine, although Adele drank slowly, Naseby drank with a steady hand, and Gavin guzzled and his face grew red.
‘I remember the first time I read your poem, Kenneth; “The Lark and Ermine”. The notions of purity. The mythic admiration for the power of the mind. It was beautiful. I have never forgotten it.’
Gavin breathed through his nose like a bull, leaning away, his chest rising curved like a whale’s back.
‘You think my husband will bring purity to Marshouse?’ said Adele.
Gavin looked surprised at her. And then his smile emerged again and he tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat.
‘I do,’ he said.
There was a dinner held in Naseby’s honour. Women were not permitted to attend. Adele stayed in Oxford finalising the details of the move. Gavin gave a rousing introduction to a large oak-panelled room of silver service, candelabras, and long grey faces. Naseby took to the lectern at the head table and looked out to them. Stern, dreadful faces, continuous across from him like military gravestones. They each wore their black capes, and they each seemed to have the same pursed lips and narrow eyes. During the meal, the Dean of the college, an old man with eyebrows like vulture’s wings, leaned across to Naseby on the high table and said, ‘Will you be reading for us, Professor Naseby? Will you read that poem about the God who crushes rocks with his hands?’
Naseby had offered a slight nod in reply.
Another professor, whose mouth downturned so abruptly at the corners, in line with the angles of his peculiar black eyes, asked that he read the poem about the river that cuts through the village, separating the rich and the poor, and the flooding turns the poor into fish and the rich into fishermen.
‘You can see that you have many admirers in this room,’ Gavin had said.
‘I have never quite been in a room like it,’ said Naseby.
The air was tight around him at the lectern. He was opposite a blinkless audience.
He thanked them for the honour of the dinner, named names, and thanked them for the honour of the Chair. He then began to read one of his old poems, ‘The Saturnine’. His narrator, in iambic pentameter, walked the streets of Jerusalem, and the lakeside of Galilee, and sailed to an unknown shore where he fell to his knees, drained with his experiences, and declared, ‘Our foreign soil is foreign in folktale, barbarous to those who cannot understand, to those who mistake the anvil for the sword, the yoke for bounteous joys of servitude.’ He received a standing ovation from the expressionless faces. Some of them looked at each other and nodded as they clapped.
‘You read “The Saturnine”‘?’ said Adele at the breakfast table.
‘I felt that a narrative that culminates in a satirical declamation about new beginnings might evoke some lightness in the room. I was quite wrong.’
‘Nobody laughed?’ said Adele angling the milk jug gently over her teacup.
‘Nobody ever laughs at “The Saturnine”. It’s not that kind of joke,’ said Naseby. He looked up from the newspaper he was holding widely in front of him. ‘But I don’t think they took it as a joke at all.’
Term began, and term went on. Naseby was not required to teach many classes, and he was asked to deliver even fewer lectures. The students were incurious about him; they were quiet and disciplined, always in black, and were pale-skinned. They walked the halls and cloister in hushed conversations of short sentences, with their heads bowed to passing faculty.
As the evenings drew dark, Naseby began to end his day with a brandy at Gavin’s office whenever Gavin was on the grounds. It was a large and uncluttered place. Naseby had expected the size, but not the cleanliness and tidiness. Gavin sat in it like it was a throne room, but like he was the throne rather than the monarch.
‘We have some things coming up,’ Gavin said. ‘A day of mourning throughout Marshouse on November 20th.’
‘Mourning? For whom?’
Gavin gave his fat smile and narrowed his eyes.
‘We call it the Day of the Freedom of Tradition,’ he said.
‘Do you indeed?’ said Naseby.
‘It is just a day when we pay homage to conservative values.’
Naseby gave no response.
‘And then we have a visit from the prime minister the following week,’ said Gavin.
‘She values the input of the Marshouse faculty.’
Naseby knew that Gavin meant the Marshouse Chamber. Members of the Chamber met once a month and had done for four hundred years. Originally it was the duty of the members to provide Vatican assassins with information and documents for safe passage through England, away or toward a divinely-sanctioned task. Now it was peopled with philosophers, abbots and MI5 directors. And the Counsel of Marshouse, of course.
One day a student came to Naseby in a corridor, as Naseby paused to look for the keys to his room in his numerous pockets. The boy was pale, blonde-headed, and he spoke in a soft voice. He had with him a copy of Naseby’s Collected Poems, and he asked, shyly, for a signature inside the cover. It was the first acknowledgement of his work from a student of Marshouse.
‘Do you read these poems for your own pleasure, young man?’ said Naseby, taking the book from the boy.
‘Master Gavin has been allocating them, sir,’ said the boy.
Naseby gave a wry smile, but the boy, eyes downcast, did not see this.
Naseby made his mark in the book. It felt loose and thin.
‘There are pages missing from this book, boy,’ he said.
‘I didn’t damage the book, sir,’ said the boy.
Naseby fanned the pages. The foreword, written by Auden, had been torn away without much care for the spine. Naseby remembered every word of the essay. Auden had commented on Naseby’s earthiness, his attachment to the slate and clay of his working class childhood, and ‘every myth Naseby has used, usurped, or invented, has come from his sense of socialist conscience, and the wicked wit that was born from it.’ When his publisher had sent him the tribute – was it twenty-five years ago now? – he had shed a tear at his desk. So much more than years had passed. He could barely remember his childhood, he could barely remember the slate or the clay. He could not remember what his mother or father looked like – not in any detail; he could only remember that they were sullen and that they had a dull smell.
‘Why did you do this?’ Naseby said to the boy, angrily. ‘You should have more respect for literature.’
