THE HISTORY TUTOR
I started going to see the Prof not long after the parent-teacher evening in the first term of my GCSE year. My dad had been looking through my coursework. They put it out on the tables outside the classroom, you know, so the parents don't get bored while they're waiting for their turn to see The Man.
The trouble was my dad saw the bit where I wrote that Edward IV had his head cut off by Robert the Bruce during the Spanish Armada. And he saw what my teacher had written next to it. My mum says he really blew up when he read that! He must have thought I meant it seriously, or something. Of course, I was just taking the mickey. I mean, history was so boring; I had to do something to brighten it up. I knew it was Charles the First really.
My dad didn't see the joke, though. He went on and on about "the value of a balanced education" and it was no good me telling him I was going to be a games programmer and make millions and when I said that anyway, history was bunk, he asked me who said that and when I didn't know he ranted on for another half-an-hour about how I'd end up working on the sweets counter in Woolworth's, or scrubbing office floors, or asking if they "wanted fries with that."
In the end I went up to my room and played lovely Chris Martin nice and loud in my 'phones so I couldn't hear them arguing over me or complain about the noise.
My dad must have won the argument, because a day or two later they told me I was going to have "special tuition" with this old retired Professor guy that Mr Frith had told my mum about. Did I say we were still living in Oxford then? The place was stiff with ancient retired university guys. I don't think they got much of a pension, so they were grateful for anything they could con out of gullible parents like mine. I was going to have to see him for an hour every Thursday evening, term-time or holidays. It was no good me saying that was my footie practice day – they'd decided. And I'd better take it seriously 'cause they were paying good money to "secure my future." Thanks, guys.
- 0 -
The Professor lived in what I suppose was a sort of special retirement home for Old Profs, just off the Banbury Road not far from the place where they hire out the punts. It was different from the place they put my Gran in – there wasn't a big television room with wall-to-wall wheelchairs and Neighbours booming out at full volume. Oh no, they were much too Prof-like for that. They had study-bedrooms, full of books and pictures and relics and stuff, as if they were still at Uni, and instead of a big TV room there was a library. I think they liked to watch Neighbours, though, just the same.
I found out that there were basically two sorts of old Prof. First there were the ones who had thin sharp faces like weasels. They looked like they'd hit you, when it used to be allowed, I mean, as soon as look at you, if your work wasn't up to scratch. Or else they'd be really sarcastic. Then there were the ones that looked like your kindly old Grandad and would be just as likely to pat you on the head and slip you a tenner. This old Prof was one of the second kind, a bit doddery looking. I decided he was a pushover.
That first Thursday we met, we chatted a bit about my school, my parents, my brothers and sisters (I haven't got any) and we didn't seem to do any history at all. I decided this wasn't so bad. When the hour was up, the old boy surprised me by asking me to write two sides on George III and the American Revolution for him to read next week. I told him we weren't doing the American Revolution. It wasn't in the National Curriculum. He said he knew that, and he expected me to do some reading first before I wrote the essay.
So, not only did I have to give up an hour of practice night, I had to read some dull old books and write this old dodderer an essay. As if there wasn't enough homework to do already!
So I thought, sod this. I wrote him his two sides; all about how George III got in his Tomcat and flew over the Houses of Parliament and nuked Tony Blair and how he attached giant wind-turbines to Alaska and Florida and connected them to Chernobyl and how the force spun around the whole United States and that was the American Revolution. I had a good laugh about it and when Thursday evening came I handed it over and waited for the old fool to get the joke.
The Prof smiled just for a moment and somehow managed still to look terribly sad. He put the paper down and took a sip of tea. He had one of those little spindly tables beside his special Retired Profs chair.
And then he talked to me. He wasn't like my dad, who'd lose his temper, and shout and tell me how I'd never come to anything (as if he ever had!) and just leave us both feeling worse than when we started so we'd have to make up and so he needn't have bothered in the first place. The Prof was gentle and quiet, but I could see that he meant everything he said. He talked about history, how it was about people and their own stories and how the stories came together to make one big story and that was the story of us all. And he talked about historical sources and how it was important that these be real true stories about what real people had really seen and done. He said that untrue stories, even if they were only jokes or something worse than that, like propaganda, were a sort of pollution of history, like a dirty sewage pipe pouring muck into a clean river.
