Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Prophecies

The bridge was a great concrete structure that, despite its functionality, inspired something in me. It had bar lights on the underside. Birds nested in the gaps between the wall and the ceiling, and you could hear them fly across in relays above your head, to the other side.
It wasn’t a bad end to the summer; I’d been offered a lecturing job at the uni. It was ideal, in fact. I had creative control over the module, I was out of the nine-to-five, and even with lessons plans and coursework there would be plenty of time for drinking. And I was still – just – in my twenties. How cool was that?
And yet as the heat waned I developed a weird, melancholic apprehension about the job. It was most tangible when I was walking between classes. Many of my seminars and lectures were in the late afternoon or early evening, and as I walked across the courtyard and under the bridge – the light fading, the warmth still present but on its way out – I’d get this feeling of grainy, exalted loneliness that I thought belonged to someone I’d left in the dust long ago.
That feeling would intensify towards the end of my seminars. I had two or three on weekday evenings. The windows would fade to black as we teased the last bit of profundity out of our conversations. There was a hall of residence across from our building; walking back from the Oxford Road bars, I’d pass these monoliths of silent sleep, broken sporadically by the flickering of room lights and the isolated laughter of secret good times.
The seminars were decent groups; plenty of women. One of the male students, though, freaked me out a bit. He was a shy kid with a restless, awkward manner and a leather jacket. The young man didn’t say much, but what he said was always relevant and insightful.
Sometimes, dazed from these long hours of discussion, hours when the rest of the city was just waking up, I’d be convinced I’d gone back in time. I knew, without even having to speak to this young man, that he wouldn’t be able to go to sleep without having read twenty pages of a book; that he would frequently drift off into his own thoughts when he drank; and that he would have little or no sexual experience.
As we hurtled towards Christmas I noticed a slight change in the young man’s behaviour. His manner was as shifting and nervous as ever, his contributions as infrequent and pertinent, but the focus of his attention had turned from me to this woman in the group. I noticed it because she didn’t sit right opposite him, or next to him; in fact her chair was at such an awkward angle to his own that he had to get himself into the most elaborate contortions just to keep looking at her. He probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it.
I knew that he had never spoken to her outside the lesson.
It was driving me nuts; I didn’t know why. I wished the silly bastard would drop out, but guys of his intelligence never do this. In late November, I took the initiative.
The module was called Classic and Contemporary. Its premise was like one of those whimsical literary parlour games, the ones that we assume have some seriousness under the frivolity. Basically we would read two books in tandem: a well-recognised classic novel and also a recent book that was sort of like it. In my class we were doing Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh. Welsh had written the intro to a new edition of Wilde’s novel, so it totally fitted. A lot of academics don’t like Irvine, but fuck ‘em. I’ll teach what the fuck I want. No one can stop me.
‘That’s exactly right, Vanessa,’ I said, after the girl in question – indeed, the object of my young friend’s dreamy desires – had made an interesting point. ‘Aside from the central conceit and the similarity of the protagonists, Welsh echoes Wilde’s view that youth is primarily for living, rather than a stepping stone into maturity and commitment. It is not a particularly original sentiment, but Welsh is one of our few contemporary novelists who champions it.’
I then began to read from my edition of Dorian Gray.

The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be stars on the clemantis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty, becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to.

Now, I sort of got carried away here. Indeed, when I came to I realised that I was standing directly in front of the young man – towering over him, in fact. He was looking up to me as if I had threatened him. The last few words of Wilde’s paragraph had been delivered in an angry snarl, and I could sense that the students on his right and left had shifted their chairs away from the ugly scene.
I backed off a bit. ‘What did you think of that passage, Andrew?’ I asked.
‘Well, ah,’ he said, tripping over the words a little, ‘first thing is –‘
‘What? Go on. We’d love to hear your opinion.’
‘Well… Andrew’s not my name.’ He paused. ‘It’s your name.’

