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09/01/2014

CRANLEY MEADOWS

James Lasdun

`What will I do? Keep looking I suppose.’

Lev Rosenberg remained stooped as he spoke to his wife, his eye pressed to the lens of the squat, sixteen-inch telescope pointing through the small dome of the observatory.

It was a chilly, glittering October night. As Lev inched the telescope across the heavens, his wife could see faint showers of magnified starlight spark in the translucent part of his iris. The grounds of the college and the farmland beyond were visible through the open slot in the dome, familiar contours spectral in the bright moonlight. Frost was already glinting on the stiffened milkweed pods at the base of the observatory.

`Not that a fifty-four year old physicist who hasn’t revised Relativity is exactly a hot commodity on the market right now. As we seem to be discovering.’

Bryony, Lev’s wife, said nothing.

`Don’t we?’

`I guess.’

Last summer, the college had fired eighteen professors, Lev among them. Only two so far had found jobs elsewhere. A few others had drifted off. Most of the dozen or so who remained owned homes in the area, with mortgages to pay, families to support. In a few months the severance money would run out. Then what? Were they going to have to sell their houses? Take their children out of college?

As a courtesy, Lev had been permitted to go on using the observatory. He came most nights: it seemed to be good for his morale. Tonight Saturn was rising in Pisces at an unusual angle to the earth, and Lev had brought Bryony with him to show her.

`You’re not cold are you?’

`I’m okay.’

`Don’t want the little fellows catching a chill. Can you catch a chill in the womb?’

`I don’t know.’

`Ah… There he is. There’s Saturn. Come. Come have a look…’

Lev turned from the lens and smiled at his wife. His yellowish-grey eyes were watering with the cold. Silver hairs shone in his black beard, which he had grown since being fired.

He stood back and made way for his wife at the eye-piece.

`That’s a sight to put our little problems in perspective.’

 

Lev had come to Shalehaven twelve years earlier from the Soviet Union. At the time of his arrival the college had been prosperous; hospitable to exiles like himself. In those days it was prestigious to have a dissident on campus, and the college had shown its appreciation by building a small observatory to Lev’s specifications. It was here that his relationship with Bryony had begun.

She was his student then, sixteen years his junior; tall – taller than Lev – with a reticent self-possession he had found beguiling. She’d stayed on at the college during the summer vacation of her senior year to write her thesis. As darkness fell on the warm evenings, she would make her way over to the observatory to record the positions of the star cluster she was studying. Lev would be there, writing or reading in his office downstairs. He would offer her a drink – not such a scandalous thing in those days – and they would talk, before going upstairs to look at the star cluster.

Towards the end of the summer their conversation had begun to take on a more personal tone. Lev told Bryony about his arrest for distributing censored pamphlets, describing the labor camp in Siberia where he’d built railbeds for a bauxite mine till he collapsed with a heart attack, aged thirty-seven. He told her about his years in internal exile in Tomsk, where he’d been caretaker of one of the old merchant buildings. He showed her a photo of the grey wooden building with its carved eaves, and confided that he had been happier there than anywhere else in his life. `Until now. But you tell me about your life.’ She spoke about her parents, both doctors in Maine; her brother, a naval cadet; the year they had all spent at a reservation clinic in Alaska… `Not much to tell, really’, but in the strangeness of Lev’s new existence, the ordinariness of this calm young woman’s life had had a powerful effect on him. They had first kissed up in the observatory, the smell of freshly carpentered lumber mingling with the faint soap-scent of Bryony’s skin and the sweetish tobacco fragrance from Lev’s Tekel cigarettes; the air outside full of silvery spindrift from the milkweed pods that had ripened and begun to split. Even today Lev couldn’t climb the braided metal steps to the dome without recalling the feelings of tumultuous affection those evenings had stirred in him.

 

Bryony peered into the eyepiece of the telescope. There, aswim in its powdery blackness, was the bright glow of Saturn, its rings edge-on to the earth like a hat-brim seen at eye-level.

`Pretty sensational don’t you think?’

`Yes… ‘

`Hm.’

Lev sighed.

`It is sensational Lev.’

There was a silence. They could hear the low hum of the telescope’s clock-drive as it tracked the sky.

`Bloody Dieter’ Lev muttered.

`Lev, it’ll be alright. Something else will come up.’

A couple of months ago Lev’s old friend Dieter Kaufmann had called to say there was a position in his department down in Texas. Lev had applied formally and been chosen as one of three finalists for the job. A week ago he’d flown down for an interview. Today Dieter had called to tell him he hadn’t got the job.

