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A Man of Letters

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
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"Would you please stop chattering, Margaret?" Anthony requested, with just the right edge to his voice to ensure immediate compliance.

"Sorry, Mr. Thomas."

"Now I think you all know that apart from Prize Day we won't be seeing each other again after this session. We have talked about revision technique and examination technique and I have discussed your course work with you both individually and as a group. If there is anything that you are still uncertain about this is the very last chance we are going to have to talk about it. So I want you to consider very carefully everything I have told you, and if there is anything, absolutely anything, that isn't completely clear to you, speak up now."

He ran his eyes along the arc of young female faces, the different coloured eye-shadows, the occasional garishly painted lips, the scattering of aggressive spiky hairstyles, Margaret's dangling blue earrings which were against the school rules, Zoe's equally illicit nose-jewel which made him want to scratch his own nose every time he looked at it. Girls poised impatiently on the threshold of womanhood. There was only one face with which he could not bring himself to make eye-contact: the least threatening face of all, at the furthest right-hand end of the arc, half hidden behind long straight cascades of shining black hair, big brown eyes slightly downcast, chin resting on her clasped hands, exercise book open and held flat on the desk between her two slender bare elbows.

A few moments passed in silence. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her put her arms down on the desk and lift her head to look at him. He shuffled uncomfortably in his chair.

"Very well then. I just want to say that there is absolutely no reason why every single one of you shouldn't pass and pass well. You have been an outstanding group and I have greatly enjoyed teaching you over the last two years. Some of you of course I've taught for much longer than that. I want to wish you the very best of luck in the exam, and in whatever comes after. University for most of you I'm certain, but remember that there are other things in life besides study, and there is no disgrace in working for a living." He hesitated. "I know you can't wait to be grown up and out there running your own lives. One word of advice. Don't rush it. Take your time. Look around you and try to learn from other people's mistakes. And don't stop reading just because you've stopped studying English Literature. Don't settle for living in a single world when you can live in a thousand."

There was no reaction. Maybe his little sermons were becoming trite.

"Very well. There are five minutes to go before the end of the period. You have a study period next. I suggest you go now and you'll be at the front of the queue in the reference library."

He wondered if any of them would say anything, if they would thank him or give him a signed card. It happened some years, in the final session. This time, it didn't. They collected their books and started to file out of the room, chattering as usual. "Oh, Ruth, could you stay behind for a moment please?" He said it as casually as he could as she rose to her feet, but Margaret seemed to sense something and hesitated at the door. "A few things about your course work," he added as Ruth made her way to his desk. He kept his gaze fixed on Margaret as he spoke, making sure that she continued out of the room and shut the door behind her.

Ruth stood in front of him and looked down uncomfortably, breathing fast, he noticed. He felt a wave of tenderness go through his body.

"It's all right, Ruth," he said gently, "I got your note and I'm very flattered. You don't need to be embarrassed about it. It's a brave and sensible thing to tell people what you feel. You haven't done anything wrong. I want you to be able to talk to me honestly like that. There is nothing for you to feel guilty or uncomfortable about."

"I love you, Mr. Thomas," she whispered without looking up.

"Oh God...!" The words slipped out before he could stop them. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It's just that, well... you must know that you've put me in a very awkward position. That's the most dangerous thing that a school student could possibly say to her teacher. You know how sensitive this kind of thing is, how easy it would be for it to reach the wrong ears. I could lose my job, and my whole career, come to that. This kind of thing is dynamite. Pure dynamite. You can't help how you feel but... well, it just isn't appropriate. You know that, don't you?"

"I won't be your student any more after today. I'll just be... somebody you know..."

Margaret's head suddenly reappeared behind the glass upper panel of the door. He glared in her direction and she went away.

"Ruth, we need to talk and it can't be here. Do you have to go straight home after school today?"


"There's a cafe at the corner of Wilmer Street, where it meets the High Road..."


