‘You look like Daniel Craig,’ she said, dropping potatoes onto her plate. She glittered a frank look at him and grinned. ‘Well, maybe his older brother.’
Walking into the refectory, he’d seen at the counter a tall, pale, dark haired woman with large black eyes, full lips and, though only afterwards did he articulate it, a vulnerable exoticism.
‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m Mister Right,’ he said casually, with what he hoped was a trifling amusement playing around his mouth. As ever, the internal split between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ was active; knowing instantly the impression he was, or thought he was creating. He asked her what she was doing here. She told him she’d just begun a counselling course.
Putting a coffee on her tray she looked at him candidly and said,
‘You’re forty five.’
He paused - silence is assent. ‘And you are thirty one.’ he said.
‘How d’you know that?’ she asked with a delight that was almost childlike; an expression, an attitude he came to know well and was constantly affected by and nearly always with an undertow of sadness. He let her think, as he supposed she still did, that this ageing Bond was fourteen years older than her instead of the twenty four he actually was.
She asked him where he was sitting and he nodded towards the table just inside the door where a student was waiting for him. He wanted to finish his rant against the pernicious weltenshaung of political correctness he’d begun as they left the classroom. One of the bonuses of lecturing to mature students was that they tended to listen to lecturers both inside and outside of class. He was up to ’…is the most fascistic and repressive form of ideological, social, linguistic and economic control since Stalin. It engenders fear, distorts reality; forfeits fact.’
They left the counter, she asked him his name. ‘Tim,’ he said; hers was Mercia. The canteen was filling. She sat down with her meal and occasionally glanced across to him. His companion didn’t seem to notice. He’d taken her that morning to a local social care office where she was prescribed methadone to help her come off heroin. She lived on her own in a banjo shaped cul-de-sac in the mean maze of an East London council estate and was getting through his political science course with more help from him than he should have given.
He talked to her half-heartedly. Usually, in spite of twelve years of teaching, he tended to proselytize as much outside of timetabled hours as within them, but he was distracted.
He kept looking at Mercia’s table, some admin. staff were sitting there, a man grinned at her, she smiled back. He felt jealousy, it was quite strong, thus blanketing his ability to instantly analyse it.
Having a class, he left before her. She glanced up at him, He shrugged, smiled, noticed his student frowning at her as he closed the door.
It had been many years since he’d had a relationship with someone he wasn’t teaching, though there always seemed to be some kind of offers from female students to lecturers. He’d been a virgin till he was twenty six. If he hadn’t had a need for what he felt he’d missed or had been more cleverly disingenuous, perhaps he’d have still been married.
When young, he’d wondered what on earth, or in bed, it was really like and sated himself on mind flicks of skinny Iris at number twelve or the silken, misty space inside the thighs of principal boys his dad took him to see at Lyceum pantos, and since then a host of encounters; like ginger Evelyn with the twin sister he’d wanted more, and his mistake of getting drunk and telling them both how he felt.
And Tina from Ghana, who’d made it to the local university, with her two a.m. calls about clinical psychology, dragging him from pumping gyms to thumping night clubs and, when drunk, screeching that he should go back to his ‘own colour,’ her ex-lover once following him to work and hanging around foyer for an hour. And there was Charity, a Gambian who had been sexually abused by the ubiquitous uncle.
Next day in the canteen he saw her again. They sat down together where she told him about her course with wide, enthusiastic eyes. The place was almost empty, yet this particular table was psychologically owned by the Humanities Department, the staff of which sat down noisily around them. He could really only play the supportive teacher role, encouraging, informing, smiling, but scrawled a note on a napkin as she got up to leave, asking her if she’d like to have a drink with him, soon.
She rang the college the same afternoon to tell him that she had a ten-year old son with hydrocephalus who she lived for and didn’t want to worry about or hurt someone else, and was nervous about a teacher-student relationship. He liked her for saying the last. Some mature female students, if they fancied a lecturer, often overtly showed it, sometimes bragging to classmates if they’d been successful. He had never made an approach to one of his own students.
‘I think we should start off as friends,’ she said, in a rather prim, sensible way.
He took a call from her the day after in the small lecturers union office in the corner of the staff room that he soon came to monopolise - playing the ‘who’s going to put the phone down first’ game with her that, in retrospect, always seemed pleasantly juvenile. She gave him a potted history of herself.
