Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman
“...This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.”
--Dante Gabriel Rossetti
How many times do I love thee, dear?
Tell me how many thoughts there be
In the atmosphere
Of a new-fall'n year,
Whose white and sable hours appear
The latest flake of Eternity:
So many times do I love thee, dear.
How many times do I love again?
Tell me how many beads there are
In a silver chain
Of evening rain,
Unravell'd from the tumbling main,
And threading the eye of a yellow star:
So many times do I love again.
--Thomas Lovell Beddoes
“As you read the assigned works by American Edgar Allen Poe, I’d like you to ask yourself the question: how did his personal life (for instance, his reckless behavior and fondness of drink) influence his output? Or was he able to separate the two? Please think deeply on this and back up your opinions with examples. You can turn in a sketch next week, and we’ll go from there.”
The students left, and she packed up her papers into her briefcase and walked across the quad, stopping at the Porter’s Lodge.
“Any messages for me?”
“No, Dr. Wright.” With the British reserve that had become a lifeline for her, he betrayed no curiosity over her twice daily question nor did he show any signs of emotion as he delivered the answer.
It was Thursday, and Evensong was being sung in the chapel at 6:15. Before COVID, she could decide at the last minute, depending on what was going on, whether or not she would attend. Now she had to register, which she did, but she wondered what she would do if there was some message on her phone.
She walked down High Street and turned to go to the post office to buy stamps. The clock above the counter said 5:00. Not enough time to walk home, and too much time be stuck in the city centre.
She walked to the covered market to buy a sandwich and tea.
Sitting at the table, she took her phone out of her briefcase where it had remained turned off all day. Nothing.
She ate the sandwich slowly, checking her emails, responding as well as she could on a phone to student requests.
5:30. She decided to walk along the river some. It was December but warm, no snow yet.
Others had the same idea, including some of her students.
“Hello, Dr. Wright!”
She always wore her academic robe when in the city centre. It reminded her and everyone else of her role and helped her to keep the other parts of her life set aside, at least when she was in town.
6:00 finally came, earlier enough to get into the chapel. She sat in her usual spot, set aside for members of the college.
The music began, and she leaned back against the wooden stall, the narrow room a womb of sound, an enclosure of peace and predictability.
It was almost completely dark by the time she left the chapel and began her walk home East over the bridge, past the roundabout, and further East on Iffley.
She opened the mailbox and tried to be patient enough to look at what was there, turning on a light and locking the door behind her first.
A few bills and a few adverts.
She turned on her phone again. No messages. Two emails from students.
She looked at her watch. Too early for bed, and she really needed to get some work done anyway.
She cut up an apple and made some tea. She plugged in her phone, because, as of late, she kept it on all night. Then she situated herself at the kitchen table for an hour’s worth of work.
After that, she drew her bath, bringing the phone into the bathroom, thinking about what might be good bathtub reading. She chose a volume of poetry by the Sufi poet Rumi translated by an American. It was nice to read something terse and unrelated to her work. It was nice to read for ambiance, which is what this volume provided.
She had met this American briefly when she was a visiting professor for a year in the States. What an odd experience that was: the highly charged atmosphere of a world class university, something she was familiar with, combined with the unnerving openness of America. The campus was completely open, and that was a metaphor for all the rest. She felt so vulnerable and missed deeply the enclosure of an English university.
The one thing that saved her was meeting Phillip, also a visiting professor that year. She was teaching literature; he was teaching creative writing. The sentiment of exile drove them to each other, and the affinity that was between them cemented the bond.
After her bath, she went to bed. The phone was on her night table with the ringer’s volume set for high.
That night, she dreamt that she stepped out the front door to see if the mail was coming, and there was Philip walking towards the house. He was in his raincoat. He stepped in the house and was talking and talking. She couldn’t get a word in. His eyes were dead. He couldn’t see her. She kept saying, “Philip, stop it! Wake up! Please look at me!”
