The most trivial encounter I had with Vic Denby was on the first day at my new school. My father had insisted on accompanying me despite my protests, for not only did he constantly embarrass me when out with him by telling me to pull my shoulders back and to breathe deeply - a leftover from his army days, the only cockney in a Yorkshire regiment serving in Delhi when he was seventeen - but seeming to wait purposely till we were in earshot of a dozen people. It was 1960, I was thirteen and going to the local Tech.
Nearing our destination, a twenty minute walk from home, isolated groups of boys in the silence of newness were standing around outside a wide, sloping incline leading to the main doors of the building. Not one of them had their fathers with them.
As I walked towards them, looking down and away from my father, there were the tinkling sounds of giggling and a barely controlled snigger. Glancing up, I saw a big, dark haired boy with a rough, pitted face looking from side to side at his newly found cronies and then pointedly at my father and me. I looked straight at him, his lips twisting in an exaggerated sneer of contempt. I turned away, unable to hold his eyes. I looked up at my father, willing him to return home. He was looking around him with a self-satisfied air, rocking slowly backwards and forwards on his heels with his hands held loosely behind him and repeatedly pushing his shoulders back, vigorously sniffing and nodding his head in approval as if in the middle of the countryside admiring the scenic beauty spread before him.
‘Yes, it looks a nice school, son. They seem to be decent boys. I think you’ll be okay here.’
He probably said it quietly, but it seemed to bellow out, echoing around the forecourt. The sound of a bell came from somewhere and we all moved towards the entrance.
‘You’ll be alright then, son?’
I gritted my teeth and momentarily closed my eyes, ’Yes, dad’ He looked uncomfortable then and said hesitantly, ‘Well, cheerio son.’ and walked away. I saw Vic for a second turning for a final sneer, then went into the building.
That morning we were told that for the first of the three years there we would be taught the usual academic subjects; after that, one day a week would be spent getting acquainted with the basic principles of the building trades and at the end of that period would be expected to choose the one we intended to specialise in, the remaining time almost singularly devoted to it. There were, after a while, a few extra-curricular activities not mentioned then that were to lighten the class and workshop rituals; one such created by an English teacher who decided that if we were at the School of Building, then, by definition, we must be louts and in an attempt to civilise us he taught, in the main hall and after hurriedly scoffed meals in the lunch hour, ballroom dancing.
It was, in retrospect, quite bizarre to watch boys, some with cement or paint-spattered overalls, dancing with each other - the ones who had to play the woman’s role gritting their teeth in a howl of sarcastic comments. One particularly small lad was made to stand on the teacher’s shoes and be whirled around as a teaching aid, like a puppet at a seaside fairground.
I realised after very few weeks that I had little interest or ability in any of the trades except the more artistic elements of decorating, and it was in this workshop a year or so later that Vic’s contempt for me came into the open.
He had quickly established himself as one of the dominant personalities of the class and gathered around him the majority of the rougher lads. He attempted to prove his physical superiority on every possible occasion. If there was any furniture moving or desk arranging to be done he would be the first to get up and push and carry, his expression meant to convey that he was only toying with small pieces of wood, mere child’s play, and after sliding a desk recklessly across the room would spread out his hands and curve his arms up over his head in an exaggerated follow-through. If there was cement to be made up in a brickwork lesson his hands were the first to grab a shovel, picking up wads of ‘muck’ and holding them up as high and for as long as he could before dropping them back on the mortar boards and, often unnecessarily, stacking a large load of bricks into a hod and carrying it around, depositing them in piles in front of the small walls the other students were building.
Vic had a native shrewdness and an aptitude for quickly grasping a practical subject and - considering the finer points of communication superfluous - was basic and direct.
In one decorating lesson we were all, either in pairs or singly, painting murals on the workshop walls. My associate for this was a normally quiet boy whose father, it was rumoured, had his own decorating business.
The particular creation we had evolved was a six feet square relief map of the Bay of Biscay and part of Spain, the land mass being formed by a stippler, made of short lengths of rubber strips placed at right angles to each other, being repeatedly pressed onto a thick layer of alabaster. This, when hardened, rubbed down and shaded in various tones of brown and green was a reasonable topographical representation of hilly, wooded land. The trade teacher, seeing that his class was absorbed in its work, was indulging in one of his periodic absences from the room.
We had been working silently for a while and I mentioned to my colleague something about Dali’s moustache dropping off if he could see the misshapen mess we were making of his country, and in a slow, scholarly manner, he surprisingly began to tell what he knew of the artist’s life. He rolled out a string of interesting facts and observations and as I aired my meagre knowledge of the subject, I became more absorbed in our conversation, was stimulated, loquacious.
‘What you on about, Bowes?’
I felt myself flush even before I turned and saw Vic looking down at me from across the room, He was standing on a pair of steps from which he was working on a version of the mailed fist and motto of the Tank Corps. He leisurely swivelled round, leant his back on the steps, drew one leg up a couple of treads higher than the other, rested his elbow on a knee and cupped the side of his face in a hand. He sat smirking and closing his eyes in an affected manner of nonchalant superiority, and thrusting his head forward said condescendingly,
‘What is it this time then, your artistic appreciation? He carefully emphasised the last two words as if they were foreign to him.
‘Why ain’t you like Jim and Lofty and the uvvers, Bowes?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes. ‘We’re gonna get motor bikes when we can. Get the gels, too.’ he grinned, looking around at the others.
The largest of his sycophants looked up and sniggered. ‘You don’t wanna know nuffin’ about art,’ he said with infinite conviction, his eyes moving from side to side as if he was thinking of a significant sequel to his statement. He looked down at his board again, shaking his head and saying almost absently,
Vic, turning the steps towards us, was using them as a pulpit now, leaning his folded arms comfortably on top of them.
‘You wanna watch wrestlin’, he said, holding his arms up like a weightlifter. ‘Strength.’ he shouted, ‘Strength.’
Somehow he represented the whole world, and I felt that familiar, panicky isolation.
‘Muscles,’ Vic was saying. ‘What yer wanna do, is –‘
‘The biggest muscle you’ve got is between your ears.’ I blurted out angrily in a sudden flash of bravery. The silence made the words seem even more inadequate and stupid. A few of the boys who had heard them laughed in a preoccupied way for they were, in varying degrees, enjoying what they were doing and there was nothing hostile in their amusement. I sensed that Vic had failed to see this and he glared around challengingly, his lips tightened in anger.
Nobody looked at him and if they had would probably have been surprised to see him so annoyed. His eyes caught mine in the second before he turned away. I stood tensely, trying to concentrate on my mural, wanting Vic to do the same with his.
No one was speaking. A few boys were humming or whistling quietly. I relaxed a little. Then a slipping, juddering sound, wooden clatter, heavy thump. I spun round. Vic was laying spread eagled on his back with the head of the steps across his legs and red paint, like blood, spattered over the floor around him, his paint can describing an arc in the air, its curve decreasing as it slowed. There was a momentary stillness, and then the sound.
They were pointing down at him, shrieking, mouths wide open, lips stretched back over teeth. One boy abruptly sat on the floor, head dropping back loosely and then whipping it up again to stare incredulously, his eyes moist, laughing hugely and soundlessly. I was watching Vic closely as he viciously kicked the steps away and clambered to his feet. His white face was expressionless as he calmly and methodically brushed himself down, hands slapping over his shoulders and the back of his thighs, eyes almost vacant.
The room had quietened a little, then without warning he strode across to me. I pushed my arm up defensively and pressed back against the wall, but Vic’s fist chopped it down with such force that I slid to the floor, cradling my arm to my chest. Vic then knelt in front of me, his back upright and erect, hands tightly clenched. He was quite still. I stared back at him, gaping. Nobody was laughing now. There was no noise at all.
He raised his fists high above his head and swung them down onto my shoulders, one at a time, as one came down the other would go up as if he were ringing imaginary church bells. Strangely, there was no force behind them they just lightly touched me. I was holding my hands palms upwards in front of my face, turning away in anticipation of heavier blows and catching short glimpses of Vic looking unblinkingly at a point above his head, detached, yet frightened and frowning hard as if he were desperately trying to remember something or grasp the reality of his actions. Slowly and, at first, almost inaudibly he choked hoarsely,
‘I hate you, I hate you,’ and then quickening until he was screaming it into a high-pitched rhythm of, ‘aitchew, aithchew, aitchew,’ over and over.
A few of the bigger boys pulled him away from me and as soon as he was on his feet he shook himself from them and with head hanging walked limply back to the fallen steps, pushed them upright and slowly looked around him for something to clean the paint up, none of which had touched anyone’s work. Someone tentatively offered him a piece of rag then wandered back to where he had been working. The others returned to their places, also, some looking over at me and shrugging their shoulders, but shock showing in their eyes. Vic was kneeling on the floor, body stretched forward, rubbing the bunched-up rag in wide ineffectual movements, his shoulders spasmodically jerking. He was crying. The class then helped clear up the mess. I did, too.
Vic was quieter and less aggressive for a while afterwards, but not for long. His strident voice could soon be heard again and he seemed the same old Vic, except that he never spoke to me at all and when he eventually did it was only at moments when he more or less had to.
Eighteen months later and just prior to leaving I had an interview with a large City and West End painting contractors and a month afterwards started work.
A pressure on my shoulder. A rocking motion, gentle, rhythmic, my arm firmly gripped, the rocking more vigorous, my head lolling loosely about. My name was being called, gently, insistently. I opened my eyes and stared at my mother who was telling me that there was a cup of tea on the bedside table and not to knock it over and don’t be too long getting up. I nodded slowly, feeling sleep clamping my eyelids tighter and was only barely aware of the door closing, and then the slow realisation that it was Monday morning, my first day at work. I hung my head over the side of the bed and stared at the ceiling.
Images of myself travelling to work drifted into my head and concreted themselves in movie form: a straightforward shot leaving the house wearing a grey, black-flecked sports jacket, neat, wool tie and worsted trousers. The camera pans towards me as I walk quickly along the street showing a back view with head bent forward on stooping shoulders, then a dramatic close-up, the camera on its trolley twelve inches from my bobbing face, minute particles of sleep in the corner of an eye, off-white filling in a front tooth and the pallor of the smooth skin.
The houses in the background are seen as the camera moves away, travelling faster than I’m walking. The corner of the road, a blank wall, a dog trots past, then I appear again, turning quickly, flashing from left to right of the screen. A side view this time as I begin running to catch a bus pulling away from the stop, a slowing down and then a casual leap onto the platform with an aerial shot looking almost directly down at me swinging around the pole with one hand and instantly disappearing into the interior. The blue-grey acrid air of the crowded top deck, a low shot showing boots, black shiny casuals, corduroys and a pair of brown suede shoes. Stark close-ups of men with a day’s growth of beard and the just shaven ones putting home-rolled or factory made cigarettes between their lips. Faces with closed eyes endeavouring to finish off harshly interrupted sleep, faces with eyes narrowed reading the pages of the Daily Mirror or Reveille, faces with mouths open, panting with the effort of the double exertion of having run for the bus and coughing from a too-early fag.
The vehicle slows and just when it has almost stopped starts away again. An early morning office girl climbs the stairs and looks around her with distaste. Nobody stands, and leaning against the side at the top of the stairs, brushes imaginary smuts from her crisp, clean dress with the back of a gloved hand and stares fixedly out of a window. The bus slackens its bouncing, rolling speed, the camera points away through a window and in the natural frame lorries and cars, motorbikes and cycles sweep across the lens which tilts upwards showing a wasteland of dust and bricks, squashed drink cartons, remnants of bonfires, old newspapers and the frame of a bicycle sticking up like a scalene triangle. The rectangle is then filled with tall, shabby Victorian houses, then a shot from the top of the steep, curved stairs as bodies helter-skelter down and as they jump off the bus, the majority before it has stopped, into the grimy entrance of the station, makes them look like squat-bodied giants with huge feet.
My gaze strayed from the ceiling to the underneath of a saucer rim protruding from the top of my bedside table and in a moment of full wakefulness I lifted myself from the bed in pleasant anticipation of the hot sweet tea. Ten rushed minutes later I was on my way to the bus stop. There were no cameras.
I was to report at eight o’clock to the foreman painter, Mister Fox, at a building in Finsbury Circus. I was carrying a small case containing shiny, newly purchased tools and a packet of sandwiches. Walking from the station I swung this about disdainfully in an effort to hide from the world that this little lad, who I was sure it was looking at with comforting smiles and women with inclinations of heads and looks in their eyes which suggested an inwardly exclaimed ‘Aaaah’ of pity, was not really going off to work for the first time, but had, in fact, started years ago and was now accepted as one of the men. Squaring my shoulders, an old habit, I crossed the road to the entrance.
A staircase with a rail supported by iron balustrades wrought in heavily ornate designs spiralled upwards. I climbed carefully, passing floors with metal partitions, false ceilings, plastered walls and new window frames in the process of erection and men just starting work for the day, slow moving and reluctant. One of them told me where the paint shop was and I found the foreman there who, when informed timorously that I was the new apprentice, gave me a look of disapproval, a paint kettle full of pink priming and led me along the large, semi-partitioned floor to the windows at the end and told me he wanted ten completed that day. Half way across were pairs of trestles, scaffold boards stretched between them, and working in pairs on them were six painters, their brushes casually pounding the ceiling with hollow flip flops of sound. I hoped that, in time, I could pick up their effortless expertise.
They were laughing, voices and guffaws echoing around and one of them, with quick glances at an immaculately dressed man sporting dustless brogues, looking irritated and flicking a steel tape measure from hand to hand, was making a gesture towards his workmates by gripping an arm above the elbow and, still holding his brush, swinging it with tightly clenched fist mock-furiously up and down, lips curled back over gritted teeth - a universal gesture unknown to me at the time.
There was a cliquishness in such incidents, an unconscious knowledge of the right things to say and do, the correct responses, the right feelings. These things were seemingly a natural part of them, unthinking, unforced.
I walked over to a window which seemed to soar above me, the others vanishing into a pinpoint of perspective. In my brand new white bib and brace I began searching anxiously for a pair of steps. I explored the floors above and below and the only pair that weren’t being used were painted brown and an electrician, before grabbing them back from me, stuck his face through their inverted ‘V’ into mine and with patronising mock severity as if he had just caught his youngest child sticking a finger into a pot of jam, slowly and deliberately shook his head then burst into laughter while I stared with fascination at the small dots of amalgam in his mouth glistening with spittle.
I returned to the floor where I was supposed to be working and heard the foreman sarcastically say to one of the men, ‘If you can’t finish it till the first coat’s dry, stand there and blow on it.’
He turned to me.’ Haven’t you started yet?’
Then, ‘Anyway, we’re off to tea now, they’ve got a big area down there and they’ll have a long run till dinner.’
I sat in the café, the other boiler-suited or bib-and-braced painters laughing easily, ordering food - ‘two airships on a cloud, darlin’…’ babies on a raft, luv’ .for sausages and mash, or beans on toast - and then, swaggering in, shoulders rolling, long hair slicked down, was Vic Denby. He sat down in the corner, had a quiet chuckle with a couple of painters, looked at me, gave a slight nod, then turned his head away. I had no idea that he had come to this firm, was working on this job.
I only seemed to see Vic in the café, it was a big job, painters, mostly in twos, were spread out on various floors. He never spoke to me, never gestured. On the third day Charlie Fox took me to the main entrance ceiling - someone had mentioned that it was the biggest in London - and scaffold-boarded about eight feet below its surface where men were brushing cream eggshell onto it, finishing it with large, fine hair stipplers. He pointed up through the gap where the ladder entered through the boards to a large, elaborate Adam ceiling rose.
