The Crow’s Chuckle

Fiction
Sonia Trickey


Photo Credit: Guy Beauchamp/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Interviewer: And finally, your greatest regret?

David Goodwin: Losing a decade’s worth of compositions in my mid-twenties in Cambridge. It was such a fertile time—I was like—I don’t know—the angels were singing to me?

Interviewer: And it was all lost? What happened?

David Goodwin: A girl. Of course. (laughter). I wasn’t as careful with young girls’ feelings as I might have been. She was fragile. Perhaps, I was insensitive. Anyway, she stole my laptop and floppy discs, everything I’d worked on for nearly ten years and she chucked it all in the river.

Interviewer: Gosh—that’s criminal.

David Goodwin: Ha. Maybe. Hard to prove. The formidable feminists at Newnham closed ranks. But in some ways I’m grateful now.

Interviewer: Grateful?

David Goodwin: I suppose it’s driven me forward. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover what I composed—but it’s always on the edges. It’s like I’m haunted by those lost arias.

Interviewer: Well—hell hath no fury. I’m sure she regrets it now as much as the rest of us—

I snap the lid down on my laptop and the sound cuts out.

I don’t regret it at all. If I could have pecked all of the music out of his brain, drawn it out through his ears, the gore of grey matter catching in chunks on the long barbed wires of his genius, I would have done it. If I could have lugged him from his bed, drowned him in the silky waters of the Cam and stowed him under a punt, I would have.

Perhaps going to the David Goodwin Choral Evensong was a mistake.

His success has pursued me for twenty years: he’s always on the BBC, Radio 4, bio-documentaries, Desert Island Discs—and the publicity campaign for this Choral Evensong has been relentless: Music for a secular age; School of Life endorsed; British Humanist Society seal of approval; music is the new religious experience; all proceeds to the Dadaab Refugee complex in Kenya. He’ll receive a knighthood for humanitarian works someday, or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s a national treasure.

I slipped into the shadows at the back of King’s College Chapel just before the Evensong started. He was standing by the altar looking fatter and less sculpted than in his publicity shots. He had the look of someone who is defying middle age by squeezing into a jacket which would have given him panache twenty years earlier. I found my seat, closed my eyes, and took deep meditative breaths, hoping that his music had also gone to seed.

The opening chords of the organ reverberated through the chapel; a hard wave of sound bouldered through the nave sweeping us all into its tumbling kinaesthesia. It wasn’t just his composition: it was the architecture, the acoustic, the archangels, the history; he has the full weight of God backing him up. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak. I couldn’t help it; I was moved.

That pissed me off.

You hope that anger will mellow with age but sometimes it intensifies.

I couldn’t face going home afterwards, so I came here, to my ivory tower.

From my turret window I look down at the young women flying past on their bikes and wonder whether it’s different for them. Do my seminars on challenging heteronormative hyper-masculinity change anything after three cocktails with some chancer in a well-tailored suit?

Sometimes I imagine that I am an avenging angel, amber immolation in my eyes, great feathered wings mantling at my back, but I’m probably more of an old crow: dull feathers, dodging falcons, scrapping with pigeons. I launch myself from my window and flap until I’m hovering above the spires, then I swoop down across thirty years and this is what I see.

Lucy is slipping through cloistered passages. With her long black gown, closely bobbed hair and purposeful stride, she might be the ghost of medieval novice, observing early morning devotions. Elaborate tracery frames her as she flickers across the Bridge of Sighs, momentarily vanishing behind fluted columns then reappearing in each lancet arch. She hesitates, disoriented by the confusion of passages with their uneven paving but then recognises St John’s First Court. Flitting past the neo-Gothic grandeur of the chapel, she arrives breathlessly at the Porter’s Lodge.

The Porter, an ex-military man in his early sixties, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie is seated in post. At this time in the morning, the main gate is locked. Lucy stands before the pane of sliding glass and taps on it even though he can see her and even though he knows what she wants.

