She asks how much farther it is to East Bergholt. When he tells her they won’t be there before nightfall, her face clouds over.
He stares straight ahead, at the traffic that isn’t there, on this road that runs to the coast like a weary river and, under the endless rain, the third day of rain already, looks wet enough to sail on.
Her hands tighten around the steering wheel.
No-no, she had said, she wasn’t concerned with the, shall we say, literary aspects of courtly love, of the entire courtly system (she pronounced the word with a slight German accent, seestem), but with the theological, religious implications that courtly love may conceivably have had on people’s lives.
May conceivably have had.
My God, he had said (though he wasn’t speaking to her, not to anyone, his eyes were fixed on the brick wall in the corridor outside the classroom), my God, he had said, Reze p tionsforschung has finally made it through to theology.
She blushed, and that had surprised him. He bent his head slightly, as if to peer over the top of his glasses (which he didn’t mean to) and observed her, this long, long-legged, long-curly-haired theology student. Under his searching gaze, she had shifted her weight from her left leg to her right. The bluish fluorescent light glittered in her lenses.
Didn’t he take her seriously?
Very seriously, he said.
Maps are as much of a puzzle to himбas church fathers: at six o’clock that afternoon they drive into East Bergholt. Without a word, without a hint of triumph or disdain, she turns the wheel to the right off the main road into a cluster of pastel-colored bungalows. In a long, slow curve (sodden grain on one side, the unsurpassed English ugliness of the bungalows on the other), the village unfolds before them. Just as he is about to ask where they’re supposed to sleep for God’s sake, they duck into a country lane.
“Well, that was the village,” he says. He stretches and looks back.
“There’s a hotel,” she says.
The car swerves sharply to the right, onto a gravel parking lot. He is flung against the door.
“Boom,” he says, as the bumper taps lightly against an oak.
I know absolutely nothing about theology, he had said, nor do I intend to. My own field, he went on, is vague enough without holy duality and immaculate conception.
Tri-nity, she had said, holy Trinity.
I don’t care if they’re a whole quartet, he had said, I want nothing to do with it.
But she had gone on talking, as they walked through the building, one corridor after another, all the way to the top floor, where he had his office, just below the restored seventeenth- century roof that let in too much heat in summer and too much cold in winter. And she had sat across from him, on the opposite side of the wooden desk with the inlaid herringbone pattern, and argued endlessly, her eyes shining behind her lenses, her cheeks red.
Miss, he had said, he had already forgotten her name, Miss, courtly love is something entirely different from what you’ve described, it’s not some kind of serene, exalted veneration, it’s postponed sex.
This time he hadn’t even looked at her when she blushed.
He had uncapped his fountain pen, took out a sheet of paper and asked her her name, address, phone number, educational background, _in other words, everything one always wanted to know. After he had covered two pages with his illegibly small handwriting, he made her blush for the third time.
Greta, he began (Margaretha Theodora Maria van Groningen, it said at the top of the first page), two things, before you can expect any assistance from me. The first, he had lectured, was that the age about which she spoke was characterized by married priests, with or without numerous offspring, rather than serene piety. The second was that love appeared in many guises. And when I say love, he explained, I mean sexual love.
As she reddened, he assigned her a few books.
Hadewijch wants to fuck God, he thought as she walked away.
Later, months later, he was to tell her that courtly love was a question of structure, hardly a matter of morals.
The Hare and the Hounds, after four days of deprivation, is an oasis of peace and refinement. Especially culinary refinement.
In the bay window of the medieval taproom they are served splendid steaks on glazed brown plates. Next to the meat is a handful of bright green peas, large and fresh, flanked by a yellowy-white cabbage leaf. He slices, for the first time in years with a sharp knife, into the dark crust, revealing the tender pink meat within. He watches as she carelessly, absently, cuts the cabbage leaf in two and spears it on her fork.
Margaretha Theodora Maria van Groningen, he read when he got home. Twenty-eight years old, born in Harlingen, living in Amsterdam. High school, night school, college (unfinished), convent, college. One and a half years, that convent.
I wasn’t ready yet, she had told him. And just when’ll that be, he thought. Her interest lay in the courtly aspects of medieval theology. Hadewijch? he had asked. She had shuddered. No, not Hadewijch. That’s not theology, that’s mysticism. Her words. Why, he had asked, do you want to become a nun? She had shaken her head. Wanted, she’d said. Want, he’d said. Once again, that shaking head. Wants, he thought, glancing through his notes. Wants. Hadewijch wants to fuck God.
He has a certain reputation. A reputation that has less to do with his work than with the way in which he works. In fifty years he’ll be remembered, if he’s remembered, as a man who acted so-and-so, not as the man who taught such-and- such. He realizes that. He realizes that he represents, not the knowledge itself, but the way in which certain knowledge is passed on. Why, he wondered, had she come to him with her strange request? Was she, unconsciously, seeking form?
They sleep in rooms of wood in a little house behind the hotel: The Cottage. He couldn’t have thought of a better name. The Cottage exudes the same steady composure he so admires in the English. The type of surroundings in which one immediately feels at home, and of which one knows: whatever happens, it won’t happen here.
When the landlady leaves them, after a detailed explanation and instructions (breakfast at nine-thirty, French rolls with cheese and coffee for the gentleman, fried eggs with bacon and tea for the lady), they are standing in the large bedroom where she will be sleeping. He sits down on the edge of the huge double bed and sinks into the mattress, nearly up to his waist. As she lays her suitcase on a table and starts unpacking, very slowly, very systematically, he leans back against the richly carved headboard and surveys the room.
A polished wooden floor.
Old oak beams in the ceiling.
Two linen cupboards made of glowing cherry wood.
In front of the window that faces the inn: a small writing table with an embroidered runner; in front of the table, a straight-backed wooden chair with Gobelin upholstery. On the table, a French mantel clock of cracked walnut that says five past nine and a quaint little lamp on a round ceramic base.
“What,” he asks, in the bored tone of voice that so appeals to him in Waugh, “what would you say to a stroll through the village?”
She turns around, one of her dark blue pleated skirts over her arm, lamplight in the cloud of hair. She nods.
As talkative as she may be when it comes to Aquinas, Augustine and Ruusbroec, she rarely contributes to these extracurricular conversations.
Once he had woken up with a warm, dampish feeling on his stomach. Thirty-five years old, he had thought later as he stood under the shower, thirty-five, and my first wet dream.
When he wiped the steam off the mirror and saw the familiar, spattered face that always stared back, he realized, to his surprise, what (or rather: who) had been the reason for his dream.
He’d been walking her down the long corridors of the old faculty building, to the narrow, winding staircase in a corner of the complex. She went first and he watched her legs rising and falling, rising and falling. He followed those lofty haunches, up, up, up, until he saw the miraculous, incomparable swell of her buttocks. He was right behind her. His hand under her skirt, up along the inside of one of those delicate legs. He felt the silky moistness of her vagina, as his thumb glided along her thigh, between her buttocks, and his index finger stroked her clitoris. At the top of the stairs she leaned over, her hands on the floor. He threw back her long skirt, a blue frame for her magnificent rear, opened his pants and slipped inside her. He fucked her, his hands resting on her hips. Oh God, she had said.
God wants to fuck Hadewijch.