I notice that I can feel my heart beating unusually fast. Partly, I know, it's anticipation of her arrival. Plain old schoolboy excitement. But partly also it's the anxiety that this might be the year that she doesn't come.
Outside the thin nylon walls of my tent I can hear a buzz of light-hearted conversations mixed with a few distant singing voices, and musicians tuning up their instruments. Not the professionals who will be playing on the Festival stages of course, their campsite is elsewhere, but hundreds of amateurs carrying on a tradition that was already ancient when King David was learning to play his harp. There will be barbecues tonight, and throughout the four days of the Festival, and endless informal jamming sessions, and lovers will fall asleep to the same melodies that buskers played to the queues outside Shakespeare's Globe.
I recognise the chords of When Johnny Comes Marching Home and something that might be The Banks of the Ohio. An American influence this year, I muse. Probably because Melanie and Don McLean are back. My mind drifts away to the year that Janis Ian dried up in front of five thousand people at the main stage, until the Yorkshire compère told her to 'Take your time lass, we're all friends here and there's none of us in a hurry'. I remember the year that Leonard Cohen had the whole audience in tears, and none of us knowing why we were crying. In fact that was the year Liana and I first got together. There was really nothing to cry about that year.
Time passes. I rearrange the blanket and the two sheets on top of the double camping mattress and feel once again for twigs or stones underneath. I've upgraded my tent a lot since that first Cambridge. This one is a small comfortable room with fabric walls. Outside, probably in another tent, somebody starts to play Carolan's Dream on a Celtic harp. The musicians stop tuning up. There is a hush. Everyone is listening. The music comes to an end and when the final chord has died away a wave of spontaneous applause rises from the campsite. I am genuinely moved. A tune written more than three hundred years ago by the blind son of an Irish blacksmith, and it still has that power.
As the applause fades away there is the nearby sound of a zip being drawn down, and Liana is standing in front of me. She is dressed, as ever, in the fashions of the era just before either of us was born: a long floral skirt and thin white blouse, a silver pentacle on a leather thong around her neck, a green Alice band holding back her shoulder-length auburn hair. Her smile is heart-stopping.
"I was afraid you weren't coming," I whisper as I hold her very close and caress her back.
"Silly boy," she replies. We stand and kiss, tenderly and without inhibition, and a great wave of contentment sweeps over me. My heart settles back to its normal pace. My hands slip beneath her blouse and I caress her warm bare flesh. Within minutes we are both naked on the camping mattress, Liana beneath me, eagerly pulling me down and inside her. We make love gently and affectionately, kissing and caressing all the time. I hold back until I hear Liana moan softly, and the tightening of her intimate muscles tells me that it is okay to let go. Our mutual orgasm is enormous. We don't care that the people in the nearby tents will hear our cries. I wonder if the musicians will applaud us too, but thankfully they don't.
I lift myself from her body and lie by her side while she cuddles up to me and wraps her two legs around one of mine. We hug each other, kiss again, and wait to recover some energy.
"I love the way you do that," she whispers.
"I love doing it."
"I don't think I've felt this good since last Cambridge."
I start to reply "Me neither," then stop myself, because it isn't entirely true, and this is Cambridge, where everything we say has to be entirely true. I was the one who made the rule, I can't be the one to break it. Liana picks up my hesitation straight away but doesn't interpret it quite correctly.
"Are things a bit better between you and Sylvia, then?" she asks.
"A bit better? No, definitely not. Maybe a little bit worse or much the same, but definitely not better. We jog along. I’ve learned that that's what married life is: jogging along."
"No exploding fireworks then?"
"No, none of those."
Outside somebody with a guitar is singing Elliott Smith's slow quiet song Between the Bars. "Listen." I urge Liana, "It's about us." She looks puzzled. "This last bit. Listen."
The people you've been before
That you don't want around anymore
That push and shove and won't bend to your will
I'll keep them still
"That's exactly what we do for one another, isn't it? We keep the people we've been before, the ones we don't want around any more, still. We enable each other to be ourselves. I think Elliott Smith was a genius."
She nods. "A genius. Yes. For all the good it did him."
"I think a life that produced a song like that, or a tune like Carolan's Dream, was a life well-lived. I wish I could leave something that good behind me when I go."
"You're getting morbid now. Anyway, don't change the subject. You've got things to tell me, haven't you? Has Sylvia been talking about having a baby again?"
"God no! Perish the thought. She's just been... Sylvia, you know. All the same old stuff. It sounds so trivial when I say it, but it bugs me a lot. It isn't just that I don't love her anymore, I don't even like her anymore. It feels like her whole project in life is to undermine me and put me down. She pretends to people that it's a joke, but it isn't. It's intentionally hurtful."
"What kind of thing does she do?"
