From the author: A professor tries to help their favourite student to ensure they pass their exams, but what is their real motive? Written for the New Zealand Writers College Short Story Competition 2019. Awarded an Honourable Mention.
She watches me with eyes like glass, my awkward grin reflected back twice over. I turn my attention to the book in my lap. I read aloud, she leans in close.
“‘Finally, she says the words. Three words I have been aching to receive, and yet they throw me deep into a state of great anxiety. A fear that I might not be fully able to reciprocate. That I don’t truly understand what those words mean to me. I have said them, and I have heard them said, but their meaning ebbs and surges like a fickle wind.’”
I stop and place the open paperback, spine skywards, on the table.
“What does that mean?” She queries.
My smile slips. I falter.
“Well, what do you think it means?”
She knits her fingers close together and rests back in her chair. I breathe deeply, inhaling her aroma; dusky rose and sweet vanilla.
“I think it means that falling in love scares him. That he’d rather be alone. Is that right?”
No. That’s not it. She’s got it all wrong. How disappointing. I blow air out of my nose and chew my lip. We’ll have to start again.
I fumble with my coffee mug and take a sip. The drink burns my throat, not from the liquid’s heat but by a furtive shot of whiskey added in the hope that it might calm my nerves.
I’m restless. Agitated and unsure.
My right hand finds its way, unbidden, inside my jacket pocket. My fingers wind around the tiny box within. A pair of golden studs with bright sapphire insets. Discrete, yet classy. Delicate and perfect; just like her.
Her birthday is the 8th of July. I’d looked it up, just to be sure. Almost three months away and yet, I am so hopeful. I will surprise her with an early gift. A thoughtful token of my adoration.
Not yet. I’ll wait until we’re done.
I shake my head.
“Let’s go back to chapter seven. Read those last three paragraphs again.”
She picks up the book, the one I gave her three weeks past, and thumbs the pages. The paper is white and fresh and sharp. A recent copy not yet sullied by a reader’s careless thirst. She finds the page and reads. Her voice is soft and gentle; calm yet clear.
“‘I have spent all evening with the window open, listening to the rain. The child is curled up, sleeping peacefully, lost in the curve of my lap. Her soft, golden tresses spill in gentle waves. I almost wish the storm may never pass, so that we might stay this way forever.
‘When Madeline arrives, she will do what she believes she must. I cannot stop her any more than I can stop the wind or sea. It is undesirable, this outcome, and yet I know it cannot be another way.
‘We both have broken many promises. We limp along together nursing fractured hearts like broken limbs. I feel she is immune to my distress, so submerged is she in that of her own making.’”
She stops and looks up at me from underneath a veil of lashes. I clear my throat expectantly.
“And so the outcome here is?”
“She’s going to take the baby away, and there is nothing he can do.”
“Yes. So in the literal sense he will be alone, but metaphorically? What does this tell us?”
She sighs and casts her eyes around the room as if the answer might be found upon its walls.
“It highlights his lack of control of the situation. His helplessness.”
Ah! My smile returns. She is encouraged and continues.
“So, he’s really talking about how he feels like Madeline’s actions render him impotent. She prevents him being who and what he wants to be. Destroys his role as a father.”
“Excellent, yes. She emasculates him and takes control of him. The infant is merely a convenient pawn. Removing access, another calculated move in her long game of revenge.”
I watch as she scribbles furiously in her notepad with a purple, glittery pen. A childlike choice and quite impractical. She pauses, puts the end of the pen to her small, pink lips and sucks it gently.
I feel the flush embrace my cheeks.
I cross my legs.
She makes a tiny noise, a gentle hum. Deep in thought, she scowls a little.
“Why does she do that? I mean, he never wanted to foster the child in the first place. He admitted as much from the start. He doesn’t even bother to tell us her name. She exists purely as some random thing that he takes in unwillingly, and then supposedly falls in love with.
“It’s all bullshit, isn’t it? He so desperate to blame everything that goes wrong in his life on his wife, that he doesn’t realise that he’s the one who’s causing all the problems.”
I stare at her. My mouth agape.
“He’s selfish, that’s what he is. I mean, throughout the whole story we are supposed to feel sorry for him or something, like he’s some sort of tragic Shakespearean hero, but the truth is, he’s just a bitter, misogynistic drunk. He deserves absolutely everything that happens to him. It’s good she takes the child away. Who would want to grow up living with him?”
My heart beats heavily. I want to argue with her, to tell her she is completely mistaken.
“And then that ending. God. What he does to Madeline.”
“His conduct with Julia, it’s so gross. So inappropriate. And Madeline is perfectly happy to just welcome him back into her life like nothing had happened. She forgives him, even though he would have ripped her whole world to pieces given half the chance. I wish she’d stabbed him in the heart or something. That would have made it interesting.”
