“Where Does Christopher Come From?”: the Muse Who Inspired White Feathers

Last week, while I was working from home, my mother texted me to thank me for the book I sent her. “It went all round the houses,” she said cheerfully, “but got there in the end.”

“Sorry, what book?” I responded.

“LUCIA.”

She meant my latest novel, Lucia’s War. For a moment, I was confused. I had not sent her a copy, since she already had one. Then, a dark foreboding overcame me. I had recycled a post office padded envelope she had used to send me something else, earlier, sticking sheets of paper and sellotape over it to conceal her address. The post office staff must have found it nonetheless, and sent it on. That meant the package had failed to reach its original destination, the home of my old secondary school English and Latin teacher. I had sent it to him as a gift.

Sitting on the couch with my laptop, in the middle of workflows and logistics and software, I wondered if he were dead. He would not have been young – when he taught me, in the late Eighties, he was already past forty. I had last communicated with him six years ago, when my first novel, White Feathers, was published. Since then I had moved from Dublin to east Cork and life had moved on. I had not checked on any site or search engine before sending Lucia’s War on to him. I had not wanted to know.

A quick search on the main funeral website yielded nothing. My spirits lifted as I went back year by year and he remained undead – until I discovered I had the first name and surname reversed in the search fields. His name is extremely common in Ireland, so when I corrected my mistake, I added in county as well. And there it was. Just over a year ago. From the information supplied, there could be no doubt: the particulars of his job and life were unmistakeable. Predeceased by his wife fourteen years before. Died in hospice. My money is on cancer – he was one of the most incorrigible and prolific smokers I ever met. Between classes he used to retreat to his Ford Escort, close the door, and inhale industrial quantities of nicotine.

My instant reaction was to feel suddenly ungrounded, as if I were in a room which turned out to be a moving elevator and I had thought the floor fixed. As if everything I had written had become…orphaned. It is difficult to convey that jolt, what it is like. Not to mention that this was all happening in the middle of a strict lockdown which made the course of life relentless. Between my day job as a software developer, then defrosting meatballs and dealing with laundry (more backlogged than a post-Brexit lorry park in Kent) I couldn’t find an ounce of space to process my feelings.

Returning to the death announcement, I clicked a button marked Condolences. Many past pupils testified to his goodness as a man, his aptitude as a teacher. His initials had turned into a nickname which was affectionately invoked several times. Here, I shall call him Marcus, after Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. I know my purpose is to honour a dead man rather than defame a living one, yet still the urge for at least a fig leaf of privacy prevails.

I should add my own message, I thought – No, too soon. I had yet to absorb the reality of Marcus’s not reading it; that he would never read another word written by anyone. He could know nothing of Lucia’s War or Unfortunate Stars, a novella of mine self-published and just released in audiobook format. Listening to the part where soldiers on opposite sides of the trenches trade badinage in English, German and Latin, including De bello Gallico, would now be bittersweet to my ears. It would have pleased him to hear it. Placet mihi: it pleases me. Marcus had taught me the accusative infinitive and the ablative absolute. This latest construction, mine, would never reach him.

But that wasn’t the only reason I felt briefly self-estranged. Marcus was not just a mentor and a teacher. He was a muse for one of the major characters in my fictional universe.

More than ten years ago, when living in the airy first floor of a Victorian house in Dun Laoghaire and working on a miserable project for an insurance company, I sat down and started a new novel. This much I knew: the story would involve a white feather of cowardice, a very loaded object in WWI history. There would be pressure on my protagonist, Eva, to bestow one on a man who refused to enlist. The poet Rupert Brooke had long fascinated me: his beauty and premature death, his long, overwrought letters, and the Bohemian life he lived with his friends. My vision for Eva, second-generation Irish hoi polloi, was that she would somehow earn a place in the Grantchester clique, that she too would idle about naked with the Bedales girls, until the advent of war and thwarted love drove her to the ultimate shaming act – presenting the white feather to this Rupert Brooke figure in a fit of jealousy after he fell for someone else.

It didn’t work out that way.

This summer of love and jealousy had one catch: to hold her own, Eva would need a way into that society. So, I added a section where, against all odds, she receives a scholarship to attend a finishing school. There, she encounters a girl connected to those elite artistic circles. Then another hurdle: she would need enough confidence to discuss philosophy, literature and politics. Who would impart her the tools?

Out of my subconscious came her teacher, an almost carbon copy of Marcus: thin, irritable, dark-haired, hollow-cheeked, sallow, volatile, sardonic; handsome at base but unkempt in person, and (in the book only) the alleged owner of only two suits. In a pathetic attempt at differentiation, I gave this character green eyes, rather than Marcus’s flashing dark brown. But as the chapter progressed, id won out; they soon reverted to brown once more.