The dream was upsetting, and she got up for a drink of water.
The days were draining, and she was able to fall back asleep.
There was a second dream. She was again looking out the door for the mail, and Philip was again walking towards the house. But this time, he was dressed in his deep blue shirt. He came in the house, calm. His eyes met hers, and he held her close.
The next day, as she prepared to leave for the University, she reflected on the dream, in particular the blue shirt. In Christian symbolism, blue was the color of divinity.
Philip was either dead or transformed/transforming.
He woke on his back. There was light coming in the window.
“Okay, it’s daytime. Where am I? Oh, I’m in Norwich; I’m in a hospital. How did I get here?”
The last question sent his mind spinning again, so he stopped. The medications were helping with this. Now he could stop the thoughts. Not always. Sometimes he could just slow them down, but that was better than the wildfire that hijacked his mind and wreaked havoc in the world around him.
He didn’t know what time it was, and there was no clock in the room. He had a watch once. Maybe they had it. They took a lot of things away from him when he got there. This was supposed to keep him safe.
He went out into the hallway to find a clock. 10:30 in the morning. Too early for lunch.
He went to the nurses’ station to see
if he had any appointments. 11:30 for a half hour with the psychiatrist.
He walked around the ward.
There was a room with some books. Two shelves of old books. He looked at the titles on the spines and picked out a volume entitled American Poetry.
American Poetry: reminded him of being in the States as a visiting professor, at the height of his writing career, sailing on the success of a novel born of youthful dreams and energy.
But the momentum wasn’t enough to help him like an American University. Within two weeks, he wondered how he would survive the semester, and the question was answered quickly. Chloe Wright.
They met at a cocktail party given by the department head. Cocktail parties were risky business for Philip, but he was lonely and bored.
He heard a British accent and turned to see a lovely woman. Without forethought, he found a way to break into the conversation and introduce himself.
The affinity between the two transcended shared culture and shared interests.
Contemplating the story set off another firestorm in his mind. He closed his eyes, feeling the book between his hands, reminding himself that the psychiatrist appointment was in less than thirty minutes.
He opened his eyes and thumbed through the book in order to kill time. He stopped at a poem by Emerson, reading it quickly and then again slowly.
Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Plans, credit and the Muse,—
’T is a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
It dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
But it is a god,
Knows its own path
And the outlets of the sky.
It was never for the mean;
It requireth courage stout.
Souls above doubt,
It will reward,—
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.
Leave all for love;
Yet, hear me, yet,
One word more thy heart behoved,
One pulse more of firm endeavor,—
Keep thee to-day,
He stopped and went to the nurses’ station to ask if he could borrow the book for his appointment.
The psychiatrist came in on time.
“How are you today?”
“The same, but I’ve made a decision.”
“The same meaning what?”
“That my mind floods easily, that I don’t know how to face my shattered fame as a writer, that I don’t know how to face all the damage my feverish mind has caused, that it takes all my effort to hold it together, so I don’t something dangerous again.”
“You haven’t done anything recently.”
“I feel the medications helping me to hold my mind together.”
“So, what’s the decision.”
“I want to get in touch with Chloe and see if she’ll take me back.”
Philip showed the doctor the poem.
“Why do you say, ‘if she will take me back’?”
“Well, I went into a completely out of control alcoholic tailspin, and then I disappeared and haven’t called.”
“Has she seen your problems before?”
“Did she ever give you any indication that being mentally healthy was the deal breaker?”
“So you trust her love.”
“Maybe ‘if she’ll take me back’ isn’t the best approach for you right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that you are wounded by many things in life and that the fickleness of the book buying and publishing world have triggered all of that. They are fickle. Thinking of Chloe in those terms isn’t good for either of you.”
“What is the question then?”
“It isn’t a question. It’s a statement. You need to stand up for your own mind and self, for her, and for the couple you two are. You need to say, ‘I want to come home.’”