I'm no genius; but as he spoke I started to see where both his sadness and his smile had come from and I realised that I'd been given an unexpected and completely undeserved present, almost wthout knowing it.
I think the Prof was the best teacher I ever had. No, I don't think. I know.
After that, I always tried my best for him and I think he knew it, even when my best wasn't very good. All that GCSE year I saw him regularly every Thursday evening and dropped practice. My footie skills went right downhill, I can tell you.
- 0 -
Then one Thursday evening he wasn't there. There was no answer to my knock on his door. Oh, no - what had happened to him? Something squeezed at my insides, I was so frightened. I ran back downstairs to the lobby. At the desk they told me he'd been taken into the Radcliffe Infirmary, that he'd had some kind of stroke, but it was only a minor one and he'd be out soon. They'd ring me when he came out, or I could go and see him in hospital. It'd have to be tomorrow, though. Visiting hours were over for the day.
I went round straight after school. The hospital was a bit like the home where the Prof lived. It smelled like it, anyway, cooking and disinfectant mostly. I took him some biscuits and a bunch of flowers that I bought from a stall by the entrance, which was funny. I mean, I'd never given flowers to a man before.
The Infirmary looks like one of the colleges from the front. It has a gateway and a circular drive that's full of cars and No Parking signs and a fountain and it's really old. You have to walk down these everlasting long corridors to the ward and report to the Sister before you can see the patients. The ward wasn't too bad. It was split up into bays of just a few beds and each bed had its own TV with a remote and headphones you could listen to it on so you didn't have to put up with everyone else's rotten choice of programme. The Prof was sitting in a chair beside his bed. I smiled as best I could and gave him the flowers. The nurse put some water in a bottle and we used that as a vase. She said I was "a good girl" for coming to see my Grandad. Normally, being called a good girl would make my blood boil, and of course he wasn't my Grandad, but the poor thing looked so tired that I didn't say anything. The Prof was watching Neighbours, and I sat on the bed and watched it with him and it was great; we were two friends sitting together, drinking cups of hospital tea, eating chocolate digestive biscuits and watching the TV (we shared the 'phones).
The news came on after Neighbours, but we weren't interested in the news. We wanted to talk. The Prof could still talk all right. I'd been scared that he'd not be able to talk, or that his face would be all lop-sided from the stroke and the words would come out all wrong and I wouldn't be able to understand him. But he was just the same, only perhaps a little sadder-looking than before.
To my amazement, he had my last essay with him. It seems that someone had brought in some books and papers for him from the Home for Retired Profs and my essay on "The Rural Working Class In The Nineteenth Century" was among them.
As he'd read my essay, we decided to talk about it. He was just as kind and direct as ever, and it seemed that the stroke had hardly affected him. After a while, though, he started to lose interest, which wasn't like him at all.
'Let's leave that for now,' the Prof said. 'I want to tell you a story. It's about something that happened to me last summer, the term before you started coming up the Banbury Road to see me. I've had this stroke,' and he winced, as if the pain that he'd been hiding from me all this time had suddenly struck him unawares, 'and at my age that's a message that maybe the end isn't as far away as you always thought it was. I don't suppose you know what I'm talking about.'
I thought about my Gran in the home and I said 'I do, I do know,' but I don't think I did. Not really.
'This is a true story,' said the Prof. I laughed; what had he always told me? He laughed too, though it was an effort for him. We understood each other.
'It's a true story, but there are things in it that sound as if they couldn't be true. I'm an old man, and old men are said to dream dreams and see visions, but I know that I saw what I saw. I'm not in my dotage yet.'
I smiled and nodded.
'You might not appreciate this, but I do have a life outside our Thursday night chats. I like to pop into College and talk to my old friends in the Senior Common Room, or spend the afternoon doing a little quiet reading in the Bodleian.
'When it's summer and it's too stuffy to sit in the Bod, I like to go down to the Botanic Garden and read there. If you go beyond the entrance and all the glasshouses, there's a less formal part with trees and benches, near the water. There aren't quite so many tourists there. It's two pounds to get in now, did you know? I remember when half a crown would have seemed extortionate.'
I never went to the Botanic Garden, except on school trips. It was so deadly boring – just lots of plants and trees with labels on them.
'On the day I'm talking about I took a paperback Macaulay's History of England and found my favourite seat. It faces a large, low-branched tree – I don't know what kind it is. Funny, that. I'd been going there for years and I'd never even looked at the label. It was a beautiful day in the middle of June, with bright clear sunshine and no wind at all. Come to think of it, it was Midsummer's Day.
