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by David Gardiner
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The staff room door opened quietly and Sam looked up from the essays he was marking. It was Lita, the part time music teacher. Neat and slender and always smiling to cover up her shyness, or so it seemed to Sam, she wore a Remembrance Day poppy in the buttonhole of her very proper grey tweed jacket and carried her guitar case delicately in both hands, like a precious relic. Her fingers were so slender, he thought. She always made him feel protective.
‘Lita – they tell me you’re leaving us?’
‘Yes, Sam. I’ve just done my very last session, and I’m definitely not sorry. I don’t think coming here was a very good idea for me. I don’t think I have the right personality for the job.’
‘But it’s been so nice having you here. All our little talks. I’ll really miss you.’ She avoided his eyes but her smile broadened.
‘To be honest,’ she said very quietly, ‘you’re the one person from here that I shall miss. I just haven’t been able to cut it here. I’m not enough of a disciplinarian. I’m sure you know that, everyone does.
Everyone knows that Mr Summers has been coming into my class and rescuing me. I thought at the beginning that I could... make the children enthusiastic. Motivate them. But the truth is, I’m not used to teaching music to people who don’t love music. I just don’t know how to do it.’
‘They’re an absolute shower, especially the fourth-years.’
‘No, it isn’t really them. It’s me, Sam. I’m not the right person to get through to them. There’s no point in pretending. I can give private lessons to adult musicians, I have done for years as you know, but teaching children is beyond me. I don’t know how anybody does it.’ She met his eyes at last and he thought he detected a tenderness in hers that he hadn’t seen before.
‘You get used to it. Develop strategies... and a thick skin of course. You’re too good for this place, Lita. We’ve never had a real concert musician here before. It’s like... putting a delicate orchid into the jungle.’
She giggled. ‘But that’s where delicate orchids grow, Sam.’
Sam laughed. ‘I walked into that one. English Teachers’ Inappropriate Simile Disease. I’ve been a lifelong sufferer.’
Sam surprised himself with what he said next. ‘May I see you again, after you leave? Could I visit you or something?’ It was too bold, he needed to soften it. ‘I tried to learn the guitar when I was a student, you know. I’ve tried off and on for years, in fact. I’ve never been any good at it, but maybe... maybe with a few lessons from somebody I respect, and admire...’
Her response exceeded all expectations. ‘Of course you can visit me, Sam. I would love you to visit me.’ She put the guitar down delicately beside Sam’s essays and sat directly opposite him. ‘Nothing would give me more pleasure than... teaching you the guitar.’
She was positively beaming, she didn’t look in the least shy any more. Was it his imagination or had her hand moved a few inches towards his? Before he could complete the thought Ned Summers came bounding into the room. ‘You’re lucky to be getting out of this shit hole, Lita!’ he declared with unnecessary loudness, ‘That 4G need locking up. Bastards!’
As he left from the school gates, Sam saw one of his sixth-form pupils, Cindy Hutchinson, with a tray of Remembrance Day poppies dangling from her neck and a collecting jar in her hand. ‘Hello Cindy,’ he said with a cheery smile, fumbling in his coat pocket for change, ‘I haven’t seen you doing this before.’
‘No, Sir. This is my first time.’
He found some coins and fed them one by one into the jar. As he did this he remembered something about Cindy’s family. ‘Your father was...’ The sentence faded out.
‘He was killed in Iraq, Sir. When I was a first year.’
Sam regretted having brought it up. ‘He must have been a very brave man.’
‘He was a fool, Sir.’ She said it without hesitation or evident emotion. Sam winced.
‘That’s a very... harsh thing to say. I’m sure you don’t really mean it.’
‘He didn’t need to go out there, Sir, did he? And it isn’t like he didn’t know what it was all about. He’d been in the first Gulf War, before I was born. I think my Mum and me needed a live father more than a dead hero, Sir.’
