Thy Fair Imperfect Shade

I was walking home from work at dawn (I’d been up all night scrubbing floors) trying to memorize a poem. It was one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I gripped the piece of paper it was written on, murmuring lines over and over.

The walk took me through the Botanical Gardens, specifically the rhododendron dell. Being spring, it was a mess of colored trumpets, and there were also dozens of azaleas whose lurid flowers exuded a cloying scent. The new sunlight was all intense and pink on the surrounding greenery.

 

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fleshy

 

I was tired and kept my eyes on the paper and the ground in front of me. But suddenly there was a twitch under one of the rhododendron bushes. I saw an arm, then a hand that was moving over some other object: a face, a human face, with eyes! And both bodies—the one connected to the face and the one connected to the arm—were flesh-coloured.

Thinking I must be hallucinating, I looked back at the piece of paper for reassurance, walked on and slowly said the poem’s last two lines:

 

 All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

 

After walking on a few minutes, another movement caught my eye. A shrub was quivering violently even though there was no wind. Looking more closely, it was clear that there were two interlocked figures lying beneath the plants, also nude.

Further on, right on the border of the rhododendron dell, before the lawn turned into the rock-garden section, something else caught my attention. Four shoes stuck out from under a camellia. The shoes were attached to legs and I heard a soft but definite moan.

Flustered, I trained my eyes on the paper and once again concentrated with all my might on the final couplet.

 

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

 

When I came through the front door of our apartment about five minutes later, my Swedish flatmate Pernilla appeared, skipping into the room. She was wearing a yellow summer dress and had her hair done in ringlets. She held a lacquered red bag in one hand and wore pretty matching red shoes.

“Oh, it’s you,” her face fell.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, sighed, twirled around and left.

I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and when I returned to the living room, I saw my other flatmate Tony. He looked like a movie star, as usual. Tall, strong-jawed, clean-shaven, dressed nicely in a suit, he held a single red rose in his hand.

“Hello!” I simpered.

“Oh, hi.” He frowned worriedly. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Yes, it’s about nine o’clock. Are you waiting for someone?”

“Yes, Elizabeth and I are going out. It’s our one-month anniversary today.” He grinned.

“Oh wow! Congratulations!”

“Thanks.”

I went upstairs, closed the door, drew my curtains and lay down on my bed. My mind felt like a pot. Food had been burnt in the pot, then the burnt crust had been scraped out with a spoon. Then someone had left the pot out in the rain by the seaside and it was corroding at high speed, disintegrating in front of my eyes.

What was the meaning of all the lovers under the bushes? Wasn’t it cold and damp on the ground? How long had they been lying there? All night? How come there had been so many of them? What could induce them to lie together so closely? And why was everybody waiting for someone else?

I tried to still the buzzing in my mind with the same old couplet.

 

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

 

The room suddenly brightened, the lamp glowing golden, sweetly illuminating the books and desk and wall calendar empty of any appointments.

 “I thought I turned that off,” I muttered and got up to flick the light switch. I tried it once, then twice, but the more I flicked, the brighter it got. My eyes ached. The room seemed to sparkle and gleam.

There was a knock at the door.

“Who is it?”

An unfamiliar voice answered, muffled and deep.

“She’s next door!” I yelled, thinking it must be Pernilla’s stupid boyfriend.

The knock came again. Sighing, I flung the door open too quickly and in no very good mood.

In front of me was a large smudge. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. It wasn’t something you really saw, but when I looked through it, the things behind it seemed blurry—the stairs, the print of ‘The Kiss’ by Klimt, Tony’s bedroom door—it all seemed strangely indistinct.

As I was standing there, gaping and thinking my eyes must need checking, the smudge pushed past me and invaded my room. I discovered this when I shut my door again and everything had that blurry look. There was also a faint smell of nutmeg.

When I tried the light-switch this time, it worked. In fact it worked too well, eliminating every last trace of light, even the friendly little sneaks between curtain hems, even the under-door glow. At the time, though, the utter darkness came as a relief, since I’d been up all night under fluorescent lights and my eyes hurt.

On the verge of falling asleep, I heard a rustle in the corner. My whole body tensed as I listened, hoping the sound was coming from outside my door. Pernilla’s closet was next to my room—maybe she was looking through some plastic bags or something. 

“Hey!” I said, on the off chance it really was in my room, “Stop that!”

It stopped. Somehow that wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped. The next three seconds of silence made my heart boom.

“How’s tricks?” a voice reverberated in my ear, the prolonged ‘s’ sounding rather malevolent. I was sent into a paralysis of fear.

“So, you wanted to see me, then?” the whisper continued.

“No?” I managed to squeak.

“Yes you did,” it said, louder this time.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“Ahem, yes you did. Remember the sonnet?”

“What about it?”

“You said all days were nights to see until me you saw.”

“Huh? Oh! But….I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular. I don’t even know you.”

There was a long pause.

“Why did you say it like that, then?” the voice said.

“Like what?”

“You said it three times, in a yearning tone.”

“I have to memorize it for my exam, that’s all. I don’t even think it’s a very good poem.”

“It’s not a poem,” the voice said. It sounded irked.

