A gym hall, the late ’90s. A faint smell of sweat hangs in the air – a memory of exertion past, or anticipation of what is to come?
“You may now turn over the paper.”
Swissshh. And so we do.
Read the poem below and answer the question that follows. You are advised to spend thirty minutes on this section.
Ambulances – Philip Larkin
Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.
Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;
For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there
At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.
Analyse the poem with reference to its form, language and meaning.
I did not analyse the poem. What I did was cry, hunched over the wooden desk, flooding the crisscrossed graffiti of ages indiscriminately, SKINS RULE OK and METALLICAAAAA alike, shoulders heaving, trying not to let it show, trying not to be the laughing stock, trying not to dampen the precious exam paper on which I was to write nothing.
And I thought I’d gotten away with it too, until a voice cut through the tangle of my thoughts as I tugged my school bag out of the middle of the bottom of the sea of possessions outside the exam hall. “A word, Caroline. If I may.”
I think I told my teacher that my grandmother had died, which she had, and that I’d been to her funeral, which I had. We never spoke of it again.
Did I cry because the poem, speaking as it does of the nearness at every moment of our lives of death and grief, made me think of granny? Was I reminded of the cosy darkness at the back of the room where we coloured things in, played in the rocking chair and drove small sports cars recklessly in circles in the shadow of granny’s friend’s Bill’s chair, over whose shoulder you could read the strange newspaper with the shiny-faced naked women and the big shouty headlines?
Or was it something altogether more selfish that seized me that day? Was it a nascent sense of how grief would impinge on my own young life? An infantile sense that the text was chosen just to spite me, unshakeable in my belief that such things could only have happened to me?
When this moment came back to me this morning, unannounced and unbidden, it was painted in clear, clean lines: background cause + immediate cause = weepy effect. The more I thought about it, however, the less sure I became. The me at the funeral was small, and in the way, and wearing borrowed clothes. The me that sat in that exam hall was, for all the misdirected angst and emotion, beginning to bounce tall in her silver Dr Martens, starting to dream of brighter futures and dreaming spires. It feels like there were years between the two.
The Great British Exam Hall (By WahTee (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)
Memory is a curious thing, something that bends itself to needs we don’t even know we have, without even letting us know it’s doing so. Hear a story often enough and you’ll start to believe you were there. Believe you were there and hey presto! you were the life and soul, a raconteur sans pareil. Supply it with a disjointed story and narrative will grow up like bindweed to fill the cracks.
And there was no exam hall, no ancient desks, no sea of bags. Nothing rested on this exam, really. But there again you see, narrative shall out. What is it they say? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
I still cried, though. And I still don’t know why.
From here on November 7th 2012.