Anthony appeared in his long dark overcoat, carrying his bulging briefcase and smiled sheepishly in Ruth's direction. "You got here before me, I see," he greeted her uncomfortably. She nodded. "Could we sit over there?" He motioned towards a secluded table with bench seating. "You haven't ordered anything yet, have you?" She shook her head and picked up her satchel. They made their way to the chosen table, her hand brushing against his as they walked, sending a shudder through his body. They sat alongside one another on the padded bench, Ruth next the wall and almost hidden by his greater bulk. A lurking waitress monitored their movements and followed them to the table. "A cappuccino for me," he said brightly, "and you have whatever you like, Ruth. My treat."

"The same..."

"Are you sure you wouldn't like one of those cream buns they have in the window as well?" he urged with a smile.

"Oh... all right then." She gave him the prettiest smile she had ever given him. He felt a bead of sweat come to his forehead. The waitress nodded and withdrew.

"You're going to tell me I'm a silly kid, aren't you? That it could never work out?" Her smile faded as she waited apprehensively for his reply.

"Do you know how old I am, Ruth? I'm forty-one. You've passed your GCSE maths. How many years are there between us?"

"It doesn't make any difference. I don't care. I don't care about anything else except... being with you."

"Oh Ruth! This is so painful for both of us. Look, what you're going through is perfectly normal and healthy. Everybody has a need for love... for... intimate relationships. And it takes each of us a long time - decades, even - to find the right person. Some of us never find that person. We think we have, many times perhaps, and each time that we get it wrong it's extremely painful, not only for ourselves but for the other person as well, because it's not their fault that they're wrong for us. That's what being a young adult is all about. It's what three quarters of literature is all about. Perfectly decent and well-meaning people hurting one another because they're not right for each other. It's something you're going to go through again and again. Something everyone goes through. I can't protect you from it. All I can do is save you from this one particular mistake. Because it is a mistake. Nobody in their right mind would countenance what you're proposing. It's a total impossibility. I'm sorry but it is."

He wasn't sure if she was taking it well or not. She looked him straight in the eye and her chin began to tremble slightly. Her face was very pretty, he found himself thinking, not for the first time. Delicate, regular features. High cheek-bones, the perfect even white teeth of the fluoride generation, dark brown eyes slanted into the hint of a V, as though she might have a trace of Oriental blood in her distant ancestry. What she said next surprised him. It came as a blow beneath the belt. "Have you found the right person?"

Slightly flustered, he stumbled over the words. "I'm a married man. You know that."

"That wasn't what I asked you."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the waitress approach with a tray. It gave him a little thinking time, an excuse to sit for a few moments in silence. His thoughts darted back to his own student days, to furtive kisses on the stairway outside somebody's room in the Halls of Residence, fumblings in the back seats of taxis and other people's cars, tearful goodbyes on the platform as the train taking him home was about to leave, promises of eternal love. The waitress delivered the coffees and the cream bun, seemed to glance disapprovingly in his direction, and left. He tasted his coffee.

"Ruth, you've been totally open and honest with me, so I'm not going to lie to you. What Marcia and I have now is no longer a marriage. Or any other kind of relationship. We live in the same house, that's all. We're polite to one another, we keep out of each other's way, avoid conflict. I can't remember the last time we had a serious conversation. We just co-exist. So, no, I haven't found the right person, and I've given up imagining that I might."

"That's very sad." Ruth took a delicate bite from her bun. "Why did you marry her? Did you love her once?"

"You know I can't believe that I'm sitting here telling you all this. I must be insane." He hesitated. "The truth is, I don't ever remember being in love with Marcia. Or asking her to marry me either. She was the daughter of my mother's best friend. When I was little my mother and her mother used to share looking after the children. They used to take it in turns for one of them to have both of us so that each of them could work a few days each week. Yes, that's something we have in common, you and I. We were both brought up by single-parent mothers. My Father left when I was five, I don't really remember him. Anyway, Marcia and I spent half our lives together when we were little and as we grew up it just became assumed, somehow, that we would marry. Our mothers were booking a church for the wedding and a hotel for the reception before it had really sunk in that we were engaged."

