This man, who was tall and very dark, sat weightily down at his place at the foot of the table while Miss Cutler, whom he terrified by his demands for what he called the correct thing, ran out of the room. He studied Dixon closely when the latter said: 'You're early today, Bill,' as if the remark might have carried some challenge to his physical strength or endurance; then, seemingly reassured, nodded twenty or thirty times. His centre-parted black hair and rectangular moustache gave him an air of archaic ferocity.

The meal continued and Atkinson soon partook in it, though remaining aloof from the conversation, which ran for a few minutes on the subject of Dixon's article and its possible date of publication. 'Is it a good article?' Beesley asked finally.

Dixon looked up in surprise. 'Good? How do you mean, good? Good?'

'Well, is it any more than accurate and the sort of thing that gets turned out? Anything beyond the sort of thing that'll help you to keep your job?'

'Good God, no. You don't think I take that sort of stuff seriously, do you?' Dixon noticed that Atkinson's thickly-lashed eyes were fixed on him.

'I just wondered,' Beesley said, bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis. 'I thought I was probably right.'

'But look here, Alfred, you don't mean I ought to take it seriously, do you? What are you getting at?'

'I don't mean anything. I've just been wondering what led you to take up this racket in the first place.'

Dixon hesitated. 'But I explained all that to you months ago, about feeling I'd be no use in a school and so on.'

'No, I mean why you're a medievalist.' Beesley struck a match, his small vole-like face set in a frown. 'Don't mind, Bill, do you?' Receiving no reply, he went on between sucks at his pipe: 'You don't seem to have any special interest in it, do you?'

Dixon tried to laugh. 'No, I don't, do I? No, the reason why I'm a medievalist, as you call it, is that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific. It's why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation. But I never guessed I'd be landed with all the medieval stuff and nothing but medieval stuff.' He repressed a desire to smoke, having finished his five o'clock cigarette at a quarter past three.

'I see,' Beesley said, sniffing. 'I didn't know that before.'

'Haven't you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?' Dixon asked, but Beesley, puffing away at his pipe, had already got up. Dixon's views on the Middle Ages themselves would have to wait until another time.

'Oh well, I'm off now,' Beesley said. 'Have a good time with the artists, Jim. Don't get drunk and start telling Neddy what you've just been telling me, will you? Cheero, Bill,' he added unanswered to Atkinson, and went out leaving the door open.

Dixon said good-bye, then waited a moment before saying:

'Oh, Bill, I wonder if you could do me a favour.'

The reply was unexpectedly prompt, 'Depends what it is,' Atkinson said scornfully.

'Could you ring me at this number about eleven on Sunday morning? I'll be there all right and we'll just have a little chat about the weather, but if by any chance I can't be got at…' He paused at a small unidentifiable sound from outside the room, but heard nothing further and continued: 'If you can't get hold of me tell whoever answers that my parents have turned up here out of the blue and will I please get back as soon as I can. There, I've written everything down.'

Atkinson raised his dense eyebrows and studied the envelope-back as if it bore the wrong answer to a chess problem. He gave a barbaric laugh and stared into Dixon's face. 'Afraid you won't be able to last out, or what?'

'It's one of my professor's arty week-ends. I've got to turn up, but I can't face the whole of Sunday there.'

There was a long pause while Atkinson looked censoriously round the room, a familiar exercise. Dixon liked and revered him for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and of not meaning to let this detestation become staled by custom. He said finally: 'I see. I'll enjoy doing that.' As he said this, yet another man came into the room. It was Johns, carrying his periodicals, and at the sight of him Dixon felt a twinge of disquiet: Johns was a silent mover, a potential eavesdropper, and a friend of the Welches', especially Mrs Welch. Asking himself whether Johns had in fact overheard enough of the task just assigned to Atkinson, Dixon nodded anxiously at Johns, whose tallow-textured features made no movement. This immobility was prolonged when Atkinson spoke his greeting: 'Hallo, sonny boy.'

Dixon had resolved to travel to the Welches' by bus to avoid Johns's company, so he now got up, thinking he ought to impart some specific warning to Atkinson. Unable to fix on anything, however, he left the room. Behind him he heard Atkinson speaking to Johns again: 'Sit down and tell me about your oboe.'

A few minutes later Dixon, carrying a small suitcase, was hurrying through the streets to his bus stop. At the corner of the main road he had a view downhill to where the last few terraced houses and small provision shops began to give place to office blocks, the more fashionable dress-shops and tailors, the public library, the telephone exchange, and a modern cinema. Beyond these again were the taller buildings of the city centre with its tapering cathedral spire. Trolley-buses and buses hummed or ground their way towards it and away from it, with columns of cars winding, straightening, contracting, and thinning out. The pavements were crowded. As Dixon crossed the road, the sight of all this energy made his spirits lift, and somewhere behind his thoughts an inexplicable excitement stirred. There was no reason to suppose that the week-end would contain anything better than the familiar mixture of predicted boredom with unpredicted boredom, but for the moment he was unable to believe this. The acceptance of his article might be the prelude to a run of badly-needed luck. He was going to meet some people who might well prove interesting and amusing. If not, then he and Margaret could relish talking about them. He must see that she enjoyed herself as far as possible, and doing this would be easier in the presence of others. In his case was a small book of verse, by a contemporary poet he privately thought very nasty, which he'd bought that morning as a completely unprovoked gift to Margaret. The surprise would combine nicely with the evidence of affection and the flattery implied in the choice. A routine qualm gave him trouble at the thought of what he'd written on the fly-leaf, but his mood enabled him to suppress it.


'OF course, this sort of music's not intended for an audience, you see,' Welch said as he handed the copies round. 'The fun's all in the singing. Everybody's got a real tune to sing - a real tune,' he repeated violently. 'You could say, really, that polyphony got to its highest point, its peak, at that period, and has been on the decline ever since. You've only got to look at the part-writing in things like, well, Onward, Christian Soldiers, the hymn, which is a typical… a typical…'

'We're all waiting, Ned,' Mrs Welch said from the piano. She played a slow arpeggio, sustaining it with the pedal. 'All right, everybody?'

A soporific droning filled the air round Dixon as the singers hummed their notes to one another. Mrs Welch rejoined them on the low platform that had been built at one end of the music-room, taking up her stand by Margaret, the other soprano. A small bullied-looking woman with unabundant brown hair was the only contralto. Next to Dixon was Cecil Goldsmith, a colleague of his in the College History Department, whose tenor voice held enough savage power, especially above middle C, to obliterate whatever noises Dixon might feel himself impelled to make. Behind him and to one side were three basses, one a local composer, another an amateur violinist occasionally summoned at need by the city orchestra, the third Evan Johns.

Dixon ran his eye along the lines of black dots, which seemed to go up and down a good deal, and was able to assure himself that everyone was going to have to sing all the time. He'd had a bad setback twenty minutes ago in some Brahms rubbish which began with ten seconds or so of unsupported tenor - more accurately, of unsupported Goldsmith, who'd twice dried up in face of a tricky interval and left him opening and shutting his

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