DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO
The plan hatched by Sally and Basil had been a good one. After Talia had played forfeits at the party, people began to see her as, well, rather more human than they had done before. She hadn’t been ashamed to make herself look silly by pretending to be a chimpanzee, and she had really wowed everyone at the party with her singing voice. Now that people knew her better, they started to be more friendly. Talia had to get used to students saying hello to her as she wandered around the college.
Sally and Talia were walking down Turl Street, both on their way to a rather nice patisserie shop to buy some Danish pastries for their elevenses. They bumped into a slightly bleary-eyed Jonathan Miles who was carrying a pint of milk and a packet of sliced white bread. He was the English scholar, and it was rumoured that a publisher had already accepted his first novel. In short, he was widely regarded as one of the college’s brightest lights.
“Don’t ask,” he moaned when Sally asked him how he was. “We’ve got a translation test on Beowulf this morning. Normally I’d really be into a rollicking good read about heroes fighting dragons with magical swords, but it’s so unfortunate that it’s all written in Anglo-Saxon. The strange words rather spoil the story I find. Is it like that with Latin and Greek?”
“You bet,” said Sally. “If only Sophocles wrote in English, I would give him ten out of ten for his plays … but hey, Talia doesn’t have that problem,” she turned to her friend. “You seem to find Ancient Greek a piece of cake.”
“It’s not that I’m super clever,” said Talia modestly, “it’s just that my godmother gave me the gift of languages when I was born.” It was one of those strange remarks that Sally wished she wouldn’t make.
“Lucky you,” said Jonathan, “I wish I had a godmother like that.”
“Oh but she didn’t help me with everything,” insisted Talia. “I had to learn Beowulf off by heart when I was seven. Now that was hard.”
Jonathan looked, shall we say, somewhat taken aback. “Did I hear that right? You learned Beowulf off by heart when you were seven?”
“Oh yes,” said Talia, “it’s inscribed on my mind to this day.
“Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon.””
[Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped]
Jonathan’s eyes opened wide. He recognised the first two lines of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem that had robbed him of so much of his beauty sleep as he sat up late each night in the library.
“That’s … that’s just incredible,” he stammered. “In fact, that’s the whole thing about this place. You arrive here thinking you’re some sort of super smart alec, and you then bump into a genius before breakfast and realise that you’re just average. I suppose it’s part of growing up.” And as he left the two girls, there was something quite weary and defeated in the way he dragged himself back to the lodge of Westerly College.
There were, perhaps, those in college in who suspected that Talia had won her place at Oxford just because she was a princess, and not because she was anything special at academic work. In fact, some people thought the words “princess” and “thick” went together like bread and butter. If there were any people who harboured such thoughts, they now had to admit to themselves that they were wrong. The word got round that she was brilliant and gifted – and if you were brilliant and gifted, you could be excused a little strangeness. You only had to look at the tutors to see that was the case.
But in her second term at Westerly College, even Talia began to find that some of her work was stretching her abilities to the limits. Basil was the first to notice this. He was on his way to his Philosophy tutorial when he met Talia coming out of hers. She was wearing a look that he had never seen on her face before. Her teeth were clenched and her forehead was knotted. She looked like she wanted to bite somebody.
“Talia, are you okay?” he asked. “Grrr I hate that Socrates,” she growled. “I’m not at all surprised they put him on trial and executed him. He was the most irritating little man who ever lived. All that nit-picking over the meaning of each and every word. I can’t stand him!”
You see, they were studying a book called Phaedo in which the Greek Philosopher, Socrates, is in prison and is talking to his friends about life and death and the existence of the soul. It was full of strange ideas like, “Bigness grows out of smallness” and “Harmony is the property of a harp” – and it was all very taxing on the brain cells. Basil rather enjoyed it, but he could see from Talia’s gnashing teeth that this type of logic was not her strong point.
It was time for his own tutorial, so he wasn’t able to stand around and sympathise for long. After he had spent his own hour with the Philosophy don, it took a little courage for Basil to do so something he hadn’t done before. He went over to the side of the college were Sally and Princess Talia had their rooms. He didn’t have to check which was Talia’s because he could hear gentle harp music behind the door. He knocked softly.
