PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
It was Hadrian. He left the door open as he stepped in, allowing bright light from the courtyard to flood into the room. I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
'Are you awake?' he asked. Hadrian's words, or perhaps the tone with which he said them, reminded me of the time we first shared a bed, nearly thirty years earlier, on the pretext, not entirely false, of studying Plato's Symposium.
'Of course I am awake,' I said. 'I may be old, but I don't sleep all day. I was thinking.'
'In the dark? With your eyes closed?' He stood just inside the doorway.
'I find it helps.'
I got up from my bed and took a few careful steps towards him. Beyond the doorway I could see cracked paving, mottled with dry moss and lichen. The afternoon sun cast strong shadows among the pillars that edged the empty courtyard. Elsewhere, in cool rooms, lessons were being taught, and books read or copied. Perhaps some of the monks, like me, slept quietly between prayers. But they would wake, and their work would be done. There was no need for harsh discipline or self-mortification. There was barbarism enough outside. The monastery was a small, enclosed space, that Hadrian had made civilised, giving us a refuge from which he could spread learning and I could govern the Church. It had been our home for fifteen years. Sometimes, in the still heat of summer, when the stones feel warm even at night, it is possible to imagine oneself back in the South. But only in the summer. In the winter, when the moss is green and the stones are slippery and wet, I know that I have come to the world's misty northern edge.
I should have some rosemary, lavender and thyme planted. Even in winter, their scent would remind me of the Mediterranean.
'I am sorry to disturb you,' Hadrian said. He knew very well that I had been asleep. 'But I have just heard. Wilfrid is back.'
The expression on his dark face, lit from behind, was impossible to make out.
'In Canterbury?' I asked. It was not good news.
'No. He has landed at Rochester.'
'That's close enough.'
'He wouldn't dare come here,' Hadrian said. 'He knows he lied about you.'
'He probably believes every word he said. Liars usually do.'
'Even he couldn't believe that it was your idea to send Dagobert back to France.'
'Did he say that?'
'He swore it on the holiest of his relics.'
'His retinue must look like a funeral procession with all the saints' bones he collected in Rome.'
'Whether it was with bones or oaths, he must have impressed the Franks.' Hadrian paused for a moment, then took my arm and helped me into a chair.
'The Franks let him go,' he said. 'They wouldn't let me go.'
'It was a long time ago. Can you not forget?'
'I didn't like leaving you, I said.
'But you did.'
'I had no choice. And I spent most of that winter worrying about you.'
'Did you really worry about me?' He drew up a stool and sat beside me.
'Of course,' I said, taking his hand. 'Nothing I have ever done has caused me more pain than leaving you behind in France. I knew you were ill, but not how to cure you. Despite my reputation, my medical knowledge is limited. I don't know how to cure a man overcome by melancholy.'
'You once told me that you cured the Emperor's melancholy.'
I had forgotten I had told him that.
'I was lucky,' I said. 'His melancholy had a cause, which I correctly guessed. But I did not know the cause of your melancholy.'
'Cause? Must everything have a cause?'
'Of course it must.'
'A cause that you can see?'
'Not see, perhaps, but infer.'
'Then what do you infer about my illness?'
I was surprised by his question. Hadrian had never been keen to discuss his illness and the changes it had made in him. I thought for a moment before answering.
'I infer that it was caused by some shame or failure. As soon as you came to Rome, I saw that you had changed. But I didn't know what was wrong. I should have asked you then, not left it until it was too late. By proposing me as archbishop, you made sure I had no time to think about anything else. And then there were our difficulties in France. You were quite ill when we reached Sens. You were almost raving.'
'It was a fever,' he said firmly.
'It was more than that. You said we were being punished for what we had done.'
'Did I say that? Surely not.'
'You did. And when I rode on to Paris without you I felt doubly guilty.'
'It wasn't your fault.' Hadrian let go of my hand.
'Then what changed you?'
He stood, and walked over to the window, then slipped the wooden peg from its slot, opened the shutter and looked out. From the chapel, I could hear inexpert chant. Hadrian waited for a while, thinking or listening, before returning and giving me an answer.
'It was when they made me Abbot, I suppose.'
'Were you unwilling?'
'No. It was an honour. At the time I thought it was entirely deserved. But not everyone agreed. There was a party that thought me too young.'
'Was that all?'
'Perhaps they disapproved of our friendship.'
'Did they say so?'
'It was not what they said, but what they did.' He cupped his face in his hands. For a moment I thought he was going to cry, but he rubbed his forehead, gently pressing with the tips of his fingers, then lowered his hands and looked at me calmly. His face, once as smooth and brown as a nut, had sagged and wrinkled like a bletted medlar. His hair was grey. But his dark eyes were still bright with the intelligence that had impressed me when we first met. That, at least, had not changed. He drew breath, but before he could speak, the doorway darkened and he turned to see who was there.
'Archbishop?' It was Titillus, my secretary. 'And Father Abbot,' he said, seeing Hadrian. 'Are you busy?'
'Is it important?'