“Yeah, nah. I guess maybe I just read it differently to how I’m supposed to. But really, who even comes up with stuff like that, huh? It just reeks of narcissism and self-indulgence.”
My head is swimming. How can this be? Everything I’ve told her, every thought I’ve shared, how can she not see?
She is still talking but I cannot bear to listen. She is not who I thought she was.
‘I’m sorry Professor,” she pauses. “I think I got a little carried away. Shall we talk about chapter seven now?”
I sigh. I am suddenly so terribly exhausted.
“Annabelle, I think perhaps that might be quite enough for now. We can continue this another time.”
“But Professor, the exam is in two days. Do you really think I’m ready?”
I want so strongly to be cruel, to spit out barefaced lies and tell her I don’t think she stands a chance in Hell. I want to crack her. Break her. To sow foul seeds of doubt into her pretty, little head.
But I can’t.
My mouth speaks words my heart knows. It says the truth.
“I think you’re going to be just fine.”
Her face lights up as she smiles once more.
“You know, I really do appreciate you taking the time to tutor me like this. I’ve learned so much from you, and you’ve opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. I was so nervous about taking this course. My friends thought I was crazy, giving up three years of my life to ‘study books’, but you made it totally worth it. This past year, especially, has been amazing. Thank you.”
She reaches out to lay her dainty hand upon my sleeve. She pats it almost absentmindedly, like one might pet a dog. Her nails are short and painted gold, the polish chipping slightly at the tips. Her index finger is much shorter than her ring finger. How unusual. Funny how I never noticed that before.
She moves her hand, her gratitude expressed, and checks her wristwatch before she turns and fills her rucksack with her books. She picks up the novel and regards the cover thoughtfully.
“Why did you pick this one, Professor?” My blood runs cold. Did she suspect? Good Lord, what if she knew?
“Out of all the books you could have picked. Why this one? I’d never even heard of the author before.”
My throat feels dry, I steal another sip of tainted coffee.
“Well, I... I suppose I was interested to know what you thought of it. It’s a little different to what you’d studied prior.”
She pulls her lips into a downturned U, screws up her nose and shrugs.
That’s it. That’s all she says about it.
I want to ask her to elaborate, to tell me everything she thought and felt while reading it. The nuances and imagery. The careful metaphors that speak of love and pain. The words I poured my very soul into and stripped my feelings raw. So honest that I could not bear to put my name to it. Instead, I hid behind anonymity. An invented alias I chose to bandage over all my wounds.
Those late nights and god-awful early mornings, hunched and furious, placing word upon word upon word. A plain cream cover as if it were an endless classic, and then, finally, printed on demand.
I cannot bring myself to query.
She’s done enough.
She leaves the room just like she always does, a perfumed whirlwind of full skirt and unpinned hair. I stay seated, counting the minutes on the wall clock.
Eventually, I rise and go to the window, look out on the quad below. I see her patter quickly down the building steps. She rushes to the infant trees, recently planted, which once grown will offer shade to those who rest upon the bench beneath. A figure rises, perhaps a little taller than she, but not by much. Jeans, a jacket, dark hair scraped back into a ponytail. I cannot see their face, nor do I want to. They reach for her and pull her close in their embrace. They kiss. A kiss that speaks both of familiarity and unbridled lust.
What a fool I have been. A stupid, vain old fool.
There is a letter in my desk drawer, sealed and stamped, labelled with my own home address, but now it will never be sent. I find it quickly. There is no need for me to reassess its contents, it took me long enough to write, each word is seared upon my mind. It speaks of a choice which I made poorly. Of old regrets.
I tear it quickly, with more strength than I expect. I rip. I rend. I turn the pages to confetti and they float like bitter snowflakes on the floor. Pale fragments scratched with inky feet. I scoop them up and hurl them angrily into the wastepaper basket.
This, yes this, is what I should have done with my manuscript. I should have shredded it. Deleted it. Torn it from existence so that it might never see the light of day. Instead, I gave it to her. Bound and set, dressed up like a work of fiction, but led by truth.
A love letter in sixty thousand words.
Those things she said, I cannot shake them. They have wormed their way into my brain just like an itch I cannot scratch.
What if..? No. I can’t…
But what if she is correct in her analysis?
I am ashamed.
My mobile rings, I lift it from my desk and press the screen.
“Hello? Oh, hello, darling. Yes, of course. I’ve just finished up here and I’ll be home soon. What? Yes, I’ll pick up a bottle of wine on the way. Of course I’ve not forgotten. Happy anniversary, my love.”
I kill the call.
My fingers stray to the small, black box in my jacket pocket.
Bought for another, a different purpose, but she’d never know. It would be a shame to waste them
Madeline will appreciate them, I’m sure.