OF THE DREAM
It had started out with sex, as so many things had in those days. Sandy Dicey was the prettiest, cleverest and (as it turned out) the wisest of the year's new intake. She was 19; Alex had been 32. In the early 1970s the idea that lecturers shouldn't have affairs with students would have been laughed at: it was one of the perks of the job. It had never occurred to either of them that there could have been any special treatment or favouritism, or any real conflict of interest. And there hadn't been.
The affair had been dreadfully short: the second half of Michaelmas term, her first at the university. She'd gone home for Christmas, and when she'd come back, it was over. He remembered the 'phone call on Boxing day. “Alex? It's all right. I'm not pregnant. Can't talk – parents in the next room – but I thought you'd want to know.” And he'd said, “Of course. Yes. Thank you. Love you.” She hadn't said “Love you” back, and it had hurt. He'd more than half hoped she was pregnant. He'd have married her. But; well; it was a long time ago. Anyway, when she came back at the beginning of Hilary term, eleven days later, it was clearly over.
Now he looked back on it, most of the sex with the students had been in his mind anyway. He'd gone out with only four of them, and slept with two of them. The last was Sandy. In fact, she was the last girl he'd slept with, except in his head.
Now it was Hilary term again, forty-eight years later. January winds spun thin snow in the quadrangle as he trod the familiar path from the dining hall to his rooms. Lady Justice Dicey, Lord Justice of Appeal, would therefore be – he calculated in his head, as he did a hundred times a year – sixty-seven. He was so proud of her. Lover, sister, daughter: she was all these and more in his head. They had remained friends, always at a careful distance; except in his head.
He'd dedicated his first book to her: Ubi Jus, Where There is Law. To his surprise, it had sold very well, and gone on selling. It was a required text in many universities. He had never needed much, of course, and since he'd been appointed Professor of Jurisprudence he'd needed even less: the college took care of all his needs. That was a long time ago too. He couldn't do the job forever, of course, which is why he was now Emeritus; but he still had his rooms, his seat at the high table, and gratifyingly, still revenues from the books. He did not want. Except Sandy Dicey.
The stairs to his rooms grew steeper every year; or every month; or sometimes, it seemed, every day. The college had offered to move him more than once, but as long as he possibly could, he clung to what had been his home for over thirty years. He paused half way up, one hand on the banister-rail for balance, leaning on his stick for support. Who would have thought he could ever get so old?
The lock must have been oiled: it opened unusually smoothly. He made a mental note to thank the porter: he'd mentioned it only yesterday, or the day before. In here, he could walk without the stick. He put it carefully in the umbrella stand and shrugged off his gown, which he hung on the back of the door. It was showing signs of wear. When he'd first graduated, he'd never given a thought to the idea that academic gowns wore out. Now, this must be, what, his third or fourth? Ede and Ravenscroft would never grow fat off his custom, but at least he was a reliable and faithful customer. His jacket he hung up more carefully, on a coat-hanger. When he was young, he had always found the phrase “It'll see me out” to be rather morbid. For the last few years, he had understood it better. If he did buy a new suit, he'd not get many years' wear out of it. Best to eke out the old one, then.
He laughed. Why not buy a new one? He could afford it easily enough, and there wasn't much else to spend his money on. He'd had to give up the car. Well, not had to, but he had less and less use for it, and besides, he wasn't sure how safe a driver he was any more. Sometimes he'd dream he was driving, but then, sometimes he'd dream he'd come off the road, too, and was flying in the air, high above the sea. Because it was a dream he could steer back onto the road, but he wouldn't want to try it in real life. Anyway, he knew what he wanted to do with his money. Half of it would go to the college; half to Sandy's grand-daughter. There was no-one else to leave it to, after all. He hadn't spoken to his brother, his only living relative, in years; and besides, a few tens of thousands would be nothing to him. Ailsa didn't know she was a beneficiary, but that was a part of the pleasure of leaving it to her: he could imagine how he would have felt with a surprise legacy in his 'teens. He'd taken good care that his executors would be able to find her, though: she was specifically described as Lady Dicey's grand-daughter. His executors: yes. James was long retired now, and increasingly forgetful; there was nobody in his old firm that Alex knew. But the brass plate still had James's surname on it. He looked at the brass plate on the back of his own door: Sue, Grabbit and Runne. They'd had them made when they were at university together. He knew where James's was: on the door of the downstairs loo. It had gone with him each time he had moved house.
