Treat the theme of alienation in the poetry of Thomas Kinsella.
Treat of. When, Martin wondered, would the Department of Education get rid of the ridiculous medical-sounding terminology, and start devising more user-friendly exam questions?
‘Treat of, lads,’ he’d said for the nth time to his higher-level English class, ‘Treat of is the same as Discuss.’ The class of thirty students was evenly divided between boys and girls, but he still called them lads as a group, and nobody bothered to object. He called the boys by their surnames, and the girls by their first names. He couldn’t say why this was, but it worked all right.
A hand shot into the air. Scully.
‘Then why don’t they just say Discuss sir?’
Some tittering riffled round the desks. ‘Yah, sir. I mean, it’s confusing. Is it anything like an “invitation to treat,” like they say in Business Studies?’
Joan, chiming in. Everyone complicit in trying to waste the time they didn’t really have, between now and the June exams, just over six weeks away.
‘Lads, we have a lot of exam-type questions to cover in the next few classes.’ He turned to the blackboard and finished writing. ‘Take down this question, and I’ll give you forty minutes to answer it.’ He stabbed a fat round full stop after the poet’s name.
‘Sir.’ Hilary, in the front row. The smartest one among them. In the middle of the year, she had stopped trying to restrain her intelligence in front of this average class, and asked and answered questions like an engaged student in a university English seminar. He had to be on his toes, for Hilary.
‘Sir. Treat of, is it what you would call obfuscating, or am I thinking of obscuration?’
Jesus Christ. Hilary, at it again. This kind of thing often worked to her advantage, because her peers enjoyed seeing the teacher caught out. Martin had made the mistake of trying to combat her challenges by using her work as an exemplar for the class. He’d ask her to read out full-length answers to questions about the Anglo-Irish poets, about King Lear and Bronte’s characterisation. He’d notice the class rolling their eyes after her first few well-crafted sentences. Some of them laid their heads down on crossed arms and prepared to nap. They only paid attention when she read out the quotations that supported her points. ‘When Yeats uses “mess of shadows” to describe Maud Gonne’s gaunt face…’ The boy behind her pulled his face into a Skeletor-like mask. Hilary would read on doggedly. She couldn’t pronounce her ‘th’ sounds: a fatal flaw in this otherwise excellent student. Hilary’s hamartia. And so the theme of love, the theme of madness, became the team of love and the team of madness.
The Team of Alienation.
The Team of Loneliness.
They were all in there, competing for supremacy in their English essays. Not to mention futility. Fairly much every action of every character was critiqued, at one time or another, as futile. The more he heard the word repeated, the stranger it became. Futile. Few tile. Phew-tility. Curiouser and curiouser. He could use it to explain the concept of defamiliarisation to them.
Hilary was now gazing inquiringly at him, her hair hanging over half her face like one curtain left closed at a window. He snapped the stick of chalk in his fist; it made the sound of a tiny bone breaking. He palmed the two halves like someone hiding a cigarette. And decided to add to the question on the board. ‘I’m not finished with the Kinsella question just yet, Hilary. Consider ‘treat of’ to mean ‘discuss’, as I said. I have absolutely no idea who came up with the term, but we have to work with it.’
He released one half of the chalk and slotted it between the knuckles of his index and middle fingers. When he applied it to the board, it shrieked. He added a tail to the full stop, to make a comma, and added with specific reference to the natural world.
Moans from the class behind him sounded like cattle lowing, grumbling with dissatisfaction.
‘Ah, sir…! They wouldn’t ask that.’
‘They might well ask it, Scully. Be prepared for all contingencies. This is higher-level English. They expect you to be able to handle whatever they might throw at you.’
‘They’ were the mysterious authors of exam questions. Martin fancied that students imagined them as faceless. Smoke garbed in robes. Wraiths of dead people from the Department of Education, congregating like a coven to create tortuously painful questions. Every year, Martin’s class pored over past questions and, like war-time code-breakers, they tried to establish patterns. Find clues to the modus operandi of Them. And every year he swore to resist this temptation to second-guess Them, because you never knew when They might throw you for a loop. He still heard the snotty tears of the student who, four or five years ago, blubbed accusatorily to him after an exam, ‘You said that man versus nature would come up! You said it would, and it didn’t.’ Short of beating on his chest with her fists, she could not have made him feel worse. So he tried to avoid the quest to predict what questions They might set. But it was seductive, the detective work; the enthusiasm, the conviction of the students.