'You should read Macaulay. He writes like an angel. Boy genius too, you know.
'Never mind. It was coming up to twelve o'clock and I was considering where I might get some lunch, when I noticed a party of three people entering that part of the Garden. There are usually two sorts of people who go there: the tourists, who come in, realise that they've passed the parts that are on their itinerary and leave, and the regulars, like me. We regulars know each other and we each have our own favourite spots.
'This party was different, though. There were, as I said, three of them. There was a boy of about your age and there were two women. I thought I might have seen the younger one before, somewhere about the University. She was stocky and dark-haired, like the boy, and I wondered if she was related to him. Perhaps she was an older sister, or an aunt.
'The other woman had a vulnerable look about her. I've seen the same sort of look in the home, among the older residents. She had the appearance of someone who has suffered a great deal in her life. The boy had taken her arm and was looking after her very gently, which was a relief to me as he was otherwise a pretty unprepossessing specimen – hulking and angry-looking.
'Why do teenage boys have to be so aggressive? I'm sure I wasn't like that when I was a boy. This one looked as if he'd kill you as soon as look at you. I hoped he wouldn't cause any trouble.
'Not only were they an odd party, their behaviour was odd too. The boy handed the older woman over to the younger one, to look after. The two women took a seat by the hedge, not far from me. The boy went straight to the bench under the tree. He seemed to consider it very important that he should sit in exactly the right place on the bench, which struck me as odd, too, and I wondered if the sort of things that had once worried the older woman might be bothering the boy as well. Frankly, I thought he might have Asperger's Syndrome or be autistic. You know.'
I knew. There had been a Special Unit for Aspergers boys in Juniors.
'The boy sat on the bench, staring straight ahead. All the clocks began to chime twelve o'clock. I could see that the boy's right hand was moving regularly up and down, as if he were stroking a cat. But there was no cat to be seen.
'As the sound of the last chime died away, the boy's face took on an expression which, I'm not ashamed to say, absolutely terrified me. It combined anger, love, longing and total ferocity in equal measure. It was so intense that I expected him to cry out aloud in his pain. I was suddenly moved to my soul with fear and compassion for this boy and the agony that he was enduring not twenty yards from me. I felt that if I could have given my own life to save him from whatever was tormenting him, I would, without hesitation, have done so. Nearer to me, the older woman buried her face in the shoulder of the younger one.
'I was afraid that the boy's anger might be directed at me, but I soon realised that he could not see me, nor anything else in the Garden. His eyes were focussed on something, or someone, else entirely. From time to time, his hand stroked the cat that only he, I thought, could see or feel.
'We humans, we can't take too much despair, you know. Our minds slide away from it, we avert our gaze. We look away from the nine o'clock news and the pictures in the papers. Ashamed, I hid myself from the mystery of his desperation and returned to my book. I never thought that I might get up and leave. I had to know what it was that was happening in front of me.
'This awful thing, this terrible manifestation of pain, continued for a whole hour. It was one of the longest hours of my life but, as I say, I simply had to know what was happening. The quarters, the halves and the three-quarters struck on all the clocks of the city. The Garden was hushed. Not a blade of grass was moving anywhere.
'And now, here's the oddest thing of all. The boy had been sitting on the bench for all that dreadful hour with that same terrible expression, fierce with concentration and pain. As the clocks began to chime one o'clock all around us, he seemed to shake himself and come back to life.
'As I told you, it was a still day. Not a breath of wind. If I'd been younger, I'd have detested it, but you feel the cold more as you get older and I didn't mind the heat at all. So what I saw then couldn't have been a trick of the light or a sunbeam flickering through the leaves.
'The boy, as I said, shook himself and stood up, ready to leave. He turned to face the two women sitting on the seat by the hedge. And as he walked away from the bench and the tree, slowly, terribly reluctantly I thought, there came, just by his left shoulder, a brief, momentary flash of dark gold, like an autumn leaf caught in the sun. But it was June, as I think I've mentioned, so it couldn't have been that. The boy saw it too; perhaps he saw more than I did. And across his face, which had lost its fiercely intent look and become merely sullen, came what I suppose I have to call a transfiguration. They don't teach you youngsters much about art, I don't suppose, and certainly not about the old masters. It's all "installations", noise and videos nowadays. But that was what it reminded me of. It was as if this ordinary-looking boy had suddenly become a saint in a mediaeval fresco. It was joy, you know. He didn't actually smile but that sullen look had left his face and it was full of determination. Determination; and hope.
