At Any Time
by Linda Thomas
For three summers, I took up residency in rooms at Selwyn College, one of the twenty-six colleges of the University of Cambridge. While there, I served as an American professor of English poetry accompanying college students from southern California. My duties ranged widely. On the one hand, I prepared my students while still in America with survey courses on the poetry of Milton, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson--the great bards of Cambridge.
And on the other hand, once settled into Selwyn, my tasks became pastoral. During the first week, I fielded their complaints about tepid soft drinks, pork and beans at breakfast, buttered bread and cucumber sandwiches. During the second week, I shepherded them in groups by train to London where we made the round from Westminster to Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar, all the while students bleating for a detour to the Hard Rock Cafe. Soon after, they discovered pubs, and I stayed awake into the wee hours arranging cloths I might dampen against their morning hangovers.
There was precious little time for the solitary excursions that drew me to Cambridge in the first place, and induced me to take on the responsibilities of students abroad. When I did find an hour alone--usually during the mornings while my students were shut up in the classrooms they so resented, lectured to by British professors on the socio-psychological currents that influenced the innovations in T. S. Eliot's poetry--I was off:
...along the footpath that crossed the cow pastures stretched between the River Cam and the great soaring spires of King's College. Or through Garret Hostel Lane and into Trinity Street, along winding, cobblestone ways unchanged since the Cambridge scholars first began arriving in the thirteenth century. I loved knowing the way. I loved finding some detail I had missed the day before, like the rooms in New Court at Trinity College where Tennyson nursed his love for Henry Hallam. Or the chapel ceilings at Jesus College, painted by the Pre-Raphaelite William Morris, delicate and colorful. I loved gazing at windows and distinguishing a Beaufort portcullis from a French fleur-de-lis, an antelope from Anne Boleyn's falcon. Beasts and evangelists. Prophets, virgins, martyrs, and poets.
Often, I felt alone in my love of Cambridge. It was on these most lonely mornings that I carried a cinnamon bun or a piece of fruit with me down Silver Street and into Little St. Mary's Lane. There, at the end of the lane, I turned right into the churchyard of Little St. Mary's Church, and I found a bench among the drooping, unpruned trees, the uncut grass, and the neglected, tumbling-down gravestones, overgrown with English ivy.
Death is not an inappropriate topic of thought in Cambridge. And thoughts of death inevitably lead to thoughts of afterlife. When I sat among the gravestones of Little St. Mary's churchyard and looked at their shapes and markings, I often thought of death and wondered what comes after.
The rounded stones and statue monuments were commissioned, it is clear by mourners who believed in an afterlife composed of a heaven of bearded heroes, angelic children, and women veiled in reticence. And of a hell populated by Philistines and sundry prigs who made the mistake of cherishing their wealth over thought.
This is one way of looking at afterlife.
But in the slow patient trail of ivy over the stones, I considered another view of the centuries that follow the death of one person, or of the citizenry of a whole town, or of those who lie beneath the ragged grass of Little St. Mary's churchyard. Untended by the living, the ivy lifts itself onto the sculpted stones, creeps across the granite surfaces, and seems--like gentle fingers--to pull the gravestones back into the earth, back to the great boulders they once were.
The faces of the stones are erroded by sun, rain, and wind; discolored by corrosive blotches of lime, lichen, and old moss; pitted by the insistent ivy as its tendrils seek rooting ground. This evidence of the inevitable return to the earth is at once beautiful and silent and grisly.
And for me, gratifying. The slow disintegration of these powerful stones at the hands of delicate ivy can only mean that the bodies buried beneath have already reunited with the nutrients of earth, and are, even now, nurturing the grass, the trees, the ivy.
Beside the churchyard is the church of Little St. Mary's. And beside the door is a sign that reads, "At any time." The sign means, of course--in its understated British way--that I and others may enter the church "at any time." But in my reverie there among the gravestones, I imagined a greater meaning, the meaning we must on those lonely mornings assign to death.
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Linda Thomas has been writing poems, stories, and essays for over twenty-five years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals and magazines. She is a native of southern California, and though she travels frequently, she finds the Pacific seashore, inland deserts, and local mountains of her home territory endlessly fascinating. When she is not traveling, teaching writing, or writing, you can find her online as Lou. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.