I had been back in the Oxford area for about a month when I discovered that my old university friend and musical partner Wendy Howard was also living in the city again. I made the discovery completely by accident, in Blackwell’s Bookshop, at the end of a short holiday with Emma and Becca and my niece Sarah.
I managed to buy a ten year old four-door Ford Escort for a price which I would have considered outrageous in Saskatchewan, but which I knew to be quite reasonable in England. My father, who had been driving Rovers for forty years, was not amused when this elderly bright red intruder appeared outside his house. He protested that he would have been quite willing to lend me the money to get something better, and that it was still not too late to take it back. I assured him that the Escort was fine for Emma and me, although I knew very well that this was not the point; I was not keeping up the standards he expected of his family. I also knew that the last thing I wanted to do was to borrow money from my father.
Our first four weeks in Northwood were not always easy for Emma. My parents had very few friendships with people or families in the village; my father’s old law partner Jack Marlowe came out from Summertown for a visit once a week, my mother’s sister Brenda came from Oxford from time to time, and her old friend Philippa Carr dropped in for coffee a couple of mornings a week. My parents moved in a small circle of acquaintance; apart from Becca, and Rick and his family, all their regular visitors were in their sixties at least. Emma had a special place in her heart for elderly people, but I could see that she was starving for company of her own age, and there was little I could do about it.
On the wall of her bedroom she had put up several photographs of friends and family back home, and scenic shots of the country around Meadowvale. My parents did not have internet access, so she was unable to talk to her cousins by email or instant messenger, and she obviously felt awkward about asking my parents’ permission to make frequent long distance calls. She wrote often to family and friends, and when letters arrived for her she would take them up to her room, close the door and stay there for a long time.
A couple of times during that first month, Alyson brought her children out to Northwood for a visit. Emma looked forward eagerly to those times. She and Eric seemed to have taken to each other and they enjoyed playing guitar together; Sarah was more shy than her brother, but sometimes she and Emma would sit together and talk quietly. Eric and Sarah were both good tennis players, and when they came they would usually set up a net on the lawn and play for a couple of hours at a time. They invited Emma to join them, and although she had never played tennis very much, she was quick to learn and happy to be included.
She had also enjoyed driving around with me and looking at houses. I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that for the time being it would be better for us to rent than to buy, and so we had searched the real estate listings for the Headington area and had then gone to scout out some of the properties for rent. We had very quickly narrowed our choices down to two or three locations, and by the end of the second week of August I had signed a rental agreement on a small three-bedroomed duplex house in New Marston, northwest of Headington. Emma and I had searched out a potential walking route between the house and my new school, and had walked it together in about twenty-five minutes.
In the middle of August Becca took a week off work for our trip to the north; she had lived in York for eight years as a student and a young intern, and she considered the city a second home. The three of us planned the trip one night at her flat in Headington. Emma loved Becca’s flat; it was on the fourth floor of an older building which had obviously been recently converted. The rooms were simply and tastefully decorated, the furniture had a Scandinavian feel to it, and there were several framed photographs from Becca’s trips to Canada on the walls. Also, it had the added attraction of internet access, allowing Emma to catch up on emails from friends and family back home.
Becca had quiet classical music playing in the background as we sat around her coffee table after supper and talked about the places we wanted to visit. We planned a route north via the east Midlands that took us through Stamford and Lincoln, both historic towns that I knew Emma would find interesting. Becca had made a pot of herbal tea, and as we sat back in her easy chairs to drink it, Emma said “I wonder if Sarah would like to come with us?”
“I really don’t know” Becca replied. “Would you like her to?”
“Well, I was thinking it might be nice; there are four seats in the car, after all”.
Becca shrugged and looked at me; “What do you think?”
“Fine with me. Do you want to ask her, Em?”
It turned out that fifteen-year old Sarah was very happy to be invited to come along for a holiday with us. We left on a Monday morning, drove north-east to Stamford and spent the rest of the day looking around this historic Midlands town. We had supper at the George Inn, sitting in a room that looked as if it might once have been the dining hall of a small castle, complete with enormous fireplace, low-beamed ceiling, and arched stone doorways. We stayed in Stamford that night, then the next day we went to Burghley to explore the mansion built by Queen Elizabeth the First’s chancellor in the sixteenth century.
