Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.
It’s hard now to remember what first struck me as not being quite right, but I think it was the garden sprinkler.
I certainly wasn’t concerned when no-one answered the door bell. After all, it was a lovely day, Margaret might have taken her work out into the garden. It’s only with hindsight that everything seems to have been leading up to the moment that split the day like a seismic shock, opening up a gulf between past and present. If I’m to tell this story, if I’m to get it at all clear in my own mind – and after all that’s why I’m writing it: to make sense of the crazy events of the past year – then I must try to get it right.
So: the garden sprinkler. As I walked down the path I heard the gentle swishing without being able quite to identify what the sound was. Then I turned the corner of the house and saw the water falling in slow rhythmic veils. The ground underneath the sprinkler was sodden, the grass almost submerged. It must have been on for hours, all night probably. You’d have to know Margaret as well as I did to understand why that was odd. She ran a tight ship in college and it was the same at home. I’d often thought it was just as well that Malcolm was fanatically tidy, too. They would have driven each other mad otherwise.
A little gust of wind threw a handful of droplets onto my bare arm and raised goose-bumps. I shivered and looked around the garden. At the far side of the garden by the pool was an overturned chair with papers scattered around it. A few more papers were lying on the lawn. I made my way towards the nearest one. When I read the bold print on the top sheet, I positively yelped in surprise and protest.
University of Cambridge Tripos Paper, it said, and, underneath, ‘The Nineteenth Century Novel’. Attached to it by a tag were about a dozen pages of big, loopy writing.
It was one of the exam papers I had come to collect.
I snatched it up and ran towards the pool. And then I saw what hadn’t been visible from the other side of the garden. At the near end a layer of papers floated like water-lilies on the surface. There must have been thirty or forty of them. Thick as the autumnal leaves that strew the brooks in Vallombrosa, I thought. Incongruous quotations tend to dart into my mind at moments of crisis. But perhaps Milton’s description of the rebel angels destined for hell wasn’t as incongruous as all that. If those papers didn’t represent souls exactly, they did represent student lives: three years of work, a degree, a future career. Paradise Lost indeed. Not to mention the hell that was going to break loose when the examining board found out about this. I just couldn’t believe Margaret had been careless enough to let this happen. Careless? That didn’t come near it. This was a crime, right up there with seducing the students or cooking the college books. Worse perhaps. You could probably get sacked out of hand for it.
All this flashed through my mind in the time it took me to run in through the conservatory door and bellow for Margaret. Then I rushed back to begin gathering up swathes of papers from the pavement before another gust of wind could sweep them into the water. I dumped them on the white cast-iron table by the pool and anchored them with a wine-bottle that was standing on it. Then I lay on my stomach, the chill of the stone striking up through my thin summer dress, and plunged my hands into the water. I winced at the sudden cold. Most of the papers had drifted towards the middle of the pool out of reach. The few I did manage to scoop up were sodden, the pages stuck together and the writing blurred into illegibility. I could have wept.
I’d need some kind of implement to get the rest out. I scrabbled to my feet and gazed around the garden, cursing Margaret’s tidiness. There wasn’t a rake or a hoe in sight. Then I saw the wooden clothes prop standing against the wall of the house. I grabbed it and rushed round to the other side of the pool, hoping I could push the papers to the side using the forked end. I misjudged the weight. The end of the prop landed with a splash among the papers and disappeared below the surface. I groaned and tried to pull the prop back. It seemed to catch on something. Without thinking, I gave a great tug.
As the prop came free, I staggered back. There was a strange heaving in the water. The papers rocked in the swell.
A hand, white and bloated, thrust itself up through the litter of papers.