‘Yeats’s come up five times in the last nine years.’
They did their permutations like mathematicians second-guessing how a dice might land.
And Kinsella. Kinsella loitered in the wings, not appearing in the last several years. A presence, whose poems had to be known inside-out, for fear he would make a return.
‘Sir, I have a feeling that they’ll ask about Edmund the bastard in King Lear.’
They still had not gotten over the liberation of being allowed to say ‘bastard’ in front of an elder. Martin was only thirty-three, but they made him feel like an octogenarian. They tested him on a regular basis. Would he say that a cod-piece was like… a jock-strap? Incest, homosexuality, wife-swapping: they solicited his opinions on every ambiguity. The more flippant he made his answers-‘No, I wouldn’t quite say that Goneril and Regan and Cornwall and Albany are swingers, bu-ut…’-the more foolish and old-trying-to-becool he sounded. Now, here was Clancy stepping out of his desk and standing with his arms folded like the Jolly Green Giant, shouting to the ceiling:
‘Now, Gods, stand up for bastards!’
Cheers, howling. Time for Martin to deflate the hysteria. In a good-natured way, of course.
‘Clancy, I’m sure that your extensive knowledge of material from the play will stand you in good stead for the exam. Now get back into your desk and start the Kinsella question before I come down and invite you to accompany me on a trip to the Principal’s office.’
How arch he sounded. Martin hated it, that teacher’s voice that came out of his mouth, even when he bumped into students outside of the school. They’d spot – him in the supermarket, and seem shocked to see him in jogging pants and a t-shirt. He’d raise his eyebrows quizzically – ‘And how are you, Angela?’ – and continue to stock his basket, as Angela, or whoever it was, surveyed what he was buying. What it could tell her about the English teacher’s diet. Martin wanted badly to be less self-conscious. Reaching down into the freezer section, he met himself head-on in the glass of the ice-cream compartment overhead. He thought that his light-brown hair looked sparser on top than he’d noticed that morning in the mirror. The glass reflection accentuated the shadowy ovals under his eyes. Martin knew what it felt like to be ‘riveted by a dark exhausted eye’, while the class simply didn’t give a damn about what was bothering Kinsella’s speaker in ‘Mirror in February’. He lowered his eyes from his ghost face in the glass, and concentrated on finding the stir-fry that Irene liked.
As the year inched closer to exams, the class became less preoccupied with rattling Martin, and instead concentrated on revising and cramming essays which they learned by heart, though he had advised against it.
‘You can’t be so tightly wound round one or two essays. You have to be adaptable. Know plot, character, evidence from text, and work with them on the day, depending on what comes up. Poetry, however… poetry, I recommend learning by heart. For the quotations, lads, for the quotations. Scully, how does the speaker in Kinsella’s poem describe his mouth?’
‘Emm… “dry downturning,” Sir.’
‘Exactly. See how easy that is to remember-the alliteration of the ‘d’ sound, lads.’ And have a look at my face, in case you forget, he almost added.
On the morning of the English exam, Martin watched his students in the foyer outside the gym, gripping loose pages ripped from ring binders. After a break for lunch, and a post-mortem on the morning exam, they’d be back in the foyer, this time turned to the lockers, whispering what bits of literature they had learned by heart. Eyes closed, mouths moving. Like prayers. The foyer murmured with snippets of Goneril and Regan’s venom, Lear’s ranting, Maud Gonne’s effect on Yeats, Kavanagh’s anger towards the stony grey soil of County Monaghan.
Martin would wait until all of the students had filed into the gym, sat at their small cramped tables and received the exam paper. Then he would step quietly in and get one from the exam invigilator. Or supervisor. Or proctor, or whatever they were called these days. Velociraptor. Names like prehistoric creatures with savage claws and prehensile toes. Most of them were teachers from other schools making extra money by dressing soberly and marching up and down exam halls all over the country.