He made his way over to the sideboard and poured a generous measure of Laphroaig into the cut-glass tumbler from which he always drank his nightcap. It was still comparatively early, but more and more nowadays he just wanted to sleep after dinner. He'd wake up early, of course, but that was good too: he'd be able to prepare his lecture for next week. He was never sure why they still asked him to lecture once a term. When he was feeling down, he suspected it was just pity, but the truth was, surprisingly many students still turned up. Equally surprisingly, quite a few of them asked him to autograph their copies of Ubi Jus . More surprisingly still, they weren't just law students. Many were studying PPE, and he even got the occasional sociologist. Maybe it was just that they wanted to meet a (very minor) legend; to be able to brag, in later years, “Oh, yes. I actually heard him lecture once. In fact, I got him to autograph Ubi Jus for me. I've got it somewhere...”
He laughed again. Maybe he should have done what the musicians had done in his youth: after the concert, a table with records and tapes for sale, autographed at no extra cost. He pictured himself in jeans, T-shirt and academic gown, maybe sharing a spliff with them afterwards, take one of the female fans to bed. No, there'd never be another Sandy. He shook his head. When he was young, he'd never really been able to appreciate that old men, and old women too, had once been young. It was a bit like Jeremy Corbyn and what was her name, Diane Abbott. People probably couldn't imagine Professor Hare and Lady Justice Dicey getting it on.
Carefully, he walked over to the deep leather chair by the fireplace and twisted the timer on the ancient electric fire. Half an hour would be enough. The rooms were centrally heated nowadays, but he still liked a bit of extra heat of a winter's evening. Needed it, really. Another phrase he'd never understood when he was young was the one about the cold getting into your bones. But it did. The timer was his concession to modernity, and to keeping the college's electricity bills down. Without the timer, he (and they) knew there was a risk he'd forget and he'd leave it on, overheating the room grievously by morning.
The old chair welcomed him as the fire began to glow. He sipped the whisky. Oobie juice, he called it. There'd been a young journalist who'd pronounced Ubi Jus like that when he'd come to interview him. He hadn't been sure what to do. Correcting him outright would have been crass, but it wouldn't have been a lot more comfortable to pronounce it correctly but pointedly. Besides, what was “correctly”? At school over sixty years before, the fashionable pronunciation had been ubbie yooss, with the first u short and the second long; but if he'd understood the senior Latin master correctly, when he in turn had been at school it had been closer to the journalist's pronunciation.
The oobie juice began to work its magic. He'd been pretty relaxed by the time he'd got to the post-prandial port, but the effort of walking across the quad and up the stairs had taken its toll. The whisky took away the aches and pains, and the chill, and relaxed his ancient muscles.
He allowed his mind to wander. He'd see Sandy again tonight, as he had most nights for forty-eight years. He'd been totally faithful to her. Odd, that. How could you be faithful to someone who didn't even know you were in love with them? But unless he'd fallen straight asleep, he'd always gone over in his mind that one precious night, the only one where they had spent the whole night together, that last week-end before the Christmas vacation. They had fallen asleep in one another's arms, and woken up as entwined as they had been when they fell asleep. He could remember it all perfectly, the warmth, the closeness, the sweetness of her breath even in the morning. Remembering it was a fantasy, but soon it would turn into a dream.
In the dream, they were every age and no age: simultaneously the ages at which they had met, and their ages at the time of the dream. At first, they would sometimes make love, but slowly, by fits and starts, or fits and stops really, that had faded away until all that was left was the cuddle, the perfection of being almost but not quite asleep: awake enough to know that you are asleep, and to enjoy it.
On the nights when he was unable to sleep, he had embroidered the fantasy by degrees. Instead of being in his cramped flat, all he'd been able to afford as a newly appointed senior lecturer, they were on a big, soft bed in a beach hut on a tropical beach. Not the sort that has bamboo walls and palm fronds for a roof, but a reasonably luxurious little cottage, part of an hotel. They could hear the sea outside, and smell it. Later still, in a further elaboration, they had ventured out of the room in the early morning and walked hand in hand along the beach. Now there were times when he was alone in the hut, and the door would open, and she would walk in; or when he would walk into the hut after an early morning walk, when he had not had the heart to wake her, and she would be waiting. Then they would sleep some more.
Once he'd stayed in a hut very like that. In his mid-40s he'd been invited to a conference at the University of Madras and before he went someone had told him about the shore temples at Mahabalipuram, around 60 km to the south. They had been amazing, and the hut had been very like the fantasy, along with quite a lot of details he had never imagined. The fishing boats setting out at dawn were magical, but the fishermen's habit of relieving themselves on the beach was rather less so. He could no longer tell how much of his falling-asleep fantasy-dream was actually a recollection of Mahabalipuram, and how much he had made up from the whole cloth. Something that was definitely memory was having masala dosa for breakfast. They had been superb. Sometimes he thought about incorporating that in the fantasy, the two of them having breakfast, biting into the crunchy dosai to the soft, fragrant curry inside, then going back to the hut together. Somehow, though, there didn't seem to be a need: they fell asleep easier and easier now. But it would be good to walk on that beach with her again and maybe to have breakfast. He drained the glass.