Born and raised in St. Lucia with two sisters and two brothers she’d spent a lot of time as a child sitting outside her father’s bar acquainting herself with masculine cursing. She and her siblings were part Norwegian, French, and Carob Indian, whose maternal great grandfather had owned slaves on his sugar plantation, a portion of which was occupied by a large house built by the married eldest sister. When Mercia had visited her siblings recently she had been spat at. The Sanliquot name was not popular amongst indigenous Islanders.
At nineteen she’d married a St Lucian who she met in England and who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after their son had been born. Tim asked what her first memories of England were. She told him how excited she’d been on a school trip as a newly-arrived twelve year old when informed they were going to the sea, and then seeing that flat grey line for the first time and crying with disappointment.
He asked her why she hadn’t returned home with her husband.
‘He would have treated me as a Caribbean wife.’ she said. She was quiet for a while, then, ‘I used to lie next to him for months knowing he was seeing other women, but couldn’t break free. It was like a chick wanting to get out of an egg and then when it has can only lay beside the broken shell, for comfort, reassurance.’
She was in her bath eating an ice cream when he rang her that evening. Laughing, she asked if he’d like her to eat it or do other things with it. He began to suggest something, then, as if remembering her mother’s behavioural instructions to her as she reached puberty regarding relationships with males, said, ‘Oh, I’m propositioning you, aren’t I.’ He could see a long leg raised, ice cream balanced on the knee, widened eyes, slightly pouting lips.
She told him about her course; the Rogerian approach to clients, its emphasis on ‘the now’ and, so far, no Freud, and about Dan, who ran it, calling her ‘My dear lady’ as if he was about to kiss her hand, and who would tell the students they shared that political science wasn’t a ‘proper subject’ but not to tell ‘the tall guy,’ meaning Tim, who imagined Dan’s eternal bow tie spinning as he said it, like a music hall comedian.
It was Easter, he was decorating his flat. Mercia was at the hospital where her boy was having his annual tests for his medical condition and they spoke only briefly. He then rang to ask her to come out with him. She insisted they mustn’t be back late; her younger sister would baby sit.
As he arrived outside a Victorian terraced house she was leaning against a large Citroen talking with a slight, Afro Caribbean girl. He could hear their animated patois as he parked and which continued as he got out and stood quietly next to them, feeling excluded.
In a local bar she told him that she didn’t feel she was attractive. He told her how ludicrous her statement was.
He wanted her advice on some curtain material. She went back with him, disagreed with his choice of cloth, admired the Egyptian mural he’d painted on a living room wall and said she had to go. As he braked outside her home she said rather archly, ‘I don’t think the evening finished as you’d have preferred it.’ Again, the slight arrogance and the vulnerability.
She said things that evening which she would occasionally repeat; that she didn’t know much about him, that he intrigued her, that he touched people with his eyes, that he was passionate, and how two people in a relationship should become part of each other. She wanted someone to understand her needs without stating them - she was like a demanding child, she would have loved him to tell her that her command was his wish - and that people saw her as ‘a prize vase that was unobtainable.’
In the coming months she would enjoy smugly quoting her favourite brother’s opinion that she was an ‘ice maiden.’
Phoning him the following day she told him she’d been thinking of him most of the night. But, there was a caveat.
‘I’m warning you. You’ll fall in love with me. I don’t want you to for your sake.’ He believed her, didn’t recognise it as projection, a defence. This was, of course, precisely when he fell in love with her. He felt the fear, familiar, yet new. We tend not to remember past pain clearly.
‘I’ve always been a sex object to men since I’ve been on my own,’ she said. He could almost see the smiling satisfaction.
Calling him next day she announced firmly that she was ‘self sufficient’ and repeatedly asked if he’d been thinking of her. ‘I just know you have,’ she preened. He pictured her with chin raised, lashes lowered, could feel the adolescent narcissism.
A week and many phone conversations later she asked him to her home. He met her son, Julius, was naively surprised at how dark-skinned he was. He was well built, tall, handsome, and with a shy smile. He had just finished a lesson with his tutor who, complete with tweed jacket, elbow patches and old world courtesy, was saying goodbye to his mother. It was obvious he fancied her, most men appeared to. She would say to Tim with a big grin,
‘I was shopping today and two men looked round at me and stared, then looked at each other and said, ‘Fucking Hell!’’
