Out of the Shadow – A Shadowlands Fiction
'You are all 'dead,' as you used to call it in the Shadowlands'
Aslan, The Last Battle, our world is but a reflection and shadow if His realm.
Author's Note: This story is set 3 years after Joy Gresham's death in the autumn of 1963. Clive Staples 'Jack' Lewis is still to be found in Magdalen College, Oxford, and if you don't want to know what happens don't read any biographical information on CS Lewis!
"Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself."
C S Lewis – The Problem of Pain
1 .A Grief Observed
It was like nothing she had seen before, the classical buildings steeped with learning which had drawn her across the Atlantic in her quest for knowledge now stood before her magnificent and unreal. Jennifer shielded her eyes against the bright sun of the Oxford morning and squinted at the tower. Of all the colleges she had particularly wished to be accepted to this one, the aura of its history draped softly around it in tangible folds, the sheer space around it vast and filled with woodlands, wildlife and wonder. She could barely suppress her excitement when she realised that this coming spring she would witness first hand the choir singing in the May morning sunrise, that from now on she would be a part of its tradition and not merely an observer. Jennifer made a mental note to investigate the old buildings as soon as she could and perhaps take in the view across the college from the tower, but the more pressing concern of locating her room and tutor pushed her agreeably down the path.
Jennifer's scholarship was a rare one, a fully supported grant which would allow her to pursue her greatest love, English literature, right in the heart of the country which bore it. Already she was itching to visit the Yorkshire moors which had inspired the Brontes, the pretty town of Stratford and the homes of Dickens and Scott. It took great restraint not to bound down to Oxford station and being an exploration of the country and if it had not been for the lure of a college which had nurtured Wilde and Lewis.
Lewis. She knew that probably right at that very moment he would be found in his room somewhere in the maze of Magdalen. She had expressed an interest in his work, both critical and fictional in the desperate hope she would be able to meet and consult with him. But her tutor had warned her that though still prolific he was hard to track down and reluctant to teach as he once had before his wife's tragic death. The scale of his grief had been published during her years at Washington and she had read over and over his feelings of loss until she had felt a little of the heart ache in her self. Little had she known that just a year after its publication her mother would take ill and that pain she had felt on his behalf would become her own, still raw just months from her death. Re-reading A Grief Observed had soothed her and beyond her own pain his words had shaped her intuition and compassion for others, made sense of her loss, driven her now to seek him. To think that she looked upon the sights he could see every day from his window affected her deeply. She wished again she could meet the man who had changed her outlook and understanding forever. She wished she could thank him in the simplest of words.
At last she reached the empty reception area and put down her hand luggage to look round expectantly for someone to guide her. The old building smelt heavily musty but no unpleasant, the smell of old and well worn books and of the original fittings in oak which decorated the walls and corridors. By the door an enormous panel laden with a hundred keys brooded thickly. It was dark but the sunlight fell in slanted beams across the floor picking up the specks of dust which danced in the air. They swirled as a draught caught them and she heard a door bang solidly behind her.
'Miss Winters?' a small rather fragile looking man in his seventies croaked at her.
'Yes, I'm here to…'
'You're rather early Miss, you've several weeks before Michaelmas begins, I'll have to inform the appropriate authorities that you have arrived.'
'I wanted to get here and be settled sir, I've come rather a long way…'
'America wasn't it? Yes… that is rather a long way…' the porter shuffled unimpressed over to where her bags lay and heaved them up with a little difficulty, she instinctively went to stop him but a hard look crossed his face and she retreated.
'If you'd like to follow me,' he grunted and steered out of the Porters Lodge, across the lawn and towards a narrow staircase deep within the oldest part of the college, 'You'll be one of the smaller rooms until term starts and then we may be able to arrange an alternative. Space has been a little tight since we began admitting ladies…'
Jennifer bit her lip. Evidently this relic had been in situ since the college was founded five hundred years before. She wondered how many other preconceptions she would come up against, the downside of the tradition she admired. Provided with her key and deposited in the centre of a surprisingly shabby room Miss Winters was rapidly left to her own devices by the porter, a man put out of joint by the appearance of a student before the beginning of term. She imagined him crawling back into his dungeon and remaining undisturbed until October. She wandered to the window overlooking the quadrangle and searched for signs of life. One or two Fellows could be seen in the cloisters, a book tucked under an arm, gowns billowing slightly in the breeze, but the warmth of the sun had cast a lethargy over the college which even her enthusiasm was loathe to break. It was peaceful and timeless and despite her weariness from travel she could not resist a quick tour of the grounds; after all her room had little to offer.
She found her self strolling north, the faint sound of the river falling behind her and the deer park stretching before. Past the Presidents Lodgings where the little Tudor windows poked shyly from the heavy roof and the old lead glass gleamed softly in the light. The click of her heels on the stone turned to a soft pad as she crossed the Grove, a group of semi tame deer raising their heads to regard her softly. Jennifer moved hesitantly, entranced by the animals, close enough to see the long dark lashes surrounding large soulful eyes. They held her gaze for a moment before dropping their heads to the grass utterly unfazed by the stranger's movements. Jennifer felt joy bubble at her throat; she felt part of the grounds already, at home for the first time since the home she knew had vanished with her mother's death. Somehow Fate or God had brought her to this place, closed off from the harsh reality of the world, the turmoil of civil unrest, change and disharmony in the States. Here nothing had changed for centuries, the descendants of the original deer moved now amongst the sparse trees with no-one to disturb them. She was not entirely sure the illusion would remain unshattered but for now she embraced its healing charms and continued to the river and to Addison's walk.
It was then she saw him, as she rounded the bridge and followed the narrow path through the flowers. A willow suspended itself over the water dropping sadly into the river, its leaves already changing colour to a glowing gold, and at its base a figure, head lowered as the willow's limbs, in sadness and contemplation. The unobtrusive noise of the water was disturbed only by birdsong, sad in its tone, fitting to the scene. Jennifer had often seen
photographs, in journals and reviews, on the covers of books, but they never quite conveyed the sensitivity of the man before her now. His blue eyes reflected the river palely beneath a slight frown, his lips met lightly as though he felt he should speak but had lost the words, the air moved softly in his thick greying hair. She watched for a moment longer as he remained motionless by the bank, hearing again the words of his diaries and confronted with the reality of him as a person. The pain he had written about was real and his alone. She would never grasp it and she felt almost ashamed that she had ever thought herself capable of understanding him. His grief was as unique to him as her grief for her mother, and she suddenly felt for the first time that day, that amidst all the happiness of the world they were both somehow trapped alone in sadness. Her throat tightening at this overwhelming sense of loneliness loss and displacement she made to step away but the first of the autumns fallen twigs snapped beneath her foot.
Professor Lewis raised his eyes from the water but did not turn. Instead he gazed across to the Fellow's Gardens and let his vision come slowly back into focus. Jennifer was aware she had intruded upon and broken a private moment but she was frozen to the spot, the magnetism which drew her to him too strong. A beat, and he rose in a fluid motion to his feet, moving around the willow until he stood against it, one hand on its bark the other pulling its tendrils to one side so that he peered beneath the veil of golden leaves.
'Hello,' he said quietly, 'You must be our new student.'
2.The Problem of Pain
Jennifer was transfixed, she stammered for words. This was it, a moment she had dreamed of, and yet somehow his reality threw her off balance.
'I'm very sorry sir I didn't mean to disturb you,' she managed.
'You must be our new American student, your accent betrays you, I've not heard it for a long time' he smiled lightly before his features fell again into the melancholy repose she had spotted minutes before. There was a pause before he roused himself. 'It does me good to be disturbed once in a while, too much contemplation can be a sad and lonely pursuit don't you agree? It's often better to share those thoughts. So must I guess your name too or shall we introduce ourselves? I'm Professor Lewis and you are…?'
'Jennifer Winters, sir.'
He cocked his head slightly. 'Ah yes, I thought you must be, I hope you don't mind, Gregory, Professor Smyth that is, showed me some of your correspondence from this summer. I was quite sure it had to be you who had arrived so early, no one else showed quite the same enthusiasm. Wilkins gave me a ring to announce that 'an American lady' had appeared. You've met Wilkins, the porter? He's a little dated but he functions perfectly well.'
His voice was light and welcoming but there was something behind his eyes which told Jennifer that every word of A Grief Observed had been true. He struggled to maintain the persona before her now and she ached for him knowing herself how hard it could be to face the world, the daily task of meet and greet which seemed so insurmountable. Her guilt returning she tried to excuse herself from his presence.
'I really didn't wish to put you in an awkward situation sir, term hasn't started so I quite understand if you want to be left to your thoughts or your research, I'm sure I can find plenty to do in the meantime and I know you have more important things…'
He moved from under the willow. 'You're babbling,' he said, 'We'll have to iron that out of you before term begins though really there can be no regimented beginning and end to learning, we learn each day, no? Perhaps you're a little tired after your journey?' he queried her with his eyes. Jennifer realised she felt anything but tired, the excitement of meeting the man she admired was too great and washed fatigue from her with a wave of excitement. 'No?' he went on awaiting an answer.
'You were exploring the grounds?'
'Yes sir, they're so beautiful…'
'Indeed they are, you're lucky to have caught the tail end of summer, though the winter is quite lovely the 'nothing' time of autumn can be a trifle depressing if one are that way inclined… or if one's memories of those times are somewhat… unhappy…'
'Yes, sir.' And she heard that the sadness had tinged her voice.
Jennifer realised he had steered her onto the path again and was walking her towards the fellow's gardens. They had reached the bridge when he said 'Call me Jack, everyone calls me Jack, and besides we're 'off duty' so we can relate as human beings and not as student and teacher, there can be too many formalities you know, they get in the way of life. One of them is you shouldn't really have access to these Gardens… but it seems a shame to closet them away.'
They entered the secluded spot and followed the pale path around the perfection of the lawn. The flower beds on either side were steeped with late flowers but the regularity of them rather lacked the emotive effect of the Grove. As though sensing this Jack walk her in silence to the pond which though as neatly laid out in symmetrical beauty as the rest of the garden, still breathed life with its contents. They perched on the rise stone edge and he waited while she took in her surroundings.
'Don't tell Wilkins I let you in here,' he winked amicably and the smile flashed back briefly. Jennifer responded warmly.
'I have so much to ask you,' she admitted.
'Ah, enthusiasm again, well I'm sure over the years here you'll find out all you need.'
'I'm sorry you must get so many queries.'
'Just a few,' he replied. 'With Narnia there are many from children. I tend to respond to them more often than those from the academic quarters I'm afraid. Children seem to understand my work a great deal more than some others. They are innocent tales for innocent minds and over analysing will only destroy their little worth. I prefer to leave those tales unsullied by criticism if that is at all possible.' He looked at her, the faintest challenge in his eyes.
'I understand,' she conceded.
'Do you?' he asked mildly.
Jennifer held his gaze for a moment before she replied. 'I understand your right to protect your intention within your stories.'
'Is that all you understand?'
'No, I…' she struggled to word it. 'I understand that sometimes a story is a story, that to read into it is to deface it, that the purity of the intentions and the reality of the feeling placed within the text can be destroyed by an outsider and that if you let that happen you're destroying, losing…'
'… a piece of oneself.'
Again his eyes fixed on her curiously. 'I never appreciated theorists probing my fictional work but of late it has become intolerable, perhaps you understand why?'
'Perhaps…' she sensed he was watching her closely.
'Would you like to forward a theory too?'
'I think you write critical theory for academics and fiction for children, they are separate issues, separate parts of yourself, academic and personal. It's your job to enter into critical debate on the one hand but its also part of your nature to protect the personal aspects of your life. You feel you lose something every time Narnia is analysed in an unintended light, perhaps you've already lost too much on the personal side to bear more now.' She stopped suddenly aware of what she was saying, of how much she was treading on dangerous and personal territory. She began to apologise but the look on his face stopped her.
'Yes,' he said, 'I think you do understand, at least a little.'
'I'm very sorry this is presumptuous of me, I don't know you, I can't…'
'You know me as well as many others….' He said and then clarified when he saw her become confused, 'Through my work, Jennifer, you've taken the time to read it, to feel it, which is more than many 'friends' have done. I make no bones about being an academic recluse, but the problem with doing that when one chooses companions at all one tends to surround oneself with academic friends. So when a volume of one's work is published it becomes the latest target for critical theory. A Grief Observed contains many critical aspects I agree but it takes more than knowledge to interpret it. It takes empathy, patience and often one other thing…'
'You need to have felt it, the grief, loss, you need to have looked down that particular tunnel to fully grasp what I mean to say. And I think you may have, no?'
Jennifer realised that the sun had moved around behind her and now rested warmly on his face. Silence fell around them in the peaceful garden. She thought of her mother and of the same gnawing death which took her from her daughter as it had Joy from Jack. The images of the past year flitted before her mind, the slow loss that was worse than loss itself. She nodded in response to him.
'Yes,' he whispered softly. It marks us all and those who have never felt it never fully understand. I don't think I understood before. That's the problem with pain; it's too real to be imagined.'
3. The World's Last Night
The peculiar atmosphere of the empty university allowed dusk to creep upon them without disturbance. Slowly the awkwardness of status fell away with the light until their words flowed freely in the half tones of evening. At first rendered almost speechless by the mere proximity of the source of her inspiration, Jennifer soon adapted to Lewis' presence and spoke as easily to him as she would to a friend of many years. She began to appreciate that experience did lend itself to restful companionship, and whereas many of her younger tutors in the past had confronted her with as many theories and questions as the Professor did now, the easiness which came to him with age allowed her to explore more fully her ideas with the reassurance that he did not feel the need to compete or interject. He knew himself and allowed her to begin to achieve the same goal. But the lack of pretension which surrounded her new mentor allowed her access to him as well as his mind.
Soon their conversation migrated from academic groundings to the delicate issues which surrounded life. Here too she discovered that age lent validity to his words. It was often easy to dismiss the advice of her elders before now but after the pain of the previous year she had accepted at last that the words her mother had spoken, echoed now in those Jack articulated softly in the cool evening, held more truth than she had ever thought she would have to face. Grief had been an insurmountable summit of pain but during her last months her mother had tried to reassure her that that peak of agony would pass, that the pain would never die but it would fade. Faced with her illness and the ongoing struggle of tenderness at her heart Jennifer had been unable to see past the inevitable loss. Her world would shatter and bringing it together again would be impossible. A broken glass held crudely together with glue, the cracks fragile and visible for all time. He listened as she remarked with wonder and not a little guilt that there were days which passed when her memories were not painful, when her mother's voice would not speak, that though her face would come to her in quite moments she could smile and move on with out tears.
The tower was striking eight by the time the conversation lulled and she realised with shame that he had barely spoken in the last hour. She shivered and pulled coat around her only to have him offer his scarf. He draped it loosely around her neck and folded it at her throat, the heat from his body still mingled with the wool. The Garden was settling around them, the water of the pond black in the dying light and its life hidden well beneath the moonlit surface, an illusion of solidity cast over its changing face. Jack remained seated beside her, one had resting on the stone at her back supporting his weight, the other loosely covering her own as she held it in her lap. At her knee his own pressed lightly and she became aware of the warmth between them in stark contrast with the cooling night. After a pause he judged that her speech was over.
'Some say that when wrapped in our own grief and unhappiness we becomes oblivious to that of others,' he began, 'I would argue that far from oblivious we are more acutely aware. It is perhaps that we are unable to break the bonds of our own pain to reach out and be of use to the sufferer.'
Jennifer nodded, it made sense, the weight of her loss was too great for her to bear but it did not prevent compassion.
'Thank you,' Jack said softly.
She looked up and saw him watching her. He smiled a little then and for the first time it travelled up his face, well worn laughter lines creasing naturally around his blue eyes, the translucid starlight reflecting deeply within them.
'For sharing what you have, your experience. I have spent many long months, years since Joy's loss, pondering my pain, watching Douglas grow with the shadow of her death always with him, writing about it, thinking about it, living it in my dreams and waking hours and though my colleagues will agree that I have coped admirably, I believe that's the term, I've been waiting for something to click. For something within me to announce that its time to move on. I wondered if it ever would.'
Jennifer stared at him. 'I don't think you can credit me with anything that…'
'I don't know if I am crediting you with my recuperation, I'm unsure if I feel better, but perhaps you have a little to do with my realisation. You are healing and you realise that you are. Perhaps what I realise is different, but you hold a mirror up to my nature in many ways.'
'I don't understand.'
'I'm not sure I do yet but I think I will soon.'
Silence hung in the air. She wondered at the workings of his thoughts. He seemed a little easier than when they had met that afternoon but she could not distinguish between the relaxation of familiarity in their new friendship or a change in his mindset. Before she could speak again he had risen from his seat and gestured lightly for her to do the same. She stood, guided by his hand placed gently at the small of her back and they began to move through the still Garden. They retraced their steps across the bridge and towards the buildings of the college. In the Grove the deer slept in huddles, shapeless forms in the shadowy undergrowth, soft breathing drifting on the air.
Her building now just feet away and their conversation at a natural end Jack turned to say goodbye. The warm light of the lantern above the college door lit him kindly while the night gathered at his back and his silhouette stretched across the lawns. The moment was suspended just long enough for awkwardness to descend. A different unease to their meeting, loaded with restless potential.
'She wasn't old,' he said, his deep voice bouncing slightly from the high walls of the quadrangle, 'In some lights even in her worst times I could still see her youth, burned away, beneath the surface of her illness. Fear brings out the child in us all, but it did so more in me than in her, she was strong.' Jack stood with his hands deep in his coat pockets, gazed up at the building and breathed white breath into the night. A memory crossed his face and he laughed to himself. 'she wouldn't be terribly pleased with me moping about in my grief, most days I manage alright, for Douglas' sake mainly, but he's getting older now and it gives me license to miss her in a way. Yes if she could speak to me now she'd give me a telling off and tell me to grab life.'
'That's what my mom says to me every day,' Jennifer replied. Jack allowed his eyes to fall from the stonework and rest in hers kindly.
'She's a wise woman your mother. But you are stronger than I am to adhere to her advice.'
'It's not a case of strength it's a case of necessity…' Jennifer returned his slight laugh, 'I wouldn't want to get to heaven just to have her give me a lecture on being happy.'
A chuckle then, 'You're very like her… Joy.'
Jennifer did not know how to respond.
'Oh I know, I'm a sentimental fool as bad as any other, it's a hazard of working with literature, but it's a compliment believe me, so please take it as such.'
He appeared to stir himself then and with a shrug removed his hands from his pockets and spoke reluctantly.
'It's time for me to return you to reality,' he said, 'This has been a most pleasant evening.'
'Ah back to the mundane,' she tried to joke.
'The sublime to the ridiculous, I shall force you to read my paper on that same subject,' he paused and looked at her, 'Then again, the old world is changing and you are part of the new; who am I to shape your thoughts?'
'You have more claim to than others I would say,' Jennifer could not restrain her sense of awe as the evening drew to a close, with her return to the college the realisation of her luck was too great.
'Because I am a Professor, an instructor?' he laughed gently, 'My dear we are the least worldly of creatures holed up in these ancient buildings with our books and papers, avoiding existence as most know it. I have wasted much time and now doth time waste me; of all that I could have done I have done but a tiny percentile in the very last years of my life with Joy, and why?'
'Because I have lived in the Shadowlands; its time now to leave them behind.'
Jennifer's heart leapt and she felt something like panic rise in her though she was unsure why. It subsided quickly as Jack took her hand and with an easy natural movement moved towards her. His lips hesitated for a second before gently brushing her own, the pleasant scent of cologne briefly settling around her before slipping away like silk as he retreated. He nodded towards the scarf she still wore.
'You keep that, I always had too many to put to any use.'
He turned and moved out of the light, spinning once to raise a hand in goodbye.
Epilogue, 22nd November 1963
She could hear the clatter of footsteps long before her colleague had reached her. The fading light of the early November evening turned the fallen snow to grey and the windows of the cloisters to darkness. She watched muted as her friend approached the evening paper in one hand flapping uselessly in the wind, she could read its headline from where she was, blazing letters declaring the assassination. A whirl of snowflakes buzzed in the shelter of the corridor and the chill burned at her cheeks tinged pink with cold.
'You must have heard?' he said puffing to a standstill and gesturing to the paper. 'It's been on the radio all afternoon but I got this hot off the stands, it's incredible, I never would have thought it.'
'I know,' but her voice lacked conviction.
'You must realise the significance! I mean you're American, what does this mean for you? It's huge! We're never going to forget today.'
'No, I won't.'
Someone called from across the quadrangle and he turned to signal he would join them. Exasperated at the lack of response from Jennifer he jammed the paper towards her and the folded it roughly into her pocket.
'Here read it in your own time it looks like William's got a copy too… won't you join us? I think they're attempting to crank up the television in the JCR? Magdalen college gets with the moment eh?'
'No really, I think I'll just take a few moments…'
'This has really affected you hasn't it?' he asked suddenly concerned.
'It's not that.. its…'
'You've not heard?' And Jennifer suddenly felt that she could not tell him if he did not know. Not amongst all this, this thrilling shock and speculative excitement over Kennedy's death. It seemed to belittle what she felt.
'No, what is it?' he persisted.
'Nothing, I'll speak to you later…'
Jennifer left him then but he barely registered it before dashing back to William. She moved to the east entrance, the tower looming to one side of her and the noise from the students' rooms falling behind. She felt the weight of the newspaper wedged in her pocket, felt the
headline burn into her and wondered if they mentioned him inside, her other loss today. 'Eminent Professor Clive Staples Lewis.' Jack. As she reached the steps where she had stood with him the bells began to chime eight. They would find out tomorrow, and he would be lost in the shadow of the President. She understood now. Numb in the wind, cold tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, she realised at last what he had meant. It had been obvious all along, written there in the lines of Narnia. There was only one route out of the Shadowlands.
All change. America in turmoil, the little English college so many miles away with its own form of grief, its own coping mechanisms, its tentative birth into 'reality' tradition fading rapidly in the face of external onslaught. In the mixed emotion of the day she did not know who or what she mourned most, but she knew who she would miss. She looked out across the Grove and into the darkness, only the white ground glowing beyond the illumination of the building behind her. The scarf at her neck felt warm and for a second she felt him place it again around her, saw the sparkle of the blue eyes meeting hers, smelt the enduring rich scent of cologne. Lingering for a moment she considered stepping out along the walk to seek her memories, but something held her there and she remained where she was, where the light from the lantern above her head cast no shadow.