“Yes, it’s a sonnet, fourteen lines and a rhyming scheme. Three quatrains, a coup–”

“It’s a spell. They’re all spells.”

“What?”

“It’s a love spell. You summoned me up with it.”

“It’s a magic spell?”

“Zounds, you’re a real knife-wit aren’t you? Yes, it’s a magic spell to summon a dream lover.”

“A dream—? But I don’t need—how do I unsummon you?” I wailed.

“Alas, what courtesy is this?”

“Nothing personal, sorry. Exams are next week and I’m supposed to avoid stress.”

The smudge sighed.

“There is only one way to cast out a dream lover; you needs must find a real one.”

“Eh? But… like I said, I have exams next week. Couldn’t you just leave?”

“I am not free to leave of my own accord. It is your place to reverse the spell if you wish. Meantimes, move over.” I felt the edge of the duvet lifting up.

“What? Now hold on a minute—”

“Tush! Your honor’s safe with me. I’d sooner ravish a she-ape. The spell demands I sleep in the same bed as my summoner and I must follow the letter of the law. Besides, the floor is cold.”

“Oh all right,” I grumbled.

I hunched over towards the wall and felt the mattress bounce as the smudge got in next to me. Pretty soon I heard a soft, rhythmic sound like the ocean and realized he was snoring.

***

The next morning in my Eighteenth-Century English Poetry class, I cast my eyes around the lecture hall for a likely looking candidate. The dream lover had kept me awake until morning with his snoring; I felt exhausted and desperate. There was no way I was going to manage the exams with that blight around.

There was one man up in the front row. He must have been short-sighted because he always sat there. No one else was sitting in that whole row.

I felt like crocodile seeing a baby wildebeest straggle after its herd.

“Hi there!” I plonked myself down beside him.

He jumped.

“Hello,” he answered reluctantly.

“So, what brings you here?” I asked, then laughed at my own joke. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Too fast. Change tack. Serious.

“So, what did you think about ‘The Rape of the Lock’?” I asked gravely.  

“Hmmm…” he said, writing the date at the top of his tablet.

“‘The peer now spreads the glitt’ring forfex wide/ T’inclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.’ I don’t know about you, but I thought that was really provocative.”

I nudged him with an elbow and grinned with my teeth. The sight of my face so close seemed to transfix him. He stared for a full three seconds.

“Excuse me,” he said, pursing his lips. He gathered up his tablet and bag and stalked over to a row further back.

 

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Aubrey Beardsley illustration (1896) for ‘The Rape of the Lock’

***

Next class was Greek Art. I noticed a shaggy boy napping in the back row and made a beeline for the seat next to him.

“Hello, mind if I sit here?” I said breezily.

He snorted awake, twitching into consciousness. I caught a gratifying whiff of his scent—mildew, tomato sauce, damp wool, beer.

“Hur? Ngarhhg,” he gurgled companionably, then coughed.

“My name’s Philippa, what about you?” I said, extending a hand.

“Andy,” he shook my hand. It felt a little clammy, but otherwise good. His eyes were a nice blue.

Professor Henderson bustled into the room and started setting up slides in the projector.

“Today we’re going to be looking at kouroi,” she warbled and switched off the lights. The first slide appeared on the wall, the statue of a naked, muscular young man beaming happily, one foot in front of the other.

“This is a style of statue that seems to have originated in Ancient Egypt—note the nudity, which may have signified athleticism, though that is not properly established. This is an early example from the Archaic period. As time goes on, as you will see from the next slides, the poses become gradually more natural…”

I gazed at the muscular figures, swallowing hard and sneaking glimpses at Andy, who seemed to have drifted back off to sleep again. The smell of tomato sauce and beer-infused wool, together with the images of naked youths was starting to excite me.

 

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Kleobis and Biton (Delphi Archeological Museum)

 

 

Somewhere around the beginning of the Hellenistic period I started leaning into him. It was a novel sensation, the soft woolen sleeve, the new nuances of smell—could that be congealed lamb fat? Yes! And woody notes of foot sweat. I pressed my thigh against his., I nuzzled his shoulder. He woke up.

“Hey, what are you–?” He jerked away, losing his balance and falling off his chair.

 ***

I went home that night in a bad mood.

“How goes it?” said the smudge.

“What is that smell?” I said, dumping my bag on the floor and sniffing.

“Nothing,” said the voice. “I don’t smell anything.”

“That’s because you don’t have a nose. It’s like an estuary at low tide.”

“Oh. Haply it may be my vapors.”

“Your what?”

“Spirits emit vapors. When we’re released, our essences react with the coarse air.”

“Phew, it stinks!” I said, opening the windows as far as they could go.

“Well, I don’t like your meat smell either. Perfume would serve.”

“Oh god, this is a nightmare. I can’t breathe.”

“Did you find a real boyfriend?”

“No, I didn’t. I did get invited to leave my Greek Art course though,” I threw myself on the bed and hugged a pillow.

“Why?”

“It’s a long story.”

There was a long pause, which made me nervous.  

“What?” I asked suspiciously.

“May haps…” said the voice.

“Yes?” I said.