She was familiar with using men to get what she wanted, once demonstrating in Tim’s garden how she’d got a mechanic to top up her car radiator. Crossing her hands above her breasts, heels raised together, legs looking even longer, eyes wide, she simpered,
‘Me? Oh, I don’t know how to do things like that. Couldn’t you do it for me?’ Then a plaintiff ‘Please?’
She’d come to him that day for help with her college work. He’d gritted his teeth at the statistics-based research she had to comment on, but was happy to help with her mild dyslexia. She left, telling him she’d been fantasising about them in an art gallery, hands in the back pockets of each other’s jeans, laughing, sharing, oblivious to people and paintings, then almost instantly turning around and saying, before getting into her car, ‘I don’t want to see you for a while. I can’t do my work with you in the same building.’ Next day she rang and said she’d started waiting by the phone, missing his voice.
She went on work placement for a week and he didn’t see her, but she rang constantly. ‘It would be fantastic to make love,’ she’d say, ‘but you’d want more, want commitment, and I couldn’t give it.’ And, without it feeling at all hackneyed, ‘You are my soul.’ Next time it was, ‘I don’t want to share you with anyone, wherever I am I want you to be there,’ and, ‘This is too intense, I’m so scared, I keep wanting to tell you I won’t see you again,’ and, ‘I’m unhappy when I’m not with you, I can’t breathe.’
Calling him in the early hours, she said, ‘I don’t want to put you on the list of people I’ve hurt.’ Then, with exaggerated huskiness, ‘Make love to me gently tonight; tell me what to do.’ He did, as if she was in his bed or he in hers. These calls went on. She appeared to be playing at it all, wishing it was real.
Wanting some photos of her he arranged a session with the college photography lecturer. He watched from an unobtrusive distance, not wanting to distract her. She posed easily, sexily, There was something in her posing; her clothes, the slightly dated glamour that reminded him of the front covers of Picture Post he’d read as a teenager. The photographer asked her if she would pose for his students. She refused.
She told him she would come into his class one day and kiss him. She did. As she left the room he said flippantly to sixteen surprised students that although she’d said she’d do it, he never believed her. A moment later one of the admin staff pushed the classroom door further open and with a concerned voice told him that a young woman was just down the corridor looking distressed. Mercia had heard him. He left the class, apologised to her, and told her to wait in her car for him. He’d never seen her look so hurt.
One evening she came unarranged, insisting she undress in the spare room. He lay on his bed. Half prancing, half mincing, she Marks and Spencered into the bedroom, pale skin, pink lacy underwear, hands on waist, wetting her lips, as if saying,
‘Look at me, what a prize, and it’s for you!’
He told her to relax, take her time.
‘But, I want to please you, tell me what I have to do.’
But, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t penetrate her. Her shiny-eyed, demanding eagerness to please elicited merely a tense exhaustion. Briskly dressing, she said, ‘I’m disappointed,’ and after a pause, ‘It doesn’t matter, it won’t affect our relationship.’
Then, when he’d failed to make love to her again, it was, ‘I feel cheated. Why can’t I arouse you? You’d do it with a one-night stand, why not me? Am I too prudish, too young for you? I don’t want to lose you. I’m so jealous.’ She cried, stopped, then, her voice rising, ‘If you don’t break your brick walls I’ll run away and hide behind mine.’
They had sex, of course, but not the final giving, the resolution of love, of lust. Then, after some weeks, he suggested they go away for a weekend. He rented a cottage in Norfolk, her sister looked after Julius. It was small, thatched, with a rose covered porch.
She didn’t think it would ever happen, but it did. He’d told her with half-joking bravado before they came that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him and as the East Anglia dawn lightened the curtains after their first night together, she’d whispered,
‘Okay, you win, you win.’
They went to a nearby pub, she announcing that she would love to walk into a place where every man’s eyes would be on her. As they entered, every woman’s eyes were, too.
One afternoon during the following week, and smoothing her love-tumbled hair as she got dressed in the front room of the flat, she said,
‘It’s too much, it’s all too soon. I haven’t been with anyone for seven years. When I sit with you while you correct my work, it’s like sitting on a volcano. I can never give a man love. I have to protect myself, wrap my child around me.’
