A valediction

I went to evensong at King’s College this evening. That is not in and of itself remarkable, as I attend evensong regularly, albeit not often at King’s. This evening’s service was unusual, though, as tomorrow is graduation day. Chapel services at King’s are always busy, of course, the busiest in Cambridge by far, but today’s was packed, the congregation spilling out into the antechapel, bolstered by so many parents and siblings.

I hadn’t come expressly to watch the families of graduands gathered about. The music is always my reason for attending chapel, Howells Gloucester on this occasion (as on so many others before). I looked across and saw many familiar faces. Here is R, next to the mother she will resemble in every particular in thirty years. The mother looks washed out and vaguely irritable. You’d cast Julie Walters to play her in a film, not that anyone would make it, except maybe Mike Leigh. And here come J and C, almost late and you can imagine why.

We stand for the entrance of the choir and they sing the introit, King Henry VI’s Prayer by Ley, the Founder’s Prayer. I spot D on the left, looking seraphic. The one with the cropped hair next to him may be a girlfriend, but they both look so androgynous you might have trouble sorting the mechanics out. I’m unspeakably happy to see him smiling. Everyone will be smiling tomorrow, of course, even R’s mother, but only D is smiling today, and apparently because of the music but perhaps also because he’s in love and the sun’s out and he’s just aced his finals, or maybe because he’s escaping and life begins tomorrow.

M doesn’t smile, or not so you’d notice, even during the Magnificat. And M’s one of the most musical people here, so presumably she must get it, though maybe church music isn’t part of her background. There are people who don’t like Howells, I know, though I find it difficult not to scorn them. One of the nicest things a friend once said to me was that she loved the way my face reacted to music. My eyes assume a mild derangement when I hear the familiar tricks of Howells or Fauré, the shifting harmonies moving in expectedly unexpected directions, and they do it again today at those cadences towards the end of the two Glorias that begin the same and end so differently. I know so well what is going to happen, and each time they get me. I suspect one of the reasons for these facial contortions, however pathetic and contemptuous, is that I want to be seen to be appreciating the music. M doesn’t have that self-consciousness, standing quietly with her parents and her younger brother.

There’s another younger brother on the right, wearing a suit and tie and looking rather handsome, sitting next to G and exchanging a private joke with her. He looks proud of his sister, not that he would have to tell her for her to be aware of it, and you can tell instinctively that these are two people on exactly the same wavelength, and perhaps their family is perfect too and you wouldn’t begrudge them that. K, sitting behind them, has family problems, but her family don’t appear to have accompanied her to chapel, and perhaps she is happier for their absence. And there at the back, with a man who can only be his father, is P, though I hardly recognise him with his hair so tame. I had my hair cut short for graduation, but it didn’t really suit me. I don’t think I meant to, but I’m so short-sighted I couldn’t see what was going on while the hairdresser was chopping bits off.

The choir sing Parry’s My soul, there is a country and it occurs to me that the choral scholars will be leaving too, but not until later in the summer when their choir commitments end. And the choristers as well, a handful of whom will come back as students five or six years down the line. The college is a community, but so is the chapel, a community within a community, and there are students here who will miss the college and not the chapel, and others for whom the reverse will be the case. Some of them, you can tell from the way they still gaze around in wonder at the fan vaulting and the stained glass, have hardly set foot inside the building since they matriculated, and a few of them now doubtless regret this neglect. The chapel will still be here after they go, of course, and they can come back and visit, but it won’t be theirs any longer. They will have ceded it to younger students, who may pay it more attention.

There is X two rows in front of me, whose name I don’t know though I’ve seen his face around. It’s a slightly supercilious one, and yet he lays his head on the shoulder of the man on his right and suddenly gains a human frailty that he probably had all along, though I didn’t notice it. And in the row directly in front of me, H, who reads the Guardian at lunch. His family stay for the voluntary while all the others file out in search of refreshment. Afterwards, outside the Eagle, I overtake N and his family. He looks impossibly dashing, but he has the advantage of being Scottish.

It was at school that I first fell in love with goodbyes. The end of the year, the rituals of the concert, the assembly, the photos, and the knowledge that in a few months most of you will reassemble, essentially the same but also impalpably altered. I adored the sweet sadness of parting, the fact that you could feel a kind of pain that was a good kind because it sprang from being in love. And tomorrow comes graduation and the start of the future, and next year there will be another graduation and another set of futures.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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