Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Strand Pre-Story

I am working The Strand backward. I have writing a section that is intended to precede the earlier section I published on my blog. This is all still a work in progress. Here is the rough draft of the new pre-story. It is based off of the point of view exercise I did with the story in mind. (N.B. Here, I use the third person omniscient.) There maybe errors in spelling, grammar, et cetera. After all, that is all part of what W.I.P. means.

The Strand

They were on the brink. She could feel it, as she walked down Strand under the dower English sky, Charles purposely closer than necessary at her side. They were talking, of all things, about Tomas More’s Utopia.

“A walk doesn’t equal love,” Haylee reminded herself. “I fall in love a dozen time a day but always with this man. This not-my-husband man.”

Charles was holding forth on the Utopian alphabet of the 1515 first edition, thinking, “I must impress her,” over and over again in his mind. Wishing to talk of nothing but a trip back up The Strand to his office at the College. In Charles’ mind, he was laying Haylee down in his mind, unbuttoning her beige cardigan, reciting John Donne. He had always wanted to make love reciting John Donne’s Unholy Sonnets, had waited his whole life for a woman with whom he felt he could do that. And into that fantasy Haylee stepped, mind ablaze with Mallory and Tennyson, more specifically to him, mind ablaze with romance.

Parallel, Haylee walked filled with thought. She felt a sudden urge to shake Charles, so seemingly involved with More, to say, “This is our moment. Don’t you see?” so as to confirm the pivotal nature of the current instant. Instead, Charles stopped, Haylee looked distracted and disinterested. He felt his middle go hollow in realization; she, a married woman, would never care for him.

“Haylee, are you all right? You seem to have gone a bit pale,” Charles said, attempting to gain equanimity.

“Quite. It’s just the chill of fall, I guess.”

They were lying to each other, living the romances of which they were so fond.

“I have to run,” Charles said seemingly suddenly, turning toward the curb, the recent realization of Haylee’s unavailability leading him to crave solitude.

The moment fractured, as Haylee followed, making herself act out of the feeling of necessity that this time with Charles had created in her. She took his hand lightly.

“Please,” she said, suddenly breathless, “I don’t want you to go.”

They did not go back to Charles’ office. Instead, he suggested, they ought to take in the Royal Gardens. He moved her words over and over again in his mind, “I don’t want you to go.” Her soft words, quiet, a breathing out of sound, not a promise, not anything he must remind himself. After all, he was not a young man, and she was a young woman barely into her mid-twenties, twenty-three at the most, married young. And he, he was a thirty year old associate professor, a bit of a belly starting to show through, he noted, running his hand down his beige trench which faded into the surrounding landscape. Around him Price Albert’s statue stood firm and life perished. The flowers hunkering down for the winter. It was not a season of renewal, not a season of beginning, certainly not with Haylee in the summer of her life. He saw her, her head lightly bent, mahogany strands stirring in the breeze, trying to escape the binds she had placed them in. She was always instilling order. It was her order that he remembered most keenly from their class.

Haylee had walked into their Early Victorian British Literature class as Marie Antoinette must have walked the halls of Versailles – as one afraid of being an imposter but with a quiet grace and naiveté, an innocence that was intoxicating, demanded of attention. She was a reader, Charles then thought, looking at her in her charming button-up sweater vest and button-down shirt. My God, she’s a reader.

Haylee wrapped her coated arms around her, taking in the Royal Gardens, looking everywhere but at Charles. They had spoken little since her breathless statement on the curb. She felt his eyes on her; he was regarding her, she realized, not knowing what to think. She burned. Here she was walking side by side with Charles, living this fantasy that had been percolating in her.

It was his kindness that had first made her care for him, although if asked Haylee would say she had come to fancy him for his intelligence, for his ability to talk for hours on end about the Brontë sisters, about the effects of the Anglo-Norman Conquest on British literature, about the public relations of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare.

But it was more than that. She loved Charles, if love was the correct word she did not yet know, for his knowledge of life, for his ability to say to her, “You will be something. You will be fine.” She loved him because he had lived the life that stretched before her, so massive, causing her such anxiety, as she whittled away days, a housewife. All of that, her education, so labored over by her parents, who had taken her out the state school midway through first year in order to place her in an independent school. She had always been given the best education. All that to run off and become the wife of an accountant, the wife to the poor Sheldon Fields, who she loved for his devotion and willingness to love her back. Sheldon she loved, yes, here love was certainly the right word, for his ability to say, “I am here.”