He felt at times as if he was struggling with her to keep any rationality, any semblance of emotional intelligence. As when he’d taken her to Brighton to meet his son who was playing trumpet in a band that played Brazilian street music. She saw his son step out of the group to put an arm around a girl walking alongside and then shortly afterward marking time till a fellow band member came level with him and kissing her affectionately. ‘I don’t like the way he treats women,’ she’d said, and wouldn’t speak to Tim on the train back to London as if his son’s behaviour, whatever it signified to her, was either a genetic trait or learnt and was his father’s fault anyway.
And when she said, rather angrily, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to understand me since a child and now I’ve found you, and you live in a cocoon,’ He hadn’t the strength to answer. Nor had he when, a few days after first meeting her, she’d said matter-of-factly, ‘You live in your head, you surprise me.’
She moved house a week after this, not giving him the address, and a few days later rang to say that she would always be grateful to him for helping her.
‘Forget you ever met me,’ she said, in that imperious tone she faked so unconvincingly. And then told him that she was thinking of fostering a child and that a care visitor may wish to see him for a reference.
‘Don’t tell her that I’m the bitch that broke your heart.’ she said.
A month ago, and four years after first meeting her, he was leaning back against a pavement barrier outside the local train station waiting for friends to see a football match when she appeared suddenly in front of him, seeming taller than ever.
She had a low cut top, her skin the colour of honey. She’d been to St. Lucia. He asked her casually if she was shopping in the nearby market and whether she was a counsellor yet. She was a drug abuse team leader now, she told him, barely concealing her pride. She seemed restless, said she had to go.
For the briefest moment as she turned to leave there was hurt and resigned sadness in her eyes. Then her younger sister, who he hadn’t noticed was with her, said impatiently and in parody,
‘Come on, let’s see ‘im indoors, Dan, Dan, the teacher man.’ Her voice trailed away.
Who was Dan? Her psychology lecturer? Wasn’t it a Daniel who used to teach Julius? Was she living with one of them? Then her sister was standing directly in front of him, small, thin, looking up with baleful eyes.
‘Julius is dead.’ she said quietly. ‘He died.’
She scampered away. He looked at her back, above her head, could just see Mercia further on, peering closely into a shop window with a characteristic frown.
What had happened? Had Julius’s shunt failed? Had…
His friends came laughing out of the station. He walked with them down the slight hill. Pictures, images, that had been lying still, whirled around, released: her trying on tailor-made dresses in her bedroom, the small waist he could almost get his hands around, the full hips, posing in the solipsistic mirror, back arched, looking at every inch of herself; she in a department store, disappearing, and him, unguarded, panicking, intellectually knowing that it was the child in him being left by mummy - no emotions are new; her phoning him from a shoe shop, tears in her voice, saying that they wouldn’t give back her money for a pair of shoes that had broken after a week and, in frustration, tipping a rack over, cascading footwear over the floor; during the college fire drill, wearing a black cape in the quadrangle standing slightly apart from her new classmates, looking for him, head high, as if uncaring, and him not walking the few yards to her, not knowing why.
And the whole litany of contradictions: the need, the almost fierce independence, arrogance, possessiveness, wanting to give herself, then vanishing into her keep, peering at him through its tiny window; telling him that when they first met me she saw so much sadness behind his eyes she had to turn away. And saying almost disinterestedly as she passed him in a corridor outside the art room,
‘Pull me back if I walk away.’ He never did.
And he didn’t move towards her now, couldn’t see her, so many shops, doors, market stalls, people.
He walked along, his pals hopping into the kerb and back again to give themselves room in the crowds, smelt the sharp sweetness of chips and vinegar and the musky cloud of cheap corn oil. He felt for a nanosecond the prick of a tear, then the detachment, the intellectualising, chopping into him like the rigid hands of a masseur on the back of a client.
He silently named the type faces on the shop fascias, observed, as ever, the unnecessary apostrophes, the pvc windows aesthetically corrupting Edwardian houses in a side street, wondered why the mock castles at the sides of the main entrance to the stadium were painted cream, as if Mickey Mouse was going to skip out of this tiny Disneyland and give every fan a hug.
A last image got through; Mercia in St Lucia after being spat upon, head held back at a slight, proud angle, looking defiantly down at the perpetrator, not bothering to wipe the spittle off.
Then he was looking at his match ticket, reading every little word and number on it, noticing the police and behind them a yellow tape, thinking - and wanting to laugh hysterically - that it said polite notice and do not be cross.
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