‘I swear, sir. Master Gavin gave out a whole bundle of these books and they were all in the same condition.’
The evening before the Day of the Freedom of Tradition Sir Russell Gavin came to Naseby’s office; a first. He sat opposite him, offered Naseby a filter cigarette and looked around the room. Naseby sat with a straight back, his hands poised over the papers on his desk.
‘You’re settling in nicely,’ said Gavin.
Gavin’s voice was not as steady as it usually was.
Naseby followed Gavin’s gaze around the room.
‘I must admit I wish I had a little more work,’ he said.
‘We’re breaking you in gently,’ said Gavin. ‘We’d like you to give a speech when the PM comes. It doesn’t have to be your thoughts, but your words.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She’ll be having dinner in the chamber, and we’d like you to give an after dinner speech. Written by the Chamber, but in your words.’
‘That’s not what I do. I am not a speech writer.’
‘Do you have dinner plans this evening?’ said Gavin.
‘My plan is to go home to my wife.’
‘Your dinner plans?’
‘To dine alone.’
‘We have much to discuss. Your plans have changed.’
‘Is it true you circulated copies of my Collected Poems to a group of the students?’
‘Some of our best students,’ said Gavin.
‘And you removed the foreword.’
Gavin breathed in deeply and puffed out his chest, tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat.
‘I wanted them to concentrate on the work. I didn’t want to confuse them with those flippant comments about your past. After all, it’s exactly that, isn’t it? The past. You’re one of us, now. Part of the family.’
In the restaurant Gavin talked about anything but the speech. Whenever Naseby tried to bring the topic back, Gavin waved his large meaty hands and glugged on his wine. He seemed more interested on topics of Naseby’s former technical prowess. How did he choose form? And then: are you working on anything at the moment? How does a poem grow? Does it grow inside or outside of you?
Naseby was tiring.
‘Is Sir Russell becoming a bore?’ said Adele at breakfast.
‘Not at all,’ said Naseby, examining his newspaper.
‘He keeps you up late.’
‘I’m settling in.’
‘And he’s just being attentive,’ said Adele. She was watching her husband across the table with the light glisten of tears at the edges of her eyes. He continued to examine his newspaper and sip his tea at intervals.
‘I’m sure it’ll pass,’ said Naseby, turning the page.
That day Naseby was at the college at the usual time, but it seemed he should have been there early. There was an early morning Mass at the chapel. He could hear the dull drone of the Marshouse choir sounding unusually glib across the lawn of the cloister. He went to his room and prepared his papers for the day and checked his messages. When that was done he sat in silence for some time until he could hear the chapel begin to empty. From the window of his room he could see the edge of the far corner of the cloister, and he could see some of the students and faculty making their way across. And they were all in some kind of costume. He could only partially make them out. Curious as to the sight he went out into the corridor and along to the top of the stairs. And up the stairs came a group of students, smiling and holding their hymn books. They were in costume, also. Only now Naseby could see they were not costumes, as such; but rather they were uniforms. The blue shirts and beige tunics were smart, and worn with a little flair and style – and were very far from the mourning dress he had expected as part of the carnival of symbolic rhetoric Gavin had given him. But as he stood at the top of the stairs, and the boys came closer he recognised the badge on the breast of each boys’ tunic; five arrows crossing up and across a three columned bridge. Red on black. It was the badge of the Falangists.
He found Gavin talking to two professors. Every student he passed along the way wore the same uniform.
Naseby tried to remain calm.
‘Professor Naseby,’ said Gavin with a wide smile. And then the smile dropped. ‘You missed Mass.’
‘I don’t go to Mass, Sir Russell.’
Gavin laughed and looked awkwardly at the other two professors, who smiled wryly at one another and walked off with purpose.
‘Be careful of how you joke, Kenneth. Today is not a day to joke.’
‘What is today?’
‘What do you mean? We talked about this,’ said Gavin, pulling Naseby closer to him.
‘I thought it was a conservative conference. I thought – it sounded like – an air-headed ideas conference, where a group of old Tories get together and bemoan the loss of the Empire. What is all this?’
‘You don’t know?’
Naseby gathered himself and shook his head. He listened to Gavin but he looked past him.
‘Today is the anniversary of the death of General Francisco Franco, Kenneth. Five years. Every year we mourn his passing, as a family.’
Naseby said nothing. His shoulders relaxed, his eyebrows rose. Gavin took this for epiphany, and smiled his fat smile at Naseby.
‘Did you get your dates mixed up?’ he said.
Naseby breathed through is nose and felt a metallic rasp at the back of his throat. He looked around the cloister at the boys gathering in their uniforms. He felt not as old as he had done just a few months ago. He saw the boy who had asked him to sign his book. He would have to learn names, he thought to himself.
‘Must have,’ Naseby said weakly.
‘And now you can see why it was important for us to break you in gently. Marshouse is not like other colleges. You have much important work ahead of you, Kenneth.’
Gavin put his arm around Naseby’s shoulder and began to walk him back toward his office.
Naseby breakfasted alone the next morning, and for the rest of the week, as Adele complained of a ghostly illness that had sucked all of the energy and will from her.
‘I’m sure I will be back on my feet in no time,’ she said from beneath the duvet. Naseby came no closer than the bedroom door.
‘I will check in on you when I return from the college this evening, then,’ he said.
‘Very well,’ she replied.
‘I have been asked to deliver a speech to the prime minister.’
‘That is good news.’
‘Well, it is something,’ Naseby said.
‘I will see you later on tonight, then,’ said his wife.
‘I will check in on you.’
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis