I met Wendy Howard’s son Colin Kingsley on my first teaching day at my new school, but it took me a couple of days to figure out who he was. After that, my position as his tutor very quickly presented me with the problem of what to do with him. Colin was trying his best, but he was obviously struggling in all his academic subjects.
My new school was located on the western side of Headington, the suburb to the east of Oxford where Becca and Owen both lived; in fact, their medical clinic was only a five-minute drive away. The original school building was about fifty years old, but many additions had been built since then, and the majority of the classrooms were either new or recently renovated. My own classroom was a ground floor room in one of the newer two storey buildings; it was a fairly standard room with two large windows on the side wall, chalkboard across the front, and bookshelves at the back. My desk and work area were off to one side at the front of the room; I had placed framed photographs of Emma and Kelly on the desk, and hung a couple of selected pictures from some of our camping holidays on the wall above my computer station.
In my new school all students (or ‘pupils’ as the English called them) were attached to a tutor group of about twelve people, and they stayed with that group all through their school years. The ideal was that they would also stay with the same tutor, but of course in reality teachers leave or retire all the time. My predecessor in the English department, I very soon discovered, had been an older woman who had retired at the end of the previous year after twenty years at the school. She had been liked and respected by the members of her tutor group, and I was faced with the responsibility of somehow finding a way to fill her shoes. The members of the group were now in Year Eleven, which put them between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, and they included pupils with academic ability ranging from poor to excellent. It was my job not only to take attendance for them and to act as their first resort in times of need, but also to give a few minutes of individual tutoring to two or three of them at the end of each day, in such a way as to ensure that each person in the group got at least one personal tutorial period per week.
When I had gone to high school in the 1970’s, school uniforms had been very formal, including school blazers, jackets and ties. That formality had been relaxed somewhat at my new school; ties and blazers were gone, and instead my students wore a sweatshirt with the school logo on it, with black trousers and white shirts for the boys, and trousers or skirts for the girls. Even with this more relaxed approach, however, the first sight of a class in uniform seemed very strange for me after all my years of teaching in Saskatchewan.
Of course, I had read through my students’ files very quickly, but somehow I hadn’t noticed the personal details in Colin’s file. On the first morning, when the group came to my classroom, I noticed him as a pale, rather thin boy of fifteen, with an untidy mop of black hair, who sat at the back and didn’t seem to say very much to the others in the class. After taking registration for the day, I talked with my group for a few minutes, telling them a little about myself and asking questions about the subjects they were studying this year (I had access to that information already, of course, from looking at their files, but I enjoyed hearing them talk about it). We then set up a schedule for our initial individual tutor sessions, after which I sent them off for their first class of the day.
As well as Colin’s presence in my tutor group, I also had him in one of my Year Eleven English classes. It was a group of around twenty-five, and like every class at this particular school it was quite diverse ethnically, with about half of the students coming from Asian or African backgrounds. A couple of them were new immigrants, and I had an assistant in the class, a highly competent young woman who had been born in Iraq, whose specific assignment was to work with people who were struggling with English as a second language.
For Colin, however, English was not a second language; it just wasn’t a subject he found either interesting or easy. I set some homework after our first class, and later in the week when I met with Colin for our first tutorial session I asked him about it. We were alone in the classroom, and I invited him to bring a chair over to my desk.
“So how’s that English homework going?” I asked.
“Not bad”, he replied in a non-committal sort of way.
Having learned over the years to press for details, I asked, “What have you actually done so far?”
He took out his binder and we went over his work together. It was immediately clear to me that he was finding it very difficult to grasp some of the concepts I had presented to the class, and for the next few minutes I went over them again with him. We then passed on to some of his other subjects, and for most of them I saw a similar pattern.
After my tutorial sessions for the afternoon were over, I took out Colin’s file and read through it carefully. I started with his academic records, and I quickly saw a pattern. Colin had very little academic ability; all his teachers gave him credit for trying, but his marks were consistently in the mid fifties, and in some subjects he had struggled to get a pass mark. However, he was a decent runner, had good reports in design and technology, and he was taking several vocational courses at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, in subjects like construction and carpentry. In these courses he was doing very well.