Phillip lay on the top of his bed, his brain a screaming mess. He kept his eyes closed, conjuring up the image of Chloe, conjuring her essence, trying to hold on, trying to imagine what it would be like to be close to her again. When he did this, he knew without a doubt her answer would be “yes”.
Chloe packed her briefcase with work for the train journey and made sure her laptop and phone were well charged.
In another bag, she packed crackers and raisins and a thermos of tea.
It was December. The morning was cool and dark, but there had not yet been any snow. She was grateful to take the long walk with her bags on a dry sidewalk.
The first leg of the journey was to London. There she had to change stations as well as trains. London was never what she needed, and it really wasn’t on this day. She was very glad to get on the train to Norwich, munch on her snacks, drink a little tea, and get some work done.
She had never been to Norwich and tried to study the map and bus routes she had printed along with the directions the psychiatrist had given her over the phone. She programmed his number and the number of the hospital into her phone just in case.
She had never been to Norwich, and, as far as she knew, Phillip never had been, either. She didn’t allow herself to ask how he got there or why, and when the psychiatrist began to tell her details, she asked him to stop.
She already had the answers she needed: Phillip as alive. He was okay enough. He was coming home.
Through more trial and error than she had patience for, she made it on and off the bus and to the hospital entrance.
Her throat clenched, and tears threatened. But was too early for any of that. She had no idea what she would see when she got in or what she would learn.
She eventually made it to the floor where Phillip was staying and checked her watch. The psychiatrist said they could meet at 2:00. It was only 1:40. She had waited this long, she thought, she should be able to wait twenty more minutes. Her body had a different timetable. Waiting twenty more minutes brought her close to feeling physically very ill.
The psychiatrist met her in the waiting area.
“Dr. Wright,” he said, extending his hand, “I’m not sure what order to do things. Do you want to see Phillip alone first or should we all meet?”
“What did he say?”
“He said it was up to you.”
“Let’s get the business part over first.”
They walked down the hall to the office.
Phillip stood when Chloe entered, and then they sat down together on the couch, holding hands.
The psychiatrist explained that Phillip had been found in a park in a state of alcoholic shock. He was admitted to the hospital. During his withdrawal from alcohol, he tried to commit suicide and was then admitted to the psychiatric ward. He was stable enough to return home but only if he continued regular outpatient care. The psychiatrist had been in touch with a mental health clinic in Oxford who could supervise this.
There were papers to sign for release, Oxford contacts to review, a list of medicines and a schedule for taking them. They could pick up a week’s supply to tie them over until things were set up in Oxford.
“Tie them over” -- Phillip was the one taking the medicine, but the results would be experienced by both of them.
They went to his room. He hadn’t come in with anything, but he wanted to show her the room he had been staying in.
The book of American poetry was still on the night table.
“Do you need to return this to somewhere?”
“Yes, but I want to show you the poem.”
“The poem that cleared my mind enough to know that I had to come home.”
He showed her the Emerson poem.
“An American, eh?”, she said with a smile and then began to read out loud, “Give all to love...obey thy heart. -- I have to stop.”
They went to the hospital cafeteria for an early supper.
Phillip asked a lot of questions about her classes and students.
After answering all these questions, Chloe said, “I think I should be asking you some questions, but I’m not ready for the answers yet.”
He reached across the table for her hand and kissed it.
“The answer is, ‘I’m here; you’re here, and we’re here.’ “
The next train didn’t leave until 7 p.m., which meant they’d be switching stations in London about 10:30 p.m. and not making it back to Oxford until after midnight.
“We can sleep on the train,” she said, “And tomorrow’s Sunday.”
The train was only half full and quiet.
They chose seats facing forward.
After the tickets were scanned and the lights dimmed, Phillip raised the arm rest between them, and they both reclined the seats.
He put an arm around her shoulders and one around her middle, and she leaned back against his chest.
The train moved through the dark, cold, December night.
Phillip tightened his embrace as tears streamed from Chloe’s eyes.