John Bayley

At college I took a class in writing short stories. It’s a long time ago, but it stands out among the things that were happening to me at the time; and have happened, or not happened, since. The instructor always wanted us to be dry and precise. No gush please was his watchword. I was feeling pretty dry myself, so I thought I should be able to manage that. But what I mostly wrote, I remember, was not so much dry as limp.

Exhorting economy, the instructor also recommended what I think he called ‘disjunction’ and ‘prolepsis’. He would illustrate both with arm movements, in his faded blue denim jacket. He was a serious young man, in glasses with matt black metal rims. I sometimes thought that if his arms could produce masterpieces on their own he wouldn’t have to be teaching us.

Elevation led to the epiphany. I remember that. You quietly worked up to this big moment when nothing happened. The significance was there, and the reader should sense it but not define it. ‘All else is anecdote,’ the instructor used to say.

The class was mostly girls, and some asked questions, but the few men present talked much more. I think this was because the instructor said something at the beginning about women having an aptitude for the form. That may have made the men feel more inclined to assert themselves. There was one who seemed to take a bit of interest in me. At least he always smiled at me after he said anything, as if I was the one who could get what he meant. When I smiled back I tried to convey I was pleased at being taken notice of, but of course not quite up to appreciating his insights into narratology. I think the instructor was irritated at this byplay, but they must be used to it by now.

I thought very hard about a story for our final assignment. It was hot in my room and the flies were bad that year. The girl next door had a habit of cooking something that smelled greasy. I had one of those dreams where one is furiously trying to find something. It reminded me of an old lady my mother used to know, a Russian lady. Her English was never very good. Speaking of her wedding she once said something to me, with a dry little cackle of laughter, about what sounded like a pot of basil. Could that be right, because it’s the name of a poem by Keats? I was baffled and didn’t ask her to explain. But the dream brought it back.

The old lady had a delicate face. A great contrast to her hands, which were large, swollen, and reddish, coarsened and misshaped with work. They had had a hard time: no doubt about that. She had worked in hotel kitchens and such places for years, after escaping from Russia with nothing but the clothes she stood up in. She used to tell me her memories of St Petersburg, when she was a young girl. She liked to talk about the big dacha where they had stayed in the summer. It was their holiday home on the Gulf of Finland, in what sounded an idyllic spot: wild green country with a shallow green sea close at hand, dotted with rocky islands and edged by empty sandy shores. Mentioning that detail she said something in Russian which she told me was from a poem by Pushkin, about thirty knights coming up out of the water with their sea-tutor.

When the war began she was 16, and at the Smolny, an old convent which was a school for young ladies. Later on its buildings had become the headquarters of the Bolshevik party. The girls had been at home for the holidays when the Wild Men, as they were called, took it over. She had wondered what had gone on in the classrooms, and what sort of Wild Man had slept in her bed.

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