Gardner: THE INGENIOUS EDGAR JONES
Close to the Spine
The night that William Jones’s world changed began like any other.
At six o’clock he rose from his bed, made his prayers and his ablutions. At quarter past six he took tea and toast with his wife, Eleanor, in their front parlor. And at half past six, to the beat of the bell of the grandfather clock, he buttoned up his coat, pulled his hat down upon his head, kissed his wife, and lifted the latch of his front door. The steady pace of his footsteps marked out the half-hour walk across Oxford. It was a cold February night. The sky was clear and pinpricked with stars. The moon was nothing but a splinter, the curl of a stray feather stuck to the velvet dark of the sky. William pulled up his collar and watched the mists of his breath rope through the air before him.
He always loved the turning from the lanes of Jericho village out onto St Giles—the road that took him into the heart of the city. It was an invisible boundary between the quiet domestic world where he was a loving husband, and the University, where he was a watchman at the college gates. Every time he trod this path he would reflect how the change in the streets echoed the differences between his worlds. The roads of Jericho twisted in upon themselves, and a man could get easily lost. It was sometimes thus when he was sitting by the fireside with his wife. The conversation would ebb and flow between them, full of affection, and talk of the daughter that was blossoming in her belly. But there were times when there were shadowed corners in their speech, when a thing might not mean to Eleanor what it meant to him, and he would feel that he had taken a wrong turn down a dark alley, and was sitting in a room that seemed in outward appearance to be his home, but was not. Whereas when he emerged on the University streets, there stood the broad walls of the colleges, set shoulder to shoulder, their domes, spires, and battlements pointing magnificently toward the heavens. And here William knew exactly who he was: he was Porter Jones, warden of the nights, the man who watched over great minds as they slumbered. Here William had a place and a function, and no one could shift him from it.
But on this particular evening, the University was retreating from him as he walked through it. It was often thus when the moon waned. The college walls were swallowed by the night; the lamps that hung over the entrances illuminated them in piecemeal: the mouth of a doorway, say, or the curve of a window. As the scholars slept, it was as if the University simply dissolved itself, brick by brick, stone by stone, and drifted off into the night, leaving only a cornice here, a buttress there, and a few curious gargoyles peering down at the shattered world below.
But if William Jones understood one thing in life it was the ways of Oxford. He had been at the college his whole life. He had worked his way up from kitchen boy to scout to watchman. He had walked the streets at dawn, dusk, and all the hours in between. He knew every whim of the city, and nothing could break his stride. He marched past the expanse of shadow that was St John’s College and turned left down Broad Street. There was Balliol at his shoulder, and its companion, Trinity, with its vaulted roof and gated garden. And huddled next to Trinity, the White Horse tavern, with its belly of a window pushing out upon the street. Every night it framed the same tableau: roaring men, jostling against one another, their backs bent by the beams. It was still remarkable to William that it was here, two years previously, that he had found the woman who had made him a husband. But that was the truth, and all he could really conclude from it was that there was opportunity in any corner of this world if only one had the wits and the will to look for it.
William was by the crossroads at the bottom of Broad Street when the sky split open. He did not register the start of it. A single star fell from its fixture, flared through the sky, and was gone, leaving a trail of gold, as if the velvet damask of the heavens had been sliced open. No sooner had it passed than another fell in its wake, and another, and another. William was striding up Hollywell Street when he finally noticed the change in the elements. The road before him had a golden sheen about it, turning the cobbles into a river of scattered sovereigns. He looked up. The stars were falling so quick on the heels of one another that they could not be separated. The sky was a smelting pot of liquid light, picking out the ridges of the rooftops. And as the sky spat and hissed, William saw that the college he was set to guard had come alive. It was a creature with a bristled back. The bell tower was the neck of the beast, flame snouted, snarling into the night. The door that William sat by was a black gaping wound in its flank. He shook his head, as if to shake the fancy from his mind. The college was a thing of brick and stone, and well he knew it. A porter got his position for his watchfulness, not for his dreaming. He set his shoulder to the door. He walked across the threshold and took his place under the stone-vaulted roof.
After her husband left for his nightwatch, Eleanor Jones sat restless by the fire. The quietness of her life was still so very new to her; often she found herself at a loss about what to do with it. As the daughter of an innkeeper, she had known every evening to be measured out by the beating of fists upon the table and the clashing of glasses. The roaring noise of the tavern was something that she had spent her life waiting to run from, and yet now sometimes she would find herself walking through her house at night, pulling books from the shelves to hear the hammering of them upon the floor, or racing up and down the stairs, for the echo of footsteps. As a young girl she would kneel upon the window seat at the front of the tavern and watch the passage of the gentlemen striding down Broad Street, willing them to turn and notice her. These men who seemed to have a purpose out there, in the world beyond the beer barrels. So when William arrived she was ready for him. When he courted her with words of love borrowed from poets, and flowers borrowed from the college gardens, she was quickly won. He was a clever man, and kind and gentle with it. He would take her down to where the parkland roamed wild at the edge of the city. They would embrace in the shadow of the beech trees and he would tell her that together they would have a happy life and he would love her till the end of his days—how could he do otherwise?