'I suppose I must have been staring, for he suddenly turned to face me and I felt guilty for watching him, and a bit afraid, because that expression of his would not be contradicted and I was worried that there would be a scene, or even that he might strike me. One of the women, the younger one, rose from her seat and started to walk towards us, wanting to avert trouble and calm him down, I think. But he raised his hand to stop her. "It's all right, Mary," he said. "He knows. He saw."
'Then, for the first time, I saw him smile. And the joy, which I saw now had been there all the time, deep within him, came bubbling up to the surface and I knew that I, as well as he, had received a benediction. And I, who have spent all my time studying, and teaching young people like you, felt very young myself, for I felt that I was looking into an infinite number of worlds of possibility; as if my life were beginning all over again.
'The boy smiled at me - it was like a searchlight - and in that moment I felt something rub against my leg, and I heard a faint purr and I knew that the cat that could not be seen nor felt nor heard was as real as you or I.
'The moment passed. The boy joined the two women and they left the Garden. I put Macaulay and the rest of my bits and pieces into my valise and toddled back into Town for lunch. I think I might have seen them again later in the afternoon on the High, eating ice creams and talking, but I can't be sure. Oxford is so full of people, these days.'
- 0 -
The Prof sighed, sat back in the chair, blinked a few times and handed me back my essay. The boy in the next bed had his Walkman turned up high and I could hear it – tssss-SSH, tsss-SHH, tsss-SHHH.
Is that it? I thought. What was that all about, anyway?
Wait a minute - wait. What was it he had told me about always telling true stories? Something clicked in my mind. Suddenly I felt affronted. He had been taking the mickey - making fun of me.
'You Bastard,' I said. 'You Dirty Rotten Bastard.'
'Language, young lady,' he said mildly.
'Don't call me that! You've been winding me up! You knew! You knew about it all along! How did you know?'
'Your mother rang me up a few weeks ago. She wanted to ask me not to be too strict with you that week as you'd been up all night reading a book and it had upset you rather.'
'Yes, it did. I cried buckets. It's so sad at the end, when they have to part for ever.'
'I thought that might be it. I've read it myself, the whole thing. All three volumes. I am surprised, though, at a bright, sensible girl like you reacting like that. It's only a story, after all, however affectingly it's told. I thought the ending was rather contrived, actually.'
'I was married once, you know. For thirty-five years. We were both very happy.'
I gaped. I didn't think Profs got married. I thought they lived by themselves on Stairs and read dusty old books and wrote learned papers and had scouts to do everything for them. I didn't know what to say or do, so rather than thump the old beast I gave him a hug and a little peck on the forehead. He didn't seem too offended.
- 0 -
We never mentioned the Botanic Garden again, and although he got better and we carried on with our Thursday evenings for a while longer I stopped seeing him not long afterwards, when we moved to the south after my dad got a new job. We sent each other Christmas cards, though, and he remembered my birthday every year. I never knew how he found that out. I got a good grade in my History GCSE and later went on to Uni (I'm in my final year now), and I know that that was all down to him.
I quite often take the train up to Oxford and look up my old mates. Of course, we don't hang around places like the Botanic Garden. It's full of tourists and wardens and they don't let you have a drink or a fag there, or even a quick game of footie. And it costs a fiver to get in – that's disgusting! But I think I might drop in there by myself, sometime in mid-June. No, not to see the Prof; he died a couple of years ago. But I know he loved the place and I'd like, just the once, to see it as he might have seen it, that Midsummer's Day.
This was the first HDM fic I wrote, nearly four years ago now. I had finished The Amber Spyglass two or three weeks previously and it was a quiet Thursday afternoon in the office. I felt that the emotional response the book had aroused in me demanded a corresponding creative response, so I wrote this little piece. It was the first story I had written for very many years. I put it up here and received encouraging feedback, so I wrote some more. And more. And yet more...
This four-year-old story was previously published under the nom-de-plume of Jopari. If you suspect you've read it before, you're probably right. It has no connection with any of my later stories except for a fleeting reference in A Gift of Love.
Ceres, June 2005