The following day we took a break from history and went to the seaside, to Skegness; the weather co-operated, Becca and I went swimming in the North Sea, and the girls got to lie on the beach in their bikinis, sunbathe, and watch the boys. The beach was crowded, as I had known it would be; we literally had to step over people when we went to buy ice cream or when we wanted to go down to the water to swim. Sarah had been very quiet at the beginning of our trip, but I had noticed that she was gradually coming out of her shell, and that afternoon she and Emma went off by themselves for a long walk along the beach, leaving Becca and I to recline in our beach chairs and have a long and satisfying talk. The girls came back just before supper time, sunburned but happy.
The rest of the week flew by; we spent a day in Lincoln, and then drove north, crossed the Humber Bridge west of Hull, and went on to York. Becca now became our tour guide, and she obviously relished the opportunity to show us around the city she had grown to love during her university years. We spent two full days there, strolling the city streets, spending time in the Minster, in Clifford’s Tower and the York Castle Museum, and walking the ancient city walls.
After York we turned for home; we left early in the morning, taking it easy and taking breaks on the way to stretch our legs. Emma asked if we could stop in Oxford before going out to Northwood, as she had not yet had many opportunities to look around the city. We agreed; I managed to find a parking spot, and for a couple of hours we wandered around the centre of the city, looking at the old buildings and enjoying the sunshine. I showed Emma the college Owen and I had attended, Lincoln, and we stopped for a cup of coffee at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, just beside Queen’s College on the High.
I was the one who suggested a visit to Blackwell’s; Becca laughed and said, “Aren’t there enough books in your house yet?”
“Well, I haven’t been to Blackwell’s in six years!”
“What’s Blackwell’s?” asked Emma.
“Just a little bookshop on Broad Street”, Becca replied; “It’s rather famous”.
“And rather huge”, I added; “she was being facetious when she called it ‘a little bookshop’”.
We finished our coffee and made our way up to Broad Street. It was a warm afternoon and the sidewalks were full of people: busy people walking purposefully with deadlines and destinations in mind, and leisurely people strolling along, talking to each other and enjoying the weather and the ambience of Broad Street. I led the way across the busy road toward an ordinary-looking four storey building with green shutters, and two window displays on the ground floor; above the windows, the word ‘Blackwell’ confirmed that this was our destination. Emma looked at me incredulously and asked, “Are you sure we’re in the right place? This sure doesn’t look very big!”
“Stand by for a surprise”, I said as we went in the front door.
The ground floor of the bookshop did indeed seem quite ordinary in size, but I led the way down the stairs, and Emma gasped in surprise as we emerged into the underground expanse of the Norrington Room, with bookshelves seeming to stretch far away into the distance on several levels. “There’s no way this is all underneath that little store!” Emma exclaimed.
“No, it actually stretches under Trinity College. Have a look around, if you like. There are also two floors above the ground floor”
“Where do you start?”
Sarah had apparently been in Blackwell’s many times before, and she was able to show Emma where to find the sort of books they were both interested in; they soon disappeared onto a different floor. My sister and I browsed together for a while; I looked through the history section and the novels, and then left Becca leafing through a paperback, her sunglasses pushed up on top of her head. I had noticed the literary criticism section, and I was immediately interested.
That was when I made my surprise discovery. I was skimming the titles on the shelves, looking for nothing in particular, when a familiar name registered in my mind; I stopped, went back, and looked again. I pulled the book out from the shelf; it was a blue Oxford University Press hardback with a Victorian village church scene on the front cover. The title was ‘George Eliot: A New Critical Introduction to Her Works’, and the author was Wendy Howard. I flipped to the back; there was her photograph on the dust cover. Her dark hair was cut a little shorter than I remembered, but it was definitely our old friend Wendy, who had played music with Owen and me over twenty years ago in our university days.
I scanned the back of the book for the biographical information. ‘Wendy Howard, MA (Oxon), Ph.D. (London), is Tutorial Fellow in English Literature at Merton College, Oxford. She has specialized in the Victorian novel and in particular the works of George Eliot’. I opened the book, flipped to the first few pages to find the publishing date, and discovered that it was brand new.
“Hey, Becs!” I called; “Come over here!”
