SEMIOLOGY

Ken Champion
 

Resting against the whiteboard I looked across to the empty chair on my 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 me, he was jealous of every man.
It was a common story amongst female mature 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 come to the college and demand to know where their women were. When I asked for ideas for research projects a third of the females would opt for something to do with domestic violence, which I would turn into a working hypothesis that they could test.

Hope was such a one. She would sit next to me when discussing her work with heavy bruising under an 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 wearing a tracksuit, her braided extensions rising above a headband, gazing at me with Bambi eyes and a knowing mouth, and occasionally sipping brandy from a plastic bottle. I thought it was mineral water.
It had been a frenetic time. I’d been to a gym with her, seen the frown under the dark tight 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. I'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 my bed like a contortionist dying in his own arms.

The tables and chairs I'd arranged in a three-sided rectangle, for many mature students had had bad educative experiences when young and, especially at the beginning of the academic year, desks set out in well-remembered rows would trigger the old fears. Most of the people on this course were from ethnic minorities, mainly African females, and nearly all went on to university
I played devil's advocate. When first I met them I 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. I wanted to shock their mindset, to create a sliver of a chance that I could just 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 I was teaching. There were always some students who would say to me on their way out after their first lecture, lightly touching my shoulder as I sat at my desk, "We'll pray for you." I'm sure they did.

I’d begun the sociology of deviance the previous year at the beginning of term two and started on the semiotics the day before Marci had left. I'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. I'd asked them for the signs the Bill pounced on.
The two Dagenham lads, who'd always sat together, immediately and in conceit had said, "Workin' class, innit."
"They're protecting the bourgeoisie from the proles," Abosede had shouted, her Catholicism weakening after a month of Marx.
I'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 the back pocket of jeans. I’d then turned my back on them, bouncing on my heels, squaring my shoulders and asked for, "Two lagers, John."
I did this every year, 'the calf muscle move'. I’d then ask if they thought I 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 we'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 me steadily. I'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 we'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. I’d reminded them, tongue in cheek, they were to turn up in English time, not African.
Now, I let this evening class go early. My car had been stored in the nearby motor vehicle buildings - and probably used for teaching — for the length of my drink and driving ban, and I was wondering how it would feel when I drove it for the first time in a year. Marci, a lot nosier then than when she'd occasionally slipped into the staff-room, unheard and unseen, and put a sandwich — and even an apple-on my desk, had been involved in that, too.
It had been decided that we'd go to a local East End pub for the party. I rarely drank, often being mocked by fellow brickies on the sites I'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 I'd known outside the classroom since she had tearfully pleaded that her essay had been worth more than the grade I had given it because she had worked so hard; perhaps I should have realised then that she had emotional problems. I mumbled about professional integrity and encouraged her to work harder. I didn't give in. I 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 me in front of other staff to give her the Distinction she thought her work was worth. But, I rarely failed anyone.

The next day Marci had rung me in the staff-room and asked if 1 wanted to go to a bar that evening with her and some friends; I'd thanked her and declined Later that night, with tears in her voice, she'd rung and asked for my address. A little afterwards I’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 I’d gently guided her to my flat.

We drove to the pub late and on the way I'd made the mistake of mentioning the class flirt whom, apparently, I spent more time talking to in class than the others. The car stiffened; I was scared. She had this effect on me which however I analysed it, I couldn't prevent She was out of the car before I’d stopped, towing my 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 I 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. I noticed the Ghanaian women were wearing traditional dress, which seemed to glow, as did their smooth skins and I 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 me.

I circulated, drank some wine - someone seemed to keep filling my glass — learnt more about Robert Gabriel Mugabe from an extrovert Zimbabwean student, and one of the older women came over to talk to me about social work. Then Marci was by my 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 I noticed the bulge in his crotch. She looked round at me and grinned. I strode across and pulled her off the stage.
"Get off, get off, get off!" she shouted. "Let me go !"
She tried to pull her hand away, I gripped harder, dragged her across to the door, and in a tiny chip of cold detachment saw us performing some exotic dance where the man strides smoothly across the dance-floor dragging his sylph-like partner horizontally behind him. I was angry and as I pulled the door open glimpsed one of the Dagenham students hiding under a table. She continued to shout at me to let her go as I hurried her to the car parked across the road. I 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 I got in. I leant across to open the door for her and saw two women run from the pub towards her. I didn't know them.
‘He's her tutor, he's abusing her," one shrilled "He's using his authority.”
Again, the distancing irrelevance as I thought that this could be a cue for a lecture on perceptions of power, m the wing mirror I saw some men hastily cross towards me. I'd left the window down; the other woman pushed her arm in and grabbed my hand as it turned the ignition.
"She's with me,” I said, as calmly as I 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. I pushed the hand away and drove off.
I stopped after a hundred yards or so and then went around the block to go back to see if she was okay. Slowly I passed the pub, a group of women were comforting her. I could hear her sobbing. I drove homewards. Nobody with her had noticed me.
A few minutes later I was driving the wrong way down a one-way street and realised I was drunk. I stopped the car: it just happened to be outside a small police station. A constable told me to get out I did so and involuntarily emptied my pockets, placing their contents on the roof of the car. I heard myself giggling as they slid slowly down.

She was leaning against the porch when I got back. I opened the door and closed it behind us. She followed me to the bedroom. I let out a tortuous explosion of the evening's emotions.
'You could have got me lynched," I yelled, "why did you lie ? Why?”
She suddenly slid down the wall and knelt on the floor. I picked her up and gently laid her on the bed. She slept instantly in my arms. I hadn't mentioned the breathalysing. I 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 my message I glanced out the window to see if the car was outside the workshops. It was, I hurried down the stairs, wondering why I felt such anticipation at driving again., something quite ordinary, mundane even. I'd got used to buses.
It felt immediately familiar. Driving slowly out the gate I turned westwards, overtook two lorries and accelerated towards a main junction a mile away. As I neared it I became gradually aware that what was irritatingly taking my attention were flashing blue lights hitting the driving mirror. Their significance escaped me - I even flicked the mirror up to dull the flashes - until I heard the siren and saw the panda car suddenly behind me. The traffic lights in front were red. I slowed and stopped. Turning in my seat I saw two policemen step out from either side of their car, their movements synchronised.

I'd taught for nine hours in a twelve hour day and was tired, I'd assumed I'd been speeding. I remembered the last time police had approached my car; the unbelieving shake of the head from the older one, the embarrassed grin from the other - who I hadn't noticed at first -as he'd picked up my wallet, small change and comb from the roadside, and thought of Marci with her bloodshot eyes telling me the following morning that her husband was coming back and she wouldn't be able to see me again. I thought also of the last lesson she'd had with me, what we'd all been discussing, and the little chant.
Quickly I 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 me from both sides of the car I lowered the window and raised the volume on Classic VM.