It was when I glanced up at the personal section of Colin’s file that I noticed for the first time whose son he was. The file listed a Headington address – within easy walking distance of the school, in fact – and the parent was listed as Dr. Wendy Howard, with a work address, phone number, and e-mail address at Merton College, Oxford. I immediately realized two things: Colin was Mickey’s son, and Mickey and Wendy were no longer together. Mr. Michael Kingsley was listed as a non-resident parent, and his home and work addresses were both in London.
Colin had been born in October 1987; he was soon going to turn sixteen. I thought back to that time period. I had left England for Canada in the summer of 1982; I knew that Wendy had moved to London the same summer, and had moved in with Mickey almost immediately. I also knew that she had received her doctorate there, although when I left for Canada she had still been planning to continue her studies in Oxford.
I took off my reading glasses, sat back in my chair, and stared out into space. I had received one letter from Wendy after she moved to London, but it had left many questions unanswered. Why had she suddenly left Oxford, a university she had loved, and gone to London to join Mickey? In their last few months at Oxford they had gone through a traumatic breakup, and when I had left England they were not even talking to each other. What had happened to change things so dramatically?
I remembered the night of their breakup very clearly. It was a blustery evening in late March of 1982. I had not slept well the night before, and I had struggled to stay awake through a day which had included a full morning at the school where I was doing my practicum, and several hours of reading in the afternoon. By now, in my final year at Lincoln, I was living out of college in a one-room bed-sitter. I had taken a brief nap before making myself a light supper, but had decided, after cleaning up, doing the dishes and reading for a while, that I would call it a night. My room was small and sparsely furnished, with a single bed, a chesterfield and chair, a packed bookcase, a desk under the window, and a small kitchen area in one corner. I was boiling the kettle for a last cup of tea when I heard a quiet knock on my door. I felt my heart sink; usually the only person who came to my room unannounced in the evenings was Owen, and while his visits were always welcome they were also invariably long.
But it wasn’t Owen. When I opened the door Wendy was standing there in her duffel coat, and I could see immediately that something was wrong, something major. Her long dark hair was unkempt, as if she had slept on it and forgotten to comb it afterwards, and her eyes were puffy and bloodshot from crying. She searched my face desperately. “I’m sorry”, she whispered; “I know you’re probably busy, but…”
I reached out, took her hand, and drew her into the room. Closing the door behind her, I turned, put my arms around her, and held her close. For a moment I felt a tension in her body, but then she seemed to slump against me, and I felt her beginning to shake. She was sobbing – deep, wracking sobs that shook her body to the core. I stood there with her in my arms, not knowing what to say, wondering what this could possibly be about, whispering over and over again “It’s alright; Wendy; it’s alright”.
I had no idea how long we stood there like that, with her sobbing desperately and me holding her and trying to sooth her. Eventually, however, her crying eased, and she slowly disengaged herself from me. “Thanks”, she said, digging in her pocket for a handkerchief and reaching up to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. She then leaned forward, kissed me softly on the cheek, and said, “Can I have a cup of tea or something?”
“Of course you can; I was just boiling the kettle. Sit down; sorry about the mess”. I turned back to my kitchen counter, plugged the electric kettle in again, let it come to the boil and poured the hot water into my old earthenware teapot. “Do you want some toast or something?” I asked with my back to her.
“No thanks – just tea, please”.
I stirred the pot with a spoon, then poured milk into two cups and filled them with tea. I turned and handed her a cup, and she smiled gratefully, cradling it in her hands for warmth. She was huddled in my easy chair, her legs pulled up under her chin; she was still wearing her coat and was making no move to take it off.
“Are you cold?” I asked as I took my seat on the chesterfield across from her.
“What’s this about, Wendy?”
For a moment she said nothing; she only sipped cautiously at her tea, staring sightlessly at the floor. Then, as if she was willing herself to come back to the present, she tilted her head slightly, looked at me, and said in a desolate voice, “I’ve decided to break up with Mickey”.
If she had told me that she had been diagnosed with a deadly disease, I could not have been more astonished. “My God”, I exclaimed; “you’ve been together forever!”
She nodded helplessly. “The thing is, Mickey’s in hospital tonight”.
