A Story for February: ‘Zeugma’ from Pianos and Flowers

February 2023

She is smiling, the young woman perched on the cross-bar; she is smiling broadly as they follow the tram lines. Behind them, the morning mist is lifting slowly, although the figures within it are ghost-like and the trees still harbour lingering pockets of darkness.

She did not know what possessed her to accept a ride into work from Professor Mactaggart. She barely knew him, although she had seen him in the library, of course, when he came in to request a book from the special collection, or to trace an obscure reference to the work of some philologist nobody had ever heard of. He was always dressed in the same way, even in the summer, when everybody else changed into lighter clothes. Seemingly indifferent to the change in the seasons, he would wear the same heavy overcoat, the same dark thorn-proof suit, and the same flat cap. The head librarian was scathing about the cap. “A professor shouldn’t wear something like that,” he said, his nasal voice full of disapproval. “Who does he think he is? A golfer?”

Amanda, the young woman, thought the head librarian very stuffy. Why should a professor of English language (“I’m really just a grammarian,” he said) not wear a flat cap if that was what he wanted to do? Did it somehow detract from his status? She thought not, and would not particularly care even if it did.

Professor Mactaggart was a distinguished scholar – everybody knew that – and if he chose to wear inappropriate clothes, then that was his prerogative. People talked too much anyway – they sniped at those who were a little bit different in their mannerisms or appearance; they ridiculed anybody who did not quite fit in. What was the point of that? Was dull uniformity really what they wanted? Imagine, she said to herself, what it would be like if everybody were to be like the head librarian.

The Professor had stopped, just as she turned the corner of the road where she lived with her parents and her younger sister, Jane. Jane was a student nurse, who was not sure of her vocation. “Bedpans, bedpans, bedpans,” she complained. Amanda had pointed out that there must be more than that to nursing. “Wiping brows,” she said. “Taking temperatures. Holding people’s hands when they’re really ill. What about all that? That must be rewarding enough, surely?”

“I suppose so,” said Jane.

Now the Professor came along, his bicycle rattling over the cobblestones.

“Miss …” He had forgotten her name. That was not surprising; few of the professors bothered to learn the names of the junior staff.

“From the library,” she said. “The issue desk.” That would be enough, she thought. But he persisted,

“Miss …?”

“Thwaites,” she said. “Miss Thwaites.”

“Of course. Of course.”

He dismounted. “It occurred to me,” he said, “that we are going in the same direction, you and I. You will be going to the library, and, as it happens, that’s where I’m planning to call in before I go off to my room in college.”

She waited. She noticed that there were beads of perspiration on his brow and on his upper lip. Jane might have wiped them away with all her nurse’s assurance, but she could not.

“I was wondering,” the Professor continued, “whether you would care for a lift.”

She looked at him in puzzlement.

“I mean, on the bar of my bicycle,” he explained. “It’s not the most comfortable mode of transport – I’ll give you that – but it’ll save you a long walk.”

She had accepted, without really knowing why she had done so. She did not mind the walk to work, as it gave her the exercise that she felt she needed. And yet, if a professor – and a renowned one at that – should offer to give you a lift on his bicycle, surely you should accept.

He had shown her where to sit. “Don’t lean to either side,” he said. “That would destabilise us. Just look straight ahead.”

They set off rather faster than she would have liked, but she soon got used to the bicycle’s particular motion – and its centre of gravity. Out on the main road, after crossing the tramlines, they made their way towards the university – a cluster of spires in the distance. A church bell rang the half hour somewhere, and then another, sounding through the last of the mist.

“Are you comfortable enough?” asked the Professor.

She giggled. “Sort of. Actually, no – I’m not all that comfortable, but it’s all right.”

“It won’t take long,” he said. “Do you know the song? ‘A Bicycle Built For Two’? Do you know it?”

“Of course.”

He swerved slightly. “Daisy – the young lady in that song – was happy enough on their tandem. She had a proper seat, of course.” He paused, and then he said, rather loudly, “Bearing in mind that neither of us had really planned this, one might perhaps say: She was carried into town on a cross-bar and a whim.”

She smiled. And that is the smile we see in the photograph.

But then the Professor continued, “On a cross-bar and a whim. Do you know what that is?”

She shook her head.

“It’s a zeugma,” said the Professor. “It’s a well-known figure of speech. The classic example is, She went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan chair. That’s Dickens, no less.”