"Why did you go along with it if it wasn't what you wanted?"

He sighed. "That's not an easy question. My mother had a very powerful personality... and I didn't really know what I wanted back then. I'd just come out of a very unhappy love affair with somebody at the University... the first real girlfriend I'd ever had... and I needed somebody... or something. A shoulder to cry on, maybe. And Marcia was there. An easy option."

"Do you like easy options?" she asked, taking another bite of her bun.

He smiled. "I think you're laughing at me now." She shook her head to avoid talking with her mouth full. "If you're thinking that you're an easy option, you couldn't be more wrong. Can you imagine how people would react if I told them that you and I... were an item, so to speak?"

"I don't care what people think. Only what you think. Would you be ashamed of me?"

"Ashamed of you! Good God no! No man in his right mind could be ashamed of a girlfriend like you. You're beautiful, young, intelligent... and you've even got a sweet personality. You've got everything that life has to offer. The world is at your feet. Any sane man would give his right arm to have a girlfriend like you..."

"Aren't you any sane man? I don't want you to reject me, Mr. Thomas. I'll do anything to make you happy. I just want to be with you. I don't care what anybody thinks. I don't care about marriage, or sex for that matter. I just want to be yours - completely. I want to go to sleep in your arms every night and wake up in your arms every morning."

"Impossible. I shuffle about too much in my sleep."

She smiled. "I mean it, Mr. Thomas. I want to make a home for you. I want to be there for you always. I want you... to love me. Or if you can't... well, just let me love you. That will be enough."

Against his better judgement he put his right arm around her shoulder and drew her towards him. He kissed her gently on the forehead before she could get to his lips.

"Ruth, that's the most beautiful thing anybody has ever said to me. I want to thank you for that, no matter what else happens." He looked down at her eager, serious young face and slender perfect body and felt a shudder of sheer animal attraction pass down his spine. The angels must envy me at this moment, he thought, as she nestled her head into his shoulder. "Ruth, I don't know what made me do that," he heard himself almost plead. "This is wrong. Very, very wrong. I can't believe that I've let myself get into this position. You realize that if somebody sees me now and recognizes me I'm not a teacher any more. I won't have a career, or a marriage..."

"You'll have me, Mr. Thomas."

"That's another thing. Could you please, for God's sake, stop calling me Mr. Thomas?"

"What should I call you?"


"Not Tony?"

"If you like. Nobody calls me Tony but you can if you want to." He paused, felt her relax into his embrace, saw her raise her hand to touch his cheek. He sensed his control slipping away, something stronger than common sense nudging his reason to one side. "You're very lovely," he whispered, almost directly into her ear, "and more tempting than you can possibly know, but this isn't real, Ruth. I know perfectly well what's going on even if you don't. What you see in me has nothing to do with lovers... and boyfriends. What you see in me has to do with parents and children. With the father, the kind loving father that you never had..."

"I had him for a little while. Maybe you're right. What difference does it make? I don't care why I feel this way, just that I do. Why does it matter so much what people think?"

"It's not just people and what they'll think. This thing is doomed, Ruth. It wouldn't last - couldn't last. You would discover all my faults and weaknesses and... how I'm just not the person you think I am. You might even end up hating me..."

"No, that much I can promise you. I'm never going to hate you."

"But Ruth, you don't know..."

She silenced him with a fleeting, butterfly kiss on the lips. He stiffened with the thought that someone might have seen. "I wish you wouldn't be so scared," she entreated, "we're not doing any harm, are we? We're not hurting anybody."

"Well, no, but that isn't how the world would see it. There are certain expectations of a teacher... rules, both written and unwritten..."

"Here's what I think of your rules." She held him tighter and planted a kiss firmly on his lips. "Maybe you're right that it won't last. Nothing lasts for ever. People don't last for ever. What if we just get a year, or even a month, of the most perfect happiness that two people can ever have? Isn't that something worth going for?"