`Dieter tries to console me by telling me the job’s not senior enough for someone of my standing anyway. What do you think about that?’

`I suppose that means they want someone younger.’

`Precisely. Ha! At least I can rely on one person not to mince her words.’

`They probably want a woman too Lev. You know what it’s like. Or someone from a minority group. Or both.’

`Yes, yes. Well, I’ve always been in favor of that.’

Bryony straightened up.

`You have another look Lev. It’s already moving out of view.’

Lev caught a look in her eye as he changed places with her.

`What is it?’

`Nothing.’

He gazed at her a moment. The supple skin over the delicate bones in her face seemed almost fluid in the moonlight, like glassily clear water over smooth rocks. She was still almost painfully dear to him.

`Are you worrying about me?

`Well -‘

`Don’t, I’ve survived worse than this.’

`Yes.’

He kissed her lightly on the lips, then reapplied his eye to the lens.

`Anyway, I told Dieter the news.’

`What news Lev?’

`About the little fellows. What else?’

`I thought we weren’t going to tell anybody yet.’

`Well… I wanted to say something a little bit human. Otherwise the conversation was getting so formal…’

 

A few years ago they had tried to have a child, without success. A brief foray into reproductive therapy – Clomid, Pergonal, Intrauterine Insemination – had left them jarred and repulsed, and they had let the matter drop. But after the firings, Lev had suddenly decided he wanted to try again.

`I’m fifty-four’ he’d said, `I’ll be an old man soon. You’ll go off with someone else, but at least if we have a kid together you’ll stay in touch.’

`I’m not going off with anybody.’ Bryony had told him quietly.

But there was also the practical consideration that the college medical insurance would pay for some of the treatment, and they could only stay on the plan for a limited period.

This time, therefore, they had stuck it out. Bryony had gone back on the drugs. They made her ovulate prodigiously, and the surgeon had been able to cut out ten eggs. She submitted to this in a state of dreamy, half-fascinated passivity. The surgeon mixed the eggs with Lev’s sperm and put three of them back inside Bryony. Two had fertilized. These were what Lev referred to as the `little fellows.’

`Perhaps we should go back in the house’ Lev said, still looking through the lens, `no sense in taking a risk.’

`No… Let’s stay here. I want to stay here.’

`Alright. Let’s see what else I can find for you. I’m never sure how interested you are any more…’

`I am interested Lev -‘

It was true though; her own tender, almost shy interest in astronomy had become all but invisible, even to herself, in the glare of Lev’s passion for the subject. Despite Lev’s urgings to the contrary, she had long ago given up the idea of pursuing it professionally. In her vague way, she had come to think of Lev as being interested enough for the both of them.

She gazed out through the slot at the monochrome landscape. There was the carved white spire of the Shalehaven Unitarian church. A light was on in the house next to it. That would be Paula Kitson, who had also lost her job in the firings.The last time Bryony had run into her, Paula had told her a strange, rambling story. She had gone into town to buy groceries. When she came back, she had seen a bag on the table in her kitchen. The bag was exactly the same as the one she was carrying. Inside it were exactly the same groceries. `Can you believe it?’ she’d said with a laugh, `I must have already been to the store and just totally zoned out.’

Further back, across the pale glint of the Sawkill creek, Bryony could make out the onion-domed silhouette of the old Hurley Mansion Carriage House. Sterling McCullough lived there.

`I saw Sterling yesterday. ‘ Bryony heard herself say. `Over in Cranley Meadows.’

`Oh. How was he?’

`He looked bad.’

`Poor man.’

Sterling had taught Political Science for almost twenty years. He hadn’t published much in that time, but with his distinguished white hair and bright blue eyes, his gift for vituperative oratory, he had inspired a devoted following among several generations of students. When the financial difficulties first appeared on the horizon, and cost-cutting measures were tentatively suggested, it was Sterling who had set the tone of fierce indignation with which the more combative among the professors, Lev included, had responded. And later, when the administration suddenly bared its claws and lashed out, abolishing tenure and firing a quarter of the faculty, it was Sterling who had organised the fired professors into an action group, the Shalehaven Eighteen. But it was Sterling too – after a euphoric summer of protests and press campaigns had come to nothing – who had taken the blow to his career most deeply to heart.

It was as though he had suddenly understood that along with his job at Shalehaven, the armature of his personality had been removed. In a kind of delayed collapse, like that of a building which has gone on standing for a while out of sheer habit of verticality after its beams have rotted, he had begun abruptly crumpling in upon himself. He started to look like an old man; his eyes grew dull, his voice thickened, his presence became grey and indefinite.