“So that’s a zeugma?”

“Yes. It’s a figure of speech. It makes one want to smile.”

She could see that.

“Because,” the Professor continued, “there’s a contrast between the two elements in the sentence.” He paused. “Forgive me if I sound pedantic.”

She assured him that he did not. “I’m interested,” she said.

“The essence of a zeugma is the contrast between a literal expression and a metaphor. So in the example of the sedan chair, being in a sedan chair is not a metaphor, but being in a flood of tears is. We’re not talking about a real flood, are we? That’s a metaphor.”

“I see.”

“And so, in our first example, we have on a cross-bar, and on a whim, which is metaphorical. To act on a whim is more metaphorical than literal.”

She looked into the dark foliage of the trees off to their right. He noticed the direction of her gaze.

“Leafy bowers,” he said. “That’s a concealed metaphor because bowers were originally rooms. Then they became shady places. There’s a concealed metaphor there.”

They continued their ride. The sun had broken through now, and was warm upon her face.

“The Greeks had a much broader concept of metaphor,” said the Professor. “I tell my students to go off and read Aristotle on the subject. He’s very enlightening.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes. I often go back to Aristotle, you know. He said there are three important features of metaphor: saphes, which means lucidity – lovely word that, Miss …”


“Of course, Miss Thwaites. Lucidity. Lambent: that’s another lovely word. Look at the light behind us – no, don’t turn around – but look at it when we reach our destination. Such a lovely, soft light. Lambent.”

She looked ahead. The light was on the damp cobblestones. It was silver. “And then? The other things about metaphor?”

“There’s saphes, which is the state of being clear. That’s a very special state, which some people, and some expressions, simply do not have. And then there’s xenikon, which is strangeness. A metaphor must be strange – it must make us sit up and take notice in a way in which a literal expression does not.”

The Professor stopped talking. She looked out towards the canal, which was on the other side of the road, away to their left. A crew was rowing on the river, the young men bent over their oars, moving in hunched rhythm.

“Do you know,” the Professor began, “there was a boat on the river called the Zeugma? Did you know that?”

He seemed to expect an answer. “No,” she said. And then added, “Who would have thought.”

“Exactly,” said the Professor. “It was an odd sort of boat – a little steamer, with a very small chimney. They kept the coal at the back.”

“I wonder if it’s still there,” she said.

“I’ve looked out for it,” said the Professor. “I don’t always pay much attention to boats, but I’d like to see the Zeugma again. It appeals to me as a grammarian, I suppose.”

“There might be a boat called the Metaphor,” she said.

“It would be a boat only in a metaphorical sense, and so I wouldn’t care to embark on her. A purely metaphorical boat might not actually float.”

The Professor laughed. “Oh, my goodness,” he said. “What a wonderful image. A metaphorical boat, going down under the weight of its symbolism. Hah!”

He turned the bicycle, and for a few moments they wobbled precariously. But she resisted the temptation to lean, and they were quickly righted. Now they were in sight of the library, and the Professor steered the bicycle to the side of the road. There he lowered a leg to stabilise them, and then dismounted. Giving her his hand, he helped her off the cross-bar.

“I usually park my cycle right here,” he said. “On days that I come to the library, I lean it against this tree.” He bent down to take the cycle clips off his trouser legs. Standing up again, he looked at her. She thought: now he looks so sad.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yes, I am. I’m quite all right.”

“It’s just that you looked … well, forgive me, you looked a bit sad.”

He hesitated. “Well, I am, I suppose. A touch sad.”

“Is there anything …”

He did not let her finish. “It’s kind of you, but I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do. I was thinking of my son, you see. Every so often, I think of him. Every day, in fact. Every day.”

And then she knew; she knew immediately.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“He fell two days before the Armistice. It was that close, that close.”

She did not say anything. She had learned, through experience, that there were times when nothing could be said.

He was looking away. “Over the top,” he said, “and overcome.” He paused. “Another zeugma, I fear.” He tried to
smile; he tried.

She reached out and took his hand again. A small flock of pigeons flew past, a flutter of wings, silent in their flight; but then, from another place, birdsong, farther and farther … all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, she thought, as another had said, who had also gone. Yes, I remember Adlestrop. That poem. The words came back to her.

“All the birds …” she began.

And he said, “… of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Yes.”


This story is taken from the collection Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind, which is available in paperback here.