‘You been to Buildin’ School ain’t yer? Well, pick that out, the swags in red and the egg and arrers in white; do the round rim in blue. Ted’s got the colours, get ’em from the paint shop.’
This was more like it. I had a sudden urge to ask for the boards to be raised so I could lie on my back to paint and pretend it was the Sistine Chapel. I carried three paint kettles and brushes up with me in one go, then went down for the turps and rag. I started enjoying myself immediately; standing on an old stool, cutting in the Roman swags with a large chisel-edged sable, pushing the white into the tongue and dart with an inch tool. Time was irrelevant.
I stepped back. There was nothing there. My shoulder blades hit the metal edge of a board as I fell, I seemed to bounce away and then my buttocks were hitting rungs, then the back of my head hitting them as I fell, strangely upright. I landed vertically, also. I glanced down at a shoe. It was hanging off, almost broken in half. I looked around dizzily, perhaps for the brushes, the kettles…I don’t know.
I just stood there, alone. None of the painters on the boards above me seemed to have noticed. One was singing in a casual voice about a country girl, I could hear his foot tap quietly to the rhythm of the song, and his brush. And then I looked to the corner of this big, dust-sheeted area and there was Vic, ten yards away. In a moment of schizoid irrelevance I noticed he had cut his initials into the handle of a filling knife he was holding. He was smiling, almost likeably, a forefinger lightly tapping the side of his nose. He stopped, nodded his head slowly up and down, still smiling. I looked away. On the sheets around my feet were spatterings of red. Like blood.
Six months before I first saw him I was in a shed on Wanstead Flats sitting a test determining whether I went into the Army or Air Force for my National Service. It was 1960, I was eighteen, and had just broken the terms of a four year bricklaying apprenticeship. Though I’d liked the solid, tactile pleasure of laying bricks, after two years of working in and around London, mostly on new-builds with their bland, yellow and grey slabs, often on scaffolding and too regularly scraping ice from spirit levels and trowels, and knowing I had to do National Service anyway, decided to do it at the age most lads did. In the shed I and twenty other youths had to answer questions such as: to start a car do you, a) press the accelerator, b) turn the ignition, or c) depress the clutch. I had no idea about this one; driving cars was for the big boys. The price of failure was the Army. A few weeks later I found myself at an RAF Reception Camp in Cardington, South Wales.
Here we were given haircuts that exposed parts of our heads we never knew existed and were kitted out and given service numbers in a futile attempt to make us look part of an efficient fighting machine. I was dismayed at how ridiculous I looked in a new beret until I learnt to razor edge it down the side of my face like the three-year Regulars, most of whom rarely acknowledged conscripts, thinking they were a nuisance and the latter considering them ‘thick’ for the obvious reason that they had voluntarily signed on for that period of time.
After a week we were sent to a square-bashing camp outside Liverpool where we were despatched from wagons, herded into a vast echoing hangar and were screamed at. We were screamed at most of the time by little corporals who all seemed to originate from the Gorbals.
We were yelled at in frightening, almost indecipherable terms, to stand to attention, at ease, about turn, fire rifles - not ‘guns’ - and given orders for every, often pointless, activity that could be thought of for six long weeks
There was, of course, method in their madness; to dehumanise us, objectify us. The thinking serviceman is as useful to the military as throwing a drowning man both ends of a rope.
Orwell’s 1984 had recently been dramatised on television and at our passing out parade two months later, marching dead in line and performing tricks with rifles, we saw, painted on the side of the hangar in ten foot letters, BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU! I felt an unusual feeling of belonging and, despite my cynicism, a small moment of something approaching happiness.
The next move was to a radio training school in Wiltshire where we were given a choice of learning either radio operating or working a teleprinter. Having heard stories of the relentless di-di-di-dah, di-di-di-dah of Morse code sending operators mad, I chose the latter. I was taught to touch-type, to read Murray code - a series of dots, each combination representing letters and figures - and to understand the general procedures for sending and receiving signals.
During our last week we were suddenly transported to a thousand foot ‘hill’ in Snowdonia where we camped out on six inches of solid ice for two nights. Some of the men were crying. This was an ‘acclimatisation’ exercise for our permanent camp. Six days later, in the ninety degrees humidity of Singapore, I was trying to breath.
Flying in a BOAC turboprop Argonaut, it took us four days to reach RAF Changi during which we had overnight stops at Karachi and Calcutta, being entertained during the former in a nightclub by a cabaret singer who asked the audience to give a big welcome to ‘the boys in blue.’ I wasn’t sure how he knew who we were. We were in civilian clothes and had been since leaving England.
The first few nights were spent in a windowless transit block holding eighty men laying on pillows with brown sweat stains from the hundred of heads that had rested on them before our own and staring at chitchat lizards criss-crossing the ceiling. There were tanned Adonises everywhere, grinning at us and calling us ‘moon men.’ A few weeks later, turning brown after hours spent lying on our backs on the buoyant, salty water of the Straits in a fenced-off area to protect bathers from sharks, the new boys, too, were calling fresh arrivals, ‘moon men.’
Moving into our permanent billet, I noticed inside the entrance a tall, dark skinned man standing very still, looking silently down. He had a sweep of black hair, small moustache and was wearing what looked like a grey sari, plus the inevitable flip flops. It was the nearest I had ever been to a ‘native’. Subliminal Raj words arose instantly: ‘swarthy’, ‘cunning’, even ‘shifty’. He was our dohbi wallah who would take our washing to be done, sweep the three concrete floors of our billet and generally tidy up. He was an Indian Malay we called Buntah. I don’t know how long he’d been there. He was just there. I didn’t really talk to him, didn’t think of it. The first time he took my washing I was standing on the balcony. He looked at me shyly and said,
‘You Johnny big bollock.’
I was wearing, above woollen socks and polished boots, a rather short pair of khaki shorts. A sliver of scrotum was showing beneath one leg. I smiled back at him.
The first night on duty in the signals section, in the clacking of teleprinters spewing out tape and paper, and a temperature and lack of air I had never experienced before, I quietly panicked and tore ten operational immediate signals from a receiver and then started, with growing efficiency, to log the rest. I was found out, but was lucky, the duty sergeant merely reminding me that we were fighting the ‘Forgotten War’ and in mainland Malaya - as it was then called - people were getting killed. I was reminded again of this from time to time when receiving signals reading typically, ‘Found in jungle clearing: packet of unopened corn flakes, one knife, one fork, 202 rifle, no ammunition, decapitated head…’
There were other memory aids. We were told to ‘defend’ the local military telephone exchange from a Scottish army battalion that was going to cross the Straits to ‘occupy’ it. We stood or sat around, blanks in rifles, bored and impatient, when we were surrounded suddenly by soldiers in jungle green uniforms. Taffy, who I’d known since Cardington, immediately shot at an officer from six feet away. He could have blinded him. He mumbled apologies and after a little fuss it was forgotten, though he did gain some notoriety.
I did too, in a much lesser way. Falling asleep in the rest room at 4am.on duty in the section the sergeant shook me awake and called me a bastard; two signals had come in on my machine. One of the many barrack room lawyers told me that I could get the sergeant into trouble for using that sort of language to a National Serviceman. I didn’t really believe him, and my accuser wouldn’t do anything about the situation anyway, having been stationed in the Far East for too many years, being perpetually half-pissed in the section and knowing that we knew.
There were further incidents that contained elements of farce, as when the section personnel were split into opposing Red and Blue groups, their members told secretly what groups they were in. As I was about to start the evening shift on this day, an airman who I had worked with for some months suddenly announced that he was a member of Red group, knew that I was in Blue and that the section, and now myself, had been ‘captured.’
And on the way to the NAAFI one lunch time, the most memorable constituents of the meal being rubber eggs and salt tablets - we sweated all the time - I passed a female officer, pretending I hadn’t noticed her.
I ignored her.
‘What do you do when you see an officer?’
I slowly and reluctantly turned towards her before answering.
‘Do so, then.’
I hated to be told what to do by a woman. This wasn’t just a result of my class culture - my mother’s punishing hands had planted the seeds of an unaware misogyny long ago.
I about-turned in my crisp, starched, khaki shirt and shorts, woollen socks around my ankles, exaggeratedly stamping a foot down and, forgetting that I was holding a knife, fork and enamel mug, clipped a hand smartly against the side of my head. I felt blood start to trickle down my temple. She was tall, attractive, groomed and looked like a forties’s recruitment poster. She gazed at me for a full minute without expression and marched away. Suddenly Buntah was there, grinning, his usual suspicious, mildly defensive look gone, as had the young boy he sometimes had with him and who I assumed was his son. I had rarely seen him outside of the billet before. He offered me a handkerchief to wipe my face.
I saw him again outside of the billet when I was on 24 hour duty guarding the ’secret’ ammo dump, sitting on the grass sweating in secondary jungle as smiling kids came by and said hello. Buntah passed too, smiling again, his tiny moustache and large teeth making him look like an Asian Chaplin as he picked up my rifle, pretended to shoot me, gave it back and left.
Travelling up-country for a fortnight’s annual leave to Penang Island, the presence of terrorist activity was again made, almost, clear to us. We were in a train, standing by the windows with loaded rifles. I asked an officer why we had to carry them when there was, apparently, little threat.
‘To prevent armaments from being stolen.’
‘The rifles and ammunition we are carrying.’
‘So, we are carrying arms in order to guard the arms we are carrying.’
‘Yes,’ said the officer and unaware of the tautology continued along the carriage.
This seemed to confirm to me the consensus that ‘military intelligence’ was indeed an oxymoron.
There were some good things I did that helped nurture my sanity. Occasionally, a few of us we would spend our leisure time around a cove on the Straits acting out the scenes we could remember from current films: ‘On the Waterfront,’ ‘Bad Day at Black Rock,’ ‘Duel in the Sun,’ and which we shot black and white stills of with a newly acquired bellows camera. Buntah used to watch us. He seemed to be there every time. Taffy asked him if he’d like to play a role, but he shook his head and continued frowning, concentrating hard on what we were doing. I never questioned why he’d walk a mile from the billet to do so. Perhaps he lived nearby.
There were other things, too: the solid feel of cylindrical packets of Pall Mall cigarettes, the delicious aesthetic of drops of ice-cold water running down the sides of bottles of still orange, the sitting in an air-conditioned bar every pay day simply because it was air-conditioned, and cold Tiger beer.
Some time after Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, a film that apparently required the Singapore police forming a cordon around the cinema to prevent teenagers ‘rioting’, real riots took place along with the increasing clamour for merdeka - freedom. In the early hours one morning an irate sergeant shook each of us awake and told us to get into waiting lorries which would take us to the city centre to quell the ‘gangs of vicious thugs’ breaking a recently imposed curfew and damaging property. We were to be given truncheons.
The word quickly spread through the darkened billet that conscripts couldn’t be forced into this extra-curricular activity, and one by one most of us turned over and went to sleep again. Why would we want to hit over the head with sticks, polite, well-mannered and generally well-behaved citizens who wanted independence from imperialist rule?
Two days later, Taffy told me that a few of the airmen had gone, not with the intention of using their truncheons, but to see what was happening. One of them told him he thought he’d seen Buntah with a crowd of younger Malays, that he’d been shouting and yelling along with the others, holding a stick, and that the police had charged at them, digging their batons into them and hitting those they could get to across their heads. The observer had been ordered back on the truck and returned to camp, and had seen no more. I realised then that I hadn’t seem Buntah for a while. I found a copy of the Straits Times soon after which mentioned that several rioters had been killed. The police were hardly mentioned.
For a few days the most significant thing about his absence seemed to be that we had to clean the place ourselves - someone tried to get a rota system in place, but it didn’t work - and that we had to walk a hundred yards to take our washing to be done. Then an elderly Chinese woman came and silently took over Buntah’s work
I was on duty when the signal came through for my demob. It was an operational immediate and my name was the last one on the passenger list. On the truck into Changi Airport I was sitting behind the tailboard staring at palms, the ubiquitous banana trees, roadside bars, one with a giant fake bottle of Tiger beer in its front garden, and crossing the road behind us was Buntah’s boy turning to look at us. I’d forgotten about him. I stood up and waved He looked sad. He gave a little smile and a gesture of a wave back.
We arrived in England - returning in a civilian aircraft and although taking a different route, also taking four days - and found the hut we were given had no coal. It was November. We started breaking up the furniture for the fire. We weren’t yobs, we were cold.
When those from London and points south were dropped off at Waterloo Station we said hurried goodbyes and then I was on an Underground train. Despite the strangeness, the feeling of not belonging - or perhaps because of it - I thought of Buntah; his silent, unexpected appearances, his walking past the foot of my bed swivelling his skinny legs, pumping his elbows, singing ‘gonna rocking around clock…’ his strangely patronising giggle when he thought I’d done something silly and the day before he disappeared, shouting at him when I found that while tidying my bed space for an inspection he’d thrown away a sketch of a sniper in a tree I’d taken nine hours to draw. He’d looked so hurt
I wondered what was going to happen when I got home, what I would do for a living, Then, for the last time for a long while, I thought of Buntah again; mostly about his smiling testicular reference, ‘You Johnny big bollock.’
I’d seen him around the college, he worked in Business Studies; big man, late fifties, intense, almost marched along, tweed jacket, un-pressed worsted trousers, the sort of face you wouldn’t want peering through the playground railings of your child’s school.
He had read my parody of Edu-biz buzzwords and phrases in the house magazine…proactive encouragement of student-centred assimilation of conceptual bridges to facilitate non-arbitrary criteria of recourse-based parameters for …etc. and, literally bumping into me in the foyer, had told me how much he’d enjoyed it. I was mildly pleased; he may well have been the only reader not to take it seriously.
Though I had never spoken to him, he obviously knew of me and perhaps knowing I taught an art course to mature students at the same college, and had done so for the last ten years, told me he bought paintings, mainly Victorian, mostly at auctions and would I like to see them. He owned a large detached house in a Victorian estate in East London and lived on his own, as did I, in a small, rather minimalist flat near my workplace.
The next afternoon I went to see him. He lived on a street with an abundance of established trees in front gardens hanging over walls of London brick - the same as the houses, though some of these had been rendered and painted.
His house was large and unprepossessing; scruffy, uncared for, shallow pediments above pseudo Georgian windows - I again wondered why Victorian architects, with the embellishments of colonial masturbation, had enjoyed destroying the perfect proportions of a twelve-paned box sash - and a roll of barbed wire across the top of the castellated garage. It was a sunny day, though the porch was dark, unlit and the maroon door had paint over the original glass from badly cut-in glazing bars. The bell didn’t work. There was no knocker. I tapped lightly on a muntin and the door opened immediately as if he had been standing behind it. He smiled me in with a weary gesture.
It was the kitchen I noticed first; handle less cups on a dark wooden table, ketchup spotted floor, oil bound distemper peeling off walls, the smell of gas and a butler’s sink that was so full of pots and pans and bacon rind that I felt even he wouldn’t piss in. I followed him up the stairs; railings missing from banisters, Napoleonic grotesque glimpsed through a dusty bead curtain, sofa, the back of a headboard, a mahogany mirrored wardrobe perhaps tired of his naked reflections, walls of stripes and roses, a patterned pub carpet, the tinkling crystals of a chandelier.
The paintings were in crude wooden racks in the loft, possibly fifty or more, their frames dust covered. He began pulling them out, looking at each one with a sort of apprehensive wistfulness before replacing it. There were cottages, fields, sheep, town hall faces, smug eyes, snug waistcoats, mayoral chains, nearly all covered in heavy varnish. A canvas fell to the floor, he stared at the back of it, then looking above my head - he had rarely looked at my face since I’d been in his home - muttered nervously that he wasn’t well. He started to stutter.