Sam was taken aback. He felt completely out of his depth. He fingered the poppy, squeezing its sides together and letting it spring back. ‘Cindy... all grown-ups do things from the best possible motives that turn out badly. It makes me feel really sad to hear you talk like that. Sad for your father... he would have been so proud of you if he could see you now. And he would be so hurt by what you have just said... Surely you can’t be that angry with him? I’m sorry, I seem to be talking nonsense. Forgive me.’
‘You know, I’ve noticed that about you, Sir. When you start to talk about your feelings you always apologise and say that you’re talking nonsense.’
‘Do I? Yes, I think perhaps I do. How very observant...’
‘Feelings aren’t nonsense, Sir.’
Sam was completely silenced. He stood quite still for a moment, then carefully adjusted the poppy in his buttonhole and walked on without looking back.
Sally laid her newspaper on the table as Sam came in. ‘Bad day?’ she asked.
‘No. Nothing special. Nothing worse than usual.’
‘Well, I can see that something’s wrong. What is it?’
He removed the poppy from his buttonhole and hung up his coat. He carried the plastic flower to the table and sat down before answering. ‘I just... got a surprise. When I got off the bus... No, it’s silly, forget about it.’ He took her hand and she leaned forward and gave him a peck on the lips. She didn’t say any more. She waited.
‘Have you ever suddenly glimpsed your own reflection in a shop window? You must have. Everybody has.’
‘And?’ she urged.
‘I’m an old man, Sally. I’m not middle aged. I’m old. I look exactly like pictures of my father. I saw this old grey-haired man walking towards me, a bit stiff and awkward, a bit broad around the waist, and suddenly I realised – it was me. That’s who I am. It’s not who I thought I was at all. It’s scary. When did I get to be an old man, Sally?’
She smiled. ‘Don’t be silly. You’re not old. Fifty isn’t old any more. Sixty isn’t old. You’re in your prime. I’ll let you know when you’re over the hill.’
‘I knew you would say something like that, but it doesn’t work. I’ve seen who I am now. And it was a shock.’
‘Well, there’s not much any of us can do about it. Would you like me to look for something to darken your hair? Grey is very ageing. Most people help nature along a bit nowadays.’
‘I don’t think it’s my hair. It’s me. I feel like... I’ve left everything too late. I never felt like this before. There didn’t seem to be any limit – I thought I had time to change my life and start again if I wanted to. In fact time never entered into my thinking at all. I could travel, I could write the novel I used to talk about, take up painting, teach in a different country, do a doctorate, learn to play the guitar... there was nothing I couldn’t do if I wanted to. I didn’t need to worry about the future. The future just seemed to stretch on and on, endlessly. Now, it doesn’t seem to do that any more.’
Sally considered what he had said. ‘What kind of change is it that you have in mind, then? Do you want to run away with a sixth-former?’
He smiled and shrugged. ‘There isn't really anything in particular that I want. Just the possibility of something. I just want to get back that feeling that there aren’t any boundaries. Sorry, I’m not making much sense, am I?’
She kissed him again, more tenderly. ‘You’re not trying to say that you’re tired of me, are you Sam?’
He shook his head. ‘Not tired of you. Not tired of anything. Just tired, I suppose.’ Still holding her hand he hoisted his case onto the table and undid the catch to reveal a pile of students’ essays.
‘Have a coffee first at least, Sam. No wonder you’re tired.’
‘I’m afraid these are a bit urgent. They should have been done at the weekend.’
‘I’ll make you one anyway.’ She slipped her hand out of his and made her way towards the kitchen.
‘Are you coming to bed, Sam?’
He glanced at the pile of essays. There were only a couple of unmarked ones left. ‘I’ll be up in half an hour,’ he assured her.
‘Well, take a break at least. Have you any idea how many hours you’ve been at that?’
