Whatever this is, it started when Nicky Slopen came back from the dead.
The man who walked into my shop that day was solidly built, bearded, and had his head shaved almost to the scalp, but he knew my old nickname. He shuffled up to the counter and greeted me by it. ‘No one’s called me that for years,’ I said.
‘It has been years,’ he said. ‘It’s me. Nicky.’
There was a rush of awkwardness as I flannelled to cover the fact I didn’t know him, and then a much more unpleasant sensation when he said his last name.
‘I heard you were …’ I couldn’t bring myself to say it. ‘Is this some kind of joke? Because I don’t appreciate it.’
‘Calm down, Sukie, it’s really me,’ he said.
For a moment I just didn’t believe him, but then he told me things that only he knew, things we’d said to each other, and gradually I saw that it was him. His eyes had a familiar intensity, and when he said my name, it had the same shape in his mouth that it had always had.
So of course I apologised: I was flummoxed, must have mixed him up with someone else. We had a laugh about it: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, that sort of thing. For over an hour all we did was chat about old times. Weekday mornings are so quiet in the shop that I generally use them for stocktaking and dealing with invoices.
When I signed the lease five years ago, I joked to Ted that I was staking my financial future on the existence of an innate human impulse that drives visitors to pretty market towns to stock up on butter dishes, preserving jars and other kitchen paraphernalia. So far it’s been a gamble that’s worked; at least, financially. That impulse does exist, and as Ted said, it seems to be countercyclical. It’s even drawn a few old friends to the shop unexpectedly, and Nicky’s visit felt like one of those: simultaneously warm and slightly awkward.
There was a clumsiness about him, a laboriousness in his movements that made me think he might have had a stroke, and a kind of neediness to his recollections that suggested he was going through tough times; no wedding ring, and I didn’t ask about Leonora. He commiserated about my marriage and cooed over my pictures of Babette. He didn’t have any of his own two, but men often don’t, and he seemed a little choked when he talked about them.
We ate pad thai from the takeaway sitting on boxes in the stockroom and then when a coach party showed up he slipped away, promising to stop by again when he was in the area. The childminder called just as he was going, so we didn’t get to say goodbye properly and I was too preoccupied to take his email. That evening I searched his name on the internet. That’s when I found his obituary.
It wasn’t enormously long, but then he wasn’t yet forty, and still he’d made it into the ‘Lives Remembered’ section of the Telegraph, complete with a picture of him as I had known him at university: with that tall, spare frame that always seemed to typify a certain vanishing English body shape, even though his mother was actually Dutch.
Dr Nicholas Slopen, who died last Friday aged 39, was a scholar whose inspirational teaching style was matched by his outstanding abilities as an editor and critic. The first two volumes of the revised Oxford edition of the Letters of Samuel Johnson compiled under his guidance have been acclaimed as definitive. The third and final volume will be published later this year.
Nicholas Slopen was born in Singapore in 1970 and raised in South London. He showed academic promise at a very early age, winning a Queen’s Scholarship to Westminster and subsequently going on to Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied under the renowned scholar Ronald Harbottle.
A fluent speaker of five languages, including Russian and Dutch, Slopen achieved the rare distinction of coauthoring two papers with Harbottle while still an undergraduate. Though Slopen’s relationship with Harbottle was strained by the latter’s championing of the controversial poet Matilda Swann, he always regarded Harbottle as a friend and mentor.
After studying for a time at Yale, Slopen accepted a post at University College London, where his work, both as a teacher and as a critic, was marked by a warm and idiosyncratic engagement with the texts, while still upholding the highest standards of scholarship. Jesting at Truth, his 1998 study of Augustan satire, was regarded as a landmark. Reviewing the first volume of the Johnson Letters in the Times Literary Supplement, Darcus Millhouse acclaimed it as ‘a gift for the ages’.
He is survived by his wife, the pianist Leonora Kazemzadeh, and their two children.
Well, what to make of that? The thing gave me a creepy feeling. He didn’t look the same –which of us did? – but there was no doubt in my mind that the man I’d seen was him. When you’ve known someone the way we knew each other, you just know. And yet the evidence of the obituary was right in front of me.
Reading it over, I was struck by what a lot he’d achieved, and also reminded why the two of us were ultimately badly matched. I was an anomaly at Downing, a state-school girl who thought Goethe was pronounced ‘Go-eath’, and who got mixed up between China and Japan. On the few occasions I met his mother I could tell he was tense in case I said something stupid. It’s odd, I suppose, for me to have a Cambridge degree and yet feel intellectually insecure, but that’s how intimidating she seemed.
He won a fellowship to Yale at the beginning of our final year. He wouldn’t take it up for another ten months, but I was hurt because he seemed to have written me out of his future. I ended things with him, hoping, I think, to force some acknowledgement from him that I would be part of his plans. I knew from our friends that it hurt him, but he took it stoically, like some bitter but necessary medicine. We hardly spoke that whole year, but we went to the May Ball together, because the previous year he’d promised he’d take me, and he was a man of his word. He’d started seeing someone else by then. My memory of the evening is shot through with a kind of sadness: that feeling I had perpetually when I was twenty-one that I was on the wrong side of the door to where the fun and laughter was. And I suppose I was still a little in love with him. But after graduation, we slipped out of each other’s lives. We exchanged letters when his mother died. Then silence.
In the days that followed his showing up at the shop, I tracked down some old friends. A few had lost touch with Nicky altogether, but several had heard that he’d died and one said it was in a road accident. I didn’t ask for the details. Something held me back from telling them about his visit to the shop. Everywhere I checked, the story was the same. University College London was even setting up a memorial fellowship named after him. But Nicky wasn’t dead, and it seemed as though only he and I knew it.
The only way I could make sense of it was to assume that Nicky had got into some kind of trouble and taken a desperate decision to run away from it. It was completely out of character for him, but no other explanation fitted the facts. I knew I hadn’t seen a ghost. He was too material for that.
And besides, I think men, even the good ones, are more apt to cut and run than we are. Ted walked out when Babette was six months old; he said he’d found someone who could make him happier than I could. This woman turned out to be a twenty-four-year-old Italian translator he’d met at a convention in Düsseldorf. That miserable period coincided with the date of Nicky’s death, which might explain why it didn’t make more of an impression on me. All the bad news got rolled up together in one big indigestible lump.