‘Th-there’s a lot here, they’ll take them. They’ll take them.’
‘People. They’ll get in, they’ll take all of them.’
He looked straight at me. ‘B-Belmayes, I have to go to Belmayes.’
I wanted to press my knuckles into my ears, pretend he hadn’t said those words.
Again he said them, exactly as before, but whispering. Then, louder, ‘Take me there, please, I’m ill.’ He said this last very quickly.
He scuttled down the stairs through the kitchen and into the long back garden. I followed. The door slammed behind me. He asked if I liked his ‘little plot’ and apologised for it being overgrown. He strode towards the back door of the kitchen, tried to open it and announced it had locked
‘I think the f-front door’s open.’ he said. ‘There’s a ladder here.’
He pointed to a few rungs showing through the long grass. I pulled the ladder up and leant it against the back of the garage; climbed up, and realising I couldn’t drop down from the front because of the wire, dragged it across the roof and slid it down the front of the garage. Awkwardly stepping over the coiled wire I came down and went to the front door again. It was open. I went into the kitchen, unlatched the back door and, following him again, went through the hall, out and around the side of the house where there was an old Citroen, the grass partly hiding its hubcaps. Opening the passenger door he slumped into the seat and beckoned me with a flippant wave to sit behind a mould-splotched steering wheel and drive.
The smell inside was foul, but surprisingly the car started first time. I bumped and stalled along for a while before I could control the vehicle adequately enough to trust myself on the main road. He sat there like a silent scream. I passed my own street ten minutes later; it looked darkly unreal. Two miles or so further on was the familiar chimney in the grounds of Belmayes Hospital. It wasn’t just the chimney that was familiar - that was a local landmark.
I had been in Belmayes as a young man and didn’t expect, nor wish, to return for whatever reason. It was the local Bedlam. I’d stayed months; needle-pierced in early dawns, drifting into insulin-deep sleeps because they didn’t drop you into cold baths any more and playing football by order with a sugar water bottle in my fist, defying instant comas and watching a crazed goalkeeper stopping shots with his face. I dug the hospital allotment without knowing why, watched someone from Ward 4 scrape a pick across a long-stay’s scalp, blood covering his smiling teeth, and the stiff dances in F Ward with glazed-eyed girls were no incentive to leave my glass-walled mind.
Fifty yards inside the gate now I stopped in a small, asphalted space outside an incongruous glass door at the bottom of what could have been a medieval keep and looked across at him. He was frowning and nodding rhythmically. This went on silently for minutes. Quietly I asked him what he wanted to do. He glanced at me, clambered out the car and walked hastily towards turreted psychiatry.
Following him in I saw a stocky Jamaican behind a counter asking if he could help.
‘I want to see a doctor. Could I see him now, please?’
There was no desperation, he had asked his question almost apologetically. He seemed to have stopped stuttering.
He was told to wait. I think he was crying, his hands rigidly flat on the top of his legs. Quietly he told me to go. He’d be alright, he said.
The man put a phone down and said someone would be with him soon. I didn’t know what to do or say. Tentatively I put my arm around his shoulders, not really wanting to touch him. Then a young doctor appeared, gently took the elbow of his potential patient and both turned into a narrow corridor and were out of sight.
Driving back I wondered why he hadn’t packed a bag with some washing stuff, toothbrush, pyjamas, for surely he wore those. I put the car in his garden, churning the grass. For a while I sat, noticed there was still a small patch of mould on the wheel, then looked down between my legs and saw a smear of blood on my sock. The barbed wire must have cut me. Sunset suddenly silhouetted the house. I got out of the car and walked quickly away, as if fleeing childhood.
The next day he rang me in the staff room. He was speaking from home. He wanted to sell his paintings and wished me to be executor. There were forms to sign.
I looked around the room, usually a chattering chorus of pedagogy, a communion of roles across coffee spilt desks. At this moment there were only three of us; Chris, lording it over his empire of three desks, grin legitimating his loveable crassness, Durham accent ruling okay as he gleefully repeated how lucky we were that evolution had got it right by giving us thumbnails so we could scratch our arses, and Alan, head of our department, provincial man, established victim, cold wife, colder kids, a Co-op ceilidh the highlight of his month. It was ordinary, familiar, almost incestuously so. Now, here was this strangely authoritative voice telling me that I must take official responsibility for the sale of an art collection
I told him that I had no classes and could get to him about two. I’d mentioned yesterday to no one.
Stepping off a bus and turning into the long street I could see a cream coloured pantechnicon parked some two hundred yards away. I slowed, almost stopped, and then thought of him a few hours ago inside that square half mile of Neo-Gothic dismay.
Moving more purposefully along the street and getting nearer to the vehicle outside his house I saw two men in brown smocks leaning paintings against the rear nearside wheel, then returning to the house again to get more. On the side of the van was written John Baines, Art Auctioneers, Cotteshall, Essex. The front door was wide open and a dustsheet thrown over the porch step and part of the hall. I went inside the house a little way and waited hesitantly. One of the men came down carrying a large painting of several sheep in the lea of a hill, the burnished gold on the tops of their heads and backs shouting second-rate Pre-Raphaelite. I asked if the owner was in the attic and receiving an affirmative nod went up the stairs, the second man passing me on his way down.
He was looking at me through the open loft door, his eyes wide, greying hair sticking up as if it was gelled.
‘Do you think they’ll take them to Baines’s? They could take them somewhere else, couldn’t they? They could take them to another auctioneers and do some sort of fiddle.’ He seemed frightened.
I asked him if he had spoken to the firm’s office, he said he had, and I tried to reassure him that his paintings would get there. I didn’t inquire about the previous night.
I gestured to him that I’d help take some of the paintings down. He pointed to a few of the smaller ones. I took them outside and leant them against the others. After bringing a few more down and realising how hungry I was - lecturing, or rather the way I proselytised, burnt up a lot of energy - I asked him if he’d mind if I went to a café somewhere for a quick bite. I didn’t want to eat where I was. Nodding, he said,
‘Don’t be long.’
I hurried to the other end of the street to the main road, but didn’t see any cafes. I wandered around asking people. Someone told me of a place near the Flats where I used to play as a child. I found it, ordered something. It took a long while to get to me. I ate it quickly, had a coffee.
I walked back along his road, looking at privet hedges, scrolled gates, the black and white diamond tiles of front paths, and then looked up. There was no van. I stopped, feeling self-conscious. I wanted to run to the house, but couldn’t. I stood outside; doors and windows shut, the long grass, the car at the side where I’d parked it and the ladder still against the front of the garage where it had been all night. Neither of us had noticed it. I laid it alongside the car, went to the front door, knocked tentatively on one of the coloured glass panes, then harder. There was no sound from inside. I waited ten minutes or so, not knowing what to do. Remembering I had a class that evening I walked slowly back to the bus stop. Looking back along the street the air seemed dense and hard. I didn’t phone him. I think I was frightened to.
I wondered about him for a week or so. Had he gone with the men in the van? Had
he decided to trust them and, maybe, gone back to the hospital again? Was he strong enough to get well in that place? Where were the forms for me to sign, did they exist?
My interest in answering these questions gradually waned and after a while the episode faded away.
Six days ago in a café opposite Liverpool Street Station I saw him. He was munching a meal and staring steadily at a far point just above my head. I had been there, eating and reading, for at least twenty minutes and hadn’t noticed him. I also hadn’t realised just how big he was. He looked well, was wearing a raincoat, tie and was well groomed. I was tempted to speak to him, give him a casual grin and ask coyly if he remembered me. Instead, I got quietly up, walked past him and crossed the road to the station.
Leaving the train before my usual stop I went to his street and stood outside the house. I wasn’t quite sure at first if it was his - it had been four years - until I saw the rusting barbed wire.
I sat on his front wall, my back to the road. I started swinging my heels rhythmically into the bricks, felt bits of pointing crumble away, kicked harder, wanted to smash the wall down, to pull the gate off its hinges, rip the grass from the garden, kick the side of his car in - though it wasn’t there anymore - wanted to put my foot through the front door, rip the wire away until my hands and arms bled. I don’t know why. I walked quickly along the road, started running, fists clenched, till I felt my fingertips would push through the palms of my hands. I was weeping.
He was leaning against the back wall of the class room, hands in pockets, body arched forward a little, right leg bent, heel resting on top of the skirting and head cocked slightly to one side like his childhood photos; hiding a sulk, a shyness. A ‘little camp’ was the description offered by one student. She, herself, so debilitated by her family she had succeeded at nothing, was getting through the course because he was writing virtually half of her work for her.
Her brother, who had abused her as a child, had burnt himself to death in his car by throwing petrol over the inside and igniting it. She, too, had attempted suicide, driving her car at speed into a lamppost. The vehicle had split almost in two, she had stepped out with a grazed face. Her sibling she’d seen as selfish, there being nothing left for her to remember him by.
Mature students, generally, had many problems, especially women. The majority on this course were females and half of them were starting the long road to economic independence and, for some, hoped-for single parenthood. Their male partners were largely unsupportive, insecure and suspicious of those who were helping their women stretch to new vistas; a colleague had recently seen one of them standing in the car park looking grimly up at the staff room windows. Fresh bruises seemed a weekly occurrence. The younger girls, minimum age twenty, were not exceptions.
For six months he had been lecturing this group in both the sociology of deviance and of medicine. Most would go on to a nursing or social work degree. Two hundred students were split into groups called ‘cohorts’ by management. He’d told the latter that as a cohort referred to a tenth of a Roman Legion and he hadn’t seen a toga or a sandal since he’d been there, the term was inappropriate.
He disliked management and their sycophants; their eager grabbing of Edu-biz buzz words and throwing them into the air like linguistic status symbols at staff meetings, at the end of which, having remained silent throughout, he would quietly place a scribbled list of code words in front of the frowning Chair.
The students he saw as ‘his,’ as he did the subject he taught, and was aware that this proprietorial urge was a vestige of a working class background; his father, a caretaker, owning nothing, would claim psychological ownership of ‘his’ building, his mother, a cleaner, ‘her’ bank.
He was doing role-plays with them and had suggested a scenario or two; the Jehovah’s Witness parents of a young injured child who were refusing to allow a life-saving blood transfusion - what would, could, the medical team do? A similar question was posed by an extremely sick menstruating woman being treated by Orthodox Jewish doctors. It was a delight to watch two Yoruba Nigerian women and a Kenyan man play the doctors.
With encouragement they’d create their own situations and act out one or two a lesson. They particularly liked making up narratives that enabled them to dress up - tongue in cheek he’d suggest nurses uniforms with fishnet stockings and stiletto heels would be appreciated - and, if they justified it in the context of a genuine ethical dilemma, to use music. The head of school would look through the door and frown perplexedly at them. Once, she had marched into the classroom and demanded they changed rooms, this one having been overbooked. He’d told the class not to leave.
‘You can’t treat them like this.’ he’d said to her.
‘And I hate the way you behave towards me in front of students,’ she’d hissed angrily, and using her authority had had her way. He wondered if she’d have acted thus if most of the students had been white.
Thandi Mnede was delivering a baby - a large black doll - from a fair-haired Spanish student, slightly shorter than the doll, lying on his desk surrounded by other ‘medical staff’ who were laughing and screaming with delight. He liked the innocence, the ingenuous nature of African women, except when it came to religion.
He told them of European oppression and control through Christianity, that god was a construct, all predictably met with surprise, anger and, sometimes, pity. God was involved with the things that they wrote, their essays and research projects - particularly the latter where, in their acknowledgements, they would thank various organisations and individuals who had helped them, often including god. He’d suggest they put him higher on the list than god. Some took him seriously.
Pulling a chair across he sat down, watching them. Maria was holding her new- born tightly and miming breast-feeding while Charity, the youngest in the class and wearing a stars and stripes headscarf, was jumping up and down with glee. It was she who, after he’d told them that sepia photos of ringed female necks a foot long and ‘savages’ with bones through their noses had been part of his early upbringing, had insisted to the group that the bones were fashion statements. On her mobile he knew that it permanently said, ‘I love Jesus and Jesus loves me.’
Thandi was enjoying herself, grinning at him. She was tall, slim, with short frizzy hair, almond-shaped eyes and that slightly jutting curve at the top of her buttocks. He was seeing her that evening.
Recently she’d been passing the staff room and he’d beckoned her in and asked what work she did. Most of the women had caring jobs outside college; she was looking after adolescent boys. He offered to help her with her project questionnaire and handed her a sheet of paper which asked if she fancied a drink one evening, under which he’d drawn a large square with a ‘yes’ under it and a small one with a tiny ‘no. ‘Please tick appropriate box.’ it said.
She’d folded it in quarters slowly and perfectly and in her slightly brittle Zulu accent had said, ‘Why didn’t you ask me before? I knew you wanted me as soon as you walked into the classroom.’
‘It would have been too early then, I may have frightened you off.’ he’d explained.
Disdainfully she’d lifted her head and walked away.
It had been rather different in the early days when she’d been with other students chattering eagerly around his table waiting for their marks and calling him, ‘Mister Steve.’
They met in a pub near where she lived, he arriving before her as intended. It was a dismal place; flock wallpaper, match boarded dado, fifties lampshades and a tattered, miss spelt notice stating that there were rooms to let. When Thandi came in he gestured at it and said that the landlady would probably have told any potential guests that she couldn’t shake their hands, she’d just finished putting lard on the cat’s boil. She looked bemused.
Sitting down opposite him and with her Nefertiti head inquiringly angled she said,
‘Well, are you bisexual?’
He asked if it was the earring - he wore a small gold one. Pints were pulled and a darts matched ended before she told him it was because he wore tight jeans. He jokingly sneered at her African stereotypes, until she reminded him that he’d told them that sociology was a generalising enterprise and not to apologise for it.
She couldn’t stay long; she had a shift to do, and briefly told him about herself. Brought up outside Johannesburg in a large, extended family - he envied aspects of African culture; babies huddled in slings between their mother’s breasts, having lots of ‘mothers’, what could create more security? - she’d managed a restaurant before coming to London and its gold-paved streets. She was single, had a son Nono - pronounced with clicks after the consonants - and was thinking of adopting Tshepiso, her absent brother’s teenage child who he had ill-treated from an early age.
‘I want to show her and teach her love.’ she said.
Two evenings later he was quickly shaking hands with other household members, an aunt, uncle, two cousins, a half-sister and a sister who she shared a room and a bed with. She gave him a glimpse of the room; a few African carvings, bright traditional dresses inside an opened wardrobe door, a photo of herself in a Diana Ross wig taken on the sea front at Clacton when she’d first come to Britain four years before.
In the train on their way to see ’Umoja’ she wore a black velvet hat and, picking up a newspaper from a seat, started reading. He asked her if her not talking to him was an African thing.
‘We don’t show love or hold hands.’ she said, and enquired if his son was well. He was divorced, as he told his classes in response to their questioning, and his young son stayed with him some weekends. Later he was to find that she revelled in disinterest; not asking who he’d seen a film with, but where, not who had accompanied him to a gallery, but merely a polite raising of an eyebrow.
He asked her why she had worn her hat in the theatre and hadn’t clapped and sung as many in the audience had.
‘We wear our hats inside. And I didn’t want to make a noise because I could see the way you looked at people when they were unwrapping sweets. But I told the people behind you are my teacher and to take no notice.’
There was a smile in her eyes, but he felt frustrated that she hadn’t expressed herself, had misunderstood.
In class she acted as if they hadn’t been out together. Occasionally he rang her at her work place, she always seemed to be working and could rarely talk for long. She called him ‘darling’ on the phone and he noticed she greeted her student friends in the same manner. Childishly, he felt annoyed.