(The one feature I did not transmit from fact to fiction was Marcus’s left-handedness. That honour eventually went to Lucia, and came in useful for her too! While speaking about Lucia, who is a woman of colour making her way in a white empire nation, I should mention that when a group of us went to a schools debating competition, several members of the opposing team commented on Marcus’s dark good looks and enquired if he were a Spaniard. His features, in the one photo I have of him, are defiantly un-Caucasian, and that too made its way, eventually, into the canon.)

Now that this minor character was here, I would have to call him Mr Something. I gave him a last name, Shandlin. He hardly needed more, since he would only be in one scene, wouldn’t he? Oh yes, up till the point a few hundred words into his first appearance, where Eva takes her classmates to task over Edmund Spenser’s virulently anti-Irish sentiments. After they mock and scoff like Brexiteers-in-training, he consoles her with a grin, saying “Try to get out of here, if you can help it.”

That was supposed to be the cue to let me skip the rest of the school bit and move her on to the Rupert Brooke clique. Except that I was posting this excerpt to an online writing group. That sentence was near the bottom of the snippet. The other writers in the group immediately warmed to this Shandlin character whose role was going to be vanishingly minor…oh, who was I kidding? Neither Eva nor I was ready to get out of there quite yet.

The entire narrative turned sharp left. Gone was Rupert, except embodied in a minor antagonist; gone, too, the house in Grantchester, the long hot summer, the jealousies of that artistic coterie. I gave Shandlin, my new hero, a name I had wanted to reserve for another character: Christopher. Here, now, was someone Eva could connect with, fall in love with and be loved by. A hero who seemed to enhance himself in each scene. This raised the stakes. It is one thing to give a white feather to someone you resent out of spite because he prefers someone else. It is quite another to be forced to do that to someone you love, who loves you in return.

Now, I was down off the lofty platform and in the field of battle, writing romance. Writing with urgency and obsession. Even as I planned the lovers’ trajectory, my heart still jumped a little every time I re-did a particular scene, though I had already written its outcome. My hands could not type fast enough.

Why use Marcus as my model for a hero, though? By the time the novel had coalesced into its published form, I was past thirty-five, old enough to have at least a few Augenblicke available I could draw from. In the last twenty years, I had seen Marcus once, and as for the situation where we first met, that was as far from romantic as one could get. I was fourteen then fifteen, in a Catholic girls’ boarding school, stocked with daughters of cattle dealers, TDs, doctors, lawyers and hotel magnates. Marcus was happily married, at least twenty-five years older, and never, I must emphasise, behaved with any impropriety. Perhaps it was simply that he was the first male figure outside family to provide me with a fierce intellectual engagement.

Because I was moved up a year and still enjoyed Latin after everyone else had abandoned it, I took solo classes with him in that subject. The inevitable teasing ensued. The atmosphere in the school was generally hot-housy and odd. Like Eva in the book, I had to deal with some bullying. Not entirely surprising, as I am not by nature a fitter-inner. My greasy, lank hair never came to life in those lukewarm showers, and it took me a while to master the act of taking a menstrual product out of a drawer adeptly enough to avoid being observed. It was truly the place of hothoused fetor and mandatorily invisible periods. To this day, I am still a dab hand at removing a bra while keeping my top on, a skill which is these days largely useless to me.

Recalling the solo classes, I recall also that slit of a room where these Latin lessons happened: an afterthought, barely more than a metre wide, the walls painted a dull cream. Used mostly for watching Neighbours and Home and Away, or hosting the weekly tuck-shop, it was a poor choice for an impromptu classroom, but there was nowhere else to go. At one end, a sashed window and mounted television with a tiny table for the remote, at the other a door with glass panelling looking out onto a long corridor with lino tiles. The aesthetic could be best described as McQuaid Redbrick & Magnolia.

The room was stuffy and airless. Both walls were lined with foam-cushioned chairs, their rubbery maroon covers cracked and worn. Their presence made the space even narrower, so that Marcus and I could not pass each other in an appropriate manner. (We tacitly both avoided such a situation.) The corridor continued past the staff room down the stairs to a long refectory. The odours of cigarette and pipe smoke from the staff room, and dinner smells from below, permeated the place.

In that small, unprepossessing chamber, seated diagonally across from each other, Marcus and I would go through the Aeneid. I remember almost none of the experience of reading the Latin, except finding out that “circumspexit” was one of the rare line-endings that was a spondee. But I do remember the grammatical tropes: the subjunctive, the gerund – “requiring to be written”. Mirabile dictu. Horribile visu. The locative case that so implausibly stumped the elite students in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. All these are like prayer chants to me now, as I invoke, and yet again invoke, the memory of a muse, as if saying them often enough could reanimate his corpse.

His red-inked comments on my essays are also worth recalling: to my sentimental “I imagine my parents growing senescent and degenerate” he responded “sequitur?” and on another page, presumably on discovering some logical fallacy, he wrote “By avoiding Charybdis, you have fallen into Scylla.” He had got them the wrong way around: Scylla is the monster, Charybdis the whirlpool. On page 185 of White Feathers, with Eva pitched into a horrible dilemma, I corrected his mistake, still fresh in my mind decades later. Christopher exclaims, “It’s like dodging Scylla by throwing oneself into Charybdis!” I am sure this ongoing dialogue between author and muse has a critical name, but damned, alas, if I know what it is.