She looked up from the novel she was examining; “What’s up?”
“Come and look at this!”
She came over to where I was standing, and looked over my shoulder at the photograph. “Do you remember this face?” I asked.
She shook her head; “Should I?”
“Think back to when you were about eleven, and Owen and I were playing music at folk clubs and open stages”.
“Didn’t you…oh my God, is that the girl who used to sing with you?”
“Yes, that’s our Wendy Howard”.
“Where is she now?”
“Apparently she’s teaching here in Oxford, at Merton. You didn’t know she was here?”
“Of course not; there must be thousands of tutors in Oxford. And anyway, I doubt if I would have recognized the name if you hadn’t pointed out the connection to me. I wonder if Owen knew she was here? I’ve never heard him talk about her”.
“I’ll have to ask him. I lost touch with Wendy after I moved to Canada; I had one letter from her, but then she stopped writing, and I never heard anything about her after that”.
“Did she stay in Oxford?”
I shook my head. “That’s the funny thing; she had been all set to do more postgraduate work here, but the first thing I heard after I moved to Canada was that she’d gone to London instead and moved in with her boyfriend. Now he was a wild one; he was a photojournalist, but he really liked to party. Owen and I never did understand what Wendy saw in him. But she must have done her doctorate at the University of London, according to this”.
“Are you going to try to get in touch with her?”
I didn’t answer immediately, and Becca saw my hesitation. “Was there, perhaps, more to the relationship – on your side?” she asked softly.
I shook my head. “Wendy and I were good friends, but we weren’t romantically involved. But there were a few awkward things that happened in our last year. Wendy and I didn’t part on the best of terms”. I avoided my sister’s gaze, glancing down at the book in my hands; “I’d like to read this, anyway”, I said, reaching into my back pocket for my wallet.
Back at my parents’ home, I started to read Wendy’s book in my room that night. My old friend shared to the full my enthusiasm for George Eliot, but nonetheless her work had a tough, critical rigour to it; it was fine scholarship, scholarship that invited the reader to further exploration. I could see that she had a particular interest in the sympathetic way in which Eliot handled her religious themes and characters.
I read until about one o’clock in the morning, then put the book down, turned out the light, and lay awake for a while, thinking about Wendy. I had first met her in the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub, in the Jericho neighbourhood of Oxford, in the autumn of 1980. Owen and I had gone there to play music at an open stage; over the three years we had been at Oxford we had become regulars at the ‘Plough’. It was a traditional pub, with a low-beamed ceiling, hardwood floor, polished black round tables, and wooden chairs, with a small stage set up in one corner of the room. Bill Prentiss, the big bearded landlord, was a lover of folk music, and he acted as the host and master of ceremonies on open stage nights; aspiring acts gave him their names on arrival, and he slotted them into the program as he saw fit.
When we arrived at around seven-thirty the place was already filling up; cigarette smoke was beginning to hang below the ceiling, and the conversation was buzzing at the bar and the tables. The supper crowd was beginning to thin out, but there was still a hint of the aroma of fish and chips and steak and kidney pies lingering in the air. The clientele was mainly university students, with a smattering of older people who came because of the reputation of the ‘Plough’ for good folk music. I went over to the bar and bought drinks for the two of us while Owen gave our names to Bill. When he returned we found ourselves a little table in the back by the fireplace, took our seats and sipped at our pints.
“When are we playing?” I asked.
“A bit later in the evening. Apparently there are already a few acts here. Bill thinks we’ll be on about nine-thirty”.
By eight o’clock, when the performances started, a couple of our other musical friends had joined us at our corner table. Bill climbed the three steps to the little stage, gave a few words of welcome, and then introduced the first act, a guitar and bass duo with whom Owen and I had occasionally played. The guitarist was a young female law student with a soaring voice, and as always the audience was very appreciative. After three songs, they were followed by a tall, gangling newcomer playing contemporary American folk tunes; he was competent enough, but the clientele obviously didn’t find him quite so interesting. When he was done, Bill stepped up onto the stage, thanked him, and glanced at his list for the name of the third act. Standing behind the microphone, he looked out into the smoky air and said, “Now for another new act here at the ‘Plough’; please give a warm welcome to Wendy Howard and Mickey Kingsley”.