One Sunday she rang to ask him to help her with a communications essay, the title of which she’d been allowed to choose herself. Despite precise instructions she got hopelessly lost. He drove to where she was parked and led her back to his flat.
Standing by his side while he looked at her work and wearing salwar kameez trousers around her head, braided extensions pluming above them, she looked utterly African.
Without looking up he asked her quietly when she was going to sleep with him. She pushed him playfully to the floor and stood astride him, eyes black and still. But it was church day and she had to leave and, holding her folder, walked to the gate while he returned to the screen where her essay title still read, ‘’Thou shalt lie only with whom thou love.’ Discuss.’ He wondered if she recognised the irony.
They went to the Passion play, ‘The Mysteries.’ Knowing his views on organised religion she was surprised at his choice. How many times had he told them of social inequality being legitimised by hymnal lines such as, ‘The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, all creatures high and lowly, god ordered their estate.’
The director had encouraged members of the South African cast to act in their own languages. She casually said she could speak five of them. On the way back he mentioned that the lead black singer, the best voice on stage, should have played Eve. She made no comment, just shrugged. He tried to get her interested in the songs, the humour, the scant, but effective scenery; like the stockade made of Peter Stuyvesant cartons in which a near naked group had sung, ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ and received a standing ovation. She shrugged again, then said,
‘I will stay with you tonight, then.’
He drove her home. In his bedroom she began undressing quickly, a sudden dark shape slipping under the duvet. After telling him that it was too early for them to make love, she added disinterestedly that she would still satisfy him. He delivered a short lecture on the myth of joyless servicing, but gave in to her plea that she never slept naked by letting her wear him for most of the night.
In the morning she made herself breakfast with food she’d brought with her, picking up pieces of cornmeal to soak up her thin stew, lips making soft smacking sounds and occasionally smiling. Unravelling her cornrows into a tightly curled wedge and rubbing in sulphur cream, ‘Because this is what they do back home.’ she transformed his kitchen by putting dishes away as if she had lived there forever instead of staying a night. Looking briefly around his minimalist home she announced she’d be late for college and that when he took her class he mustn’t anger the women again by jeering that infibulation was about male control and that they didn’t have to lie back and think of Africa.
As she started the engine of her car, barefoot on the pavement he anguished his frustration through the car window.
‘But I made you cum.’ she frowned and drove away.
During the summer he saw her only once. She had passed the course and was beginning a nursing degree at university and was working nearly all of the time, mostly with the boys. On most days he rang her and if there was more than a three-day gap between calls she would ring to remind him of ‘the contract,’ referring to a promise he’d made to phone her regularly.
One evening she asked him to meet her at the street where he’d picked her up when she’d got lost. When he crossed the road to her, she wound down the side window and gently took his hands and pulled them inside the car and pressed them to her breasts. He felt awkward, like a teenager, and wanted to take her home. Grinning at him she said she had to go back, and drove off. Always she seemed to be driving away.
She’d been at university a month before he saw her again; for the first and only time she’d arranged for someone to stand in for her at work. She walked in with a parcel of fish heads and yams began washing up while they warmed and noisily sucked one of the eyes while he opened the wine, though she rarely touched alcohol. He found it pleasurable to watch her eat with her fingers.
She hadn’t spoken since coming in, then, with eyes darker than her lashes and blacker than her fountained braids, looked up at him and said, in long, continuous sentences and barely pausing for breath,
‘When you mimic me your accent is too strong, I am Zulu not Afrikaans, and when you come home with me at Christmas it will be very hot, but you must wear a suit to show respect for my mother and you cannot sleep with me.’ She carried on eating for a while. ‘I am beautiful inside as well as out, and if I were a virgin you would pay a thousand pounds for me, and when I go back I even give them my panties because we are poor and when I was a child my uncle said I was spoilt because I didn’t sweep the yard and cook tomatoes in the big pot like the other children and I walked like an old woman, but I hold my shoulders back for you because I am glad you took me out, though I don’t think you will come home with me at Christmas.’
She looked down at her plate again. He didn’t know what to say.
She stood up and began swaying with the music he’d put on, a languorous wisdom inhabiting every glance, then, moving nothing except her wrists, bending them rhythmically downwards, she was nonchalantly clutching all the sex in the world.
There was a familiarity about the bedroom struggle to remove her clothes, until she clamped his wrist and he noticed the rag tied around her waist, which she’d said she wore for fasting. This meant that nothing was to enter her body except sips of water.
She laid down with her back to him, braided hair now in a loose knot on her shoulder before flowing down almost to her hip.
‘I am a wounded soldier making love on the battlefield.’ she whispered, and went to sleep.
When he woke she was parading naked around his bedroom, buttocks clenching Zulu style and intently mirror-gazing. She murmured repetitive ‘mmms?’ to his thick-throated questions about when he would see her again, and her bumping into a stool, hair extensions loosening, did not interrupt her delighted solipsism. After she had gone he could still hear her sharp vowels telling him she was leaving, and lay still on the bed as he scrawled on the calendar an imaginary cross for some day next month.
She started work-placement at a local hospital, after which she came to tell him that as her family had moved to Nottingham, and she had flown back to her childhood home to bring Nono back with her as well as adopting Tshepiso, she now had nowhere to live.
‘I have now been seeing a man for some while.’ she added, with that slight irregularity of English use he usually found endearing, ‘He is not African, but he will provide a home for us.’ Her eyes were sad, and also asking him to offer her his home.
This news hurt and confused him. The flat was not large enough, his son still stayed with him, though less often, and he wasn’t sure he could cope with her two children. He felt weakened, told her he couldn’t have her, was sorry
Then, at the end of her first year at university, instead of the dutiful relationship she had with god being little more than a socialized response, she really did find Him.
She asked him to come to church with her and listen to her testimony. He hadn’t been to a church since a child. It was a Victorian building whose builders would never have envisaged the nature of this congregation. There were many people present, mostly ethnics, the majority Africans. The pastor, white, tanned, grey hair, tailored sports jacket, briefly shook his hand.
‘Hi, I’m David.’ he drawled in an American accent, and moved into the hall.
‘Hi, I’m a sceptic.’ Steve said under his breath as he climbed to the back of the balcony. He stood watching the keyboard player hitting the chords with a gospel band and, pointing to the hymn-filled screen above the stage and telling them that this was their god for the morning, he led the congregation into their devotional karaoke. Matrons sang, clapped and swayed and towards the far side of the balcony he saw two students he’d taught the previous year looking across at him, eyes wide in surprise. He exaggeratedly raised his shoulders and gestured with open hands to them.
Thandi arrived late, African time, shook his hand - he fondled hers - and introduced him to her lover, a protestant chill momentarily freezing the music. He was a pleasant looking Afro-Caribbean who welcomed him warmly and asked him to sit with them. He stayed where he was. After a sermon and further hymns it was time for her testimony. Standing in front of the audience she told them how she had come to god.
She recited it very quickly and emotionally and he could understand little. After she had finished, with more clapping and singing from the now packed church, she came up to the balcony and gently squeezed his arm and asked him to take her back to the flat so she could tell him what had really happened. Her partner would take the children home.
Sitting at his table with him, she held his hands tightly together as if he were praying and, with her eyes closed, told him that when she was seventeen her ancestors had occupied her spirit and told her to remain chaste - a command manifested in the white rag appearing around her waist - and when it was time for her to work for them she would be told. She assumed that, like chosen others in her country, she would ‘go away’ for two years then return as a healer.
Two weeks ago the ancestral spirits had demanded that she walk into the sea and there would be a crocodile waiting for her with open mouth into which she would climb. There would be snakes, a festive party and great happiness inside the creature. There she was to stay until ready to heal the sick.
As she told him this she spoke rapidly, became excited; several times he gently slowed her down. She became more agitated, almost frantic, when she announced that she had, wearing the rag, white knickers and white dressing gown, set out to obey these wishes two weeks ago at Southend-on-Sea while her younger sister and her boy friend had watched from the beach.
Resisting explaining the phallic symbolism of the snakes, he imagined her, oblivious to the sounds of boy racers, the pier train, the fun fair, go-karts, the smell of vinegar and chips, moving deeper and deeper into the sea.
Part of him wanted to laugh, almost hysterically, at the sheer incongruity of the town she’d chosen, but he believed her; believed her when she told him that as her head was going under water, god had exploded inside of her and told her to renounce what she was doing and to do His work, and only His.
She had waded back to her sister and pleaded with her to find a priest. They’d driven back and found the church - the one she had been speaking in an hour before - and she’d told David what had happened. This had been her first visit since then.
She began to cry. Releasing his hands he gripped hers. She opened her eyes; they shone with excitement. This was a different reality for him, a spiritual universe he couldn’t enter, and didn’t wish to. He wanted to tell her that many frigid women who gave themselves to Jesus could do so in the knowledge that they didn’t have to make love to him. She would, her humour and patience jettisoned, have cried out that it was profane, an insult. She wasn’t in the classroom; he wasn’t teaching her. He held her tightly for a long while before she left.
He went to church with her once more. It was the last time he saw her.
She picked him up at his home and drove northwards. In the car Tshepiso ate greens with her fingers while Beauty threw them around back streets telling him that the preachers used private jets, while he proselytised about ruling classes and god until they arrived.
In a hangar on Hackney wasteland gantry cameras arced over them like crows, people waved at screens, puzzled they were in profile, and envelopes for Jesus magically appeared. Outside, he’d noticed how permanent the fast-track buildings were, how organised it was. As well as hot food and drinks there were all the cogs of capitalism; stalls housing loan firms, insurance companies, mortgage and investment brokers, banks, estate agents, a funeral director, even an adoption agency. And inside, a bass voiced pastor was telling the congregation that all that they looked upon is all they may have.
Knowing those who had nothing, he stood up, squeezed past Thandi with a tight smile and walked towards an exit, remembering irrelevantly the gifts she’d brought him every time she came to see him; the lemons he never ate, the popcorn he never made, the t-shirt he never wore.
At the door he turned; saw her head with its short tufts of hair, Tshepiso and Nono grinning back at him, and under the starry night ceiling of the stage, standing in a lake of lilies, the wild hair of a singer hitting Whitney Houston notes. Turning sixties pop into gospel, Jackson Five look-alikes strutted to the front and a thousand believers raised their hands.
‘You look like Sean Connery,’ she said, dropping potatoes onto her plate. She glittered a frank look at him and grinned. ‘Well, maybe David Niven.’
Walking into the refectory, he’d seen at the counter a tall, pale, dark haired woman with large black eyes, full lips and, though only afterwards did he articulate this, a vulnerable exoticism.
‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m Mister Right,’ he said casually, with what he hoped was a trifling amusement playing around his mouth. As ever, the internal split between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ was active, knowing instantly the impression he was, or thought he was, creating. He asked her what she was doing here. She told him she’d just begun a counselling course.
Putting a coffee on her tray she looked at him candidly and said,
‘You’re forty five.’ He paused - silence is assent. ‘And you are thirty one.’ he said.
‘How d’you know that?’ she asked with a delight that was almost childlike; an expression, an attitude he came to know well and was constantly affected by and nearly always with an undertow of sadness. He let her think, as he supposed she still did, that this ageing Bond was fourteen years older than her instead of the twenty four he actually was.
She asked him where he was sitting and he nodded towards the table just inside the door where a student was waiting for him. He wanted to finish his rant against the pernicious weltenshaung of political correctness he’d begun as they left the classroom. One of the bonuses of lecturing to mature students was that they tended to listen to lecturers both inside and outside of class. He was up to ’…is the most fascistic and repressive form of ideological, social, linguistic and economic control since Stalin. It engenders fear, distorts reality, forfeits fact.’
They left the counter, she asked him his name. ‘Chris,’ he said, hers was Mercia. The canteen was filling. She sat down with her meal and occasionally glanced across to him. His companion didn’t seem to notice. He’d taken her that morning to a local social care office where she was prescribed methadone to help her come off heroin. She lived on her own in a banjo shaped cul-de-sac in the mean maze of an east end council estate and was getting through his social work course with more help from him than he should have given.
He talked to her half-heartedly. Usually, in spite of twelve years of teaching, he tended to proselytize as much outside of timetabled hours as within them, but he was distracted.
He kept looking at Mercia’s table, some admin. staff were sitting there, a man grinned at her, she smiled back. He felt jealousy, it was quite strong, thus blanketing his ability to instantly analyse it.
Having a class, he left before her. She glanced up at him, He shrugged, smiled, noticed his student frowning at her as he closed the door.
He hadn’t had a relationship with someone he wasn’t teaching for many years, though there always seemed to be some kind of offers from female students to lecturers.
He’d been a virgin till he was twenty six. If he hadn’t had a need for what he felt he’d missed, or had been more cleverly disingenuous, perhaps he’d have still been married.
When young, he’d wondered what on earth, or in bed, it was really like and sated himself on mind flicks of skinny Iris at number twelve or the silken, misty space inside the thighs of principal boys his dad took him to see at Lyceum pantos, and since then a host of encounters: like ginger Elaine, ward of an elderly communist with an Essex farmhouse that had Karma Sutra carvings around the hall and who had wanted them to do it in front of him because he couldn’t any more, though his Scrooged nightshirt still hung from the bedpost in her room.
And Tina from Ghana, who had made it to the local university, with her two a.m. calls about clinical psychology, dragging him from pumping gyms to thumping night clubs and, when drunk, screeching that he should go back to his ‘own colour,’ her ex-lover once following him to work and staring up at the staff room window. And there was Charity, a Ugandan who had been sexually abused by her older brother and the ubiquitous uncle.
Next day in the canteen he saw her again. They sat down together where she told him about her course with wide, enthusiastic eyes. The place was almost empty, yet this particular table was psychologically owned by the Humanities Department, the staff of which sat down noisily around them. He could really only play the supportive teacher role, encouraging, informing, smiling, but scrawled a note on a napkin as she got up to leave, asking her if she’d like a drink one evening.
She rang the college the same afternoon to tell him that she had a ten-year old son with hydrocephalus whom she lived for, and didn’t want to worry about or hurt someone else and was nervous about a teacher-student relationship. He liked her saying the last. Some mature female students, if they fancied a lecturer, often overtly showed it, sometimes bragging to classmates if they’d been successful. He had never made an approach to one of his own students.
‘I think we should start off as friends,’ she said, in a rather prim, sensible way.
He took a call from her the day after in the small lecturers union office in the corner of the staff room that he soon came to monopolise - playing the ‘who’s going to put the phone down first’ game with her that, in retrospect, always seemed pleasantly juvenile. She gave him a potted history of herself.
Born and raised in St. Lucia with two sisters and two brothers she’d spent a lot of time as a child sitting outside her father’s bar acquainting herself with masculine cursing. She and her siblings were part Norwegian, French, and Carob Indian, whose maternal great grandfather had owned slaves on his sugar plantation, a portion of which was occupied by a large house built by the married eldest sister. When Mercia had visited her siblings recently she had been spat at. The Sanliquot name was not popular amongst indigenous Islanders.
At nineteen she’d married a St Lucian whom she met in England and who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after their son had been born. Chris asked what her first memories of England were. She told him how excited she’d been on a school trip as a newly-arrived twelve year old when informed they were going to the sea, and then seeing that flat grey line for the first time and crying with disappointment. He asked her why she hadn’t returned home with her husband.
‘He would have treated me as a Caribbean wife.’ she said. She was quiet for a while, then, ‘I used to lie next to him for months knowing he was seeing other women, but couldn’t break free. It was like a chick wanting to get out of an egg and then when it has can only lay beside the broken shell, for comfort, reassurance.’
