by Clive Collins
They met in the café he had gone to sometimes with Daisy. It had been a coffee bar then; now, it was a coffee shop. Daisy’s mother, Fay, a good woman, sensible, well-educated, widowed, a teacher until she followed her doctor’s advice and retired early, was waiting for him at one of the tables on the pavement.
“I’m so glad you could come,” Fay said as she let him go from her embrace. “I treasure the letters you’ve sent these past weeks, your emails, but to see you – well…”
A young woman came to take their order as soon as they sat down and then, without preamble, Fay said, “I’m dreaming poetry. You’d think it would be funerals or falling or -”
“Poetry.” She corrected him as she had sometimes when he was her pupil. “Nothing – definite. But, like Prospero’s island, when I’m asleep my head seems to be filled with noises, voices and -”
“Isn’t everyone’s?” he said.
“Yes, but – in my dreams – the voices are those of poets.”
“Any in particular?”
“Oh, yes, yes. Frost, Auden. Mostly.”
“And the voices – are they disembodied or do you see Frost and Auden – mostly?”
“Not see, David only hear. I’ll – well, the dreams are often difficult. Excuse me, I meant to say different. But the voices are the same, always. I’ve heard them; in the real world, the waking world, I’ve heard them. I know whose voices they are.”
“Yes,” he said. He remembered the scratchy recordings of Yeats and the better ones of Eliot, Auden, Frost. She knew the voices and, having been taught by her, inducted into the mysteries by her, so did he.
“But, Fay, what do they say to you? Do they – do they offer comfort? Do they chide? Instruct? What?”
She smiled, shook her head, and for a moment he saw her again as she had been when he was, when they both were, younger and, in her case, beautiful. Beautiful not in the way a Hollywood star is, can be, beautiful, but beautiful. As in the poem, she walked in beauty. It was not always, only sometimes. The sometimes, though, he remembered.
“None of those things. They simply speak. I can’t place what they say in any a particular poem. It’s only that everything they do say seems to be from a particular poem. Do you follow?”
He said he did, but clearly his eyes betrayed him because her own eyes narrowed as another smile creased her face.
“So, you can’t identify them at all?”
“No, and yet, well, I said Frost and Auden. It is early Frost.” Still smiling she said she must sound like a weather girl.
“And Mr. Auden?” In the classroom she had always referred to Auden, whom she had met, as mister. She ignored the question.
“I say they speak to me,” she said. “But sometimes they sing.”
“Chant do you mean?”
“This is singing,” she said.
“Are you sure Berryman isn’t in there somewhere? The Dream Songs?”
“No,” she said. “Just Frost and Mr Auden.” She shifted her weight on the seat of her chair before crossing her still elegant legs one over the other.
“There were six hundred came to the church?”
He nodded, as if he already possessed this, although he did not.
“The building only holds two hundred. Everyone else stood outside. The service was relayed to them through speakers. I was – surprised.”
“That she was so loved.”
“But you knew, Fay.”
“By so, so many. I did not think…”
“Fay, you knew she was loved. You knew I -”
“Yes, I knew. It was the degree, the – this is not the right word – generality of the love people felt for her.”
“Feel,” he said, correcting her English for the first time in all the time he had known her.
“Feel,” she said.
“Did anyone make a video?”
Her stare caused his cheeks to redden.
“Oh, a video, yes, I see. Not inside the church, that isn’t – the pastor is a little… You know? But some of those outside might possibly… People do nowadays, don’t they? Record life rather than live it. A compulsion. I have the other tapes, of course.”
“The other tapes?”
“I watch them all the time. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Perhaps that would help me.”
“The poems, you mean.”
They fell into a silence that became unendurable and so he called the young woman who had served them over to order more coffee, although he had not touched the one in front of him.
“You loved her,” Fay said.
He let the waitress go, saying he had changed his mind. “Yes. Nothing will ever change that.”
“I was wrong – in the past. Can you forgive me?”
“I can understand you,” he said. “I find understanding easier than forgiveness.”
“I – I see.”
“Perhaps not. I understand. That’s what’s important. I understand the awkwardness of having your own child in your class and then –”
“It was my fault. No, I don’t mean that. There was no fault on anyone’s part. It was just that I – I brought you together.”
“Well, it was the school, really, wasn’t it?”
“But I took an interest in you. Invited you to my – to Daisy’s – home.”
“I accepted the invitations.”
“In the end, I thought that it – you and Daisy – was wrong: The two of you in my class, the two of you the brightest in the class. It was difficult. It seemed to me that it – became difficult.”
“Does it matter now?”
“I want you to know that I regret what I did.”
He told her not to. He said that to regret the past was to become its prisoner.
“But I do,” she said.
He reached across the table to where her hands lay in front of her, one on top of the other, lifeless.
“I have the tapes. I have those, at least.”
He did not know what she was talking about.
“From the cameras in the building.”
“I thought you said –“
“Not the – I’m talking about the building where she worked. The police were so kind. The embassy people also. Everyone was – so kind. So – sympathetic.”
“Why?” he said. “I don’t understand.”
“The building is quite new. It has cameras. The police retrieved the tapes. You think no one saw her that day and then, well, it’s a comfort to know that someone, something, some thing, did. I asked for copies.”
“It comforts you to see her on them? I’m not sure it would me.”
“To see my girl? Yes. No. But I look. Now that I have them, I look.”
“And?” he said.
“You mean what do I see?”
“Well, the building has an underground station in – I suppose you would call it the basement. Again, I’m not sure whether this is – Language fails me these days, or I fail it.”
“And you can see Daisy?”
“Yes. The police technician circled her head whenever she appears to make her, you know, stand out. She seems haloed: a saint, a Madonna.
“You can’t see her getting off the train, but as the crowd thins, there she is walking up the platform and then exiting the station.
“The next time you see her is as she comes to the top of an escalator and into what looks like – what was when I saw it – the foyer. Is that right? Foyer? She goes into one of the shops there. The shop also had cameras and, again, people were kind; I was given a copy of the tape that shows her buying food: little rice cakes, water.”
He wanted to stop her but could not.
“I bought some of these cakes myself. Well, perhaps cake is not the precise word. Sandwich is perhaps a better way of describing these – these little… Not at all sweet, and wrapped in a papery seaweed.
“Horrid, really, but Daisy must have liked them. She lingered in the shop. You see her eating and drinking as she stands looking through the magazines in a rack. I stood there myself, exactly where she stood that day.
“The next thing, there she is again on a different tape going into a lift and then, almost at once it seems, the lift comes back down and she gets out. She gets out and – and she seems to hesitate – but then, then she turns and gets back into the lift. The doors close and that’s all. She was smiling.”
“No one saw her fall?”
“She didn’t fall. Don’t you understand? She went up to the roof garden. She climbed a security fence. She did not fall.”
“She fell,” he said, closing his eyes.
“The poetry, the voices in your dreams, does it, do they, help you?”
“No. If there were poems, perhaps – something, some comfort. But…”
They stood up almost as if at a signal. He left money on the table for the waitress. Walking into the flow of shoppers, he and Fay paused to say their goodbyes and parted. She had not shed a single tear, this woman who had once forbidden him her daughter’s company.
He watched her go and thought of the voices she would hear that night and the others that must follow. Poetry, she had said, not poems.
He knew what she wanted or thought he did, knew what poems the poetry was trying to be. She sought an articulation of sorrow, an ordering of despair. Neither was possible, not for her, not for anyone. They might never have been wrong about suffering, the Old Masters, but poetry still could not make anything happen.