"You're incredibly persuasive. In fact you're just incredible. I had you down as such a shy, retiring little thing. I could have imagined this of Zoe, or Margaret, but you..."

She smiled. "I don't think you're their type. I am shy. I almost died when I told you I loved you today. Writing the note wasn't so bad, but saying it right out was the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life."

"And yet... you managed to do it..."

"I might never have seen you again. I had to say something or my last chance was gone. This doesn't have to be a fantasy, Tony. We can do it. In a few months I'll be eighteen, my mother can't do anything to stop me then. We can go away together, somewhere far away. Somewhere like Africa or China or South America. You can be a teacher... you can teach English as a Foreign Language. We can live by the seaside in a little wooden house and swim every day, and write poetry. We can have animals in the garden, like monkeys and parrots, and catch fish for dinner. There's nothing we can't do if we want to. You know William Blake a lot better than I do. What did he say about the "mind-forged manacles"?

He almost laughed at her enthusiasm. "What about your place in University?"

"Lots of people take a gap year."

He shook his head in disbelief at his own naivety. "And what would we do between now and when you're eighteen?"

"We could meet up secretly. I could be your mistress."

The word "mistress" brought him crashing back to reality. "Ruth, sweetheart, if we tried to do something like this they would crucify us. I don't know exactly how, but believe me it would happen. People don't get away with the kind of thing you're proposing. Trust me, I've lived in the world long enough to know."

"What was it you said to us today, Tony? Don't settle for living in a single world when you can live in a thousand. You've taught English Literature for loads of years. You know that there is more than one possibility, that people have choices. Make a new choice, Tony. Please. Take a chance on another kind of life."

"My God, I didn't think anybody was listening to that. You're cleverer than me as well as everything else. I can't even win this argument! You're the most amazing person I've ever met..."

"And you're the most amazing person I've ever met, so we're even. Do you want to know when I fell in love with you? The exact moment?"

"Go on."

"When you told us about William Blake. You almost cried when you read some of those poems. Did you realize?"

"Well, no, I didn't think it was so obvious. I love Blake's work though. I did a dissertation on his early poetry when I was a student..."

"They're all about rules, and how they make people miserable. Didn't you notice that?" She looked him straight in the eye as she quoted:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not writ over the door,
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

She stopped and he finished the quote for her automatically, like a man in a trance:

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.

"It was my favourite poem," he finished hoarsely, "always my absolute favourite. How did you know?"

"Because it was the one that made you cry. The one that hit home for you. That told you things you couldn't bear to hear."

As he sat, silenced and motionless, she finished her bun and drank down the last of her coffee.

"I've told you everything that I came here to tell you," she finished quietly and with total self-assurance, "it's for you to decide what to do next. I'm going to be in the churchyard of St. Leonard's early on Sunday morning. My father is buried there. It's my Garden of Love, you see. If you want me, I'll be there for you. I'll wait until the people start arriving for the service."

He nodded and stood up automatically to let her leave. She kissed him once more fleetingly on the lips as she passed him by, and was gone. He sat down again, his face drained of colour, and stared into his coffee cup.


The first misty light of morning over the churchyard of St. Leonard's revealed Ruth's slim form seated on a low stone border that circled a grave that was a mass of red and white roses. Anthony in his long dark overcoat walked up silently behind her and sat by her side. She did not look around.

"You're here before me again," he said quietly, "and I thought I had got up so early."

"I've been here all night," she replied, equally quietly.

“Your father’s grave?”

She nodded.

There was a pause but neither looked at the other. "I'm frightened, Tony," she whispered. He put his arm gently around her waist.

"You think you're frightened. How do you think I feel?" She looked at him at last and he saw the agony of anticipation in her eyes. He gently wiped a tear from her cheek. "I've got a new quotation for you:

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

They turned and held one another awkwardly but for the first time free of all inhibition. "Now I've got to find a crash course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language," he whispered as her body stopped trembling and she relaxed totally into his embrace.