She was in her bath eating an ice cream when he rang her that evening. Laughing, she asked if he’d like her to eat it or do other things with it. He began to suggest something, then, as if remembering her mother’s behavioural instructions to her regarding relationships with males as she reached puberty said, ‘Oh, I’m propositioning you, aren’t I.’ He could see a long leg raised, ice cream balanced on the knee, widened eyes, slightly pouting lips.
She told him about her course; the Rogerian approach to clients, its emphasis on ‘the now ‘and, so far, no Freud, and about Dan, who ran it, calling her ‘my dear lady’ as if he was about to kiss her hand, and who would tell the students they shared that sociology wasn’t a ‘proper subject’ but not to tell ‘the tall guy,’ meaning Chris, who imagined Dan’s eternal bow tie spinning as he said it, like a music hall comedian.
It was Easter, he was decorating his flat, she was at the hospital where her boy was having his annual tests for his medical condition, and they spoke only briefly. He then rang to ask her to come out with him. She insisted they mustn’t be back late, her younger sister would baby sit.
As he arrived outside a Victorian terraced house she was leaning against a large Citroen talking with a slight, Afro Caribbean girl. He could hear their animated patois as he parked and which continued as he got out and stood quietly next to them, feeling excluded.
In a local bar she told him that she didn’t feel she was attractive. He told her how ludicrous her statement was.
He wanted her advice on some curtain material. She went back with him, admired the Egyptian mural he’d painted on a living room wall, disagreed with his choice of cloth and said she had to go. As he braked outside her home she said rather archly ‘I don’t think the evening finished as you’d have preferred it.’ Again, the slight arrogance and the vulnerability.
She said things that evening which she would occasionally repeat; that she didn’t know much about him, that he intrigued her, that he touched people with his eyes, that he was passionate, and how two people in a relationship should become part of each other. She wanted someone to understand her needs without stating them - she was like a demanding child, she would loved him to have told her that her command was his wish - and that people saw her as ‘a prize vase that was unobtainable.’
In the coming months she would enjoy smugly quoting her favourite brother’s opinion that she was an ‘ice maiden’ - her actions belying it.
Phoning him the following day she told him she’d been thinking of him most of the night. But, there was a caveat.
‘I’m warning you. You’ll fall in love with me. I don’t want you to for your sake.’ He believed her, didn’t recognise it as projection, a defence. This was, of course, precisely when he fell in love with her. He felt the fear, familiar, yet new. We tend not to remember past pain clearly.
‘I’ve always been a sex object to men since I’ve been on my own,’ she said. He could almost see the smiling satisfaction.
Calling him next day she announced firmly that she was ‘self sufficient’ and repeatedly asked if he’d been thinking of her. ‘I just know you have,’ she preened. He pictured her with chin raised, lashes lowered, could feel the adolescent narcissism.
A week and many phone conversations later she asked him to her home. He met her son, Julius, was naively surprised at how dark-skinned he was. He was well built, tall, handsome, and with a shy smile. He had just finished a lesson with his tutor who, complete with tweed jacket, elbow patches and old world courtesy, was saying goodbye to his mother. It was obvious he fancied her, most men appeared to. She would say to Chris with a big grin,
‘I was shopping today and two men looked round at me and stared, then looked at each other and said, ‘Fucking Hell!’’
She was familiar with using men to get what she wanted, once demonstrating in Chris’s garden how she’d got a mechanic to top up her car radiator. Crossing her hands above her breasts, heels raised together, legs looking even longer, eyes wide, she simpered,
‘Me? Oh, I don’t know how to do things like that. Couldn’t you do it for me?’ Then a plaintiff, ‘Please?’
She’d come round that day for help with her college work. He’d gritted his teeth at the statistics-based research she had to comment on, but was happy to help with her mild dyslexia. She left, telling him she’d been fantasising about them in an art gallery, hands in the back pockets of each other’s jeans, laughing, sharing, oblivious to people and paintings, then, almost instantly turning around and saying, before getting into her car, ‘I don’t want to see you for a while. I can’t do my work with you in the same building.’
Next day she rang and said she’d started waiting by the phone, missing his voice.
She went on work placement for a week and he didn’t see her, but she rang constantly. ‘It would be fantastic to make love’ she’d say, ‘but you’d want more, want commitment, and I couldn’t give it.’ And, without it feeling at all hackneyed, ‘You are my soul.’ Next time it was, ‘I don’t want to share you with anyone, wherever I am I want you to be there,’ and, ‘This is too intense, I’m so scared, I keep wanting to tell you I won’t see you again,’ and, ‘I’m unhappy when I’m not with you, I can’t breath.’
Calling him in the early hours, she said, ‘I don’t want to put you on the list of people I’ve hurt.’ Then, with exaggerated huskiness, ‘Make love to me gently tonight, tell me what to do.’ He did, as if she was in his bed or he in hers. These calls went on. She appeared to be playing at it all, wishing it were real.
Wanting some photos of her he arranged a session with the photography lecturer. He watched from an unobtrusive distance, not wanting to distract her. She posed easily, sexily, There was something in her posing - her clothes, a slightly dated glamour, that reminded him of front covers of Picture post he remembered as a teenager. The photographer asked her if she would pose for the students. She refused.
She told him she would come into his class one day and kiss him. She did. As she left the room he said flippantly to sixteen surprised women that although she’d said she’d do it, he never believed her. A moment later one of the admin. staff pushed the classroom door further open and with concerned voice told him that a young woman was just down the corridor looking distressed. Mercia had heard him. He left the class, apologised to her, and told her to wait in her car for him. He’d never seen her look so hurt.
She came one evening, unarranged, insisting she undress in the spare room. He lay on his bed. Half prancing, half mincing, she Marks and Spencered into the bedroom, pale skin, pink lacy underwear, hands on waist, wetting her lips, as if saying,
‘Look at me, what a prize And it’s for you!’ He told her to relax, take her time.
’But, I want to please you, tell me what I have to do.’
But, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t penetrate her. Her shiny-eyed, demanding eagerness to please elicited merely a tense exhaustion. When she left, briskly dressing, she said, ‘I’m disappointed,’ and after a pause, ‘It doesn’t matter, it won’t affect our relationship.’
Then, when again he’d failed to make love to her, ‘I feel cheated. Why can’t I arouse you? You’d do it with a one-night stand, why not me? Am I too prudish, too young for you? I don’t want to lose you. I’m so jealous.’ She cried, stopped, then, her voice rising, ‘If you don’t break your brick walls I’ll run away and hide behind mine.’
They had sex, of course, but not the final giving, the resolution of love, of lust. Then, after some weeks, he suggested they go away for a weekend. He rented a cottage in Norfolk, her sister looked after Julius. It was small, thatched, with rose covered porch.
She didn’t think it would ever happen, but it did. He’d told her with half-joking bravado before they came that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him and as the East Anglia dawn lightened the curtains after their first night together, she’d whispered,
‘Okay, you win, you win.’
They went to a nearby pub, she announcing that she would love to walk into a place where every man’s eyes would be on her. As they entered, every woman’s eyes were, too.
One afternoon during the following week, and smoothing her love-tumbled hair as she got dressed in the front room of the flat, she said,
‘It’s too much, it’s all too soon. I haven’t been with anyone for seven years. When I sit with you while you correct my work, it’s like sitting on a volcano. I can never give a man love. I have to protect myself, wrap my child around me.’ .
He felt at times as if he was struggling with her to keep any rationality, any semblance of emotional intelligence. As when he’d taken her to Brighton to meet his son who was playing trumpet in a band that played Brazilian street music. She saw his son step out of the group to put an arm around a girl walking alongside and then shortly afterward, marking time till a fellow band member came level with him, and kissing her affectionately. ‘I don’t like the way he treats women,’ she’d said, and wouldn’t speak to Chris on the train back to London, as if his son’s behaviour, whatever it signified to her, was either a genetic trait or learnt, and was his father’s fault anyway.
And when she said, rather angrily, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to understand me since a child and now I’ve found you, and you live in a cocoon,’ He hadn’t the strength to answer. Nor had he when, a few days after first meeting her, she’d said matter-of-factly, ‘You live in your head, you surprise me.’
She moved house a week after this, not giving him the address, and a few days later rang to say that she would always be grateful to him for helping her.
‘Forget you ever met me,’ she said, in that imperious tone she faked so unconvincingly. And then told him that she was thinking of fostering a child and that a Care Visitor may wish to see him for a reference.
‘Don’t tell her that I’m the bitch that broke your heart.’ she said.
A month ago, and four years after first meeting her, he was leaning back against a pavement barrier outside the local train station waiting for friends to see a football match, when she appeared suddenly in front of him, seeming taller than ever.
She had a low cut top, her skin the colour of honey. She’d been to St. Lucia. He asked her casually if she was shopping in the nearby market and whether she was a counsellor yet. She was a drug abuse team leader now she told him, barely concealing her pride. She seemed restless, said she had to go.
For the briefest moment as she turned to leave there was hurt and resigned sadness in her eyes. Then her younger sister, who he hadn’t noticed was with her, said impatiently and in parody,
’Come on, let’s see ‘im indoors, Dan, Dan, the teacher man.’ Her voice trailed away.
Who was ‘Dan?’ her psychology lecturer? Wasn’t it a Daniel who used to teach Julius? Was she living with one of them?
Then her sister was standing directly in front of him, small, thin, looking up with baleful eyes.
‘Julius is dead.’ she said quietly. ‘He died.’
She scampered away. He looked at her back, above her head, could just see Mercia further on, peering closely into a shop window with a characteristic frown.
‘What had happened? Had Julius’s shunt failed? Had…
His friends came laughing out of the station. He walked with them down the slight hill. Pictures, images, that had been lying still, whirled around, released: her trying on tailor-made dresses in her bedroom, the small waist he could almost get his hands around, the full hips, posing in the solipsistic mirror, back arched, looking at every inch of herself; she, in a department store, disappearing, and him, unguarded, panicking, intellectually knowing that it was the child in him being left by mummy - no emotions are new; her phoning him from a shoe shop, tears in her voice, saying that they wouldn’t give back her money for a pair of shoes that had broken after a week and, in frustration, tipping a rack over, cascading footwear over the floor; during the college fire drill, wearing a black cape in the quadrangle slightly apart from her new classmates, looking for him, head high, as if uncaring, and him not walking the few yards to her, not knowing why.
And the whole litany of contradictions: the need, the almost fierce independence, arrogance, possessiveness, wanting to give herself, then vanishing into her keep, peering at him through its tiny window; telling him that when they first met me she saw so much sadness behind his eyes she had to turn away. And saying almost disinterestedly as she passed him in a corridor outside the art room,
‘Pull me back if I walk away.’ He never did.
And he never moved towards her now, couldn’t see her, so many shops, doors, market stalls, people.
He moved along, his pals hopping into the kerb and back again to give themselves room in the crowds, smelt the sharp sweetness of chips and vinegar and the musky cloud of cheap corn oil. He felt for a nanosecond the prick of a tear, then the detachment, the intellectualising, chopping into him like the rigid hands of a masseur on the back of a client.
He silently named the type faces on the shop fascias, observed, as ever, the unnecessary apostrophes, the pvc windows aesthetically corrupting Edwardian houses in a side street, wondered why the mock castles at the sides of the main entrance to the stadium were painted cream, as if Mickey Mouse was going to skip out of this tiny Disneyland and give every fan a hug.
A last image got through; Mercia in St Lucia after being spat upon, head held back at a slight, proud angle, looking defiantly down at the perpetrator, not bothering to wipe the spittle off.
Then he was looking at his match ticket, reading every little word and number on it, noticing the police and behind them a yellow tape, thinking - and wanting to laugh hysterically - that it said polite notice and do not be cross.
The same battleground. Smells of cooking fat, polish, disinfectant, oven heat and new coconut matting filled the cramped scullery and pushed their way around the living room. The sounds of slippered feet, a moist hand agitatedly brushing a brow, then the same hand using an apron as a towel, the squeal of a fork inside a saucepan, the knocking of crockery, all became a whole, unutterably familiar.
My mother, tall, angular and in her mid-forties, with a thin face, long nose, worried eyes, and clothes which in spite of their obvious age still retained a neat, well pressed appearance, scuffled from the kitchen with two laden plates and placed them hurriedly on the tablecloth, almost dropping them. She drew her breath sharply and putting a hand to her mouth urgently sucked her fingers.
Shaking her hands quickly she wiped them heavily down the front of her apron, went back to the kitchen again, reached up and pulled the window sash down. She returned and seated herself and with quick nervous gestures patted her black, greying hair.
Sitting opposite her was my father. His eyes were small but rather bulbous, his nose creased, causing his upper lip to bare an expanse of gum and a ragged line of nicotine-stained teeth. He looked like an angry rabbit eating cabbage.
‘Len, must you make so much noise?’
She tried to ask the question pleasantly, only a glimmer of disapproval showing. She waited for a response and when none came she leaned forward with her wrists resting on the edge of the table and her knife and fork raised at the same angle as her body leaning toward him.
‘Must you make so much noise?’
A disinterested mumble came from under his nose at this carefully enounced repetition and the munching noise increased. She leaned back with a sigh of fatalistic acceptance and began eating.
It did not then occur to me that she was an unwilling captive. It was 1958. I was seventeen years old.
My father was a caretaker at a local factory, my mother a cleaner at a city bank. They were both proprietorial; it was ‘his’ factory, just as it was ‘her’ bank.
He had one of the previous Sunday’s papers spread out on the table to the side of him and in between scooping large mouthfuls of food into himself he inclined his head to one side and read the cartoon page slowly and carefully, his cheeks bulging and lips silently forming the captions. Occasionally he stopped chewing and frowned, his mouth hanging open. Understanding would come and with an infantile, sucking laugh he shook his head, tutting with pleasure as he looked down at his plate, flicking small particles of food from his bottom lip and, sticking a fork through a new potato and a cube of meat, would guide the heaped piece of cutlery into his mouth as he turned his attention to the paper again.
After a few minutes his head jerked up and he frowned once more, looking across the space between them.
‘What’s the matter with him, then?’ he asked, jerking a thumb towards me.
Observing this nightly enacted scene from an armchair, I continued staring at the earthenware butler sink six yards away while their meal was finished in silence. I leant forward and pushed a hand under the cushion I was sitting on and pulled out the book both Tony and I had bought copies of the day before. It was Jack Kerouac’s ’On The Road.’ I slumped back and with aggressive interest began to read.
My mother cleared the table, opened the door on the side of the scullery and through the net curtains I saw her open the outside lavatory door. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father lean across to the television. I tensed. The quick look at me before flicking the switch told me the mood he was already in or which I had unknowingly put him.
Drawing my breath, I run a forefinger down the centre page, opened the book out either side, determined to concentrate wholly on reading it. He gripped the underneath of his chair and half-sitting turned it and himself around to face the set no more than three feet away and stared blankly at it. The room lightened as the blue-grey glow appeared. Despite myself I looked across and saw a detailed close-up of a small, fat, hand with tiny tapering fingers. A smooth voice explained that it was a detail from, ‘…one of his greatest works, ‘Madonna And Child.’’ I didn’t know who ‘his’ was, but certainly wanted to find out.
The hand disappeared into the bottom of the set and the finely executed folds of a garment with minute cracks interlacing the whole area slowly followed. The curved, unblemished chin and the small thin lips of a woman slid into view and then the buttons underneath were suddenly pushed in and snapped out again and there was the noise of cheering and applause as a bulky woman announced in a proud and jovial voice that she came from Manchester, at which the tall, lean-faced man hovering restlessly above her laughed wildly and shouted,
‘Has anyone got an umbrella?