 

`You seem as if you have something you want to tell me. Am I right?’

`No… Nothing in particular.’

She looked at him; the stooped bulk of his broad frame gave out an air of creaturely warmth. She felt an urge to touch him, or rather to be held by him.

`Cranley Meadows,’ Lev said. `What was Sterling doing all the way over there?’

`I don’t know. He was sitting on a bench in the Mall. He didn’t seem to want to talk. I’m not even sure he recognised me when I said hello.’

Bryony waited, willing Lev to question her further.

`There’s Hamal’ was all he said. `There’s Mirach, Alamak… There’s Schedir and Cassiopeia. Tycho Brahe’s supernova. You know he built himself a golden nose after he had his own sliced off?’

`Yes, I remember.’

`Sorry. I’m lecturing you. Hard habit to break… Here, you want to look at the moon? She’s bright tonight.’

`I’m okay Lev. You look.’

`You make it sound like there isn’t enough moon to go around.’

`I didn’t mean that.’

A clump of thin white birches caught her eye, gleaming in the dark woods like stripped wires.

`You remember Leibniz’s famous question?’ Lev asked.

`Remind me.’

`”Why should there be being and substance? Why should there not be nothing?”‘

`Oh yes.’

`That’s still the definitive question for me. I ask it every time I look through one of these and see all that mass of uninhabitable cinders and gases. Why should the universe go to all the trouble of existing? Back in Leningrad -‘

The birches gleamed so brightly you could make out the little black eyebrow scars on their trunks. She thought of Lev’s fondness for these trees. They reminded him of his happy days in Tomsk. He would run his hands over the taut, chalky bark of the bellying trunks with a sigh. On a  walk a few weeks ago he had touched one of them and jumped back, pretending he could feel an infant kicking under the smooth skin. It had been on the morning of that day, in the doctor’s office, that Bryony and Lev had first heard the twins’ light, rapid heartbeats galloping towards them from the future.

`- Is it perhaps somehow necessary that there should be all this dead matter in order for one planet to flourish… I’m boring you?’

`No, go on.’

`You used to claim you enjoyed hearing me free-associate about the universe.’

`I meant it Lev. And I still do.’

‘Hm.’

He was silent a moment.

`What about you, Bryony?’ he asked, `What were you doing at Cranley Meadows?’

There.

‘Well…’ she said.

But now that Lev had asked, a weight of dread seemed to paralyse her.

In the small room behind the blinds, with the demerol ebbing throb by throb into her blood, everything had seemed to possess a transparent clarity of purpose. The image of Sterling McCullough’s haggard face; its dim, unrecognising glance as Bryony had greeted him, had added a layer of something resembling violence to Bryony’s resolve. Thinking of him, thinking of them all, the ‘Shalehaven Eighteen’, Bryony had felt a curious sensation of remoteness. Their whole drama seemed utterly unconnected to her. As the doctor entered, putting Bryony’s feet in the stirrups and positioning the heavy vacuum apparatus, she had felt as if she were being carved free from some cold, grey, lava-like substance that had all but absorbed her into itself. It was as though some bright new creature were about to take flight from her prone body.

 

`Isn’t that where they firebombed that place last year? The women’s clinic?

She nodded.

Lev looked at her kindly.

`Back in business though, is it?’

`Yes.’

Had she said the word or only mouthed it?

`Yes’, she said again, louder.

Lev spoke quietly, after a pause.

`Well, you know, I’ve always told you, anything you do, that’s fine by me.’

`I know that, Lev.’

Again the urge to be held by him. She fought it again. It was harder this time, the urge bringing with it traces of old sweetnesses, insinuating sentiments, so that for a moment it was necessary to stand still and deliberately suppress the current of recollection – the first evenings up here with their delicate freight of tensions and broachings, Lev looming across her heart like the edge of a richly-teeming shadow, the suede-soft milkweed pods just ripening, splitting open, setting adrift their glimmering strands…

She watched as he shifted the telescope, bringing the moon into his sights. A bright, snowy light filled the clear part of his eye. Slowly, as she observed the moonlight flickering on the foil-like back of his iris, she felt her composure return. She had the impression that she could make out the etched silver outlines of individual craters and lunar mountains glittering inside her husband’s eyeball. It occurred to her that at one time she had known the names of most of them. Now she had forgotten them all.

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