'I have just heard that Wilfrid is back.'
'I know. Hadrian has just told me.'
'I am sorry. But I thought you ought to know. He has been spreading more lies about you.'
'Hadrian has told me.'
'But it's so unfair,' he said, hesitating in the doorway. His yellow hair stood like corn-stubble round his tonsure. 'I saw the results of his lies in Rome,' he said. 'Everyone there believes him humble, innocent and virtuous. They think you are capricious and corrupt. Now he will spread the same lies in England.'
'He is better known here. He will not be believed so quickly.'
I turned back to Hadrian, but his expression had changed. I could see that he would reveal nothing more. Titillus was still waiting uncertainly. I thought his trip to Rome had cured him of his youthful awkwardness.
'Sir?' he said.
'Why should Wilfrid be allowed to get away with his wickedness?' His face was flushed and indignant.
'Titillus, I am touched by your concern, but remember, you are only a clerk. You should not speak ill of a bishop.'
'I am sorry, Sir. If I have done wrong, then you must give me a penance. But I was only speaking the truth. I saw how Wilfrid behaved in Rome. Thanks to him there is a judgement against you in the Papal archives, and all France and Italy believe you to be a liar and a schemer. He is sure to make more trouble now.'
'I don't think it is quite as bad as that,' I said, though it probably was. Hadrian had picked up a wax tablet from the table, and was reading some notes I had scribbled on it.
'Archbishop?' Titillus tentatively took a couple of steps into the room.
'You must tell your side of the story.'
'I already have. I wrote to His Holiness, but he didn't believe me.'
'You must tell how you advanced Wilfrid, and how he betrayed you. You must tell of all your deeds as Archbishop. Then everyone will be able to judge between you and him.'
'It might be more dignified to stay silent.'
'But you have often talked of your life.' Titillus stepped forward again and gripped his tunic with both hands, steadying himself before continuing. 'You have seen such a lot. Now that I have seen Rome, I know that there are more wonders there than you told me of. You have spoken of the East, and of Constantinople and Antioch. They must be full of wonders too.'
'If you want a tale full of wonders, listen to your English bards.'
'Pagan wonders perhaps, but they mostly sing of battles.'
'I have seen battles, as well as what you call wonders.'
'I know. I have heard you talk of the war against the Persians.'
'That was a long time ago.'
Titillus paused, aware, perhaps, that he had said more than he intended. Then he gripped his tunic again and said: 'You must write it in a book. The story of your life.'
'Who writes his own life?'
'Saint Augustine did,' said Hadrian, looking up from the tablet, which he had absent-mindedly rubbed smooth. He knew how much I disliked the Confessions.
'Most men wait until they are dead, then let others write their lives. If they are worthy.'
'But Sir,' said Titillus. 'The lives of saints are written by men who knew them. Who can know the whole of your life when you are dead?'
'I am no saint. I am far from perfect. And I am very tired. I think I would like to be left alone.'
Titillus looked disappointed, but he left, stumbling clumsily over the uneven paving as he tried to walk respectfully backwards. Hadrian led me to the bed.
'Shall I stay?' he asked.
'No. I will rest.'
I lay on the bed, not sleeping, but brooding.
Though Titillus sometimes seemed awkward, he was no fool. In his clumsy way he had planted a powerful idea in my mind. However, knowing little of literature, he did not know how novel it was. Few men have written of their own lives, and those who have, have had some ulterior purpose. Caesar wrote to justify his actions, but revealed little of his character. Was that what Titillus expected me to do? Saint Augustine wrote to glorify himself, not God. His Confessions are boasts. Those who catalogue their sins in public wish the world to know that they have virtue to spare.
A long time ago in Constantinople, while staying in the house of a rich man, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. Of course, I had seen my reflection before, but distorted in the rippled water of the washing bowl. When I held up that disc of polished silver I saw myself clearly, as others did. I met my own gaze, as only lovers do. I looked, curiously, wondering what my reflection revealed. But it revealed nothing. In a way, I was as much a stranger to myself as anyone else seen for the first time.
Yet Titillus was right. No one is better qualified to describe my thoughts and actions than I am, and if others are better qualified to describe the times I have lived through, none has done so. But is my life worth remembering? If I have brought orthodoxy and learning to England, the English will be orthodox and learned after my death, whether they remember me or not. But Wilfrid claims the credit for what I have done, and he will make sure he is remembered. He will make himself seem better than me.
Before the Pope sent me here to govern the English Church, I wandered, driven by events, distracted by books, deceived by ideas, shamed by inopportune lusts. It is not much to boast of. If my life is of any interest, it is for what I have seen, not for what I have done.
I lay uneasily, wavering between pride and modesty. If I told my story, it would have to be done without boasting or complaining. The facts might inform, if I told them plainly. I might even set an example, by avoiding the archaisms, extravagant metaphors, forced similes and irrelevant allusions to Homer that disfigure so many of the writings of this decayed age.
By the time I rose for Vespers, I knew that I would do it. I would write the story of my life.