The Porter sees a pretty girl, not much older than his daughter’s kid. His eyes sweep over her unbrushed hair, last night’s make-up, then drift down her short black dress to the ladders in her tights. She is draped in a gown and in her hands there is a scarlet snarl of shoes. “For a clever girl,“ he thinks, “she’s not got much sense.”

“Good morning,” chirrups Lucy. “Could you unlock the gate, please?” She stares at him unsmilingly. Eventually, he slides the window shut, carefully unlocks the office door, shambles round to the ancient wooden gate, unlocks it and heaves it open.

“Thank you.”

“You might want to put your shoes on, luv.”

Lucy steps out onto the greasy cobbles of Trinity Street and drops her shoes into the nearest bin.

I’d only worn the shoes on Nina’s encouragement and Nina had only been in my room because I’d closeted myself away for ten hours to wrestle with an essay on Beckett and Brecht. It was the last one for my feminist supervisor at Newnham who I loved almost as much as I loved constructing essays up in my tiny room, wedged into the eaves of the nineteenth-century red brick building. A worn white oak desk had been built into an alcove that spanned the lead paned mansard window. Through the thick, uneven panes of glass, I could look down into the glow of Queen’s ancient library and imagine kinship with the scholars of ages. God, I was reverential.

When Nina knocked on my door at six, she found me tired-eyed, immersed in paper and cross-references.

“Jesus, Luce. We need to be there in an hour.”

She bustled in, retrieved a corkscrew from the bedside table wedged between a cheap blue bra and a library copy of Lacanian Readings of the Oedipus Cycle, uncorked a bottle of Le Piat D’or (“Only the best for us Luce!”) and sloshed it into the two filmy wine glasses that had burrowed their way under my bed.

“Have you eaten anything? Have you showered?”

“I was just about to. It took longer than I thought—“ It dawned on me, as I swallowed a mouthful of the wine, that I’d eaten nothing more than a bowl of cornflakes and an apple that day.

“Get in the shower and I’ll make you some beans on toast. Have you got any cheese?”

“Maybe—just steal some from the fridge—no one’ll mind.”

I trailed down the narrow staircase, my head shimmering with Brecht, Beckett, and half a glass of wine to the ancient bathroom with its enamel tub, speckled brass taps, and cheap electric shower screwed amateurishly into the old tiling. The monastic asperity kept ablutions brisk and soon I was tripping barefoot back up the narrow staircase, in my underwear, wrapped in a scratchy towel.

As soon as I got back to my room, Nina handed me a plate of baked beans on cheese on toast, replenished our glasses and surveyed the thin pickings of my wardrobe, a cigarette in hand.

“What are you going to wear?”

“That black dress from New Look. It’s a bit short but it’s all I’ve got in black. I’ll wear it with some opaques.”

“Shoes?”

“Those?” I always went for my black trainers.

“Oh-la-la. What about these?”

Nina drew out a pair of red velvet strappy heels from the back of the wardrobe.

“Oh, those.” My mother had insisted I buy them for formal dinners. “I can’t really walk in those. I don’t know why I bought them.”

“They’re not for walking in, Luce.”

“I’m not sure…”

“What about David Goodwin?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

I agreed to wear them mainly because Nina had made dinner and brought round wine and because I didn’t want to talk about my crush on David Goodwin who was a post-doc at the time, back from some conservatoire, running the choral ‘collective’ we were both involved in. And we needed to be in King’s College Chapel in less than twenty minutes, and my hair was still wet, and David had a nasty temper.

Shoeless but in tights, Lucy meanders down Trinity Street: a huddle of square oriel windows, roof turrets, scrolled brackets, slate rooves, tiled rooves, buff brick, red brick, mottled brick, ashlar brick, ancient hidden doorways, elaborately tiled entrances and six wall-mounted Richardson candles. Reaching round to the baroque frontage of Gonville and Caius, Trinity Street is quintessential Cambridge, usually filled with undergraduates chattering and dodging jangling bicycles. But now, it is silent.