Martin had himself worked as a supervisor for a couple of years. The first time, there was a strange frisson about wheeling his car into the parking area of an unfamiliar school. Walking into the exam hall and making the routine announcements about allotted time, toilet breaks and so on. His voice rang more authoritatively than it did in his own classes. At the all-girls’ school the previous year, he sat at a high table and surveyed the heads bent over blue books, pens working to cover as much paper as possible.
At the other end of the hall, his co-supervisor sat with her back like a ram-rod. Louise. She came from a school much further away than his own. They had spoken briefly during lunch-breaks. She was of middling height, with angles. Filly-like in her sudden twitches, her jumps to re-arrange her limbs. Crossing her uncrossed legs, folding her arms the other way. Nervy, Martin thought. He could see that her every movement distracted the students in her immediate vicinity. She had thick rough auburn hair, and freckled, very dry skin. In an idle moment, one hour from the end of the afternoon Maths exam, he looked at her in the distance and imagined that she might be like an emery board, or sandpaper, during sex. Whittling herself against someone and leaving drifts of shed skin on the sheets. He mentally slapped his wrists for such a thought. Tut-tut; bad lad. But this was what happened when you were stuck in the pus-coloured exam hall of a school in Mullingar. He almost wanted to catch sight of someone cheating-reading the inked insides of their wrists, or unfurling tiny scrolls from the barrels of fountain pens-just to rupture the monotony. A bit of drama would not have gone amiss.
When a student raised her hand, he took his time in making his way to her desk. She had a question about something on the exam paper. He was allowed to answer very rudimentary queries. She wanted to know about an ‘and/ or’ option. She wore a dark bra under her white blouse. He noticed it shadowing through. Dark lobes bulbing beneath white cotton. Slatternly. He answered her question and went back to his high table, disliking himself immensely.
This June, Martin had not taken supervision work. He told himself that he didn’t really need the extra money, and that he would be busy enough with correcting exam scripts. In the stale-smelling foyer of his school, he opened the higher-level English exam paper, to see what They had devised. What his students didn’t consider was that Martin, their own teacher, was in collusion with the dark exam arts. In a few weeks, he would be reading and marking scripts from batch after batch of anonymous students belonging to schools somewhere – he himself didn’t know where – in the country.
And there it was. They had ushered in Kinsella, brought him back from exile. Instinctively, Martin shuddered. He would have to prepare himself for the parcels of scripts to arrive. Treating of alienation, a distanced wife, the passing of time, mortality. All confined to three pages or thereabouts, in handwriting that hieroglyphed the ideas of teenagers. Or, in most cases, the formulaic interpretations of their teachers.
He would go home and move his heavy desk away from the window and against the blank back wall of the spare room. The guest bed would be behind him, and he would pile the scripts on it as he waded through them. Coffee jug. Mug. Triple XXX mints. Martin would ready his paraphernalia.
Since the end of May, the house had been empty of Irene. She was spending a month at a centre for artists and writers on the Dingle peninsula. She would miss their four-year wedding anniversary on June the sixteenth. Bloomsday. Irene had applied for the residency in Dingle because she was hell.:.bent on becoming a writer. A Writer.
‘I’m stifled.’ She said this one Friday evening, hefting her bag off her shoulder and dropping it onto the kitchen floor where it squatted open like a cracked leather throat choking on copy-books. Irene taught Accountancy and Business Studies at a girls’ school in north Wicklow. She disliked her students and her colleagues. ‘I’m stifled by all this… crap.’ She jerked her thumb at the bag, and turned to twist her black hair up into a bun, which she skewered with a chopstick from the drawer. Martin could see some thirty of the large ledgers they used to create balance sheets. She would procrastinate until late on Sunday, and eventually dump them out of the bag higgledypiggledy onto the couch, then set about lacerating them with a red felt-tip pen.
‘I know I have a book in me.’ Irene spoke about the book she wanted to write as though it was something lodged inside her that could be removed intact, and painlessly. Martin had a vision of a book, raddled with blood, coming out of her caesarean-slashed stomach.
She was sick of seeing four-hundred-page-plus novels by women authors of her own age, and younger. Come to think of it, so was Martin. They lay around the house like frivolous bricks and door-stops. Books about four friends, usually, who shared flats and dined and shopped together. Supported each other through broken engagements. Backstabbed each other over handsome Latin-looking men. Martin knew; he read the blurbs, and sometimes flicked through random chapters in search of the sex scenes.