"Like I've told you before. She tries to humiliate me and destroy my self-confidence. Not in a big dramatic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? way, but in little ways. For instance if we meet someone and they start to give me their e-mail address she'll say: 'It's no good giving it to him, he'll only lose it'. Or somebody in the street will ask me for directions and she'll say: 'It's no good asking Danny. He won't know.' Things like that. Silly things. But all the time, non-stop, like she has to demonstrate her contempt at every possible opportunity. Sometimes I fight back a little bit, but mostly I don't say anything. Then she tells me I'm having one of my sulks."
"Of course," Liana explains, "there's no satisfaction for her if you don't fight back. She's unhappy, Danny. Whatever it was she thought she would get out of the marriage, she isn't getting it. Neither are you, obviously. What did you think it would be like – six years ago, was it? Seven?"
"Seven. People talk about the seven year itch, don't they? That's a tough question. I suppose I was in love. Obsessed with her anyway. I don't think I looked very far ahead. I just wanted things to go on as they were then. Great nights out together. Great parties. Great holidays. Great sex. Isn't that what marriage is all about?"
"No, Danny. I don't think it is. Do you still have great sex?"
"Don't you mean, do we still have sex? Not very often. Sylvia uses it as a bartering chip to get me to do what she wants. We maintain this myth that I'm always panting for it and insanely grateful when she lets me have it. She says things like: 'You do the cooking and the washing up and I'll make it up to you in bed.' Sex is like a lollypop that you give to a child as a reward for good behaviour. But when it's time to collect my reward I usually don't feel like it. Then she gets upset about that. But once in a while, maybe once or twice a month, we do try to do something about our mutual frustration. There's a little bit of closeness afterwards, just a few moments; then the embarrassment sets in again."
"It sounds pretty ghastly."
"Oh, I don't know. We just... jog along. We keep things well below the surface. We're polite to one another most of the time. We don't have scenes in public. We don't throw the furniture around."
I haven't been aware of sending out a signal but Liana picks it up. She looks me in the eye.
"There's something you aren't telling me, isn't there?" I give her what I think must be a sheepish grin. "Have you been unfaithful to Sylvia? You have, haven't you?" I nod. "When?"
"About ten minutes ago."
"Oh, come on Danny. Don't be silly. You know what I mean. When was it? Who was it with?"
I draw a deep breath and hold her a little closer. "Yes, there was somebody else a couple of months ago. I was sent out to the Department's field station in Peru to check on one of our research students. Her name is Clari. She's Danish. Very young, very sweet."
"Beautiful. Pretty wouldn't do her justice."
Liana wriggles around so that she can face me more comfortably. "Oh, you are smitten, aren't you? Did she give you a good time then?"
I am embarrassed but try to reply honestly. "Wonderful. She was... perfect."
"Perfect? Oh, this is getting better. Come on then, tell all."
Clari's smile flits across my mind’s eye. "Well, it was a bit like you and me at that first Cambridge Folk Festival. She showed me her work, and took me out to the monkey colony, and then we had a meal in the canteen at the field station, and went to the bar in the village and got a little bit drunk. We sat a bit too close together... and we kissed... and then it sort of got out of control. You know the kind of thing."
"Yes, I know the kind of thing." Liana giggles. "It sounds highly unprofessional."
"You aren't kidding. She did get the best research report I've ever given, but she deserved it. Our personal relationship didn't enter into it."
"Of course not."
"After that we spent every single night together until I left. I really meant it when I said it was perfect. It was like... being in heaven."
"And have you been in touch with her since?"
"That's terrible! You have to write to her as soon as you get home. Tell her it was one of the happiest weeks of your life. That you think about her all the time. That she's beautiful and perfect. Whatever."
I laugh. "It didn't mean anything to her, Liana. She doesn't need to hear that kind of thing."
"Of course it meant something to her. And she does need to hear that kind of thing. Trust me. Write to her the very first chance you get. Promise."
"Okay. I promise. Maybe I'll tell her what I said in my research report. I said her work was of a standard that made me proud to be a member of this University. I've never said anything like that about a person's work before. And it's true. She's investigating conservation strategies for the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. It's one of the rarest and most critically endangered animals in the world. There are only about two hundred individuals left. She's been living alongside the colony for about fourteen months, and the mother monkeys have started giving her their babies to look after while they forage. That means the colony has granted her the status of an alpha female. It's the ultimate level of acceptance. It's only happened two or three times in the whole history of primate studies. And of course they're perfectly right. She would protect those baby monkeys with her life if it came to it – that's no exaggeration. You've got to imagine the scene, Liana. This beautiful young Scandinavian blonde in shorts and a bikini top, with tiny monkeys climbing all over her, and the rainforest and a fifty metre waterfall misting up the trees behind her, and beyond that the foothills of the Andes rising up into the clouds. Who isn't going to fall in love with her?"