She rounds Gonville and Caius and makes her way over the biscuit-coloured slabs of Senate House Passage with its tunnelling yellow walls, Tudor roses, and gargoyles. She is retracing her steps from the night before as though she might find the thing she has lost glinting quietly in a shaft of morning light.

When we had wheeled round the corner towards King’s College the previous evening, it had been drizzling. The bulk of the chapel has a primordial thickness, like a demented Old Testament God. We slipped in through the North Entrance where the choir was only just assembling, and fell in line.

The exterior colossus of King’s College chapel belies the hall of light it encases. A regiment of flying buttresses shoulders the magnesium limestone wall forcing the chapel upwards creating a supernal acoustic. Singing in such surroundings is as close as I’ve ever come to God. That evening’s programme had a watery theme, a celebration of the chilly waterways that bound the city. There were Icelandic discords, which shivered through space like spicules of ice; English ballads, still meres of sound pooling in the calm of the chapel; the lucent riff of a negro spiritual, meandering its way past the saints of ages; all building to an arrangement of a Gaelic fishing song. It began with a swell of tenor and soprano voices singing a familiar melody in a robust two-part harmony that recalled simpler times—the shores of home. Then the chorus: alto voices tumbled onto the melody in syncopated arpeggios that split and repaired like the veins of a river valley. Next, a subterranean tremor of basses rumbled in while the soprano voices skated over the top, a creaking sweetness leaving the hollow tenor voices holding the melody. The whole chapel seemed to give itself over to an impossible fragmentation of voices until suddenly we plunged into a swooping two-part harmony that closed the set. Finally, the voices ceased and an echo hung audibly in the air. Then silence.

In the milky light, Lucy looks at a locked wrought iron gate. She removes her gown and shivers in the chill of the early morning. Overwhelmed by nausea she retches into the storm drain but her stomach is empty and all she brings up is thin yellow bile. She soothes her head against the cold Norman masonry and rests for a few moments before standing back up and placing the canvas bag with laptop, floppy discs and camera between the railings. Shaking, she hitches her dress up to her waist and clambers up the gate using the latch and hinges as footholds. She negotiates the row of finials spearheading the top before dropping down inside the boundary of King’s College. She retrieves her bag and gown.

The rising sun is throwing perpendicular stripes across the path where she stands. Lucy resumes her quick walk towards the river. Her feet are beginning to numb and there is a spasming in her stomach which is making her headache worse. Once she arrives at the bridge she leans over the flat balustrade and looks upstream to Clare Bridge, older than the English Civil War. Mist hangs like gossamer over the spangling river. Lucy imagines a swallow diving off the bridge.

Then she draws out the contents from her canvas bag and places them on the balustrade. She pushes one of these objects off the bridge and follows its fall into the water. Globes of light rise to the surface and burst.

We only went back because Nina had forgotten her scarf. It was a gift from her counter-revolutionary Iranian grandmother: a vermillion liquid silk with a burst of ochre exploding in the middle. Sometimes she wore it as a hijab if she was feeling super-Iranian. It was definitely a scarf worth turning back for so we retraced our steps and hurried towards the shadowy entrance.

David Goodwin and his friends were just closing up:

“Forgotten something?” He was less intense than usual.

“My scarf. It was a gift. Can I just run in and get it?”

David was uncharacteristically amiable. He told his friends to go on without him, pushed the heavy door back open, accompanied us through the porch and even found the light switch.

Nina ran over the smooth monochrome tiles, the slap of her feet sounded through the empty chapel, while I stayed with David, awed in the presence of genius. David raked me over with his eyes until he came to rest on my shoes. I felt ridiculously embarrassed, like I needed to explain them, distance myself from their coquettish suggestiveness.