We watched curiously as the two newcomers took their places on high stools on the tiny stage and began to adjust their microphones. They looked as if, like us, they were in their early twenties; the young woman was of medium height and slender build, with dark eyes and very long black hair hanging loose down her back, dressed simply in faded jeans and a white sweater. Her companion had curly blond hair hanging to his shoulders, with a thin face and a crooked nose, and I recognized his guitar as an old Gibson sunburst, probably a J-45 from the 1950’s. That instrument, I knew, was worth serious money; it was the sort of guitar we all dreamed of owning one day.
They glanced at each other; she nodded at him, and he bent over his guitar and began to play. I recognized immediately that he was picking out an arrangement of the traditional folk song ‘Plains of Waterloo’, and doing it extremely well. After he had played one instrumental verse she closed her eyes, put her head back a little and began to sing. Her voice was clear and natural and full of expression, and I found myself leaning forward, drawn irresistibly by the beauty of her music. The tune was traditional, but the arrangement was unusual, a rhythmic, bass-driven interpretation that added a hard edge to the song. I glanced across the table and saw by the expression on Owen’s face that he was as smitten as I was.
When they were finished, the audience applauded warmly; Wendy gave a shy smile, and Mickey nodded his acknowledgement. They quickly moved into an up-tempo arrangement of ‘Johnny Cope’, with Mickey singing a high tenor harmony behind Wendy’s lead vocals, and then, barely pausing to acknowledge the applause, they moved into a slow, soulful arrangement of ‘The Snow it Melts the Soonest’, Wendy’s singing style reminding me strongly of Anne Briggs’ version of the song.
As they were leaving the stage amid thunderous applause, Owen leaned across and yelled in my ear, “We’ve got to meet them!”
“Let’s do it now!” he said with an impulsive grin.
I opened my mouth to protest, but he was already on his feet and threading his way between the crowded tables, his glass in his hand; I had known him long enough to know that he didn’t have a shy bone in his body. By the time Mickey and Wendy reached their table he was already there; I saw him reach out his hand, and in the noisy bar room I saw rather than heard his greeting. I watched them talking for a minute, and then he looked back at me with a grin and beckoned for me to come over and join them. I shrugged helplessly, got to my feet, and squeezed my way between the tables to where they were standing. Owen said, “This is my friend Tom Masefield”.
I shook hands with them both; “You were great”, I said.
“Thanks, mate”, Mickey replied.
“Especially your singing, Wendy”, Owen added; “No offense, Mickey!”
“None taken! Listen, will you two excuse me for a minute? Wendy and I are a bit thirsty; I need to go and get us some drinks”.
Mickey went over to the bar; on the stage Bill was introducing the next act as Wendy smiled shyly at Owen and me and invited us to sit down. “Haven’t I seen you two playing here before?” she asked.
“We’re here most Friday nights”, I replied as we took our seats around the table.
“I think I saw you here about a month ago; you were playing traditional music, too, weren’t you?”
“That would have been us”, Owen replied.
“Are you from around here?” she asked.
“Well, Northwood, which is quite close”, I replied; “How about you?”
“I’m from north Essex, but I did my undergrad degree in London. Are you both students?”
“Yeah, we’re both at Lincoln”, Owen replied. “We’ve been here three years; Tom’s doing teacher training, and I’m on my way to becoming a doctor. What about you?”
“I’m doing a postgrad degree in English at Merton”.
“In English?” I replied; “Are you specializing in any particular period?”
“Nineteenth century literature. Are you an English student?”
“My undergrad degree is in English”.
“Really?” She tilted her head a little, gave me a shy smile, and asked, “Who are your favourite authors?”
“I like the standard ones – Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy. I like some of the poetry, too, although I tend to prefer traditional folk songs”.
“Me too. But when it comes to Victorian novelists, I’m a great fan of George Eliot, myself”.
“I’m surprised you’re not doing a music degree”, said Owen; “You sounded really good tonight, and so did Mickey; he’s a very good guitarist”.
“Thanks”, she replied; “You’d never know from listening to him that he doesn’t really like folk music, would you?”
“What’s his type of music, then?” I asked.
“He’s actually just started a new wave band; they play in very different venues from this!”