"Well, I can see that you have. But why haven't you said anything to her? Why haven't you talked about your feelings? This might be the best chance you'll ever get to make the break. Start a new life."
"Why not? You and your alpha female and all those monkeys."
I am silent for a few moments. I can hear a Bob Dylan standard starting up outside: Don't Think Twice, It's Alright.
"Because I'm scared, I suppose. Chicken. I think it was just a few day's pleasant diversion for her. If I try to take it any further I'll probably make a fool of myself."
"So, on the minus side you might get a small dent in your ego, and on the plus side you might get away from Sylvia forever to a life you would love, with a woman who's beautiful and perfect. Is that worth a gamble or not?"
"You make it sound so simple."
"Don't be a coward. Do it."
"I've thought about it, obviously, had fantasies about it – but that's all it is – a fantasy. There's such a big age gap... and she has so many other options..."
"Do it, Danny. Even if it doesn't last forever – and I know most things don't – it's too good a chance to throw away. If she says no, fine. You've tried and it didn't work. You'll get over it. But if you do nothing, you'll always wonder what she would have said, what she might have said. You know I'm right, don't you?"
I look into her eyes. Of course I know she's right.
"You're losing your backbone, Danny. Getting scared of life. You weren't like that before. Sylvia has done that to you. Get away from her, however you do it. She's destroying you."
I pause and listen to the song. "I'll always have you, won't I?" I hear myself beg for reassurance.
"Of course you will. You'll always have Cambridge and me, no matter what."
For a moment neither of us speaks. Then Liana senses something again. "There's more, isn't there? There's something else bugging you." I shift around uncomfortably. "Come on, Danny. It's Cambridge. You have to tell."
I push down my embarrassment. "Well, this is even sillier than the stuff with Sylvia. It was a cartoon – after I got back – in the student magazine. It really got to me. It let me see what I've turned into, I suppose. I've got a photocopy with me..."
"Later. Just tell me about it. Describe it."
"Well, it's me, looking really old and grumpy and defeated. The way my students must see me, I suppose. And there's another man with a big white beard and a smile – it could be Darwin or God, I often get those two mixed up – and he's shaking my hand and saying: 'Congratulations Dr. Hall, you get to write planet earth's suicide note'."
"Cruel because it's true. I came into this field thinking all we had to do was show people where their actions were leading. Humans are supposed to be rational creatures – the supreme problem-solvers. All that environmental scientists had to do was collect the data, draw the graphs, explain the way to save ourselves. And it can be done, we don't need any new technology, we don't even have to give up Western standards of living. The answers are as plain as day. But nobody's listening. Nobody's doing a thing beyond the most ridiculous token gestures. We put up airport taxes while China opens two new filthy coal-fired power stations every week. That's exactly what I've been doing for the last twelve years. Writing a death-chronicle of the last few decades of the world's biosphere. The cartoon made me face up to it. Made me realise what all that campaigning zeal of mine has turned into. I thought I'd found a ray of hope in Clari, somebody actually doing something that might make a difference, however small. Somebody who still believed it's a worthwhile way to use your life. Then that cartoon brought me back to my senses."
Liana's reply is surprising quick. "No, I disagree. Clari brought you back to your senses. The cartoon did the opposite. It made you give up again. Why don't you do it?"
"Write planet earth's suicide note. Send it to them. It might even start a few people thinking. Do some good."
I am amazed that the idea hadn't occurred to me. Before I can reply to Liana the article begins to write itself in my head: Dear Editor, thank you for your recent invitation to write planet earth's suicide note, which I have attached herewith...
"That's bloody brilliant, Liana." I answer at last, "Why didn't I think of that. Turn it into an opportunity, throw it back in their faces. It's perfect. They've given me a platform to explain my work to twenty thousand students. If I could make it ironic and entertaining it might even get picked up by some of the newspapers too."
"So everything isn't useless then?"
I am at a loss for an answer.
"And you will write to Clari – properly, I mean – and ask her if she needs a full-time assistant?"
I smile. "You know, the Director of the Peru field station is moving on soon. I wouldn't have too much trouble getting the job. And it would get me out of the classroom, back into the real world, doing real science... " I relish the thought. "I wonder if I could get the University to pay my air fare from Peru to Cambridge every year?"
"That's my Danny," she smiles. "You're really going to try it then?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die." I give her a tight hug. For a moment we are silent. "This could be a really big year for both of us, couldn’t it?" She nods. "Maybe this time next year we’ll both be with new partners. Maybe I'll be in a new job. Maybe everything in our lives will be different." I pause for a moment again, turning these things over in my mind. "You know, most people would think this arrangement of ours is plumb crazy."
"It's the sanest thing in my life. I couldn't go on without it. It's funny, isn't it, how it's developed? Do you remember what we used to talk about in the early years?"