“In hospital? Why?”
“He took an overdose; he’s barely alive”.
“Jesus Christ! Was he trying to kill himself?”
“We don’t know”. She was still talking quietly, but her voice was gradually getting steadier. “I was the one who found him. I went over to his flat after lunch today, and when I let myself in, there he was, lying on his back on the bed. His mouth was open a bit, and his arm was extended over the edge of the bed”. I could tell that she was reliving the scene in her mind. “I thought he was dead”, she whispered, her voice trembling slightly; “He looked exactly as if he was dead”.
She gulped down some of her tea and continued; “I called 999, and when the ambulance came I rode to the hospital with him. I’ve been there ever since. I sat in the waiting room for four hours, and then I sat beside his bed for two more, while all the time there were books I had to read and papers I had to write. I’ve missed a tutorial this afternoon, and earlier tonight, for the first time, I asked myself why I’m putting myself through this”.
“You’ve known about his drug use…?”
“I’ve tried to pretend it wasn’t there, of course, but deep down inside I knew I was fooling myself. I’ve been an absolute idiot”. She raised her mug again, and slowly drained it, taking long gulps of the thick steaming tea. When she was finished she said, “That tasted good; could I have another cup?”
“Of course you can”. I got up, took her mug over to the sideboard and refilled it. When I turned back to her I saw that she was hanging her duffel coat on the peg on the back of my door. She turned to me, smiled weakly and took the mug from my hand. “Thanks”, she breathed softly. She began to sit down again, then hesitated, and put the mug down on the arm of the chair. Turning back to me, she said, “Tom, would you just hold me again for a minute, please? I know I’m not being fair to you, but…”
I raised my hand and covered her lips with my fingers. Then, stepping forward, I put my arms around her, pulled her to me, and held her close. Again, we stood there like that for a long time, and even though I had often dreamed about this kind of bodily contact with Wendy, even though I could feel the soft swell of her breasts through her sweater, I somehow felt no sexual stirring in my body.
Eventually she pulled away from me gently, smiled gratefully, and sat down again. “I expect you’ve often wondered about my relationship with Mickey”, she said.
“It does seem a little strange sometimes”, I admitted.
“I’m not sure I fully understand it myself”, she said, “but I think I started going out with him as a way of rebelling against my Mum and Dad”.
“He does look like every minister’s nightmare, doesn’t he?”
“Yes – not that I had much to rebel against, you understand – nothing like you and your Dad. My Mum and Dad couldn’t have been more supportive and understanding. But living in a vicarage was so – so conventional, and when I got into my teens it just seemed so stifling somehow. It was safe and predictable, of course, and part of me liked that safety and predictability, but another part of me was longing for some danger, some risk. And that was when Mickey asked me to go out with him”.
“How old were you?”
“Sixteen. I had just finished my O-Levels. I’d got ten, and Mickey had struggled through four. Honestly, we were so different, I’m sure everyone who knew me thought I was out of my mind. But he was fun, he was exciting, he was rough, he played rock music on an electric guitar. And, of course, he was rich, and I’d been raised in a vicarage where money was always tight. Mickey took me on dates on his motor bike and drove recklessly fast, and I was terrified by it and I loved it. I knew my parents were worried, but I decided to ignore them. In one way nothing changed; when I went back to school in the autumn I still studied hard because I wanted top marks in my A-Levels so that I could get all the scholarship money I needed. But in another way everything had changed, because I was in love with Mickey”.
She got up and walked over to my desk under the window; I had left the curtains open, and she stared out at the street below. “Why am I telling you all this?” she asked with her back to me. “I don’t know. I’ll probably wish I hadn’t in the morning”.
She was quiet for a moment, and then she continued. “I’ve been sleeping with Mickey since I was seventeen, you know. Of course, he wanted it a lot earlier than that, but I held out against him for a long time. I was determined not to get pregnant. The first time, we didn’t use any birth control; I was fortunate, but I decided not to try my luck again. I insisted he use protection after that. He’s a wild lover, just like he’s wild at everything else he does. Jesus Christ, why am I telling you this? It’s as if I’ve become someone else! You must think I’ve really gone over the edge!”