“That’s a rather nice guitar he’s playing”, Owen observed.
“His parents bought it for him, of course; the family’s filthy rich”.
“Must be nice”.
At that moment Mickey returned from the bar, handed a glass of cider to Wendy, and took his seat at the table with us. He took a long draught of his Guinness, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, smiled at Owen and me and asked, “So, are you musicians as well?”
“They play here regularly”, Wendy told him.
“Are you playing later?” he asked us.
“We’ll be on at about nine-thirty”, I replied.
“Great; we’ll get to hear you then”.
By the time Owen and I took to the stage the pub was full, and as we adjusted our microphones we could see many familiar faces looking up at us from the tables.
We had done our first concert performances together while we were still in high school, playing cheap guitars and trying to sound like Simon and Garfunkel. If it had been up to me, I doubt if I would ever have drummed up the courage to get up onto a stage; I did not have my friend’s cheerful self-confidence. But he was determined, and so when we were both fifteen our high school music teacher agreed to his request and gave us a slot in a year-end concert. After that, Owen never looked back. By the time we moved to Oxford we both owned better instruments, and we had also come under the spell of traditional folk music and begun to play it together. Once again it had been Owen who had suggested that we try our first open stage; I had been nervous, of course, but after a few weeks I had begun to relax, and now, after three years, I enjoyed and looked forward to our gigs as much as Owen did.
Perched on my stool, I made one final adjustment to my guitar mike. Owen leaned toward his voice mike and said, “Let’s start with a tune most of you will know; this is ‘Lord Franklin’ ”.
And so our set began. After our opening song we slipped into a lively Irish piece ‘The Jolly Beggar Man’, which we knew the people there would enjoy, and then moved seamlessly into our own arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’. We could tell by the applause that the audience was with us, and I could see Bill on the front row nodding and holding up one finger.
“He wants us to do one more”, I said to Owen.
“Let’s get Wendy up here to sing with us”, he suggested with a mischievous grin.
“Are you nuts?” I exclaimed.
“We could do ‘I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love This Night’?”
“Do you think she knows it?”
He smiled and spoke into his microphone. “Did you folks enjoy Wendy Howard’s singing earlier on?”
There was an enthusiastic roar in response; Wendy and Mickey were still sitting at the same table in the far corner of the room, and as I glanced over there I could see the sudden surprise registering on Wendy’s face.
“Wendy”, Owen continued, “how about coming up here and doing one more piece with Tom and me?”
There was more applause, and as I watched Wendy grinned helplessly, shrugged her shoulders at Mickey and got to her feet. She threaded her way between the crowded tables and stepped up onto the little stage again. “Are you two out of your tiny little minds?” she exclaimed with a smile on her face; “We haven’t even had a practice!”
“All the more fun”, Owen responded impetuously. “Do you know ‘I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love This Night?’”
“Of course”, she replied, brushing her long hair away from her face; “it’s one of my favourites!”
Owen winked at me; “Lucky guess”, he said. “Let’s see if we know the same version. Here, you can use my voice mike”.
It was a piece Owen and I had often played together, and we began with a slow instrumental introduction. Wendy seemed to know instinctively when to come in; once again, she closed her eyes, put her head back a little, and began to sing in the clear, natural voice that had so quickly won the audience over earlier in the evening. Owen and I had played the song together many times, but before she had finished the first two lines Wendy had taken command of the stage. She slowed the song down a little, used subtle dramatic pauses, and even glanced over and nodded to me when she wanted me to sing harmonies.
When the song ended the listeners clapped and whistled their approval. Owen put his hand on Wendy’s arm, grinned at the audience, and said, “Wendy Howard!” She was smiling with delight, and then to our surprise she leaned over to Owen and me in turn and kissed us each impulsively on the cheek. Bill was pointing at the three of us and mouthing words at me again; “He wants us to do another one”, I said to Owen and Wendy.
“Do you boys know ‘Reynardine’?” she asked.
“We do”, I said; “You probably learned it from Anne Briggs, right?”
“How did you know?”
“I recognized her style when you sang ‘The Snow it Melts the Soonest'”.
I played a short guitar introduction; once again, Wendy seemed to know instinctively when to come in, and once again she immediately took ownership of the song, varying the pace and adding her own unique phrasing to some of the verses.