"Chairman Mao, Marx, Winstanley, Sartre, A.S. Neill, revolution, changing the world... then for a lot of years all we talked about was our own miserable little existence. Except for today. Today It's back to old times. Back to changing the world."
"It shows that Clari's right for you. You were only with her a week and she's cancelled out all those years with Sylvia – given you back a bit of your optimism."
I kiss her tenderly. "No, you've done that for me, Liana. I wouldn't have been able to see my way through it by myself. Thank you."
"That's why we're here, isn't it? Why we're both here. I think you’re wrong about next year though. I think you'll probably be with Clari, if she has any sense, but I'll probably be on my own."
"You're really going to leave him then?"
"We still share a house but for all emotional purposes he's history. He knows I'm going now. I don't think he cares. We're further down the line than you and Sylvia."
"Was it the cancer scare that made up your mind for you?"
"I suppose so. His attitude was the last straw for me. I was scared out of my mind and he treated me like some kind of silly hysterical woman. I just didn't want him around after that. I didn't want him to touch me. I could hardly bear to be in the same room with him. It just brought things to a head, I suppose. We'd stopped liking one another long before that."
"At least you're not married to him. That makes things a bit easier. When are you going?"
"As soon as I can. I thought I had it all planned, at least in my head, but then – I did something really stupid."
I wait for her to continue. I sense embarrassment in her voice. "It's Cambridge." I remind her, "You have to tell all."
"Well, you remember Garry? The man whose wife died?"
"Of course. You said you used to cry on each other's shoulders."
"Yes. He's very sweet. He's not like most men. Well, I thought we had a very special kind of understanding. I thought maybe he was the right person for me..."
"Too conventional, from what you've told me."
"But I'm conventional too. That's exactly what I am."
"You're kidding yourself, Liana. Come on. He's boring. Admit it. What is it that you really see in him?"
She hesitates. "Haven't you heard anything about biological clocks?"
"You still want children? And you think he would be a great dad?"
"Well, yes. I don't want to die without having children. And I do think he would be a great dad. But I think he would be a great husband too. A great partner. Anyway, now, I've spoiled it."
"So you made some kind of move?"
I can see that it's really difficult for her to tell me.
"I haven't done anything like it since I was a teenager. We were in his house, quite late at night. I was unbelievably clumsy. I tried ... to seduce him. I put his hand on my breast and... kissed him."
I cup her breast gently in my own hand and smile. "Works for me."
"Well it didn't for him. He pushed me away. Said he just wanted me as a friend and we shouldn't spoil it. But I have spoiled it. Completely. I can't even look him in the eye now."
I kiss her forehead. "Do you still want him?" I can tell from her expression that she does.
"It's not possible any more."
"Oh yes it is. Easy, maybe not. Possible, definitely. Now you've got to listen to me. Trust what I tell you. I know men. Even men like Garry. You've caught him off guard. Shocked him. All you need to do is take a step back. Slow down. Tell him pretty much what you've just told me. Tell him you'd had too much to drink, even if it's not true, and you acted on a crazy impulse. Tell him it isn't a quick shag you're after – well, maybe put it a bit more delicately than that – but that you think the two of you could have a future together. Tell him you want to take it slowly now. Really get to know one another. Talk about what the two of you want for the future. I know it won't be easy for you but if you do it right it'll definitely work."
She pauses. "I'm not sure I can make myself that vulnerable in front of him again. What if he just doesn't fancy me? What if he rejects me again – a second time?"
"If I can do it with Clari you can do it with him."
"It's an entirely different situation."
"It'll work. It'll work because he'll be flattered. He'll feel important, and in control. You scared the shit out of him – not many of us can cope with the likes of you."
"You're really sure that's what I should do?"
She kisses me fleetingly on the lips. "But you think it won't last, don't you?"
I shrug. "Predicting the future isn't my thing. But I think maybe we both have to go through a few more changes before we sign in to the retirement home. How long does anything last? Anything but Cambridge, that is."
"At least neither of us has children yet. That seems to make us a bit more free than most people our age, doesn't it? I wonder what it'll be like... when children come along."
"We'll have to get babysitters. That's all." She seems unconvinced.
"I'll still come," she promises.
"I know you will."
We lie still for a few moments. I kiss her beneath her ear. "My leg is getting wet," I whisper.
"You caused the problem, you can deal with it."
"You know what I'm thinking, Liana? It would be a damn sight simpler to run away with each other."
"No, Danny. You mustn't say that. Or even think it. In a couple of years I would have turned into Sylvia and you would have turned into Jack. And worst of all we wouldn't have Cambridge any more."
"I know. It was just a joke. Will we get dressed? The first performance on the main stage begins in about half an hour. The compère mightn't let them start if he doesn't see us in the front row."
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