‘There’s a formula here, and I know I can do it better.’ Irene became obsessed with the idea of writing her book She grew more and more disgruntled when it was not materialising. It bothered Martin to notice the deepening frown-lines between her eyebrows. She was growing into a vexed-looking woman.
Most nights in bed, she’d be reading one of the blockbusters. He grew accustomed to pastel-coloured paperbacks-pale pink, Easter yellow, mint green-colonising the bookshelves he had built in the bedroom. They jostled up against his crime novels, all the works of Thomas Hardy, slender Sophocles, Dashiell Hammett, Seamus Heaney. Irene’s books had skinny cartoon women on the front; handbags; champagne glasses uttering bubbles.
She read through them doggedly, like a competitor in one of those eating contests he saw on television one time. No matter that they might hate the consistency of what they consumed; they were determined to swallow as much as possible. Irene harrumphed like a horse when she came across something she thought was ‘abso-lutely frigging rid-ic-ulous.’ Dialogue she didn’t believe in: ‘Nobody-I mean, nobody-talks like that.’ Martin would flip off and on the bedside light, like a bartender signaling dosing time, and Irene would shoulder herself back into the pillows.
‘Would you stop it, Martin; I’m reading.’
And my bollocks are ready to detonate, he wanted to. say. But instead he took the softly-catchee approach, sliding under the sheets, waiting a little while, then sidling up against her. Fiddling, twiddling, arching his eyebrows like a mime act. Sometimes she gave in. He couldn’t help thinking that she’d rather be reading about the yoga-informed sex in the books. Tantricky type of stuff. Even though she critiqued the love-scenes more than once.
‘Come on, Ms…’-she’d turn the book over to read the author’s name from the front’ nobody gets up to that sort of stuff. Jesus.’
True, how true, Martin replied in his head, as he turned on his side and faced the nightfilled window.
Martin wanted to win her back. He realised that he could only achieve this by being supportive of her ambition. Stop making a skit of the chick-lit thing. Big mistake in coining the phrase ‘clit-lit’, and presenting it wrapped in a snorty laugh to Irene.
‘You’re a snobby bastard English teacher, d’you know that, Martin?’
And then, the well-placed cut.
‘We all know that you should have stayed on in college and done the Master’s, and who knows, maybe the Ph.D?’ – she eked out the letters: pee haitch dee – ‘then you could really look down on me and my cheap taste in books.’
The perfect piercing barb that she was capable of, every so often.
‘You know I don’t think that, Irene,’
Martin nursed his re-opened wound.
And decided to encourage her to get this blasted book written. Because he loved her, and as long as this book-thing was gnawing at her, she would be unfulfilled and-oh, selfish, he knew it, he did know it-less likely to embark on starting the family he thought it was about time to make. If indeed he.had become a literary schoiar, well then, he could have abdicated from that sense of duty. But he hadn’t. He was a teacher; a middle-income earner; a man parrying more and more pointed questions from his mother about potential grand-children. His sister, four years younger, was about to pop her third child. What was the word for her… philoprogenitive, she was. He had no interest in the arrival of children of his own at regular one- to two-year intervals. But he had started to conceptualise a child. He imagined telling his mother that Irene was ‘expecting’; that was the word he’d use to his mother, while to the staff at school, he’d say ‘pregnant’, and feel self-satisfied at its fullness, and at his making Irene so.
This, he granted, this is what people like me do. I suppose it is, anyhow.
He bought Irene a second-hand laptop. Saw an ad in the For Sale column; got lost on a wet Wednesday evening trying to find the seller’s address.
‘Three hundred and fifty’, said the bald tiny-eyed man by the name of Braid en, looking away from Martin, reaching to open the lap-top with a screak of plastic. A Toshiba; the model was obsolete. Martin was about to refuse politely and leave, when Braiden started opening programs and showing him ‘all the stuff that’s loaded onto this thing’.
‘Two hundred and fifty. And that’s my final offer’ – he’d heard this said by his father during the haggling over cattle when he was young, and it seemed effectively emphatic’ – you won’t find anyone else interested in buying this machine. I can assure you of that.’ The teacherly rhetoric had its uses.
