I only remember two lectures at Adelaide University. One was on the Yippee Bird. It was delivered by a drunken student, and ended prematurely when the lecturer walked in.
The other was Vida’s lecture on profanity. Everyone remembers that. It was improper, like the Yippee Bird, but it was the only time the lecture hall was full. The words, like the students, were all there. Fuck, Shit and Cunt, spread out wisely. She didn’t let the bad boys sit together. She had us tittering to the end. She could use words to effect.
I was still gardening. She recommended me to someone else, and told me what she’d said. I was thorough, but slow. She’d been judging my performance as a gardener, too. I might have known.
At the new property, I had to cut a hedge. I told her I’d never cut a hedge before.
“Now you’re going to learn.”
I chuckled. It was, after all, someone else’s hedge.
The plainest of speakers, she had little time for irony. Why say something which you don’t mean, or which is open to interpretation? One morning, we were standing in her front garden. Across the road, an old lady, or so she seemed to me, came out of a house. Vida said a man lived there, and the woman often stayed the night. We reflected for a moment, then I said:
“No one in their right mind would think she stayed the night.”
Vida looked at me. “Do you mean her appearance?”
“Graham, that’s very uncharitable of you!”
She was pleased, though. I remember these things. It was important for me to please her.
She said she sometimes wondered how tolerant she was, although I think she knew. I replied, “You’ve always struck me as a model of toleration.”
But it wasn’t all talking and shovelling. Vida wrote as well, academic things, and lots of letters. She got one from a former student.
“It’s from Tim,” she said. “He finally married his girlfriend. I don’t know why he still writes to me. He always struck me as being rather dim.”
“He must be.”
“There’s no need to be offensive!”
When I wasn’t in Adelaide, I also wrote to her. One letter she even wrote for me, my application to Oxford. It was all her idea. She told me to draft my own letter, then show it to her. She knew it wouldn’t work, and as soon as she started reading it, she said, “This won’t do.”
She picked her pen up, already thinking, and wrote a letter of her own. She did it there and then, without speaking, just wrote till it was done, in a single, flowing movement. She only did things when she knew what she was doing. It didn’t do my application any harm.
All her letters had the same pure style. When something's right, there's no need to change. I wrote to her last year. I hadn’t sent a letter for a very long time. I didn’t want to be a dim Tim, or maybe I was lazy. She replied by email.
“I assume that you thought I was too old and doddery to cope with such things.”
Right again. Years ago, when a friend of hers died, Vida sorted out her stuff. It was heartbreaking, she said, going through the old letters. Why do people write things down?
At the end of the email, she thanked me for remembering her. No irony, of course. It made me a little sad, even then. As if I could forget.
Vida died, she passed away, she went to meet her maker. I can’t say it more plainly. She’s gone, and it won’t do.