“They’re absurd,” I gabbled. “Nina made me wear them. We were in a rush. Now I can hardly walk.”

“You look lovely,” David said warmly. More absurd than the shoes was how much I basked in his approval. He smiled and looked me directly in the eye:

“Did you enjoy it? The singing?”

“Oh yes. It was amazing. It came together sublimely. Your arrangement, this space—it was astonishing, truly.“

The ease with which he accepted this scattergun praise should have warned me.

“But those trills in the Icelandic piece, bars 90 to 96. They weren’t quite right.”

“I’m sure the audience didn’t mind.”

“Maybe…”

There was a pause while I scrambled for something clever but not too sycophantic. I discarded: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through,” because I didn’t think he’d appreciate irony. Or listen to Tori Amos. Instead I reached for Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything?”

Perfection: he smiled. I was so pleased with my mastery in this game of getting David Goodwin to notice my existence that I indulged a surge of optimistic abandon that characterises burgeoning infatuation. He was divine: tall, dark, intelligent, intense, elusive, and pulsing with musical talent.

Nina was making her way back, scarf in hand and I held his glance, looked meaningfully into his eyes and hoped he remembered my name. He did one better: with a quick glance at my tits and then back to my eyes, he asked, “We’re having a few drinks back in my rooms at John’s. Why don’t you both come along?”

I thought about my essay that was still unfinished and about the Sunday of contemplative study I had planned, and hesitated. Nina took charge. “That sounds lovely.”

*

When I woke up nine hours later I was lying on an unmade up mattress under a scratchy tweed blanket. I was also naked apart from my shoes, shivering and struggling with a headache that cut through my temples right to the back of my head like razor wire. I had no memory of how I had arrived in this room. “I’ve been date raped,” was my first thought. Date rape: an absurd term that had currency during the nineties, a category of date on which you might get raped as opposed to a date where you might find a long-term boyfriend or a date where you might have casual sex. “I must have been date raped.” I’m not sure who I was trying to convince.

The light was streaming in through the small window illuminating the uneven starkness of the white walls. There was a threadbare crimson Persian rug on the floorboards and motes twinkled in the sun stream. Perched on the bottom of the bed were my clothes, folded in a neat pile.

The primness of the folding kicked me into heaving rage. I’d been date raped by some exacting, academic pedant who prided himself on his neatness. I don’t know why that mattered. Perhaps I’d always imagined being raped by a cave man and felt less of a woman for having been overpowered by a cerebral sensitive type.

I sat up and kicked off my shoes. I was also furious with the shoes. They had walked me into this mess.

I pulled on my underwear and my tights and it wasn’t until I was zipping up my dress that I realised I might not have been date raped after all. I didn’t feel as though I’d had sex let alone been raped; presumably I’d be able to tell?

The blankness in my memory was terrifying. I’d arrived at the party, I’d accepted a drink, and then a disorienting emptiness. I needed to leave.

Cautiously opening the door, I peered into the main room. The room, at least, I remembered. Last night, David Goodwin had been transposing Spice Girls hits on the baby grand while swigging from a bottle of Absolut vodka. Now the closed lid was covered in a scattering of glasses, pizza boxes and a sprinkling of white pills. David Goodwin, the musical talent of his generation, was nowhere to be seen.

Despite the horror and bleakness of the moment, in the immediate aftermath my instincts were lucid and destructive. It is the nature of trauma to haunt and amplify. On that morning, in that room, I had not even begun to understand what had been done to me. I still believed in justice and retribution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I looked around for stuff to pillage and loot. I wanted to inflict serious and lasting damage. I found a canvas bag and put his laptop inside. Then I stuffed all the floppy discs I could find in with it. Anything else? There was a camera on the piano. I dimly remembered him having told us about it at a rehearsal the previous week. It was a digital camera from Japan, a gift from an admirer. No one owned digital cameras yet: it was 1998. I picked it up. Before I stuffed it into the bag with the rest of my loot, I wondered whether it might have photos of the night before, something to give me some inkling where memory should be. I flicked it on like Pandora unlocking the box, or maybe like Eve eating the apple.

