Rain came — rather a lot of it, even for the spring — filling Browforth College’s fields and quads with mud. But from the clouds and rains come the fruits, as I recall the poet saying.
By May, Ms. Finucane had joined our staff as adjunct, to bring us something new, so we thought, and it looked like spring at last had come. She was a vision in her youth and grace, all her blossoms blown; and we thought, against our better judgment, that time was nullified in her.
In June, the administration sent Moreland, dean of something, round to explain that a colleague of ours was unaccounted for since finals. In the aftermath, we gathered thinly in the campus theater. Moreland brought his notes on one index card and relied on his considerable skill in speaking to shed what light he could. He told the facts in order very competently: he would neither embellish nor withhold. My colleague Pastor went to sit near the center and didn’t wait for me to follow. I took a seat near the back where I could watch and draw what conclusions I might without his constant mediation. The theater was a featureless place. Outside, it was raining steadily.
Moreland stood at the podium, his large freckled hands grasping the sides of it. He looked alternately at his notes and us; at the front entrances a few members of the faculty, unknown to me, still were coming in, shaking and stamping as we had done; they made their ways severally to seats further down. Then others came, and among them was our own Ms. Finucane, still floral in the gloom. She looked a willowy but not a vulnerable girl, I thought, all orange and blue: the orange of fire and the blue of sky. Pastor changed his seat to be nearer her. Then Moreland brought the meeting to order. A great man in a pinch was Moreland.
He talked briefly and as well as I had thought he would, and closed with an encomium. If Machin were dead, he was not really dead, for he would live in our memories. That was a relief to me, as I thought myself as memorable as any. “We knew him chiefly by his work,” said Moreland, “which was his signal achievement. To know his work was to know the man, insofar as the man could be known” — and that was hardly at all, I thought. Moreland was a heavy fellow; when he spoke, his jowls would wobble; I pictured them wobbling at home, making children laugh and poke them with their fingers.
Then we began to disperse, at first in silence, then with a sort of somber jocularity. In a passageway, I found Pastor corralling Ms. Finucane against a column; her hair looking more orange than ever, and long like her limbs; she stood, I knew, in danger of Pastor’s suit, as a flower of the field before the thresher. He only just managed to keep his bearing proper-seeming. His hair was all spiky, like his purpose; his eyes were wild and glinting gold, in him a sign of wooing. When I came near them, he backed away, and Ms. Finucane seemed to catch her breath.
“Dr. Hollyer,” she said, aiming her teeth broadly at me. It meant: As you see, we are only playing at harmless games.
I said, “Why hello, Ms. Finucane,” to put her at ease. Games, I thought, is all there is; games and more games; there is no end of games.
We three then stood together under the portico; there were low clouds coming in from the east; the pavements shone black with rain, the air heavy with its scent; it filled me almost with joy, with unwonted joy — as did even the slow, desultory dripping from the eaves.
The eminent Drs. Capshutt, and Gladfetter, mirthful-seeming, drifted by but declined to join us. Others saluted as they passed, their eyes compassing Ms. Finucane without seeming to. And then Moreland came out, looking important in his suit, like a mountain of consequence beside the stylish Pastor in his turtleneck and slacks, and me, in my rumpled corduroy.
How did we do? I thought Moreland’s face inquired, and when through the row of columns a weak flash of lightening came, we all looked at the sky, giving Ms. Finucane a chance to escape the narrow place where we had confined her.
What should we say? These words pressed forward but would not cross our lips. What should we say of anything? — of death and rain, of flowers and Ms. Finucane? It was Moreland who rescued us once again. “Or’s Pub, anyone?” for he had begun to feel faint for lack of nourishment; and Pastor said it might be just the thing, a convivium of sorts; “the ‘funeral baked meats’”; and feeling pushed to it, I said I wouldn’t be left behind, “To Or’s, then”; and this was all for Ms. Finucane as well, who turned and answered lightly with a shrug.
So we went stumbling along, the four of us, on the narrowed walks, until we sorted ourselves out and found our footing; Pastor soon was jostling Ms. Finucane from every side, and I was left with Moreland to tag behind. We went in silence until he spoke, I think, merely to break it. What actually did I make of Machin’s disappearance? I thought “Abiit nemine salutato” an explanation as good as any (he left and said goodbye to no one); but I held my peace and wondered, watching Pastor’s antics: who cared not a fig how he wet his shoes. Moreland was now lumbering beside me and glancing at my face. Taking up his question, I said that the man, a philosopher, had lived his thought and lived or died in consequence.
“How’s that?” said Moreland.
“Explained himself away,” I replied, cryptically enough.
Moreland laughed uncertainly but I did not laugh. Then we continued along the muddy pathways and over the boundary to the town, and for a while said nothing more.
“Odd, his going off like that,” Moreland resumed, when we had found a table in Or’s, for he couldn’t let it lie.
Ms. Finucane sat next to Pastor. She looked away and patted her lips carefully with a forefinger.
“I suppose we ought to try and remember him,” Moreland said.
“He means a remembrance,” said Ms. Finucane. “Isn’t that so?”
Moreland said it was.
“Then death has overtaken him,” said Pastor, hunching his shoulders. He quoted lines from memory: “‘Say he’s in the wind somewhere, / Say, there’s a lamb in the daisies,’” and smiled a smile of resignation.
I raised my glass of Brasserie des Rocs Grand Cru.
“To Machin!” we all cried, wearily.
There was a long pause, after which Moreland returned to form:
“I don’t get the point of all this,” he said gloomily. “Never could see what philosophy meant to anyone. Give me a beer and a…”; but he broke off in deference to Ms. Finucane.
Then we drank and hailed the waitress for more; but try as we would, we could not see our way clear in anything.
At 6, I rose in the noise and the harsh light, and left the others to sort things how they would.
Outside, the streets were black and glistening; rain was falling. I set off across the campus, taking my bearings from distant lamps. It was dark. It was a pleasing palpable dark.
John Symons is a longtime contributor to the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue and is one of the readers who screens submissions.