In memory of Pete Laver
‘To Fleur from Pete, on loan perpetual.’
It’s written on the flyleaf of the book
I wouldn’t let you give away outright:
‘Just make it permanent loan,’ I said – a joke
between librarians, professional
jargon. It seemed quite witty, on a night
when most things passed for wit. We were all hoarse
by then, from laughing at the bits you’d read
aloud – the heaving bosoms, blushing sighs,
demoniac lips. ‘Listen to this,’ you said:
‘ “Thus rendered bold by frequent intercourse
I dared to take her hand.” ’ We wiped our eyes.
‘ “Colonel, what mean these stains upon your dress?” ’
We howled. And then there was Lord Ravenstone,
faced with Augusta’s dutiful rejection
in anguished prose; or, for a change of tone,
a touch of Gothic – Madame la Comtesse
’s walled-up lover. An inspired collection:
The Keepsake, 1835; the standard
drawing-room annual, useful as a means
for luring ladies into chaste flirtation
in early 19th-century courtship scenes.
I’d never seen a copy; often wondered.
Well, here it was – a pretty compilation
of tales and verses: stanzas by Lord Blank
and Countess This and Mrs That; demure
engravings, all white shoulders, corkscrew hair
and swelling bosoms; stories full of pure
sentiments, in which gentlemen of rank
urged suits upon the nobly-minded fair.
You passed the volume round, and poured more wine.
Outside your cottage lightning flashed again:
a Grasmere storm, theatrically right
for stories of romance and terror. Then
somehow, quite suddenly, the book was mine.
The date in it’s five weeks ago tonight.
‘On loan perpetual.’ If that implied
some dark finality, some hint of ‘nox
perpetua’, something desolate and bleak,
we didn’t see it then, among the jokes.
Yesterday, walking on the fells, you died.
I’m left with this, a trifling, quaint antique.
You’ll not reclaim it now; it’s mine to keep:
a keepsake, nothing more. You’ve changed the ‘loan
perpetual’ to a bequest by dying.
Augusta, Lady Blanche, Lord Ravenstone –
I’ve read the lot, trying to gel to sleep.
The jokes have all gone flat. I can’t stop crying.