Braiden looked injured, and Martin felt a little sorry for him. His delusions that the Toshiba would fetch him three hundred and fifty. The sitting-room they were in smelled fusty. And sock-ish. Martin imagined that there were discarded socks beneath the couch, sloughed and desiccating like the skins of snakes. There were plastic action figures from films on the mantel piece.
Martin was glad to leave, with the laptop under his arm like a super-heavy book, and the bald man standing in the hallway smoothing out the money exchanged.
He set the laptop up in their bedroom. Irene didn’t like it at first, particularly the ballmouse attached to the side.
‘It feels weird. Like I’m rolling an orange before I peel it. I can’t get used to it.’
Then they found the documents left on the computer by the bald man. Irene came across a curriculum vitae, bannered across the top by Braid en’s full name in Lucida Handwriting font. She called Martin, titillated by her find.
‘I dunno, Irene; we should just delete it rightaway. It doesn’t seem right to be looking at it.’
‘Jesus, Martin, don’t be so pious…’ She leaned forward towards the screen. ‘Oohlook- he went to school at St. Barnaby’s…’
The CV was pitifully skeletal, littered with misspellings, and formatting that had made words jump huge spaces. Irene’s reaction was infectious, though.
‘I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry’, she groaned, when they reached the list of references at the end. Braiden had named his parish priest.
‘Oh, I just can’t bear this! I wonder if he ever got a job with this thing. God-help-uz.’
‘Okay. Close the document and delete it, Irene.’
Martin felt a rash of shame swarming over his chest, up along his neck: they should not be reading this.
‘No; you know, this is exactly the kind of thing I need to be attentive to, as writer’s material, like. This Braiden fella could make his way into my book. They tell you in the manual’ -she patted a book on the desk-‘that you should build a “profile” of your characters before you even start putting them into the narrative.’
‘Yah, but… Irene, that wouldn’t be very creative on your part. I mean, you’d just be stealing this poor… Braiden… fella’s details. It doesn’t seem… ethical, I suppose, is the word.’
She swiveled around on the high-backed office chair, then back to face the computer.
‘It’s called artistic license, Mar-tin.’
Martin would go to bed, after watching his late-night comedy, the last news headlines, and the prayer before bed-time, which was a sort of feel-good statement voiced over images of fogged landscape, artisans making sturdy things, water rilling over and off mill wheels.
He would find Irene sitting hunched at the desk, looking at lines of prose. She would tut-tut-at the screen, or at his presence; he couldn’t tell-and close the document, but leave the computer on. She would flop onto her side with her arms wrapped round herself. By heart, Martin knew that this embrace crushed her breasts together. And it set him on edge, thrumming with foiled desire.
He went to sleep. The last thing he saw before he slipped under was the computer screen, like a swatch of night sky with windows zooming away into pinpricks of starlight.
One night, he had a dream so vivid that he was sure that he had gotten up, gone to the computer and found a document left behind by Braiden. A page, a white sheet with words in the very centre: ‘I can’t manage this lonelyness any more’. In the morning, Martin remembered this simple, stark dream, and felt compelled to find the number of the bald man who had sold him the computer. He should telephone him, just to make sure he was all right, that he hadn’t done what they called in films ‘anything stupid’. He could just wait for him to answer; he wouldn’t have to talk to him.
But of course the telephone number was not crushed at the bottom of any of his trouser pockets, and the paper that ran the For Sale ad was long discarded. The CV, though; the CV should have a telephone number. When Irene was out, he went in search of it, and saw that it had been deleted. And it was not lingering in the Recycle Bin. Of this, he was glad, because it meant she had taken his advice. He checked the files to make sure there was no more Braiden cached anywhere.
Tempted as he was, he did not try to open the file containing Irene’ s writing; ‘work,’ it said in lower-case under a Word document on the desktop. More than likely, it was passworded. He wouldn’t even attempt to guess it. Once Martin started that game, he would go down several rungs in his own estimation.
It was Martin who found out about the artists’ retreat in Dingle. He was driving home from school, edging close to the bumper of the car in front, trying to goad its driver into upping gears and moving forward, faster. The radio host started announcing details of writer-stuff.