She turned around to face me again, leaning back against the desk, her arms folded across her front. “Tom, have I made the right decision?” she asked in a small voice.
“I don’t know, Wendy, but I’ve always thought it’s a bit risky to have a long-term relationship with someone with a serious drug problem”.
“But will my breaking up with him help him, or will it make it worse? Will he just go even deeper into addiction as a result? I don’t think I’d be able to live with that”
“Can you take responsibility for that, though? After a certain point, doesn’t preserving your own sanity take priority?”
I saw her lip begin to tremble, and a tear ran down her face. “I love him so much”, she whispered desperately. “I can’t imagine living without him”.
I stood up, stepped toward her and put my arms around her again. I felt her hands come around my back, and her head coming down on my shoulder; her body was not shaking this time, but I could feel her tears on my face.
“You’re such a gentleman”, she whispered into my shoulder after a while. “Thanks for being here for me”.
“Not at all”, I replied softly, drawing back and smiling at her. “Now, you sit down and drink this tea, and I’m going to make you some toast. I’m fairly sure you haven’t had any supper, and you need to eat something, whether you feel like it or not”.
I was brought back to the present by the sound of a knock on my classroom door. It was my department head, come to check up on me and go over a few details. I had questions for her, too, and we sat together for about half an hour, talking first about specific issues and then in more general terms about the teaching of English. I excused myself just after five, knowing that Emma was preparing supper for me at home and that I still had a twenty-five minute walk ahead of me.
When I opened the front door just after five-thirty, there was a delicious smell filling the house. “Wow!” I exclaimed; “What’s cooking?”
“It’s a chicken curry recipe I got from Becca”, Emma replied as she appeared around the corner of the kitchen door. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Would I? I could murder a cup of tea right now! You sure you don’t want to stay home permanently and become my housekeeper?”
“Tempting, but I don’t think so”. She reached up and planted a kiss on my cheek. “How was your day?”
“Fine. More importantly, how was your day?”
“Pretty good actually; come into the kitchen and I’ll tell you all about it. I’ll pour your tea too; I made a pot about ten minutes ago”.
I followed her around the corner, past the staircase and into the tiny kitchen; she poured me a mug of tea, and I sat up on the countertop behind her. The kitchen was laid out in a rough square; there were work surfaces against two of the walls, and the sink unit was against a third wall, under a window that opened onto the yard. The back of our house faced roughly northwest, and the early evening sun was painting the cloudy sky in multiple hues of red and orange.
Emma poured herself some tea and turned back to one of the work surfaces where she was cutting up raw vegetables. “I took resumés around to about ten nursing homes”, she said, “some in Marston, some in Headington. I also found out that in this country they call a ‘resumé’ a ‘CV’. What does ‘CV’ stand for, Dad?”
“Curriculum Vitae”, I replied; “It’s Latin, just to confuse people”.
“Well, I was confused, all right! The first time someone asked if I’d brought my ‘CV’, I thought she said ‘CD’, and I must have looked like a real idiot, standing there with a blank expression on my face!”
We both laughed, and I said, “So what kind of reception did you get?”
“Well, some places weren’t interested at all, some were very nice but said they didn’t have any openings right now, and one place just round the corner here in Marston said they didn’t have any paid positions at the moment, but they were always looking for volunteers, and would I be interested in a volunteer position?”
“And you said?”
She turned to me with a smile on her face. “I said that I’d be okay with that, so I’m going back tomorrow to meet their volunteer coordinator!”
I gave her a triumphant high-five; “Are you happy?”
“Yeah, I am”, she replied, turning back to the work surface. “It’s not nursing training, but it’s a start, and as long as you don’t mind supporting me, I don’t mind going slowly”.
“And this is fairly close, you say?”
“It’s on Marston Road, a ten minute walk from here”.
“Nice! I hope it works out”. I drank some tea, feeling it warming me all the way down, and gave her what I hoped was a penetrating glance. “Are you okay with that? Are you sad that you’re not starting university this Fall?”
“Kind of, but it can’t be helped, so there’s no point in worrying about it”. She turned to face me again and said, “Well, I think this food is all ready. We also have a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon, courtesy of Uncle Rick”.
“Rick brought us some wine?”