When the song ended, the three of us stood and acknowledged the applause before stepping off the stage. Bill got to his feet to introduce the next act; he smiled broadly at us and said, “That was great! Are you three going to do it again soon?”
I shrugged awkwardly, and Wendy glanced over at Mickey; “I don’t know”, she said.
“We’ll do it again”, Owen said confidently.
People were still applauding as Wendy led us back to the table where Mickey was sitting, and several of our friends stopped us on the way to shake our hands and tell us how much they had enjoyed the music. As we approached the table, Mickey got to his feet and put his hands on Wendy’s arms. “You were outstanding!” he said to her.
She kissed him lightly on the lips. “Are you going to buy these thirsty musicians another drink?”
“Absolutely!” he agreed; “What were you chaps drinking – bitter?”
“Thanks”, Owen replied; “I’ll come and help you carry”.
That night was the beginning of our friendship with Mickey and Wendy. It was obvious that Wendy had enjoyed singing with us, and we had thoroughly enjoyed playing for her. Most Friday nights and some Saturdays Owen and I played music somewhere in Oxford, and over the next month or so Wendy sang with us on two more occasions. At that point we decided that we really ought to have a proper rehearsal, so Mickey invited us to his flat near the Polytechnic, and we spent an evening going over songs we had in common. That night Owen, who was much more open and up front than I was, asked Mickey how he felt about Wendy singing with us. Mickey replied that he was quite happy for her to sing with a couple of real folk musicians and leave him to play the harder-edged new wave and rock sounds he was creating with his new band, ‘Eclipse’. That having been settled, Wendy became a regular member of our group, which we called (after the college Owen and I attended) ‘Lincoln Green’.
Owen and I often wondered about Wendy and Mickey. They were from the same town, Halstead in north Essex, where they had attended school together, and they gave the impression of having been a couple for a long time. Mickey was taking courses at Oxford Polytechnic; he was an enthusiastic photographer and was hoping for a career in photojournalism. He usually came to listen to the three of us when we were playing at folk clubs or pubs, unless his own band had a gig that night as well. During the evenings the four of us would chat amiably, but Owen and I always knew that we were the newcomers in the relationship; at the end of the evening Wendy and Mickey would slip away, their arms around each other’s shoulders. Wendy had her own room at Manor Place, the Merton College postgraduate residence, but she seemed to spend a lot of time at Mickey’s flat.
As we got to know them better, Owen and I discovered that Mickey had a dark side. He had a weakness for large quantities of Guinness, and when he had imbibed too much he could be belligerent and abusive. We suspected that he did drugs from time to time as well, but we never asked Wendy about this.
One of the things that confused me about them was that they seemed to have so little in common. Their taste in music was not the only difference between them. Wendy was a devoted reader who was studying English Literature in the hope of making a career out of her great passion in life, while Mickey’s taste in books seemed to lie mainly in thrillers, true crime stories, and science fiction. Wendy loved long distance walking (an interest Owen and I shared), whereas Mickey had a motorcycle and spent many Saturday afternoons going to scrambles. Wendy was the daughter of a Church of England minister, and her education was being financed mainly by hard-won scholarships, while Mickey’s parents were a wealthy country family whose holiday destinations had included the Riviera and the Caribbean.
When Wendy found out that Owen and I enjoyed walking in the country, she asked if she could join us for the occasional Saturday walk. Surprised at her desire to spend a Saturday with us rather than with Mickey, I asked if he would mind. Her scornful response was “Mickey’s my lover, not my friend!” I was astounded at this, but when I protested that in my thinking the two had always gone together, she only smiled at me patronizingly and said that I was obviously inexperienced; one day, she said, I would learn the difference between friendship and love.
I had to admit one thing; she was right about my lack of experience. I had dated girls occasionally, and I was as interested in sex as any other man my age, but I had enjoyed only one or two longer-term relationships with women. From time to time I would admit privately to myself that I would like to experience such a relationship with Wendy; she was attractive, enjoyable to be around, and shared many of my interests. In the two years that I knew her, we certainly became good friends, but still it seemed clear that she was inextricably attached to Mickey – at least, until our last few months in Oxford, when their relationship ran into major trouble because of his dark side.