‘I’ll take a break,’ he assured her. She waited at the bottom of the stairs until he put down the script he was holding and made his way to the cupboard at the back of the room. From it he produced a guitar in a frayed cloth case and a dog-eared copy of Burt Weedon’s Play in a Day. As soon as she saw him do this she started up the stairs.
He settled down on the easy chair by the coal-effect fire, took the instrument out, and tried the chord of A. It didn’t sound too bad. Then he tried D. Definitely something wrong with that. He opened Burt’s book and studied the fingering diagram. Play in a Day? How many days had he put into it if he added together all his occasional spurts of interest? How many more days did he have to put into anything? He listened to the tuning. Out. Definitely out. He should know how to tune it properly by now. He should be able to do that much at least. After a few half-hearted attempts he leaned it against the wall and flicked Burt Weedon onto the coffee table. ‘There wasn’t enough time, Michael.’ he whispered to himself, ‘There just wasn’t enough time.’ He put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes.
He woke up to the sensation of Sally violently shaking his shoulder. ‘Sam! Are you okay? You’re not ill or anything, are you?’
He opened his eyes and almost instantly closed them again. ‘What time is it?’
‘It’s six thirty. You’ve been there all night. Are you sure you’re all right?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine. I must have fallen asleep. I was on the stage at some kind of folk club. I was giving a concert. Singing and playing the guitar. Marlon Brando and Al Pacino were in the front row...’.
‘I don’t think you’re well. Will I phone the school?’
‘Good lord no! I’m fine. And I’ve got far too much to do. I’ll take a shower. It’s still early. I’ll be fine.’
As he approached the bus stop he glanced once again at the same shop window. He didn’t have any sense of shock this time, he knew what to expect. A tired overweight old man, with a collar and tie and a scuffed briefcase. No spark of enthusiasm in those eyes. Nothing to animate the shuffling grey form. A worn-out and disillusioned functionary plodding his way towards a dull retirement. He knew now that he was never going to do anything to shake the world, just his appearance was enough to tell him that, he may as well come to terms with it.
His reverie of self pity was interrupted by the sight of someone who looked exactly like Cindy Hutchinson, but out of uniform and dragging a case on wheels, hurrying down the other side of the road. It was Cindy! She had spotted him too, but was turning away, pretending not to have seen.
‘Cindy!’ he shouted. She stopped and turned, a guilty look on her face. He hurried across the road and stood in front of her, looking her up and down. The things that he ought to say to her welled up in his mind. Why aren’t you in Uniform? You know that jewellery is against the school rules. Where do you think you’re going anyway? But he said nothing. Instead he fingered his buttonhole and realised that he had left his poppy at home.
‘I’m not going to school today, Mr Ellis.’ She sounded nervous but resolved.
‘I see.’ Sam tried to make his voice sound mild. ‘Is there some kind of trouble at home?’
She hesitated. ‘It’s personal,’
Sam felt awkward. ‘Well, you’re not a child any more. You must make up your own mind about such things.’ He turned to go but she called him back.
‘Mr Ellis. Could we talk for five minutes?’
‘Well, not really...’ he glanced at his watch, ‘Oh, all right then. Five minutes.’
The block of flats beside them had a convenient low wall around its communal lawn, so they both sat down, separated by the width of Cindy’s case.
‘I don’t think I’ll be coming back to school again,’ she said quietly.
‘You’re running away, aren’t you?’
‘Sort of. I won’t be hiding though. I’ll let my mum know where I am.’
Sam nodded. ‘And where will that be?’
By way of an answer she took a creased picture postcard from her shoulder bag and handed it to Sam. The picture showed a rural village sprawled out around the bottom of a tree-covered hill, with a lake in the foreground and a lane winding off into the distance. It could have been almost anywhere, carefully photographed to make it look its best. Turning the card over he saw that the stamp was Irish. He read the message. ‘I take it this was a holiday romance?’ he enquired, handing it back.
She nodded. ‘Magaluf.’
‘Sun, sea and sex.’
