John Sparrow:
My Oxford Tutor

Part II

I had taken to imagining Sparrow as he set out to watch football in Wolverhampton, actually taking a bus to the Oxford train station. He was never, I thought, a proud man; perhaps the sixpence I earned him each term paid his bus fare now and then. I was worth a bus ride to the football train. Arrived, he marveled at the smooth, gliding approach of the train, the step-board only inches above the hard flagstones of the platform, which it never struck. Some image of an immaculate machine age crossed his mind. The intending passenger could step from the station into the train without having to lift a foot, from one dimension spinning at thirteen hundred miles an hour to another capable of only sixty, but therefore 1,360 merely for being a passenger train.

As the incoming train slowed and First Class slid to a halt exactly where he stood, as always, he gladdened at the sight of a perched, clean-shaven, fierce wren up in the rafters, chirping the tune of spring. This reminded him of an old Anglo-Saxon metaphor, the Venerable Bede's, in which a sparrow (he thought) flew into and out of a banqueting hall. Thus the image of human life, from darkness into darkness, with only an intervening gaudy amid smoke and cold stones. What was a wren doing in Oxford station, come to see him off?

Inside the train, peering through his narrow window, a dining car attendant doubling as a cook saw his haggard, aquiline face melting in a half-smile at the wren and in so doing lost his own most recent thought, of how, when frying sliced potatoes, as you stir the slices, you often see a bit of black that seems an eye unscourged, but turns out to be a space between potatoes against the black of the pan. The forbearing, bushy eyebrowed man awaiting the train cruising to a halt has a wholly misleading stern look when the smile leaves him. He springs into action, boards the train, straight into the dining car, for lunch. The football game begins at 3 P.M. Away he goes to Leamington Spa, Coventry, and Birmingham. Two hours only. A two-hour match. Back in All Souls by dinnertime. A Saturday well-spent, with a wren bonus.He sometimes lingers at station bookstalls, hoping to find his work on sale, but decides a collector of Latin epitaphs had best look elsewhere, near Lincoln's Inn.

I found it absorbing to think of him out on his own, preoccupied with trifles: little green cardboard of the railway ticket; bigger, less rigid ticket for the bus; the British Rail luncheon check, gravy-smudged; the football rattle of a simpler man, which he bought on occasion and left behind him at the ground. Dark suits. Almost a fixed whisper of a voice. A pocket full of sixpence.

Over the years, his look of gracious fatigue increased, fanned on by some holy giant in his mind, no doubt a ricochet from the All Souls altar. He did not age, or go gray, but the indoor air that shrouded him seemed less close, and he seemed more alone within his private atmosphere. Perhaps he was drying out, aspiring to a personage in one of his favorite quotations, of which there were thousands: Anima Rabelaisii habitans in sicco (the soul of Rabelais living in a dry place). He? No fear: he was closer to the mystical, ingenuous toilers with the delicacy of childhood whom he read on the quiet, then replaced amid the silent turmoil of his shelves. John Sparrow took his pains with sultry civility, like Pater's Marius the Epicurean dropping his football rattle quietly on the terraces in Wolverhampton.

--- From Oxford Days
Paul West
©2002 British American Publishing
4 British American Bl.
Latham NY

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