Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Look of Love

Sandy, Maude and me were all at college together and share many fond memories of academic life. Arch was something of an arriviste in the circle. Sandy and I shared rooms while we studied. Arch had misrepresented his qualifications in gnome-painting as ‘fine art’ to gain entrance to the lodgings and to become our neighbour. Our rooms were south-facing and benefited from a lovely set of French windows - in front of which we placed the desk. Sandy would arrange his books at one end of the desk and I would set mine at the other. We clubbed together for a typewriter and it sat in the centre. The arrangement worked well – as Sandy was nocturnal and would write his essays through a haze of cigarette smoke in the small hours. I would air the room in the morning and then use the desk myself. In moments of quiet study I would notice movement in the shrubs at the far end of the shared garden. At the time I took this to be a small animal.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, Archie was moving his way though the house. He had begun in a garret space (formerly a very cramped nursery). The landlord had been surprised at Archie’s willingness to live in such confinement - he usually showed the room as a small joke to amuse prospective tenants. He used it as a broom cupboard and would open the door on the ‘penthouse suite’ as more of an icebreaker than a genuine option.

‘I’ll take it! I’ll take it! It’s perfect!’

Archie had seen this as his chance to get into the house and break into what he took to be an intellectual atmosphere. He then strategically changed rooms as they became available, to achieve proximity to us.

Sandy and I had always been cordial to Arch, before we got to know him properly. The house had an old church pew in its entrance hall. The pew was very useful - it had a hinged lid under which was storage designed for prayer books. We used it for the post. Each morning the postman would cast the post into the pew and each scholar would appear, lift the lid and rifle through the envelopes in the hope of a cheque from home.

Some mornings Arch would be asleep in the pew.

After an evening out, Arch was often overwhelmed by the prospect of climbing the stairs back to his room – especially during the time when he lived in the ‘penthouse.’ He would chose, instead, to climb into the relative spaciousness of the pew and wait for the shower of post to rouse him in the morning. The postman and residents were all a little startled at first, but it was a liberal environment and allowances were made for the little chap. Some occupants took to throwing some loose change in at Archie’s feet after retrieving their letters.

If not asleep in the pew, Arch could often be found perched on it, swinging his legs and reading ‘difficult’ books. Sandy and I were leaving the house in a hurry one morning to catch a lecture and I saw that Archie was sat in his difficult book reading attitude. He was also wearing spectacles. I noticed that he rubbed one of his eyes by poking a finger through the frame – there were no lenses.

Sandy was oblivious to Archie’s presence and busied himself lighting his second cigarette of the day from the rapidly diminishing stub of his first cigarette of the day. As he did so, a shaft of winter sunlight poured in through the stained glass of the front door. The light penetrated the cloud of smoke and cast a halo around Sandy’s dishevelled, cherubic curls. Looking back, I suspect that this was the coup de foudre moment for Archie. The small one straightened his ‘glasses’ as though to get a better view and peered over the top of his book. He seemed to be drinking in every atom of this glowing vision of his idol – in its beatific morning glow. As Sandy grabbed his satchel of books and made for the door, Archie’s eyes followed his movement with a trancelike stare. Before I followed and closed the door behind me, I took the opportunity to pick the Samuel Becket novel from Archie’s grip and turn it the right way up.

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