“Yes, he was here about half an hour ago. He seemed surprised that you weren’t home yet”, she continued with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “but I told him that teachers have to work long hours sometimes!”
“Oh, you can be wicked sometimes, Emma Dawn!”
“Thank you, thank you!” she replied, giving me a little bow. “Anyway, he wants you to call him tonight, as soon after supper as possible”.
“Wonder what that’s about?”
“He wouldn’t say”.
Later that night, while Emma was reading in her room, I made two phone calls. The first was to my brother. I was expecting him to be slurring his words a little, but to my surprise, he answered the phone with a crisp “Richard Masefield”.
“Hi, it’s Tom”.
“Tom – how was your day?”
“Pretty good, thank you. We had some good wine with supper, too – thanks, Rick”.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was meant to go with an invitation. Eric’s turning seventeen next week, and we’re having a party for him the following Saturday. He seems to have taken a shine to Emma, so we wondered if you two would like to come along?”
“I’m sure we would. What sort of an event will it be?”
“Well, Eric’s got quite a few friends coming, and there’ll be a number of adults too – our family, a couple of my friends, and so on. The kids might play a bit of tennis before supper if the weather’s still warm enough; they drag it out into the autumn as long as they can. Dress will be informal, and” – he hesitated for a moment, then continued – “no alcohol, at Eric’s request”.
“Sounds good”, I replied. “I’m pretty sure Emma will say ‘yes’, too. What time?”
“Come around five, supper about six-thirty”.
“Right; we’ll be there”.
“Is your first week going alright?”
“Not bad, thanks, Rick”.
“Good. Well, see you next weekend, then”.
My second call was to Owen. It was answered after two rings, and I heard him say, “Fosters”.
“Hi, it’s me”.
“Hi, you; what’s up?”
“Did you know that Wendy’s back in Oxford?”
“Wendy Howard, yes”.
“No, I didn’t know that. Have you seen her?”
“No, but in a manner of speaking I keep bumping into her”.
“Well, the first thing was that a couple of weeks ago I found a book she’d written in Blackwell’s, an introduction to George Eliot. I’ve since found out that it’s her third book; they’ve all been about different aspects of George Eliot’s work, and they seem to be getting some attention”.
“Is she teaching at one of the colleges?”
“That’s a nice coincidence, isn’t it? Have you tried to contact her?”
“Not yet, but I expect I’ll run into her sooner or later, because she has a son in my tutor group at school”.
“I didn’t even know she had a son”.
“Neither did I. You and I haven’t talked much about Wendy for a long time; you weren’t really in touch with her after she went to London, were you?”
“No”. He was quiet for a moment, and then went on to say, “To tell you the absolute truth, I got the impression she was deliberately cutting herself off. I wrote her several letters, but none of them were answered, and her number was ex-directory”.
“Interesting. I got that impression too”.
“You and Wendy were pretty close in the months before the end of our final term – at least, until you hit that awkward patch just before you left the country”.
“That’s what I thought, too, but after I went to Canada all I got from her was one letter, and then silence. What about you; did she ever say anything to you about why she changed her mind about doing her doctorate here?”
“Not a word. Mind you, I hardly saw her after you left”.
“She didn’t tell you she was leaving?”
“No – I heard it from mutual friends. I was really surprised to hear that she and Mickey were a couple again”.
“Well, they aren’t a couple any more”.
“No – Mickey’s listed on his son’s file as a non-resident parent, and his home and work addresses are in London”.
“Does the file have contact information for Wendy?”
“Why don’t you call her, or send her an e-mail?”
I was silent for a moment, asking myself why I didn’t do just that. Eventually I said, “Well, you know how things stood between Wendy and me when I left, Owen, and then after that she seemed to want to cut off all communication with me. Let’s just say I don’t want to trespass if I’m not wanted”.
“Fair enough. Still, if you’re her son’s tutor you’ll see her soon enough anyway, won’t you?”
“Yes, we’ll have interviews at some point before the end of the year”.
“It would be nice to see her again”.
“It would”, I agreed. “Well, I’d better let you go”.
“Are you going to come over some time and play some tunes?”
“Good; I’ll hold you to that”.