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By Margaret Drabble

Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman spent a summer time jointly as young ones in Ornemouth, a city via the grey North Sea. Now, as they trip again to receive honorary levels from a brand new college there—Humphrey at the teach, Ailsa flying—they take inventory in their lives, their careers, and their shared own entanglements, romantic and another way. Humphrey is a profitable marine biologist, happiest less than water, yet now retired; Ailsa, student and feminist, is widely known for her pioneering stories of gender. Their mutual pasts spread in a phenomenal portrait of English social lifestyles in the latter half the 20th century.

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Sample text

A trolley came round with the old men’s tea, but he wasn’t expected to eat any, which was just as well, as it looked and smelt horrible, of cabbage and gravy. He hated gravy. He liked dry food better. They gave him a glass of water and a pill. He managed to swallow it. It went down, scraping its way over the raw ravine of his gullet. The beastly old men ate noisily and clattered and coughed. He wanted to kill them all. It would be easy to kill them. They were hardly alive. They were at death’s door.

He had not yet examined the names of all those whom he was due to meet. He knew he would only forget them. He was bad at names, and his short-term memory was already overstocked. Why try to squeeze in the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor, the High Steward, the Speaker, the Visitor, the Public Orator, the Dean, the heads of the various departments? Why study the roll-call of local landowners, of local industrialists and manufacturers, of sponsors and benefactors? The new university had gone to town with its lengthy list of ancient and modern appointments, with its newly forged traditions.

Beneath the bell tower, robed in scarlet and bottle-green and black. In July, on the north-east coast, overlooking the North Sea. Hic labor, hoc opus est. As he looked at the date, and at the crest with its leaping salmon, an alarming wave of longing had risen in him. Suddenly, he longed to go back. The curves of the three bridges and the sublimely repeating arches of the viaduct appeared before him with hallucinatory clarity. He was not aware that he had consciously thought of them for years. Too much troubled water had flowed beneath those bridges, too many decades of his life.

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