“Perchance, if…”

“Spit it out!”

“If you would show yourself to better advantage, look to your apparel.”

“What’s wrong with my apparel?”

“Slovenly and shapeless.”

“For your information, it’s not the Dark Ages any more. Clothes are made for comfort. Corsets and whatnot are out. This is called ‘athleisure gear’ which is considered very trendy and meets all my daily needs.”

“You dress like a fishmonger.”

“You don’t even have a body, so I don’t think I’ll take fashion advice from you, thanks.”

“Tut. If we are forever entwined, then…what must be must be.”

As low as I felt, the prospect of eternity with that smell gave me the motivation to act.

“All right. I’m sorry. How should I dress?”

 

***

Thanks to the voice, I left the flat the next morning in the only gown-like garment I owned—one I’d bought two years before for gran’s funeral. I took some scissors to it to it to enhance the cleavage, and put a red scarf around the middle to create the illusion of a waist. Then I washed and brushed my long hair and wore it loose and flowing instead of in a ponytail as usual. The voice had told me to smile and sashay in a more feminine way instead of what he’d termed my ‘oafish lurching’.

I went to my Latin class in this outfit with the addition of a wreath fashioned from flowers that grew outside the Geography building. My classmates looked at me strangely. I smiled, since the smudge had also told me that would help.

“Are you going to the Woodstock party this afternoon?” asked Trent, a bearded youth who had a large gap between his two front teeth and knew Cicero’s letters by heart.

 I kept smiling and wondered what he was talking about.

“At the Common Room, at two o’clock?” he added.

“Oh, yes,” I lied.

“I thought so, with your hippie stuff on. It suits you.”

“Oh thanks!”

“Doesn’t it?” added Raewyn, a little too enthusiastically, as if the sight of my trackpants and ragged T-shirts had physically been hurting her.

“Are you going to the…party?” I asked Trent, sensing a possibility.

“Yeah. Us three should go together,” he said.

“Not me,” Raewyn said, “I’ve got to get back to my kid. Babysitter has to leave at one o’clock.”

“Well, you and me then,” Trent smiled at me.

“OK!” I said, a bit too loudly.

So far so good. Now I just had to ‘seal the deal’, as it were.

 

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***

 “Will you marry me?” I asked Trent after the second song.

“Eh?” he said. 

“Will you marry me?” I yelled at the top of my voice. Several people stared.

Trent blushed and scratched his neck, then laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.

“You have a funny sense of humor buddy.”

“No! I’m serious. Married! Me!” I yelled with hysterical cheer.

He coughed and mumbled something I couldn’t hear, then stormed off out of the Common Room. I wasn’t going to let my one chance at sanity escape, so hastened after him and caught up with him outside the library. His face was a picture of fury.

“Why the hell was that about?” he yelled at me.

“What?”

“Who do you think you are?” he raged. “I thought we were having a good time and you had to ruin it!”

“I don’t underst—”

“Come on! Admit it, you were acting the fool to embarrass me.”

“I was not! How was I acting like a fool? I just forgot my syntax for a second.”

He gradually saw my confusion was sincere.

“You were serious?”

“Deadly.”

“Oh.”

“But, if you’re opposed to the institution of marriage, boyfriend is acceptable. Even for a short time. More than a day though, two days would be ideal. But you have to really agree to it. No backsies…for the agreed duration.”

“What?” he squinted at me, suspicious. “Do you have some kind of mental condition?”

I thought about it and nodded. “You…could say that.”

I took his hand and led him over to a bench.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, really. It’s just, this, um…condition of mine made me say the wrong thing. But I’m sincere, completely. I like you.”

He sat sunk in thought.

“So what is this condition, nymphomania or something?”

“No!” I said. “No, nothing like that.”

“Then what? Tourettes? Epilepsy? Syphilis?”

“Erm, it doesn’t exactly have a name yet.”

“Are you on any medication?”

“No, but I’m considering it,” I replied honestly. 

He sighed, looked at his knuckles, then at the ground.

“Well, you might as well know that I like you too,” he mumbled.

What?”

“I like you,” he said, looking me in the eyes as if he was ready to be executed.

“But, why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I asked, genuinely upset at the thought that I could have had two nights without the Shakespearian Lagoon creature stinking up my room.  

“I knew you would never like me back. That’s partly why I got mad, I thought you were making fun of me.”

“Oh,” I said, and forgot about the smudge as I felt unfamiliar but interesting emotions emerge in my bosom. “But that’s…very strange!” I murmured.

Encouraged, he kissed me.

“So you agree to be my actual boyfriend?” I asked, suddenly feeling elated.

He smiled. “That’s a weird way of putting it, but—”

“Say it exactly like that,” I said. “I agree to be your actual boyfriend.”

He put his hand on his heart and said, “I agree to be your actual boyfriend.”

“Now twice more.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“It’s part of my condition,” I said. “I’ll explain later.” 

“I agree to be your actual boyfriend. I agree to be your actual boyfriend.” 

And that was when the spell was broken. We fell in actual love and the smudge was gone, though it took a week of airing and Febreze to get rid of the Shakespearean smell.

 

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