‘Aspiring writers’, he said, and this unfastened Martin’s attention from the car in front, made him pull back a little.
‘Do you have a manuscript that needs to be whipped into shape? Or are you looking for some unbroken solitude in which to write your magnum opus? Well, if so, you might be interested in the following information.’
Martin curved the car off the road and onto the grassy verge. He rattled round in his school bag for pen and paper, and took down the address and telephone number of some place in Dingle. This could be just the tonic for Irene. And he knew she would not have heard this programme. Just about then, she was probably covering the blackboard with figures in rows and columns. Neat and contained, unlike his own blackboard notes which tended to stream upwards, towards the top right corner, looking like the glide slope of an airplane.
In the car, he capped his fountain pen and noted how well he had written the information; the ink was a perfect blue that looked like watered-down navy; he had even drawn parentheses around the area code for the telephone number. Yes; Irene would be chuffed that not only had he been attuned to the information about Dingle, but that he had stopped the car to transcribe it. This, Martin thought, this was a show of support. And even if she didn’t actually go to Dingle, it let her know that he validated her work.
But she did. Irene did go. She wrote away for information, sending a stamped addressed envelope in which, ten days later, she received a booklet and an application form. With a list of fees: week, month, three months. She read all the recommendations of artists and writers who had been to this place in Dingle.
‘Listen to this, would you, Martin: “I got more work accomplished in one month than I had done in the previous six months at home.” Wow.
“‘The opportunity to show my work to other authors helped me immensely.” This is exactly what I’m looking for, Martin.’
He wanted to tell her that he’d be happy to read what she’d been working on every night between nine o’clock and bed-time. But the offer had not been extended. Because he was the English teacher; the one who had recommended John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman to her, and had it thrown into his lap by Irene, in a huff.
‘This is typical of you, Martin! It’s a smug… smart-arsed book. It’s like one of those “choose your own adventure” books for children.’ She put on a high-pitched cartoon voice. ‘What if it ends like this? Or… wait… like that? We are all sooo postmodern. Pleeease! Whatever happened to a good story?’
Unknown to him, she revoked her application to mark exam scripts that summer. She wrote a cheque for a month’s stay at the artists’ retreat. He only worked out how much it cost when he saw the sizeable chomp eaten out of their joint bank balance, and telephoned the bank to pursue it. He felt foolish when the bank clerk with the whipper-snapper voice said, ‘Seems, sir, that your wife wrote a cheque in that amount…’
But he said nothing. And neither did she, until the receipt of application arrived in mid-April, along with driving directions to the far-flung location, and sundry other details about facilities, local shops, bars and restaurants on the peninsula.
Irene was high on the triumph of having planned this month all to herself. She was as pleased as if she had won a holiday there, and not paid for a place in which to write. Martin couldn’t work it out. But it made her all the more assiduous about working on her book. He brought her night-time mug of tea to her at the computer, and set down a plate of the biscuits she liked, biscuits marked round the circumference like the dials of clocks. She no longer took a break at ten o’clock to have the tea with him. He missed her feet burrowed under his thigh, on the couch in front of the television.
Before he knew it, it was the last day of May; a Saturday. Irene was lugging the last of her bags out to her car. Martin disconnected and brought out the laptop and set it down on the passenger seat. The day was overbearingly warm, that kind of unrelenting warmth that comes after rain. Irene wore capri pants and flat shoes; she looked like a teenager from the fifties.
She had a love-bite on her neck, towards the back, below her ear. He didn’t know if she had noticed it, located where it was. But she had felt it when he marked her there, the night before, with a nip of his teeth; she twisted her head away into the pillow, and smacked his hip with the heel of her hand. This was her last night at home for a while; the month of May was when he was at his most horny; she was not leaving without a long night of sex, he had vowed.
Fuck the book; he had his needs.
He bit her neck. A deliberate stamp. By many and varied accounts, writers and artists were a lecherous crowd. Or rather, they lived within different, wider, parameters than most people, he believed. Artistic licentiousness. Martin had to make sure they saw that this long-limbed woman belonged to someone, in the real world.
Irene sat into the driver’s seat.