The unseen audience cackled uproariously. The man held his hands in front of him and waved them up and down and when the noise trailed away pulled grinning, giggly faces at the camera, repeatedly crossing one knee over the other and asking her what prize she had in mind. It seemed she was going to win something simply by living in Manchester.
Straining to speak as gently and as pleasantly as I could, I asked him why he had switched channels, why he had ‘turned it over.’
‘Wha’? Oh, it was only talkin’,’ he answered quickly and grinned with delight as the fat woman complained jokingly that if she didn’t win, her husband would divorce her.
I looked at him; his thin, uncombed mousy hair hanging loosely from a barely discernible parting, the weak, stubbly chin, the watery eyes and that complacent grin. I turned back to my book and the meaningless words. I stared at ‘Moriarty’ and kept repeating it quietly, over and over - like ‘ever’ which I said endlessly as I tried to sleep at night and to grasp the concept with a final ‘ever’ - the same word, until it was just an absurd sound, and felt the loneliness, the anger again.
Turning my face to him, voice quivering, I stammered, ‘Do you know, you put that thing on regardless of…of what’s on, what time it’s on, you watch…inane, trivial…anything that makes you think, challenges you…you…’
I was clenching my fists on my knees.
‘Look’, he bellowed, standing up, hands tightened on either side of his thighs,
‘What about you and your bloody books? Read, read, bloody read!’
He grabbed the paperback from my hands and threw it at the wall behind me. It seemed to float before it hit and in a moment of schizoid irrelevance I wondered what pages it would lay open at as it landed
I saw my surroundings with frightening clarity; my mother, returned from the lavatory, bending over the sink, her blotchy arms, the speckled grey gas cooker, the tiny living room, the grey fireplace with its stepped sides, the worn floral mat raggedly spread thin on the linoleum, the dingy passage, seen through the distorting frosted glass panels in the door. And like a final perception, the claustrophobic inevitability of it all. It wasn’t the only time it had happened. I was eleven when he first did it, but now the shock wasn’t quite as great.
At least I could tell Tony about it.
I’d known Tony since we’d started at the local Tech. in the East End four years before where we’d learnt the rudiments of the building trades and had both opted for painting and decorating. (‘Get a trade in yer ‘ands, son’ was the stereotypical advice from my father). We’d seen each other virtually every day since. He had come across to me, all blonde hair and blue eyes, while I was nervously waiting outside the main entrance on the first day with scores of other boys. He told me a joke.
‘This bloke told his friend that he’d made an awful Freudian slip the other evening. ‘What was it then?’ asked his friend. ’Well, I was having dinner with my mother and meant to say, ’Would you pass the butter please?’ But it came out as, ‘you fuckin’ bitch, you fuckin’ ruined my fuckin’ life.’ I liked him immediately
He took to me, he once said, because although I played football I looked as if I wrote poetry as well.
Tony had a younger sister with dark hair and eyes who looked rather Latin and
who he occasionally and affectionately called ‘kid’, much to her fifteen year old annoyance.
It was she who opened the door to me, Tony was behind her, but she obviously hadn’t seen him. Then she turned, jumped up and put her arms around him, her legs for a second kicking back behind his waist and nearly pulling him over.
‘Tone-eee’, you’re back, you’re already home.’ she shrilled as if he’d been away for a month instead of returning from a building site, then playfully biting his ear, said a quick hello to me and ran, giggling, through to the kitchen before coming back again.
‘Just a minute, hold on.’ said Tony, ’Is that lipstick you’re wearing?’
‘Yes, it is lipstick, I’m wearing it because I want to, I’m going out in it and I intend to continue to wear it.’ She puckered her face.
‘Quite satisfied?’ She looked very pretty.
‘Thank you,’ she said sarcastically, taking silence as assent. The front door opened and shut quickly, the sound of her hurrying heels could just about be heard.
‘She’s gorgeous,’ said Tony warmly, taking a tobacco tin from his pocket and rolling a cigarette. He didn’t roll it very successfully. He never did.
I liked the feel of that house, solid, but light, and envied him his relationships, especially with his mother, who I could hear moving around upstairs. His father had left soon after his sister had been born. He never spoke about it.
It was raining. The colours of streets and buildings were washed away and a steady drizzle dropped flimsy layers of cool wind and a fine blurred greyness around people hurrying along. We walked quickly, sometimes with one leg in the gutter, playing a game with ourselves, trying to maintain a steady speed without leaving the pavement completely and having to admit failure as we gave wide berths to groups of teenage girls leaving the local cosmetic factory, mincing along in their tight skirts, their umbrellas held in a raggedly line above their bouncing, giggling heads.
Tony liked the rain, it sent peace down to him, he said, and he could wander about and look at people in their self-sufficient little worlds and stand on corners and gaze at the cars as they waited for the spots of colour to give them the right of way. He thought that in the rain things in cities became themselves and were nearer to their own particular truth. They were alone then, virtually ignored by people whose dominant perceptions of them were as shelters of some kind, not as aesthetic objects, part of our designed material world, rising, sometimes awkwardly but firmly in the rain.
We marched down the street, the rain heavier, blowing into our faces, Tony’s jacket flapping behind him, the front of his shirt turning into a clinging brown. I didn’t know where we were going, it somehow didn’t matter with Tony, but I guessed it was Lou’s. He stopped and took his jacket off, putting it over his head and clenching the bottom of the lapels around his neck, looking suddenly feminine, like a factory worker with a thick headscarf tied under her chin.
There was a bus shelter further down the road, the rain splattering from its roof in the red neon glow from the fascia of a late-opening pie and eel shop. I ran towards it. Leaning over a tubular bar, getting my breath back, I saw Tony standing in the middle of the road, cars splashing past him, putting a foot tentatively forward each time tail lights went by. It was fascinating to watch. It was like a slow motion film sequence of a dancer stranded from the chorus and uncertain of her routine. But whatever he did, and he did sometimes look a little unsure, unknowing, it was, somehow, impressive.
Seeming to guess the picture in my mind he flung his arms rhythmically in the air and as a gap in the line of cars appeared he made swimming motions, pawing his arms through the air to the shelter. He leant against the inside, took deep breaths, patting his chest. Then he sniffed.
‘Is that vinegar?’
He looked across to the pie and eel shop and screwed up his face in pain, his full, blue eyes blinking. Some people have an allergy to pollen, some to cats. Tony’s was vinegar. He suddenly looked pathetic, didn’t appreciate my laughter.
‘Do you know what that brown stuff is?’ He pointed to the shop. ‘It’s evil, intellect shattering, it’s… I can’t breath, can’t think. I’d like to write an advert.’ He moved his hand across in front of him, thumb and forefinger curled, shaping the words, ‘’Do you want to be a moron? Have plans to be a cretin? Then buy our vinegar’ Let’s go to Lou’s.’
‘Intellect’ was a word Tony used and alluded to a lot. We would debate, argue, discuss, were opinionated and often uninformed. I would cross the park to Tony’s house, his mother usually letting me in, and he would be pacing around the living room agitatedly.
‘Don’t you see? its a con,’ he would say, ‘we’re tied to our behaviour by a piece
of metaphysical string, always being pulled back to actions, intentions, attitudes.’
‘Are we talking ‘conscience’ here?’ I’d ask.
He’d spin round. ‘Yes, yes, but where does that come from? Is it innate? Internalised from the world around us? And it’s all about control, isn’t it.’ he’d say excitedly. ’You could perm all of our values and behaviour with programmed and learnt behaviour - there’s so many options - but whatever’s doing the asking, ‘conscience’ as you call it, it’s socially controlling us and…’
And so he’d go on and I’d go on; at his house, at my house - our respective mothers hesitantly bringing us cups of tea in the front rooms - walking around the local streets, the parks, sitting in cafes, especially these, talking, babbling, gesticulating into the night, feeling that there should be people flocking around us with gold pens glinting in the street lights, writing down everything we were saying.
Of course, nothing we were saying was new. There were bits of Marx, Freud, existentialism, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and a lot of what we said was probably sheer nonsense. We weren’t aware. What did we know?
Lou was leaning across his counter, elbows on a newspaper spread between milk and sugar filled cups and, for once, was not telling anyone who would listen that he could have been a ‘coifurer’ because in Italy his father had been a hairdresser and he was to follow in his footsteps, never explaining why he hadn’t. The café’s steamy, sour warmth, tobacco smoke, damp clothes hanging from the brass hooks of the clothes stand was a familiar, welcoming cavern.
We hung up our soaking jackets, Tony wiped his face vigorously with a handkerchief, his shirt dark and saturated. His sucked his tea noisily and put it down again on the chipped marble topped table.
‘I want to get away.’ he said, looking down.
He glanced up at me, waiting for it to sink in. I couldn’t quite understand what he meant.
‘Get away? Where?’ Get away and do what?’
He tutted impatiently. ‘Just get away, somewhere, anywhere.’
‘What about your job? Your apprenticeship? You can’t just pack it in.’
‘’course I can, I can always go back there if I want, and there’s less reasons stopping you than there are me. You’re not exactly in a state of bliss at home, are you.’
I incongruously giggled, stopping myself instantly, unsure of what was underneath it, what sounds and turmoil it would turn into.
He stretched back in his chair, smugly, as if he’d proved a point. He was so sure of himself. I felt annoyed. I didn’t know why.
He leant forward eagerly.
‘Don’t you see, it’s simple, really, it is.’
‘I know it seems like it, but…’
I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I rubbed my hands over my face, like a child might; pushing its nose up and pulling its eyes down to look like an ogre.
‘Well, are you coming with me?’
I felt more annoyed. I criss-crossed a pool of spilt tea with a finger and flicked little splashes of it away from me.
‘I’m still going.’ He said quietly.
I could see Lou amongst his crockery reading his paper and I wondered how he could stick inside this place all day with its stained ceiling and walls and the, ‘two airships on a cloud, mate.’ and ‘babies on a raft, Lou.’ for sausages and mash and beans on toast, and while mechanistically producing them, thinking, perhaps, of pleasant banter as he trimmed people’s hair back home in the sun.
‘I’m going tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow?’ I asked incredulously.
He leant closer to me, ‘I’m going to get the tube, and the nearest main line station it takes me to, I’m…’ he shrugged.
‘There are only two lines you can get from our station.’
‘Don’t tell me; don’t tell me, I’m just going to go. Anywhere. I don’t want to plan anything, just go. I’m taking fifty quid with me, that’ll do, should be enough. I’ll take my chances with digs and things.’
‘That sounds all right sitting here, but…’
He held his hands up in front of him, ‘I’ll be okay.’
I stared down at the table, the spilt tea about to drip between my knees.
‘You’re not sure, are you,’ he asked.
‘I can’t.’ I almost shouted.’ I just can’t.’
He said nothing. He sipped his tea, eyes looking at me over the cup. ‘I’ll send some money home to help them out, of course,’ he said.
‘I don’t suppose I’ll be coming, Tony.’
He slowly got up. ‘Okay.’ he said softly.
‘Ta-ta boys,’ said Lou as we went out, not looking up, still smiling.
I sat in the bus absently counting the fag ends and matches in the channels of the wooden floor, with Tony bending his head back and looking into the night through a condensation-free patch on the window that he’d wiped with the side of his fist.
‘What’s you mum going to say?’
He looked blankly in front of him and shrugged, as if he hadn’t grasped the question.
‘I don’t know where I’m going to go. I’m fed up with streets, though,’ He waved his arms expansively. ’Still, if I land up in streets, well…’ He shrugged again.
‘I want to do things I’ll remember. Do you understand?’
I didn’t answer. Neither of us said anything until we got off the bus and walked the short distance to his home. He asked me in, I declined.
‘Come with me.’
‘Drop me a line,’ I said, forcing a grin and playfully punching his arm. I walked away, not looking back As I turned the corner I kicked a stone viciously along the road, it ricocheted and clinked into the base of a lamppost. Behind it, a dog, resenting the interruption to its ablutions, barked at the dingy world around it and trotted away.
I tried to finish the last few pages of Kerouac’s book that night lying in bed, and realised I hadn’t talked about it with Tony. There hadn’t been time. I’d imagined us sitting in Lou’s bursting with it; its energy, rawness, poetry, the adventure, the colours, all of it, talking about it until Lou started putting the chairs on the tables and still continuing outside long after hearing him bolt his door.
I didn’t sleep, I wondered where he was going, would he actually go? I imagined him wandering around somewhere on his own, stopping someone and saying,
‘Tell me about things.’
This could have meant anything, but they were really feelings; feelings from bits of wood, a doorknocker, clouds, from an old woman, the silhouette of a child playing around a lamppost, an articulated lorry, the smell of paint, of hotdogs at half-time at Upton Park. Tony had an almost psychotic obsession at times to become other people, not just those that were obviously different, anyone; it was a rampant empathy. He wanted, when the mood took him, to become even programmed creatures. I had seen him sit on his haunches for half an hour staring at his sister’s kitten, hardly moving, saying nothing, like a method actor performing in abstract for his introvert audience of one. He would talk to, or merely observe, a stranger and barely out of earshot, say,
‘I know that person, I know him.’
And his intellectualising. We would, perhaps, be walking silently in a park, and he would jump on a bench, an imaginary lectern in front of him, frown down at someone in an imaginary front row and say gravely,
‘There must be no ‘your’ truth, but a whole truth, there can be only one; an unfeeling intellect devoid of everything except that intellect. Even the most unemotional intelligence distorts the object of knowledge. We need an…untouched ‘isness’ - I like that, sounds like a virgin Greek goddess - an intellectual god, some sort of mythological machine, and if the work gets too much for it - and don’t forget, there is one whole complex truth in every square millimetre of everything - it should have a whole group of these machine-like gods to help it, an authoritative intellectual body, an AIB, without emotions…human character. Nothing must distort clarity.’
He’d scythe his hand as if he were decapitating his audience, which would consist of me, and possibly a pigeon strutting disinterestedly in front of him. He’d look down at me, shrug his shoulders dejectedly and ask me what truth was, as if I had known the answer all the time and had purposely withheld it from him to make him miserable.
I couldn’t picture him away from England, I couldn’t see him in scenes of rural wilderness, endless deserts, the hot, orange-groved landscapes of California, wearing a T-shirt and not his tie - the mark of the skilled artisan however paint spotted it might be - putting beer before food, he was too young to legally drink alcohol anyway, and instead of coffee and benzedrine it would be weak tea and lemonade, and it wouldn’t be jazz, sex and aimless driving sitting next to Sal Paradise gazing out of a car window at the continuous road - perhaps it was me who wanted to be sitting there - nor LSD, mescalin and free love, rather Wills Woodbines, and sketching from the black and white photos of happy, healthy looking women with their brushed out private parts from Health and Efficiency magazines, rubbing a pencil line on cartridge paper with his finger to emphasise the curve of a breast.
There would be no New York jazz joint or Mexican whore house, his would be no tale of chill dawns and madness, I couldn’t see him being a ‘western kinsman of the sun’ couldn’t imagine him seeing San Fransisco, ‘stretched out ahead the fabulous white city on her eleven mystic hills.’ Perhaps didn’t want to.
I think I cried that night
When my father died some years later I didn’t cry, though I tried to, but was reminded of both him and Tony when, clearing out my life shortly afterwards before moving from the East End, I found Kerouac’s story, dog-eared and torn, at the back of a bookshelf. A week later, in the early morning mist by my father’s grave, I laid it carefully on the wet grass like a book of remembrance.
Twelve years after this I heard Tony had been living in Liverpool and was now back in London. He’d never communicated with me. I wondered if a city in the north west of England had been his ‘search for the edge.’ I was given his address, it wasn’t far away from where I was living.