Anyway, Marcus, like his counterpart, had a temper and was often impatient. More than once I saw him stride angrily out of our prefab classes when students were too disruptive, his feet on the gravel going crunch, crunch. I remember his arms would swing back and forth as he walked; he looked like an angry clockwork figure who had been wound up too much. One student’s obduracy annoyed him so much that he shouted “Stulta!” (ignorant girl), picked up a chair and waved it at her threateningly; she quit his classes soon afterwards, though I believe they reconciled somewhat. His mind was like quicksilver, a powerful element and not easy to regulate.

I left that school at fifteen, largely because I was miserable. Marcus and I did exchange a few letters straight afterwards, one of which I sent without a stamp, much to his amusement. I told him I was reading the letters of Evelyn Waugh, a writer Marcus made clear in his replies he had zero time for. We discussed Yeats and he sternly quoted “Irish poets learn your trade” (underlining his.) But then years, decades went by, and we mostly lost touch.

To answer the “why him?” question – well, I think it was his weirdness, and how I resonated with that since I was a bit weird myself. At any rate, somewhere deep in my subconscious mind, his details were filed away, waiting for the moment to be instantly recalled. After his transmutation into White Feathers, the online writers’ group was inflicted with snippet after snippet. At the point where I finished my snippet and somebody said, “Could you put up another one? My day just doesn’t feel the same without them” I realised publication was a strong possibility.

Eventually the deal did get signed, and a little while after I handed in the final proofs nine months later, I wrote to Marcus. The letter did not begin, “hey I put you in the book and turned you into a love interest” – I was not brave enough. To tell the truth, I can’t recall what I wrote, but it was probably a bit arch and coy, with vague warnings attached. Receiving no immediate answer after publication, I comforted myself with the likelihood that he would never encounter the book.

And he might not have done, if it had not been for an event two months later, in November 2014. My book got a review in the most prominent national newspaper. Marcus saw my photograph; following that he read the review, headed down to his local bookshop, and bought it.

Shortly after the review came out, I went off to England to visit friends and promote the book. This trip included a visit to Eastbourne where I retraced Eva’s steps, and found the very site of the real-life Links school upon which my fictional counterpart was based. Later that month, as I was in an airport for the second last time in my life, a notification popped up on my phone. It was an e-mail from Marcus, subject: “reply to your letter”.

Ohhhhhhh shit. He’s read the book. He’s angry. He’s going to sue. (I had been faithful to the original!) I texted my friends in a panic. “I can’t open it!” I declared. “Go on,” one of them replied. “Don’t be a coward.”

So I opened it, read the first few sentences, and breathed.

His email explained how he’d come across White Feathers, and then said how much he had enjoyed the story. “Why? It would be bad manners to explain!” Oh, Marcus. In that poky departure lounge in Leeds airport, I breathed out with relief. Not only was he not going to sue, he was flattered and pleased. He wanted to read the next one, he said. Incredibly, I was forgiven for my exploitative act. They never mind if they’re the hero, that was what I learned.

He did not need me to tell him how much he was esteemed and admired, nor did he die ignorant of how he affected my life. He read the book. He knew.

I have never publicly written about this before. Feeling lucky that he’d been so understanding, I wanted to protect his privacy. I also felt a reluctance to reveal anything so autobiographical. I remember being on a visit to Donegal and the convenor of the event I was at had a list of questions for me. One of them was “Where does Christopher come from?” and I was not ready yet to answer her honestly.

Shortly after I discovered that Marcus had passed away, I messaged a friend of mine, an artist and musician, trying to find context for how strange I felt. She expressed sympathy and added that on a soul level, “this teacher/muse will still be reading/evoking your work.” I smiled and thought, yes, you understand. Her words tie in nicely with a podcast episode I listened to recently featuring Fr Richard Rohr talking about the Universal Christ in deep time, which sits below chronological time. I am not denying the laws of entropy, but I do wonder if some things can be intuitively grasped that don’t make sense on a level of conventional reasoning. It feels uncanny that I learned – from his obituary – that when I moved to Cork county, I returned to live in the very town he grew up in as a boy. Death and birth, end and beginning. It feels very circular.

Whatever about these esoteric musings, what remains is that Marcus inspired one of my most enduring characters and was a worthy model. He wrote in my last report before I left the school, “She will be missed”. I would like to return the sentiment. I miss you, Marcus. I hope my friend is right and that phrase I hear whispered on the wind is you murmuring: non omnis moriar. I do not altogether die. Exegi Monumentum aere perennius… You have fashioned a monument more enduring than bronze. Rest well, Marcus.

2021

(c) Susan Lanigan. All rights reserved.

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