She spent the few months of their courtship dreaming of the transformation that awaited her. No longer would she stand at the pumps, watching beer froth about the tap like foaming spittle around the mouth of a madman. No longer would she end every evening pitching her father up the stairs. She had found a better kind of man who loved her, and she would set her future alongside his. What matter if his hair was graying and there were lines gathering across his face? Better that than any of the young men who pulled at her across the bar night after night, calling out her name as if they were calling in cattle.
But as they embarked upon the great adventure of their marriage, Eleanor soon realized that what her husband meant by a better life did not quite match her own imaginings. When the college gifted them the cottage, Eleanor was immediately struck by the difference between this shrunken dwelling and the other homes of Jericho. Town houses with tall windows and fancy porches lined the street that curved down to the meadow, but the cottage was set apart from them on a spur of land by the canal. It seemed to Eleanor that the grander dwellings were standing aloof and apart from her home, as if ashamed at the association. William did not notice. Nor did he see the mold on the walls or the tangled mass of briars and weeds that ranged across the garden. Neither did he see that when they took their tea together, the china would slide slowly but surely across the parlor table, toward the western wall of the house. No, for William the cottage was a symbol of progress, and that was all that mattered. Eleanor loved William for his convictions, but privately, as she passed so quickly from the tavern to the altar, to the marriage bed, to her seat by the fireside with the unborn child turning somersaults against her skin, she suspected that there were things in this world that could neither be foreseen nor forewarned against. As her belly swelled and she could feel the pressure of fists and feet inside her, Eleanor thought about how life had an urgency all its own, and no fact, theory, or plan of advancement could contain it.
When they had first arrived at the cottage there was talk of hanging new wallpaper, fresh paint upon the window frames, the tiny kitchen and scullery being scrubbed from top to tail, even talk of the wilderness of the garden being razed to the ground and replanted. But, in truth, the only aspect that changed at all was the front parlor. The shelves became filled with William’s books. He copied out scriptures and set them in picture frames to cover the peeling wallpaper. The Lord Bless Thee and Keep Thee. Beside them, he placed a map of the Empire and a map of the heavens. William’s telescope was put upon the mantelpiece and, when not at his nightwatch, he would often be found kneeling by the window with the brass barrel to his eye, sweeping the curve of the sky. William, always half in another world.
But still Eleanor knew that having only half of William was a much better arrangement than the whole of her old life. It was worth the damp, the sideways slant of her house, William’s absence at night and his long days of sleeping, for the trade of the beer barrels with the books. All for the lazy embrace of William’s arm across her back when he came to bed at dawn. All for the promise of a daughter.
The child would be a girl, Eleanor was certain. And the midwife had confirmed it: the way the child was changing the shape of her, making her rounded but small bellied. Boys push away, she was told, setting themselves staring out at the world before they are even in it. Whereas the girls sit close to the spine, embracing their mother. And when the girl arrived she would want for nothing. In the long nights without William, Eleanor sat in the second parlor, a cupboard of a room set at the back of the house, stitching together dresses for their little daughter. Eleanor loved making as much as William loved reading. As a child she would scout the corners of the tavern for scattered shillings and save them up for a bit of ribbon or lace. For the beauty of the color and the feel of it against her skin. Her daughter would not have to scrabble in the dust for such pleasures; she would have them from the very start.
Eleanor was pulling a thread of gold across the cloth of a smock, a tiny thing no wider than the span of her hand, when the sky began to crack. She saw specks of light tumbling past the window and plummeting down into that tangled wilderness of the garden. She stood up to get a better sense of it and a pain shot through her belly. There was a mass of water seeping through her skirts. She felt the child tumble inside her. It was too soon. When the pains come you must walk them out, the midwife had told her. Count your hours and send word accordingly. Eleanor braced herself against the door frame and pushed her way into the front parlor. She began to walk, back and forth, forth and back across the hearthrug. The grandfather clock loomed above her, the tick tick tick of the pendulum beating out the pain. The painted face of time spun around, a pale moon peeping out from the edge of a sea of stars. On the walls far above, the scriptures ranged. As are the arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children to the Lord.
There was something very wrong in all of this, thought Eleanor.
She hauled herself out on to the doorstep. The sky spat, flamed, and tilted. The fire in the heavens was the fire in her belly. Then all was darkness.
In all his twenty-five years at the gates William had never seen a sky like this. The fire fall was gathering to a frenzy, streaming down in burning lines of light, arrows aiming straight for their target. Behind the curve of the city wall, behind the bristle back of the college chapel, the heavens were emptying themselves into the cloister gardens. There is more to the guardianship of a place than just watchfulness at the gate, William told himself, as he turned the key to the door, pulled his coat around his shoulders, and set out across the lawns.
When Eleanor came to, she was in the front parlor, her back braced by a pile of cloth. Her skirts were pushed up to her waist and there was a gray-haired woman fumbling about her belly. “There, there,” said the woman, smiling a gap-toothed smile. “Just lie still and let Nature take her course.”