I never went to see him - twelve years was a long time, at least it felt like it then. What had happened to him? How long had he stayed in Liverpool? Had a nasal twang replaced his posh cockney? Had he married? Obvious questions. I let them lie unanswered. I did see him once more, though.
A few months ago I was coming out of a shop in Carnaby Street - I was working nearby, still decorating - when a tall, very slim, rather exotic looking woman brushed by me, giving me a quick smile, drawling, in what sounded like an American accent, ‘Hey, excuse me,’ and ran across the road to a smartly dressed man half turning away from her as she put her arm in his. Twenty yards further on he opened the nearside door of a sports car and she slipped casually in. It moved away, the man driving. It was Tony.
Resting against the whiteboard he looked across to the empty chair on his left where Marci had always sat, until a year ago when her estranged husband’s jealousy had finally won and she’d left the course. He knew nothing of her and David, her lecturer, he was jealous of every man.
It was a common story amongst mature female students. Men, feeling inadequate and frightened that their partners or wives were stretching towards new horizons - and wondering who was helping them get there - would occasionally come to the college and demand to know where their women were. When he asked for ideas for research projects a third of the females would opt for something to do with domestic violence, which he would turn into a working hypothesis that they could test.
Hope was such a one. She would sit next to him when discussing her work with heavy bruising under her eye. She was twenty, the youngest in a class of thirty.
‘I don’t deserve this, do I.’ she’d say.
Marci used to sit there wearing a tracksuit, her braided extensions rising above a headband, gazing at him with Bambi eyes and a knowing mouth, and occasionally sipping brandy from a plastic bottle. He thought it was mineral water.
It had been a frenetic time. He’d been to a gym with her, seen the frown under the darktight nest of hair to ward off posing machos, the burnt umber skin, ear-to-ear grin, watched her puffing out her pain in press-ups, drowning her sadness in saunas, lifted weights with her, and attempted ungainly to keep time with her aerobics group. He’d held her up in a nightclub, rushed to her bedside in a local hospital because she’d collapsed, gazed at the zigzagging, merging colours on the screen whilst her liver was being scanned, and after being dragged for a sunset ride on the Barracuda at Southend, lying next to her on his bed like a contortionist dying in his own arms.
The tables and chairs he’d arranged in a three-sided rectangle, for many mature students had had bad educative experiences when young and, especially at the beginning of an academic year, desks set out in well remembered rows would trigger the same fears. Most of the people on this course were from ethnic minorities, mainly African females, and nearly all went on to university.
He played devil’s advocate. When he first met them he would explain that under the guise of an evangelical mission Europeans had introduced Christianity to Africa for the purposes of social and economic control of half a continent - the more politically aware would nod wisely - and that God hadn’t created us, but we, him; the real question being, why?
The classroom would glow with outrage and anger and, often, pity. He wanted to shock their mindset, to create a sliver of a chance that he just could be right, thus helping them to detach, to step back. They were then halfway to a sociological view of the world, and that’s what he was teaching. There were always some female students who would say to him on their way out after the first lecture, lightly touching his shoulder as he sat at his desk, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ He was sure they did.
He’d begun the sociology of deviance the previous year at the beginning of term two and started on the semiotics part the day before Marci had left. He’d suggested that the police worked within the class structure, had pre-existing concepts, ‘pictures in their heads’, of what criminality was and ‘criminals’ were like. He’d asked them for the signs the Bill pounced on.
The two Dagenham lads, who’d always sat together, immediately and in concert had said, ‘Workin’ class, innit.’
‘They’re protecting the bourgeoisie from the proles.’ Abosede had shouted, her Catholicism weakening after a month of Marx.
He’d asked for the signals that would suggest ’working classness.’ Pam, the Afro-Caribbean had suggested it was the walk; another that it was the Sun stuck in back pockets of jeans. He’d then turned his back to them, bouncing on his heels, squaring his shoulders and asked for, ‘Two lagers, John.’
He did this every year, ‘the calf muscle move.’ He’d then ask if they thought he was mimicking the son of an Emeritus Professor of Literature at Kings College, Cambridge - a cheap laugh, but it made the point. One of several Nigerians had said a car was an obvious clue, another, leisure activities and musical tastes, a usually silent Somalian suggested that accent and appearance were the obvious signals and, rather late, someone had suggested race. And so they’d gone on, most of them saying something and in the end creating a comprehensive coverage of perceived clues.
Marci, as ever, had said nothing, merely looking at him steadily. He’d hinted strongly that there would be questions on this at the end of term and suggested a mnemonic to help them. Their answers came back like drumbeats, and they’d made up a little chant:
dreadlocks, hip-hop, beemer, mean,
tattoos, skins, hard, obscene
Some of them had left the classroom happily singing it - possibly because they were going home to change for a birthday party for the twin girls in the class. He’d reminded them, tongue in cheek, they were to turn up in English time, not African.
Now, he let this evening class go early. His car had been stored in the nearby motor vehicle buildings - and probably used for teaching - for the length of his drink and driving ban, and he was wondering how it would feel when he drove it for the first time in a year. Marci, a lot noisier then than when she’d occasionally slipped into the staff room, unheard and unseen, and put a sandwich - and even an apple - on his desk, had been involved in that, too.
It had been decided that they’d go to a local East End pub for the party. He rarely drank, often being mocked by fellow brickies on the sites he’d worked on as an apprentice years before. The class had settled in well in the three months they had been together and most wanted to go. Marci he’d known outside the classroom since she had tearfully pleaded that her essay had been worth more than the grade he had given it because she had worked so hard; perhaps he should have realised then that she had emotional problems. He mumbled about professional integrity and encouraged her to work harder. He didn’t give in. He hadn’t the year before when a student who had done a lot of research on prostitution and, accompanied by her tough-looking CID husband and pitiful lame child - a two-pronged emotional attack - had harangued him in front of other staff to give her the Distinction she thought her work was worth. But, he rarely failed any one.
The next day Marci had rung him in the staff room and asked if he wanted to go to a bar that evening with her and some friends; he’d thanked her and declined. Later that night, with tears in her voice, she’d rang and asked for his address. A little afterwards he’d seen her walking up a garden path some houses away peering short-sightedly at the number on the front door, a manoeuvre she repeated on the next one. Taking her hand he’d gently guided her to his flat.
They drove to the pub late and on the way he’d made the mistake of mentioning the class flirt whom, apparently, he spent more time talking to in class than the others. The car stiffened; he was scared. She had this effect on him and however he analysed it, couldn’t prevent. She was out of the car before he’d stopped, towing his fear to the pub. Ignoring wondering classmates she pushed straight through to the bar and ordered a double brandy,
There was a small stage to the side and on it was the girl who had organised this get-together and who was groining her mini-skirted thighs around and pushing them out at everybody standing around. The swot whose name he could never remember was next to her wearing a blonde wig and rhythmically lifting up a kilt, showing his briefs. The two Ugandans, looking like bouncers, were chuckling deeply and the Nigerian women, gold bangles and ear rings glittering, were quietly smiling, their Victorian values not far away; not for them the two inch band of flesh at their waists, tops of knickers showing. He noticed the Ghanaian women were wearing traditional dress, which seemed to glow, as did their smooth skins and saw the Romford Marxist leaning against the flock-papered wall frowning disapprovingly. Most of them looked very different from the way they did in class, and seemed genuinely glad to see him.
He circulated, drank some wine - someone seemed to keep filling his glass - learnt more about Robert Gabriel Mugabe from an extrovert Zimbabwean student, and one of the older women came over to talk to him about social work. Then Marci was by his side, eyes narrowed. She turned and minced to the stage, jumped up and started dancing about in a clumsy, clattering way in front of a track-suited skinhead, repeatedly pressing herself against him. As she briefly pulled away there was a noticeable bulge in his crotch. She looked round at David and grinned. He strode across and pulled her off the stage. He could hardly see through the noise.
‘Get off, get off, get off!’ she shouted. ‘Let me go!’
She tried to pull her hand away, he gripped harder, dragged her across to the door, and in a tiny chip of cold detachment saw them performing some exotic dance where the man strides smoothly across the dance floor dragging his sylph-like partner horizontally behind him. He was angry and as he pulled the door open glimpsed one of the Dagenham students hiding under a table. She continued to shout at him to let her go as he hurried her to the car parked across the road. He held her against the passenger door for a few seconds then ran around to open the driving-side door. She kicked the side of the car and continued doing so as he got in. He leant across to open the door for her and saw two women run from the pub towards her. He didn’t know them.
‘He’s her tutor, he’s abusing her.’ one shrilled. ‘He’s using his authority.’
Again, the distancing irrelevance as he thought that this could be a cue for a lecture on perceptions of power. In the wing mirror he saw some men hastily cross towards him. He’d left the window down; the other woman pushed her arm in and grabbed his hand as it turned the ignition.
‘She’s with me.’ he said, as calmly as he could,’ I brought her here, she’s - ‘
‘I’m not!’ Marci screamed.’ I’m not with him, I’m not, I’m not!’ and then she began crying. He pushed the hand away and drove off.
He stopped after a hundred yards or so and then went around the block to go back to see if she was okay. Slowly he passed the pub, a group of women were comforting her. He could hear her sobbing. He drove homewards. Nobody with her had noticed him.
A few minutes later he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street and realised he was drunk. He stopped the car; it just happened to be outside of a small police station. A constable told him to get out. He did so and irrelevantly emptied his pockets, placing their contents on the roof of the car. He heard himself giggling as they slid slowly down.
She was leaning against the porch when he got back. He opened the door and closed it behind them. She followed him to the bedroom. He let out a tortuous explosion of the evening’s emotions.
‘You could have got me lynched.’ he yelled. ‘Why did you lie? Why?’
She suddenly slid down the wall and knelt on the floor. He picked her up and gently laid her on the bed. She slept instantly in his arms. He hadn’t mentioned the breathalysing. He held her tightly throughout the night.
The last of them left the classroom - Hope remarking facetiously that she’d seen a squirrel in the college earlier and wanted to know if it was deviant - and just to make sure that the motor vehicle lecturer had got his message he glanced out the window to see if the car was outside the workshops. It was. He hurried down the stairs, wondering why he felt such anticipation at driving again, something quite ordinary, mundane even. He’d got used to buses.
It felt immediately familiar. Driving slowly out the gate he turned westward, overtook two lorries and accelerated towards a main junction a mile away. As he neared it he became gradually aware that what was irritatingly taking his attention were flashing blue lights hitting the driving mirror. Their significance escaped him - he even flicked the mirror up to dull the flashes - until he heard the siren and saw the panda car suddenly behind him. The traffic lights in front were red. He slowed and stopped. Turning in his seat he saw two policemen step out from either side of their car, their movements synchronised.
He’d taught for nine hours in a twelve-hour day and was tired; he assumed he’d been speeding. He remembered the last time police had approached his car; the unbelieving shake of the head from the older one, the embarrassed grin from the other - who he hadn’t noticed at first - as he’d picked up his wallet, small change and comb from the roadside, and thought of Marci with her bloodshot beautiful eyes telling him the following morning that her husband was coming back and she wouldn’t be able to see him again. He thought also of the last lesson she’d had with him, what they’d all been discussing, and the little chant.
Quickly he pulled two paperbacks from the glove compartment; Sociology and Philosophical Theory, and dropped them face upwards on the passenger seat. And as the two uniformed figures looked in at him from both sides of the car he lowered the window and raised the volume on Classic FM.
There is, of course, no beginning; attempts to find one being merely arbitrary. The aetiology would involve too many variables; the infinite regresses of their permutations neither known nor knowable.
Just after an amicable divorce and several years after finishing a degree in sociology at a sixties plate glass University, Mark Talbot began lecturing at various colleges in and around East London.
Immediately after graduating he’d been invited to take seminars in an annexe of a local poly-soon-to-be-university. This had been his old junior school. Sitting in the main hall and looking up at the oriole window of the headmaster’s office was a disquieting experience, as had been the voices of schoolboy friends and foes he thought he could hear swirling around the staircases when, as an ineffectual monitor and telling the noise makers to be quiet, he’d be answered with, ‘You ain’t nuffin’ Talbot.’ ‘’ere, ‘e’s tryin’ to tell us wot to do.’ ‘Teacher’s pet, an’ ‘e.’ And looking out of a first floor window thinking he could see the girls doing handstands against the carpentry shop wall, skirts falling over their faces and knowingly showing their knickers.
One of the colleges was in Hoveing, Essex, where he had a one year full time contract which included a Friday evening class for mature students. Most of the people sitting in the classroom - he saw it proprietarily as his - were indigenous working class pupils and recently arrived Africans, all wanting to get to Higher Education..
Yolande, as usual, came in late, swinging her hips in a yellow and green Cameroonian football shirt - this being a world cup year - and yet again, Prudence, one of the older women, was frowning at him while his eyes unavoidably followed her sister African to her seat. Matronly Prudence had transferred from a day class because, as she’d whispered tearfully to him in an empty staffroom, one of the female students had called her, unjustifiably, a ’prostitute’; an unintentional irony and the ultimate African slur.
At the end of the first month he was finishing theory with a quick round up of post modern meta-narrative - implying, self stultifyingly, that there is no such thing as a meta-narrative - when he noticed Elaine raising her hand at the back. She self consciously put it down as he looked at her.
‘Why is post modernism such a small part of the syllabus?’
‘I’ve just given you one reason. Why d’you ask?’
‘Well, I wondered if you favoured Marxism, because post modernism would invalidate that and - ’
‘Thus if I were, you thought I might be getting my own back?’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘Well, any proponent of an established, overarching sociological theory, including right wing ones, would dislike a scattered string of opinion and conjecture that emphasises an individualistic subjectivity and denies social class and….do you know any Marxists then, Elaine?’
It was only the second time he had spoken to her in class, the first being to call the register on starting day. She was rather mournful looking, sad, tall, with a model’s shoulders and something quietly deliberate about her.
‘Well, my …guardian is.’ She looked briefly awkward and shy. There was a little pause in the class and he carried on in his often proselytising manner. When they’d finished, he briefly answered someone’s question about an essay he had set then left the room. Elaine was just in front of him, awkwardly putting on her coat. On impulse he pulled the collar up at the back for her. She smiled a little shyly and said thanks. He guessed she was about thirty four, the same age as himself.
‘It’s going pretty well isn’t it.’ she said
‘The evening class?’
‘Do you come far?’
‘About eight miles or so. I live just down the road really, but I’m staying with a
They walked in silence through the main doors.
‘I tell him what you’re teaching. He’s…suspicious.’
‘Well, being a Marxist, he - ‘
‘Your guardian?’ He smiled at her.
‘Yes. He’ll be happy about your demolition job on post modernism, though.’
It was her slight, friendly awkwardness - and her wide smile with those slightly protruding front teeth - that tipped the words out; ‘Maybe I could meet him sometime.’ He was walking through the car park with her.
‘Maybe,’ she said with a dull pragmatism, and as she got into her car added, ‘Oh, did you know that Annie, the dark haired lady who sits next to me, is a niece of Gramsci?’ She smiled and drove out the college grounds. He’d mentioned the uncle in class, but nothing more than the name, aware of how little historical knowledge he had of Italian political activists.
She didn’t turn up the next week, but the week after as they reached her car at the far end of the car park he asked her if she fancied a drink one evening. ‘Yes,’ she said simply, as if she’d been expecting him to ask
He met her in a pub near the college a few nights afterwards. She was little different from her student role he thought, as if her ability to express, the glints in her eyes were dulled by a reluctantly enforced stoicism. She told him she had a ten year old son whose father had left them both years ago. They then talked generally, her saying that the class had gelled well, had a good camaraderie, that she was enjoying the subject, but wouldn’t tell him why she had become someone’s ward. She did tell him that it had occurred when she was sixteen and that George, her guardian, was now eighty. Mark calculated that he was about sixty when he entered her life He was a ‘well known communist’ she said with a seeming indifference, but quiet pride.