The first thing I found was five still images of me wearing nothing but my red shoes on a white mattress. They were arty shots, like something that might appear in a trendy magazine. Porn was fashionable again and we were all trying to be cool about it. I was looking at tasteful porn of me wearing shoes that I hated. I looked hot. I flicked further back through the camera. There were more porn photos of more hot girls wearing nothing but shoes. I recognised a couple of them: Christine (emerald green wedges) who had dropped out of the choir at Christmas and Eloise (fuchsia kitten heels) who was now one-night-standing her way through the tenors.

How many women, I wondered had found themselves here, in these rooms, naked under a scratchy blanket? How many of them even knew they had been photographed? How many of them had slunk back to their rooms to try to sleep off the hangover, hand in their essays late and never mention anything to anyone, even themselves? Brush it under the carpet, chalk it up to experience, drop out of choir, become slutty: lipstick feminism.

I turned off the camera and put it in the bag with the laptop and the discs, placed the bag over my shoulder and picked up a voluminous postgraduate gown from the floor which I put on as I left the room.

*

About three days later I was summoned by the Senior Tutor at my college. A rising musical star, David Goodwin of John’s College, was alleging that I had stolen his laptop and sixteen floppy discs. Together, they constituted a decade’s work and study. Luckily the University Library had a hard copy of his thesis but the work on the laptop and the disc were irreplaceable. A tragic loss. The camera was never mentioned.

I denied everything. It came down to his word against mine. Anyone could have taken the laptop. I wasn’t the only person there. I never mentioned the memory loss, the nakedness, the photographs. The porter testified that I had nothing in my hands other than a pair of red shoes when I left through the main gate at 5:38 that morning. The CCTV supported his story and mine. There was a furore. I held my ground.

*

I alight back into my room, old dull feathered crow, and start pecking at the keyboard.

When I showed the 68 photographs of naked girls to my supervisor at Newnham, she counselled against going to the police or the university: “It will damage you more than it will damage him.” She also advised me to give him back his laptop and discs. She was helpful, pragmatic. She’d internalised the patriarchy.

Peck, peck, peck.

So I told her that I’d dropped the laptop and discs into the river and publically denied everything. Everyone loves a crazy woman and a river.

Now all that data fits onto a single memory card, which I slide into my laptop. I open the files and I look at the photographs of me, naked on the bed. Was I ever that smooth? Was that body ever really mine?

I think about the interview I just heard with David on the radio and his sublime choral Evensong. I look at the photographs of twelve girls. naked in their shoes and I wonder where they are now: mothers, CEOs, head teachers, barristers.

Peck, peck, peck.

I do have some power now; I could ruffle some feathers. I attach one of the images to the email I’ve been composing but I hesitate before I press send. Eventually, I save it to drafts and start scrolling through the music files. I open one at random and an aria plays. For a while I lose myself in the arrangement of voices and strings. It is a rough recording, work in process but I can only imagine how it might have sounded, brought to fullness, released and allowed to soar in some domed cathedral.

With the music still playing, I resume my vigil over the street below. It’s later now and fewer people are passing. A young woman looks up, catches sight of me and waves. I wave back.

To my surprise, underneath all the anger, I feel the pull of tenderness, maybe something approaching regret.

And then, deep inside me, something releases and bubbles up uncontrollably. At her perch, the old crow is chuckling.

pencil

Sonia Trickey started writing again in 2018 after attending the Cambridge University creative writing summer programme. Since then she has had short stories accepted for publication by Fictive Dream, Litro and Calyx Arts. She was had a notable entry in the Disquiet short fiction prize. When she’s not writing, she is teaching English in a secondary school in Cambridge. Twitter: @stickytrewart Email: stickytrewart[at]gmail.com

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