Before he cleaned his teeth, he put the wheatie in the microwave to heat up: a soft cotton bag full of wheat-grains. It was the most perfect hot water bottle: never too hot, unless you were really careless, and unlike a hot water bottle, never cold and clammy. Now you could buy them, but he'd had to have a friend make up the first one. Who was it who'd introduced him to them, when he'd been staying at their house? That was it: Christine. Long dead now.
With his teeth clean, he pushed the warm wheatie down towards the foot of the bed. His sheepskin slippers, from Drapers of Glastonbury, were the warmest he'd ever found, but his feet were still cold in bed. Within minutes, he was cuddled up against Sandy, the wheatie doing double duty for her toasty little feet. He was at that delightful stage of falling asleep, and knowing you are falling asleep, and enjoying it, when she stirred. Sleepily she said “Can you hear the sea?”
He could, but he didn't know what to say. In the dream, they almost never spoke. Willing himself to stay asleep, he said, “Yes.”
She wriggled slightly closer. “And smell it too?”
She hugged him. “Why don't we go for a walk?”
“But it's late.”
She shrugged: a tiny, wonderfully sexy movement, but one he'd forgotten. “Yes, but it's not cold. And look: it's a full moon. Come on!” She jumped out of bed, holding out her hand to pull him up too. He got out of bed with considerably more ease than he had got in. Briefly, they stood nude together, embracing. He pulled her closer and ran his hand over her bottom. It was even more perfect than he remembered. They pulled on shorts and a T-shirt each: no underclothes. They were still every age and no age, but definitely closer to the age that they had met than to the ages they were now.
There was no need to lock the door: there was no-one else on the beach. There were no temples at the end, either. This wasn't Mahabalipuram. It was his beach, their beach. As they walked along, hand in hand, she said, “You know I knew, don't you?”
He shook his head. “About what?”
“About you. About the dream.”
“No. How could you?”
She stopped and turned and kissed him long and deep. The Indian Ocean lapped against their feet. She said, “Sometimes I had it too. Not often. But... Sometimes when I was falling asleep, I'd be with you. Cuddled up. Like we were a few minutes ago. Like we were; well, you know; that night. The twelfth of December.” She shook her head. “Of course it could have been just me. It was a surprise when you found the beach hut, though,” she added helpfully. “It felt like somewhere – oh, I don't know, like somewhere you had built. For me. I don't know why. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was ours.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why did you break it off?” It was hard to get the words out.
“I was 19. I was scared. And I loved you. Besides, it would never have worked out. You were already working on Ubi Jus. If we'd stayed together, we'd have had children. I wanted your children. I wouldn't... You wouldn't... You wouldn't have become the great Professor Hare.”
He hugged her close. “And you wouldn't have been Lady Justice Dicey. You wouldn't have been... Oh, my love, I'm so incredibly proud of you. My best student ever. Youngest woman ever appointed Lord of Appeal. I don't know who I love more, Sandy Dicey or Lady Justice Dicey. But either way, we got second best.”
“It wasn't that bad a second best. At least, not for me. Not after my first husband went, anyway. I hope it wasn't for you, either. I mean, you've... You're Sir Alexander Hare, after all, the greatest jurisprudentialist of his generation. Well, two generations now, I suppose. You've inspired thousands upon thousands of people. I didn't want to stand in the way of that.”
He laughed weakly. “Whereas you're just a common or garden Lord of Appeal. Besides, think how we'd have confused people. Sir Alexander and Lady Alexandra.”
She laughed too, equally shakily. “I didn't think... Well, never mind. We've always had each other in the dream, and who's to say the reality would have been any better? Remember what Umberto Eco said: all counterfactual conditionals are true. This dream can go on for as long as we want. That's neither counterfactual nor conditional. But we're both very old. Well, no, you're very old and I'm just old. I'm not going to get much older, though. Cancer. Can you die in a dream? I have, but never properly. I mean, you can go on observing yourself, and even sort of being yourself. The great thing about dying in a dream, though, is that it doesn't hurt. Shall we try it? Together? The end of the dream?”
They walked into the sea, hand in hand, until it closed over their heads.
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All words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016