He’d left Oxford, she said, half way through his degree to join a merchant ship that was gun-running for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. He was eventually torpedoed. All this delivered, again, with a matter of fact casualness as if, somehow, everything that she’d experienced had happened to her, unavoidable, outside of her own volition; she looked out at a world she expected would treat her dispassionately and a little unkindly.
A month after this they slept together at her flat on the top floor of a converted ex-council house. For a while they saw some films, went to alternative comedy venues - small rooms above pubs, working men’s clubs - the occasional restaurant, a play, and then, after the last evening class of term, she suggested they pay a quick visit to the farmhouse. ‘Just to meet George,’ she said, ‘we won’t stay.’
Elaine drove. He sat silently next to her, a little unsure of how he should feel, as if he was about to meet the father of his ‘intended,’ about to ask George’s permission for her hand, to seek his approval of him, of his abilities as a teacher, of his knowledge of, and perhaps even commitment to, Marx or Marxism and to test his knowledge of political history, political ideas; a sort of box-ticking exercise. Would he, Mark wondered, want to know what he knew of the Second Spanish Republic, whether he favoured anarchism or Trotsky, what knowledge he had of the Basques, Colonel Beorlegui, of the siege of Madrid. The generic answer would have been, very little.
He wasn’t in love with George’s ‘daughter.’ There was a quiet practicality about her that he liked, she was pale, leggy, with a gauche artlessness; she had an honesty, a consistency, and was, he felt, beginning to fall in love with him. He didn’t want to hurt her, but sensed she knew this.
They walked towards the house through a small, lit, apple orchard, the lights under the symmetrically planted trees making them look like enchanted fans, the dark bulk of the building looming in the background. There was a porch lamp above a narrow door at the side of the black painted barn-like house. She put her key in the lock, reminding him of the neighbours in his childhood terrace street who would ‘let themselves in,’ nearly all, it seemed, having keys to each others houses.
He felt George was some sort of absolute certainty in Elaine’s life; there was a shut off implacability, a fatalistic acceptance when Mark thought of her in relation to George - as if he was a symbol of some authoritative atheistic deity.
As they entered, George was looking down at them from a balcony. He was tall with long grey hair, leaning slightly forward, fingers casually curled on the wooden handrail in front of him. He looked from Mark to Elaine, nodded, turned and walked towards the top of the narrow staircase. Mark looked quickly around: grey-blue walls, high pitched cream ceiling with oak joists, the doors of the rooms off the balcony in the same dark, polished wood as the handrail all the way around the four sided gallery, beneath which weren’t turned spindles or metal rods, but wooden carvings from the Karma Sutra of women being penetrated by men in a variety of acquiescent positions. One of these was a female with puffed cheeks kneeling behind a priapic male figure and holding one end of a straw to her lips, the other just behind his testicles. He wondered detachedly if this was the origin of ‘blow job.’
George came down the last step and walked towards him, deep set eyes, hair swept back from a lined, tanned face, a full, trimmed moustache, and dressed in dark grey almost completely. An ideologue, and a seemingly rich one, thought Mark.
They shook hands, a tiny smile in George’s eyes, a casual, but almost formal grip. ‘Come through,’ he said. Mark followed him into a large kitchen, noted the eclectic mix of the new and old: two small windows with leaded panes, a slatted blind, a long kitchen range, oak table, modern blender and coffee grinder, copper kettle and an incongruous thirties cloud-back chair.
‘Do you want a drink?’ He had a rather curt, deep, voice. There was the sound of a flushing cistern, quick, light feet, and a boy of about ten with blue eyes and wide, thin-lipped mouth was looking up at him. Elaine, who was filling the kettle, without looking round, said, ‘Richard, this is Mark, my friend.’ Richard nodded at him then threw his arms around George’s thigh and squeezed. George lightly touched the child’s hair.
‘Elaine tells me she’s enjoying her subject, and the class are too it would seem.’
‘They do seem keen, though it’s a little difficult to get one or two away from god and to politicise them. I shouldn’t be doing that, of course, but detachment’s difficult.’
George grinned, ‘It wouldn’t matter much if you rammed Marx down their throats would it? The system can take it, can it not? Bourgeoise accommodationism I believe it’s called.’
Mark was feeling challenged, though knew what had been said was correct. He told George that though he’d once been called an auto-didactic secular preacher, he was more interested in the analysis of class society than revolutionary Marxism. George frowned slightly, forced a grin and asked again if he wanted a drink. Mark told him he was driving and George then, with surprising nimbleness, picked Richard up, dropped him over a shoulder and said, ‘Well, I’m gonna put this little toe rag to bed, and then I have things to do. Hope to see you again.’ He said this without looking at anyone and went out the room. Mark expected Elaine to follow him so she could say good night to her son, but she handed him a coffee and after a few silent minutes beckoned him to follow her as she started walking back through the apple trees as if, somehow, she wasn’t allowed to tuck Richard in when George was putting him to bed. She drove them back in silence to the college car park.
‘That was…interesting,’ Mark said, ‘You going back there now?’
‘No, the flat.’ She drove away.
They went back a few weeks later - again in the evening - for Elaine to pick something up. George was away at a council meeting. Mark hadn’t known he was a councillor. While she was upstairs he wandered around, looked in the large through-lounge with its oriental rugs, sixties three piece suite, Art Deco cocktail cabinet and coffee table - a half drunk cup of coffee on a hardback copy of Debord’s Society as Spectacle on the latter - and a book-lined end wall. But he was taken by the paintings. There were vividly coloured scenes of street markets, fountains on a Madrid boulevard, and a stark black and white photo of a vertical half of a pension, the other half just chunks of rubble. There was also a crayon sketch hung in the centre of the wall of a girl in her late teens with large, dark eyes, impish grin, and an energy in her that made the rest of the room seem almost lifeless.
He walked up the stairs, along the balcony, stopped at an open door. Elaine was putting what looked like a skirt into a bag. She gave a hesitant smile as she came out the room and closed the door, but not before he’d seen a four poster bed complete with canopy and a nightshirt hanging from the dark headboard. As they went out he asked her if it was a painting that he could see at the back of the open garage.
‘I think it’s a Braque. I don’t know much about art.’
He went in and turned it round. He knew little of the artist’s work, but recognised the style immediately.
‘It’s an original,’ she said, ‘can we go, I’m getting cold.’
It was this almost dismissive casualness, a gentle flippancy that both simultaneously intrigued him and pushed him away.
One night at her flat he asked who the face in the sketch belonged to. She became immediately animated. ‘Oh, that was Maria. She was lovely. George met her when he was in Spain, she was about sixteen then. It was the paseos he called them, executions, both sides were doing it. Her husband was a Republican and they shot him. They came after Maria too, and George hid her. He and a group of others lived in the hills and she stayed with them. She used to come over and stay at the farm, every other year really, and George would sometimes go to her in Spain. She died last year. He was very upset and so was I. She had a little boy, but he died when he was two. She loved Richard. She used to get so excited around him. She would grip his hands and swing him around, and shout, Ricardo,‘eres un chico encantador y tu papa es magnifico!’ She was lovely.’ He asked what it meant. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said, ‘I miss her.’
Towards the end of the academic year - they’d seen much less of each other, though he wasn’t sure why, but she was an ever-present in class - a full time job came up at the college. The evening Access class was the only sociology teaching he had, the rest of his timetable consisting of Communications. This job entailed mostly his subject. The opening had arisen because a lecturer had been sacked. He, David, was a little younger than Mark, short, stocky, ginger haired and quietly intense. He didn’t know him that well, he was relatively new there, but liked him. He always seemed to be surrounded by young females both in class and the staff room. They were obviously fond of him and Mark felt there was a political - and politicising - element in their relationship.
The word was that he was an ‘anarchist,’ a ‘trouble maker,’ and that management had got rid of him by sending a lackey to keep tabs on him, He was seen going into his class ten minutes late. That, apparently, was all that was needed. Whilst feeling sorry for him and disliking management - in particular and in general - Mark needed the job and applied for it. Three of his fellow Communications lecturers said they would see the Vice Principal and suggest strongly that they wanted him on the staff.
He was surprised and disappointed when told he wouldn’t be short-listed. He had a meeting with the Vice Principal and asked him why. ‘I do not,’ he was answered patronisingly, ‘want a communist cell in the college.’ Mark felt he was the sort of man who thought a communist meant someone who shopped at the Co-op. He was rendered inarticulate, all he could think of saying was an almost choked, ‘But, that’s ridiculous,’ before the Principal entered the room on ‘urgent business’ and he left.
He told Elaine. She seemed surprised. The next day she showed him a letter she had written to the Head of the college in which she talked of the difficulty of the subject, the teacher making it such a pleasure for the class and her amazement that a competent teacher of such an important discipline would not be at the college next year. ‘I do not look forward,’ she wrote, ‘to having a teacher perhaps unqualified in sociological understanding and am thus thinking twice about continuing my studies.’ It was gratifying, but Mark wanted her to continue. She’d been working as a temp at an IT recruitment firm for the last year and had an ambition to do a social work degree.
A few days afterwards she showed him a copy of the letter George had sent to the Chief Education Officer of the borough in his role as shadow chairman on Further Education for the County Council. ‘Whilst I must stress that your selection standards are nothing of my business, apart from their bearing on my daughter’s education, I must state that I am disagreeably surprised a to find her progress threatened.’ It was signed George Mills, and had the Great Mitchams, East Ockden address.
He didn’t see her over the two week Whitsun period - ‘I have things to do at George’s’ - but was in the library preparing a letter to circulate around colleges and to see what teaching jobs, if any, were being offered, when he thought of the charcoal drawing. He wasn’t far from the language section and took a book of Spanish-English back to his table. For someone whose knowledge of Spanish began and ended with dos decaffeinado con leche por favor, it took him a while to find and interpret what Maria supposedly and ritualistically had said to Richard whenever she’d seen him. He could imagine her, then about seventy he supposed, but still vivacious and strong, swirling around the boy, dancing with him. It seemed obvious suddenly that she had been George’s lover for many years .Mark didn’t know why he had remembered her words, but he had. Apparently in English it was, ‘You are a lovely boy and your daddy is magnificent!’
And this was something else so obvious he’d missed it. It reminded him of when he’d stood on the observation floor of the Empire State at night a few years before and, looking at the Chrysler, the Woolworth building and Times Square, had wondered for a second why he couldn’t see the Empire State. Richard’s father was George.
He sat there thinking of him; someone who had risked his life for something he believed, had saved lives, been, perhaps, responsible for taking them. The nearest Mark had got to any sort of cause was walking half a mile around a university town with a CND banner and once, as an apprentice joiner, had been part of a building site go-slow. He felt admiration, respect, but then remembered what Elaine had said to him one evening a few weeks before; something else he had pushed away, deflected, sidelined. Lying on the bed she’d said casually, as he got dressed to go home, ‘Oh, George wants us to do it in front of him ‘cos he can’t any more.’ He hadn’t replied.
And there was a memory of a glimpse of a crumpled nightshirt dropped in the corner of her bedroom when she’d first invited him into it. Was George, he thought, still sleeping with her, here and at the farm? There was another question: had Maria’s child been George’s too?
He’d grown fond of Elaine, but realised he’d felt somewhat dispirited when with her, experiences were somehow blunted, any sharing - of humour, situations, of giving emotionally - diluted, impoverished. He tried to categorize it as an interesting, but disappointing episode for he knew he wouldn’t be seeing her again and intuitively felt she knew this, too. The only stimulus, other than in her bed, had been the teaching. He could give something to her then; she was intelligent, though carefully, methodically so, as if her intellect was in abeyance, and her identity, the sixteen year old self, had no real expression except through or with George.
He wanted to teach, encourage, preach - he had a picture of George nodding in approval as he thought this. Mark had met him just once, but could feel how Elaine had been influenced, invaded, taken over by him.
He had applied for some philosophy lecturing, wanting to deal with the empirical, a posteriori synthetic truths, people as Durkheimian things, to escape into a more intellectualised, understandable world.
He didn’t see Elaine again, but did hear her voice. He’d just got home from a class at a college where he had a full time job, when the phone rang. It was Elaine telling him that George had died in Spain - for a moment he felt trapped in a ghost story in which he couldn’t actually have met someone because they had died many years before. He remembered what she said almost verbatim. ‘…he hadn’t been back there for a few years and wanted to meet up with Maria’s younger brother who he’d helped to get to Catalonia. Apparently he was away on holiday, so George went on his own to the hills in Miranda de Ebro, near a monastery by the river, Our Lady of the Wheel it’s called - I remember these places because he often told stories about them, Richard used to be fascinated. It was where he’d hid Maria.…’ She stopped speaking.
‘It’s okay. It seems he was walking around the bottom of a hill - a couple from the village were picnicking there and saw him. He kept stopping to look up, probably trying to find the caves they’d stayed in.’ In answer to his unspoken question she said, ‘I was his next of kin, so a policeman rang me from Madrid and told me all this. George was wearing his black cap, he wore it nearly every time he went out. He called it his ‘comrades cap.’ They found it near his body. He was climbing up a slope. Perhaps he didn’t know the caves had been filled in. He slipped and slid down. Not far, but both his legs were broken.’ A silence again. ‘He was eighty two, you know.’ I heard a whimper, and could feel the effort it took for her to stop it.
‘When’s the funeral, Elaine?’
‘Oh, it’s gone. I didn’t know what to do. I thought he might want to be buried there, near Maria. I know where’s she’s buried, he told me. So…he’s buried in the next grave to hers. I went over there, and Manuel and his wife were there. They were very kind’
‘Why didn’t you…’ He was about to ask, in a moment of childlike arrogance, why she hadn’t told him before and perhaps asked him to go with her, but he didn’t. He wondered if she felt that she had no right to bring George back and bury him; maybe in the churchyard near the farm
He told her he was sorry about George and, as he said it, felt regret at only seeing him the once, at not making efforts to get to know him, to see if he could have pierced that teak-like exterior, that hard, selfish toughness he seemed to carry with him. He asked her what she was going to do.
‘I’m going to sell the farm.’ At least, she had that, he thought. ‘I shall move somewhere I suppose.’
He wanted to say, ‘Find something for yourself, Elaine, find what you want, convince yourself you can, you’re allowed to.’ Instead, he asked about Richard.
’He’s okay. He’s sad, but he’s alright.’
She asked what he was doing, was he teaching. He mumbled something. She said,
‘Well, all the best then, Mark.’ and hung up.
Driving on the A13 he took a detour to drive past the farm house, which he hadn’t seen for a year. The orchard was no longer there, it was now a paved area with barbecue equipment scattered about, and where all the latticed windows had been were pvc mock Georgian glazing bars. The subtle carriage lamp on the side door had turned into a crass mock-up of an early Victorian lamp, and though the outside was still in East Anglian black, it had now been glossed. It looked rather cheap. The chimney stack, in its crumbling authenticity, was still there.
He didn’t stop. He had to get to work - finish off Marx’s theory of economic determinism. He felt that George, in a narrow eyed, cautious way, would be quite happy with that, even if conditionally.
He started driving back to the college. He was feeling empty, specious, he was missing George. He couldn’t understand this. He knew of him rather than knew him. Perhaps he had become, unknowingly, a talisman, perhaps a figure to be emulated, someone mature, solid, complete. But Mark instantly knew he couldn’t do this. He had to become whoever he was, was going to be. He drove a little faster, wanting to get back to the students. To the beginning.