“Has been sent for. But this one’s an urgent little thing! It just needs turning.”
Eleanor watched as the woman’s hands pummeled at her waist. The rings upon her fingers danced with light. The sky outside the window twisted and tumbled to the rhythm of the pounding. Time slipped. Above her, on the painted face of the grandfather clock, the wide white moon smiled down. Then there was the midwife at her knees. The woman with the gray hair and the sparkling fingers was nowhere.
“Now!” cried the midwife.
Eleanor pushed and cried and pushed again, and the child came out, head first, diving into the nest of cloth gathered beneath her. It came rushing out with such an urgency that if the midwife had not been so fast to cut the cord, it would have ripped itself away.
“A boy?” echoed Eleanor, no more than a whisper.
“A boy,” repeated the midwife, but she did not sound so certain.
The midwife had spent her life ushering in the lives of others. For more than forty years she had, unwittingly, assisted into the world artists, arsonists, cowards, clowns, craftsmen, drunkards, dullards, magicians, murderers, scholars, showmen, and men who believed they were God. If not for the spryness of her hands, Oxford would be half the city it was. If anyone had cared to ask her, she could have drawn up a fresh map of the land, marking out its peculiar districts of birth.
In the tiny cottages that carve up the roads to the east of the city, there were the artisans’ children who came into the world running, drumming their heels on their mothers’ bellies, as if eager to take the road to fortune. Then there was the mystery of the tribes who lived along the edge of the canal, the lockkeepers and the boatmen. Within every family there was at least one who was web footed, or born with gray and slippery skin, as if the mists of the riverbank had crept into the womb and seeded the child. Then on the other side of Oxford, where there lived men who got rich by their thinking, the justices, the clerks, and the bookbinders, there in the opulent bedrooms, frowned down upon by oil-painted ancestors, the pale wives over and over again gave birth to the same child: waxen and perfect, but reluctant to uncurl and face the world.
The midwife had pulled children from the womb every which way imaginable, of every shape and size, but never a child such as this one.
He was a miniature model of what a boy should be and all scrunched in on himself like a fist. The midwife wiped the blood from his skin. He howled and pawed the air. She sponged down his back. And there, underneath the muck that comes with any child, was a thick line of hair snaking down his spine in a feathered crest. And stranger still, his skin was not that of a premature boy, not the parchment- thin veneer mottled by a blue fretwork of veins. His skin was sallow and dark, like the sun-worn skin of a laborer. The skin of a man who had already lived his life, with every year etched upon his flesh by the elements.
Eleanor held out her arms. “Let me see him.”
“In a moment, Mrs. Jones.”
The midwife took a length of cotton and bound the boy up tight. Placed in his mother’s arms, he stopped his howling.
“So small,” said Eleanor. “Can you be sure that he will live?”
“He’s a fighter,” said the midwife. “He’s got a determination about him.”
“A boy and a fighter.” Eleanor gazed into the boy’s dark and wrinkled face and saw nothing she recognized.
William scuttled around the edges of the quad and took the shadowed turning to the cloisters. The vaulted ceiling stretched above his head; the wooden lattice of the rafters sparked with reflected light, carving a great gold net out of the darkness. But this was nothing compared to the fire burning at the heart of the place.
The walls of the cloisters embraced a square of lawn, with a huge tree at the center, and the tree was aflame. The ancient oak, older than the bricks and stone, older even than the idea of learning, was bursting with light. The branches caught the reflection of the star shower, and the tree was flame-leaved and beautiful. The tower reared above, and the streaming stars picked out the gargoyles cresting the battlements: one open-eyed and laughing, peering down from the eaves as if balancing himself on the edge of the stone to gain a better view; another, turning his back to the spectacle, shoulders hunched, face buried in his hands, as if bearing witness to the end of everything. And rampant above these creatures stood the dragons, roaring out into the night.
By the foot of the tree was a great thundering hole. William peered down into it. Stuck a foot below the earth was a nugget of rock. He scooped it out and rolled it in his palm. It was still warm. It seemed impossible that something so small could cause such walloping damage. Even more impossible to think that, only moments before, this dull bit of stuff was flaming across the sky.
William placed the meteorite in his pocket. He felt the greatness of creation stretching all about him, the infinity of it crackling through the darkness. The flaming fretwork of the heavens seemed to him the wings of an immense angel, beating across the firmament. No sooner had he thought this than the wings folded in upon themselves, sparked once more, and were gone. The gap in the sky closed as swiftly as it had opened. William was left stranded in the night, star blind.
He groped his way around the college walls and returned to his watch. Above him the sky seemed fragile, a curve of black glass that might fall and shatter in a moment. His reverie was broken by a rap at the door. A boy came tumbling into the quad. A young boy, hatless, gownless, out of breath.
“Porter Jones?” he gasped.
“The very same.”
The boy handed over a scrap of paper. The words were scrawled at an angle, as if trying to escape the page: “a boy.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner. Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Garner. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.