‘That’s what they say, Sir. But it wasn’t like that. We really loved each other. We still do. We were hardly apart for a minute.’
Sam nodded but did not reply straight away. ‘And I suppose you want me to tell you that you’re being foolish. Give you the proper teacherly lecture. Is that right?’
‘I don’t know, Sir. I just wanted to tell somebody. I haven’t told anybody else. I’m... a bit scared, to be honest.’
‘Well, I’m very flattered that you’ve chosen to tell me. I appreciate your trust. Your confidence.’ He paused again. ‘If you had told me this yesterday, I would have said exactly what you probably expect me to say. What you probably want me to say. I would have said it’ll all end in tears – you’re too young, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, what about your poor mother, what about your examinations and your place at University – that kind of thing. What I’m sure you want to hear, deep down.’
‘No, Sir. I just want to hear what you really feel. Without an apology at the end.’
He smiled. ‘Well, the truth is, what I really feel today is different to what I would probably have felt yesterday. Today, this morning, there are a lot of things that I’m not certain about any more. Let me try to explain.' He paused, struggled for the right words. 'I’m a lot older than you, obviously, but the way it all works hasn’t changed very much. The older generation, all parents everywhere, have a story in their heads of how their children’s lives are supposed to go. Much the same story, I think. Work hard at school, get good grades, go to University, get a good degree, get a good job, get a spouse and a mortgage, get promotion, get to the top of the pile, raise your children and babysit your grandchildren, retire and take an allotment, leave your savings to the next generation when you die. Does that sound familiar?'
'Yes, Sir. Very familiar.'
'Some children live out that parental fantasy and some don’t. I have, very faithfully so far. The good grades, the degree – and it wasn’t as easy to get into University then as it is now – the good job, the wife, the mortgage. I’m more than half way through the story now, I’ve ticked more than half the boxes, and do you know what? I’m getting bored with the plot, not to mention the characters. They’ve stopped developing, especially the central character, me. This isn’t a very interesting story. I think I would like to change the narrative. Take it in some new direction. But I don’t know exactly where yet. So you see, you’ve asked me on a very bad day. You should have asked me yesterday.’
Cindy looked him in the eye and smiled. ‘You’re a funny kind of adult, aren’t you, Sir?’ Her face became serious again. ‘So you think I should go, Sir? Take a chance on it?’
‘I think you should stop asking people like me to tell you how to run your life. I’m only fifty, Cindy. I’ve only just got here. I don’t have any answers. When I work out how to run my own life then I’ll be in a better position to give advice to other people. I will say one thing though. You’re one of the least helpless people I’ve ever met. You’ll be able to look after yourself. Look out, world. That’s all I can say.’
On the far side of the road Sam’s bus drew up to the stop, paused briefly, and continued on its way. He realised that he didn’t care.
For a moment, Cindy looked as though she might kiss him. ‘Thank you, Sir. You’ve been a really big help... Can I phone you from Ireland?’
‘If you find out how life should be lived? Yes. That’s a good idea. Phone me.’
Sam came in very quietly, tidied away his coat and briefcase, and made his way to the easy chair by the fire. He picked up the poppy and twirled it by its stalk. Sally heard his arrival from the kitchen despite his quietness. As soon as she appeared he knew that news of his truancy had reached her. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked coldly. ‘Where did you go today?’
‘Today? Today I went for a guitar lesson.’ He picked up the instrument and played a few flawless chords by way of proof.
‘Is that all you’re going to tell me?’
‘Why is it that everybody wants me to tell them something? I seem to be some kind of oracle today. I don’t have any pearls of wisdom to impart. There’s really nothing more to tell. I wanted a guitar lesson. I got a guitar lesson. I don’t know whether I’ll ever get another.’
She walked over and looked him in the eye. ‘Something’s going on with you, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, I think perhaps something is. But maybe it’s something good. I don’t know yet. Early days.’ He pulled her towards him and gave her a gentle hug. ‘Early days.’
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