Charles was another matter all together. Charles was not a certainty, although he was a comfort with his assurances of her success and reinforcement of the fact that she was a smart person, a gifted person. Day in and out, keeping the house for Sheldon, her only comfort her books, which she read and read and read – Haylee feared she’d go stale, have her brain atrophy as she carefully selected produce that was just the correct combination of ripeness and freshness at the market, as she swept a rag across the kitchen counter, always cleaning. One mustn’t be idle. Charles helped her see beyond herself when she could not.

Haylee had lingered after class this Thursday. She was always waiting. Waiting for Thursday, waiting for Sheldon to come home, waiting for market day, waiting for her life to begin. It was quite a surprise to come to find that marriage, keeping a house, all of it added up to nothing even approaching what she had always considered life – the one thing that she had been waiting for, preparing for, since childhood. Always the diligent student because she must be prepared, ready for a world that would demand of her more than Sheldon did. In all his kindness he never asked her for anything. He never demanded more of her than her presence and a cup of warm coffee to start a cold London day. There were not talks of Milton, would never be discussions of American minimalism, of the influence of Wordsworth. Sheldon would come home and ask only for her to be ready to love him. His simplicity, which she loved for its consistency and reliability, she also rebelled against. If Sheldon lacked the imagination to have an affair, he certainly lacked the imagination to presume that she was having one. But this, this walk in the park, thing nothing with Charles…Sheldon was right there was not a thing to be imagined anyway.

But Haylee had lingered after class this Thursday. This time knowing that it was Charles and uncertainty that she was waiting for. And, because she was shy, she had only asked Charles to walk with her and let him talk on and on about Utopia when really she wanted to take his face between her two hands.

The moment of urgency that they had both felt on the curb of Strand had fading somewhat now that they were in motion. Walks always calmed Charles, who deeply breathed in the changing air and tried to think of what to say next to the enigma beside him. Haylee looked small and cold as she tried to wrap her slightly oversized coat tighter around her. He must protect her, he saw; she was in need. He was the knight, she the damsel, their lives a version of Chrétien de Troyes’ The Knight in the Cart. He was duty bound by courtly love and knightly codes.

“You’re cold. Let me take you back to my office. I have tea.”

She consented for lack of a better thing to do, for fear of the mundane, for the hope that here, with Charles life, complicated, dirty life, could begin. Charles would know how to handle it.

He kissed her, back against the grainy wood of his office door. They both breathed heavily, tried to gain equanimity, spoke simultaneously, laughed nervously, and wished they had not done so. Both wished to kiss again, so Charles opened his office door with an unfortunate bang, taking Haylee’s hand and pulling her inside with the delicacy that kissing another man’s wife warranted. He thought of her in those terms – another man’s wife. Again they kissed. “Two,” Haylee counted inside herself, feeling the hair on his chin rub against her and remind her that this was not the careful Sheldon who would never, never be anything but cleanly shaven. She inhaled his smell strongly, musk and a nervous sweat that was not unappealing, everything new. She felt from the bottom of her to the very top alive. Yes, so alive! This intersection of her being and life intoxicated her, made her dizzy, still, complacent to Charles’ carefully sitting her down into the extra chair in his office.

The student chair, Charles thought. The act of sitting her down as such had separated her from him, made her the other. Or perhaps, he more carefully ruminated, made himself the other in her eyes. In the accompanying silence he tried not to fidget as he felt more and more bodily uncomfortable, the act of trying to be silent awakening in him the need for extensive movement and noise: scratching, coughing. It shook him when Haylee got up with a start, with a squeak of the old metal chair, wheels long since rusted out of use, and stated, “I don’t want to be late.” Her coat still on, her hand already on the door, a visitor never planning on more than a hurried visit. She departed leaving him breathless and shuttering, not sure what had happened, a tempest uncontrolled inside of his mid-regions.

As Charles collected himself with lukewarm water from the drinking fountain, Haylee walked at a base designed to be brisk enough to occupy all conscious thought and to return her home before Sheldon’s impending arrival.

She prepared herself to feel immense guilt but instead felt nothing out of the ordinary.

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