‘Seat-belt’, he ordered, leaning in the window. She hauled the seat-belt forward, between her breasts, down towards her hip, into the clip. It came unfastened, and flew back into the spool behind her the same way his measuring tape slithered, gathered speed and snapped into its holder. He yanked it forward, and handed it to her.
‘Check’, she said, as it clicked into place. She squinted against the sun that poured into her face from behind him. He kissed her then, with one quick lizard-flick of his tongue against her teeth. She sat back into the seat and turned on the ignition.
‘Bye, Martin, love.’
The small green car reversed out of the driveway and onto the road, where it sped out of sight. Martin felt what he thought a parent must feel when their five-year-old starts school: fiercely vigilant, willing them not to cry. Then a little disappointed when they don’t turn around for a last look.
The exam scripts, when they arrived, would keep him busy. They’d hold all the prickings and jabs of loneliness at bay. He would do such a diligent job this year. Close reading of every question; giving credit where credit was due; working patiently to decipher the crabbed handwriting. To find some insight in the half-articulated statements about Lear and Heathcliff. And Kinsella, of course. He’d buy expensive coffee, enough of it to last past the last light of every night over several weeks. Any more resolution and anticipation, and the hair on his arms would stand on end. Horripilation; he hadn’t horripilated in a while. Not since teeth-tearing the plastic sheath off the new Bruce Springsteen CD.
The scripts arrived by special delivery. Bales of them, their rectangular girth strapped round with the same red plastic used to lash peat briquettes together. Martin ferried them into the sitting-room, and flopped down on the couch to behold the next few weeks’ work.
It occurred to him that he could lie on the floor and place them, bale by bale, on his stomach and chest, like the bardic poets used to do. Flat on their backs on the earthen floors of seventeenth-century huts, lying under the chest-crushing weight of flag-stones. Waiting for inspiration.
That evening, the sun took its time setting, tattering the sky with pink floss. Martin sat in a plastic beach-chair outside the back door, drinking wine. He felt decadent, here in the countryside with a nice bottle of Chablis standing between his ankles.
He filled a glass, took it to his desk in the guest-room. Time to begin. His final act of procrastination involved testing every one of the dozen pens in his tray. All were in working order, flowing eagerly red onto paper.
After the first evening, he entered a daily rhythm quickly, comfortably. Beginning midmorning, he read and marked scripts until half-past two. A break. Back at half-past three; stayed at his desk until seven. Then a longer break, after which he’d work steadily-his best spell-between nine o’clock and two in the morning.
It reminded Martin of how he had applied himself to college work. Those late hours suited him best. He seemed to see deeper. He felt as though he wholly belonged to the world of whatever he was reading.
Irene would telephone him during his seven-to-nine break, but not every evening. And she had cautioned him not to ring the telephone at the residence in Dingle, ‘unless in an absolute emergency.’ She was taking all the artists’ suggestions into account, she told him during one call. The words fell helter-skelter out of her mouth, so excited she was: getting up early, not lingering too long over the communal lunch, not bothering other artists as they worked, not letting them bother her. Minimising contact with the outside world. ‘Total immersion’, she laughed down the line, but he knew that she meant it. She was living it.
Martin had been reading scripts for four days. Most were run-of-the-mill; he got so accustomed to seeing reference to pathetic fallacy, and futility, and ‘degenerate bastard’, and alienation, that he could have closed his eyes and dashed a correct tick-mark, and the corresponding marks, at the same place inside every margin.
He sliced the sealed scripts open with the smallest steak-knife from the wooden block in the kitchen. To keep himself motivated, he whittled his pen between his palms, like he was about to start a primeval fire right there on the desk. Now, he thought; now, I’m going to find that perfect paper. From a student I’ll never meet, but who’ll go on to do great things, and become an amazing young scholar at an overseas university.
When he found it, it was not as he expected. At first, it set out sounding like a slightly more creative thinker than his own star-student, Hilary. He guessed that it was written by a female student. He could always tell female from male in the way that they wrote about the character of Heathcliff. They conjured his face as a cross between the actors Gabriel Byrne and Colin Firth. They envisioned a strapping man clad in a billowing girly shirt. Martin was becoming used to descriptions of Heathcliff’s ‘passionate rage’, his ‘impassioned rage’, his ‘raging passion’. They depicted his kissing technique as gnashery, vampire-style. Truth to tell, he found the cumulative effect of their responses to be oddly titillating. The way in which these students succumbed to the bestial ungovernable Heathcliff, sexy in his suffering.
