Some kinds of political conviction are sexy. Or so they say. Stella was in the thrall of a Leftist ideologue with startlingly blue eyes; he chose his shirts to match his eyes, but the effect was not arousing. To her at least. All the desire was on his part, and it seemed that the more intense his ideas were, the more he would burn with a penetrative ardour.
It felt like an undignified version of Trilby and Svengali. For years Stella had been looking for answers and a coherent set of opinions, and here they were in the body of Joshua. He had followers in the university where they worked, and they were glad to have a piece of socialist history living among them. There were, Stella learned, Communists called “Tankies” - those who favoured the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1957. But Joshua went one better than them. He actually joined the party in 1957, when all the liberals were leaving, because that was a sign of rigour and stiffening resolve.
And yet Joshua was secretive. He gave lectures about modish French Marxists which baffled everyone, although they were delivered with a trembling intensity. Stella kept trying to take the philosophers’ books out of the library, or at least read them there, and discovered that Joshua would keep them out for the permitted three weeks and then renew them at once, so that no-one would be able to check his sources. At great expense, Stella purchased one of the books, and was astonished to find that it made no sense at all. Conspiracy theories only work if the enemy is truly hateful.
Gradually, secretly, Stella began to evolve her own ideas: firstly as a form of rebellion and secondly as a form of liberation. Somehow, Joshua got wind of this. But how, since Stella (in the confessional of her room) had been so cunning and so quiet? He must have intuited it. In any event, her betrayal roused him to a more frenzied passion. Once at a conference he hid in the wardrobe in her room, and burst forth stark naked: “quick! We’ve just got time!” His eyes would narrow when she showed favour to anyone, and he would loudly declaim: “that man is your lover!” This became an embarrassment, to put it mildly; and Stella developed complex stratagems to throw him off the scent of the lovers that she did take. Duplicity became a habit with her, on a range of fronts. The ideas and the lovers were hidden under a blanket of ferns.
In time, Joshua became ill: very ill. Death the Hunter had him in his sights, and speared him at last. As he lay on his death-bed, he summoned Stella and asked her to finish his book - a famously incomplete opus, vast in breadth and far-reaching in its implications. “Will you finish it?” he murmured. And as, confusedly, she assented, he added “and give me a blow-job?”
After his death, Stella was summoned to Joshua’s lawyer and found she was a literary executor. He gave her a vast rucksack full of papers, and wishing her “God Speed!”, ushered her from the room. Marvelling that people still could speak like this, Stella sat down in a park and took a peek inside the bag. Her heart was in her boots. It made no sense. Once she had lugged the bag home, she tried to categorise the contents in terms of themes or ideas, making little piles marked “ideology” or “class”. It was not that there was nothing to say: but that she was not the one to say it. And then she saw, with a flash, that if she were to sort, order and frame the opus, it would be a form of ventriloquism. Her own voice would be muffled for good.
In Middlemarch, Mr Casaubon instructs Dorothea to finish his Key to All the Mysteries after his death. Eventually Dorothea refuses, and, inside the parcel of papers, leaves him a note he will never read: “could you not see that it was impossible?” Stella too wrote these words on a sheet which she folded inside the rucksack. Taking her car, she drove until she came to a yew-tree forest miles from home. She shouldered the rucksack, and walked into the wood, not knowing what to do.
At last, directly in front of her in the gloaming, was a vast yew with a crack down the middle, almost big enough to hide in. Stella took the papers out of the bag and pushed them into the slit, one at a time. It took a long while. The last sheet was her note to Joshua. She stepped back, thinking that she heard something. But what?
A sort of groan and a crack made her blood freeze. The tree was moving. The two sides of the tree’s scar were being pushed back together, inch by inch, until it was annealed. As if she too were rooted to the spot, Stella saw Joshua’s papers gradually enfolded inside the tree, becoming wood again, while all the time a solid, avuncular groaning assailed her ears.
After a few days she returned, to find the tree looking almost whole, with a tiny seam running along its length to mark its old injury. She recalled that yew was called the “tree of death” by the Greeks because of the poisonous berries which it bore. But in this case, it was a tree of life, since it had released her from a promise she could never keep. It had engulfed the past.