Talia opened. She was wearing a long flowing gown and her face had regained its usual smoothness.
“Oh Basil,” she exclaimed, “what a delightful surprise, will you come in?”
As Basil stepped into the room he felt like he had crossed the threshold of time and space. It was huge by the standards of college and full of the most wonderful things – like tapestries on the walls, fur rugs, carved furniture, and gold and silver ornaments. In the centre of it all stood Talia’s harp. Sally had described the room to him, but he wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer other-worldliness of it all. There was a stillness and calm, as if time stood still there.
“Shall we sit down?” asked Talia, and she led him over to the bench in the bow window that overlooked the quad. She sat with her hands on her lap, and waited for Basil to speak.
“Er, I just thought,” said Basil…“I mean, look just say if this isn’t what you would like …”
“Certainly Basil, you may speak freely with me,” encouraged Talia.
“I mean, everyone knows that you are a genius when it comes to languages and music, but if you find Philosophy hard, perhaps I could help you.”
The princess was silent for just a moment. She clearly hadn’t been expecting such an offer. Then she smiled, and said “Why that’s so kind of you. Of course I would be delighted.”
Basil had brought his copy of the dreaded “Phaedo,” the book that was so perplexing the princess. Talia moved to sit a little closer so that they could both see the pages. It was written like a play; Socrates said one thing, and his friends who were visiting him in the prison cell replied with another. At one point Socrates’ wife came in and burst into tears because he was about to die. He had been sentenced by the court to drink a poison called hemlock. He asked her to go away because he was talking to his friends. This part of the book enraged Talia:
“You see what I mean, don’t you Basil? The only thing Socrates loved was the sound of his own voice. His poor wife. I don’t understand why she didn’t kill him herself long before.”
And Basil had to agree that Socrates was perhaps irritating.
“Oh Basil! If you could just see the look on his face. He was so smug, self-satisfied, and pleased with himself.”
“Well I should love to meet Socrates, perhaps in the next world,” said Basil, and he found the passage that they had to study that week. It was the part where Socrates talks about opposites, and bigness and smallness.
“Oh I still don’t understand any of it,” sighed Talia. “Even his friends look bored – can’t you see?”
“Er, no I can’t see actually,” said Basil.
“Look, Simmias is yawning,” said Talia.
“Where does it say that?” asked Basil puzzled.
“It doesn’t … just look Basil, can’t you see?”
And Basil looked up from the pages of the book. A man was sitting cross legged on the bed. Only it was no longer Talia’s four-poster – it was a simple bed standing on rickety legs. On the floor, which was now covered with straw, sat his friends. One of them did indeed look like he was trying to suppress a yawn. The man on the bed did not notice. He continued to talk in a lively, animated fashion, and as he spoke, he seemed to be smiling. Talia was right. He did seem rather too pleased with the sound of his own voice. The most surprising part of it all was that Basil could understand him perfectly, even though he was speaking in Ancient Greek, and although he studied the language on the page, he had never actually heard it spoken before.
“A Philosopher should not be afraid of death,” Soctrates was saying, “because a Philosopher cares for the soul not the body.”
“Don’t you find him annoying?” whispered Talia.
“Well yes, but utterly fascinating too,” said Basil, straining so as not to miss anything.
It was a little like sitting in the front row of the theatre, when you feel that you are practically on the stage. Basil was so drawn into the conversation, that he was almost unaware of the sheer strangeness of it all. There were moments when he even forgot that he was sitting next to Talia. The philosophical drama unfolded for three or more hours, until the jailer came into the cell, quite apologetic for interrupting the friends’ discussion, and politely offered Socrates the bowl of hemlock. The Philosophers’ friends were weeping, but he took the poison as calmly as you or I might drink a cup of tea, and then he lay down on the bed, and spoke no more.
It was already dark when Basil walked back to his own room. His legs were shaky. His whole body felt limp and drained of energy – almost as if he had drunk the hemlock himself. He was overwhelmed.