In this particular paper, the answer on Heathcliff was more muted. The statements were measured out in meticulous handwriting; there was not one scored-out word in the student’s blue pen. The chosen quotations were the less-used parts of Bronte’s book, and all the more powerful for that. She did not, as a previous student ,had done, make the mistake of trying to pass off lyrics from Kate Bush’s song. As soon as he saw them’ Heathcliff, it’s me, your Cathy… ‘ – the singer’s glass-shattering banshee waul filled his head, and he striped through the quotation with his red pen.
No. This student was of a different calibre entirely. He began to enjoy reading her script. He felt that he could learn something from it. Wasn’t that what teaching was supposed to be, really, except that most teachers guarded their authority jealously? The clock gently clicked one in the morning. Martin tipped a finger of brandy into the shot glass on his desk. And decided to sit back on the bed to finish reading. He’d read the script slowly, then pen the marks-full marks-into the margins afterwards.
He came to the Kinsella question. She had left it to the end. Most students dispensed with the poetry first, in order to empty the quotations out of their crowded minds, and leave space for the play and the novel. And most of them preferred to use Kinsella’ s poem ‘Mirror in February’. They seemed to find that poem easier to work with, and they wrote about self-identity, self-alienation, self-disgust, self-acceptance. So far, in this batch, those who tackled ‘Another September’ had made a hames of it. He wondered-and hated to catch himself doing so-about their English teacher. They didn’t seem to have a clue; one answer concluded with, ‘He will undoubtedly divorce his wife. The figure carrying a balance at the end of the poem simbolises the courts.’
From the start, this paper’s answer on ‘Another September’ showed insight. And humanity. Strange, downright foreign, even from a higher-level English student. Martin knew that not one whit of her answer came from the book of English revision notes that students scrambled to buy towards the end of term. Her response to the question-the question he had been so relieved to see on the exam paper, ‘Treat of the theme of alienation’-was intuitive. Mature. So sympathetic to the poem’s speaker who saw himself as a ‘half-tolerated consciousness’, lying beside his wife, ‘that unspeaking daughter, growing less/ Familiar where we fell asleep together.’ The student treated them gently, beautifully, as if she was hovering above them in that early morning in September.
Martin read on. This, he thought, this is what it’s about.
Then he came to the end of the answer. It wrapped up powerfully, making a persuasive connection between the ‘rough sweetness’ of a country garden, in the first stanza, and the speaker’s paradoxical feelings towards his sleeping wife whose ‘[s]tranded hair/Stirs on the still linen’ next to him.
He blinked: saltwater filming his eyes, tricking his vision. Had to be. Or the brandy, fuzzing his head. But no, it was still there. There in the margins: a note from the student. And not a mnemonic, or part of a plan for her answer.
I am so glad that Kinsella came up this year, at long last. I love this poem. I know what the speaker feels like. I could find much more to say, but I am running out of time.’
Martin stared at the writing. This was something of a haunting. Message in a bottle. He breathed out. His breath was ragged, shaky, as if he had recently been weeping, or making love. He wanted to hold onto this script, but of course he couldn’t do that. He flexed his fingers before taking up his pen, and writing the marks that would add up to an Al. He took his time, and penned the figures as carefully and lovingly as he could.
If comments were required, Martin might have spilled his feeling onto the flimsy pages; if these scripts were going back to their authors, he might have written back to her.
He smoothed the script flat, wrote Al on the front, and into the grid of results. He was about to add it to the pile, the pile that would end up archived on Department of Education shelves. She was one of sixty-five thousand students completing exams that year. She had an assigned number; Martin copied it onto his hand. The red ink spidered into the lines on his skin. He drained his glass, swilled the brandy’s acrid warmth round his mouth. Then slept.
Martin woke with a crick in his neck, and an imagining of long hair dabbing at and tickling his face. It felt so good that he turned on his stomach, face down in the pillow, to dive into the dream again.