I walked back under the bridge. The disbelief of having lost it in a seminar gave way to a creepy dread. I knew this feeling as well; it was the knowledge that what you had just done– or not done, as was normally the case – would haunt you for the rest of your days. In time you forget where this feeling came from but it grows, exponentially, with every missed chance. As you get older, life feels like a loaded gun pointed at your heart.
It was only nine and I hit the staff local to get drunk. The faculty were a good, interesting bunch of people; many were PhD students my age or younger who had been roped into teaching.
However, their company sometimes depressed me, and this was one of those nights. In one of the world’s richest and most developed societies the bar had not the ring of laughter and song but ironic ennui, weak jokes in plum voices and the soft thunk of lowered expectations. All their talk was reminiscience. There was a consensus that the good times were over; the cut-off point varied (parenthood, marriage graduation from uni, graduation from high school) but the consensus remained; life was over, and the future lay in the past.
It was a Thursday night and the bar had a late licence. We were joined by a few of the students, who liked to stop in for a pint before heading off to the clubs. Vanessa came in with a few friends and sat in on our discussion. It fell to her to make the obvious point.
‘You guys are all sitting around going on about your glory days when you were students,’ she said, ‘but when you were students you were probably going on about the glory days of high school. I mean, why do people love nostalgia so much?’
My head jumped on her train of thought; in this heartbeat between birth and death you got one moment of perfection, one time when it all came together, from which everything else was decline. But what if that moment never came? Could you invent it?
‘It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy,’ she said. ‘You convince yourself that you’ll have to give up on living at a certain point, and you wait for that point while kidding yourself that you’ll always have these amazing times to talk about in the pubs. You convince yourself that life ends after a certain age, and so it does.’
‘Another great point,’ I told her. I was quite drunk by this time. ‘The body remains alert and agile deep into middle age, but the mind closes and the dreams die. Why? The problem is that the world is run by stupid, servile, pious idiots, who won’t be happy until everyone else is a stupid, servile, pious idiot like themselves.’ I was really starting to notice the shine on her tanned skin, and in her tumbling hair, and in her bright brown eyes. ‘They get you while you’re young… or just about to stop being young. Pressure. Propaganda. It is a kind of sentimental conspiracy about mediocrity… or, in the writer HP Tinker’s phrase, a conspiracy of eunuchs.’ I paused. ‘I am available for weddings, birthdays, corporate events and bar mitzvahs.’
She laughed. I wonder if she understood what I meant. I wonder if I had.

Fortunately, nothing was said about my erratic behaviour in the seminar and the pub. This was surprising; people are so fucking sensitive these days. Anything that can be construed as damaging their perception of the world will send them screaming to the authorities. But everything was calm.
Although I kept a lid on it, the kid in my seminar continued to obsess me. His behaviour had changed. Where once his gaze would drift by slow magnetism towards Vanessa, where once anything she said would have him chiming in with uncharacteristic exuberance, now the guy was silent, and not even that restless. He had given up, I thought. Or maybe not even been so brave as to make the wrong decision; just postponed the right choice, day by day, month by month, kidding himself he had all the time in the world.
I drank too much, and lost a lot of sleep. I counted the days until Christmas. The lights at each point of the courtyard came on, and would burn that way for months. The birds flew over my head in squawking relays.
I messed around with the seminar lists so that I wouldn’t have to teach the kid in the leather jacket again. After all, he could learn nothing from me that really mattered. Where did I get the ego to think that I could teach anyone anything?
Mid-December. Last day of term. I had conducted the final seminar, and was now walking back under the bridge to the Cornerhouse, sad and relieved at having got that strange, awkward boy out of my life forever.
I was halfway under the bridge when I realised I had left my briefcase in the seminar room.
I did a double turn, wanting to head back to the room before the janitorial staff locked the place up for the next few weeks. Mine was the last class of the day, and they tended to shut the building down in good time, obviously as desperate for a pint as I was.
I was just emerging into the courtyard where I saw the kid from my seminar. The streetlamp revealed the cast of his unsure, handsome face, the dimensions of a body slowly turning to muscle. He had left the room before me but was now hanging around on the yard to no obvious purpose. Thinking. Dreaming. I couldn’t bear to watch, and figured I would try and pick up my briefcase some other time.
Then a familiar female form appeared from of the door to our building.
The guy recognised her instantly. For a moment, and even at this distance, I could see the internal battle waging under his skin. That skin that he never felt too comfortable in.
She was walking across the courtyard. She hadn’t seen him.
My heart, on the verge of breaking.
Then he started towards Vanessa, and I heard a friendly shout carry over the cold air. She turned towards him, her posture hopeful, and I said out loud – so loud that a couple of porters turned towards me – ‘Come on, pal. GO!’

Max Dunbar

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