It would have been half a decade, although with remembrance came a blurring of the years, faces and voices melding into one, plain and indistinct, like onlookers in a semi-circle formed around a street performer. In this analogy he was, presumably, the street performer.
Regardless, there she was. He’d turned the page of his usual weekly, the same he kept buying out of routine or his own doomed effort to keep print alive, and had felt, even before seeing the heading or the washed-out colour photo, the sensation of being watched. He hadn’t been able to identify it at first, but that was what it was: watched, expectantly, as if he had a duty as former mentor to recognise the face he was about to see.
He did. Their eyes met, suspicions raised and confirmed when he read the second sentence of the article stating her name, Suzanne Louise Clark, and age, twenty-three. Garage. Car. Hosepipe. He recalled some obscure posthumous Pulitzer winner going the same way.
The article was vague on why. There was a predictable drawl on student loans and debts, something else about Brexit and social mobility, all of it fortified by the ‘devastated parents’ – who also, it claimed, had two older sons and a younger daughter. The newspaper itself was perhaps more telling: a regional publication, covering the same town he lived in and in which he’d taught her many years ago. Had she never been able to get out?
It wasn’t his place to speculate; biting into a slice of toast, he speculated. She’d reportedly gone on to graduate with first-class honours, but this was no longer a rare feat, and didn’t mean much: people were quick to point out that low grades didn’t equate to low intelligence, but as far as he was concerned, it worked both ways. Beyond that, whatever scholastic brilliance she may have held was overridden by what he vaguely recalled as her defining characteristic: unremarkable, an inquisitive mind requiring far too much coaxing to express an opinion. The personality was not there to stand out among peers or candidates, and in the assembly line of the working world, she was ill-equipped to leave her mark.
There was a spark, he supposed. It had never ignited.
‘Did you hear the news?’
Twin rows of teeth biting into bread, mayonnaise spilling over thick fingers.
‘It was in the paper.’ He felt a little disappointed, walking in, that the staffroom wasn’t empty. His doctor had told him he’d end up with an oxygen mask, and he’d made the switch to whiskey. A bottle of Teacher’s was in the drawer by his desk, the brand chosen as proof that he still had a sense of humour.
‘Had her for media. Class of ’13. Silly girl.’ Another mouthful of sandwich, moist food manoeuvred to one side. ‘Boss Lady was in here earlier, putting on her stage voice. Says she reckons it’s revenge porn.’
He repeated the term to her, as if a question. She nodded, turning back to her computer, and he found himself skeptical. Yet the possibility caused him to be struck by the mentality: for somebody to go such lengths over a thing like that belonged to a youth he no longer remembered, could no longer relate to, separated as he was by two decades of security and acceptance that together formed a mechanical life, a never-ending year. Whatever the cause, the girl had made her last mistake. He couldn’t recall his own.
He took his place by the whiteboard, onlookers front, left and right. There was no change. Boys slouched in chairs, girls tapped on phones. A packet of crisps was being noisily consumed. The girl with acne and the boy with obesity shared a table, ignored by everyone and each other. A group of boys in religious robes sat in the right-hand corner, snickering.
Life was still mysterious to them, still mouldable. They resented the tedium of the timetable, but they had not yet learned true boredom: terminal boredom, the type to lead to phantom tears and stiff drinks and the desire to end it all. Dead-end careers, dead-end lovers, dead-end habits were matters still foreign to them. They would shine, for a while, as did most of his students, full of hopes and dreams and the will to change the world.
And he would teach them, as he taught all his students, as he’d taught Suzanne Louise Clark half a decade ago. She’d been an unremarkable girl, but he imagined that she, too, had wanted to change the world. It was there in her eyes, before and today, a quiet desire for greatness, to leave the legacy of something worthwhile. He’d wanted the same once, a long time ago, but at a crossroad, scared and alone, he hadn’t followed through. It was easier to sit back, read the paper, eat toast and speculate.
He cleared his throat. Class was now in session. He slipped effortlessly into the role, animated and engaging, a well-oiled machine. As he talked through the objectives of the lesson, a stray thought came to him, a whisper in a passive mind, that there would always be geniuses: in another classroom or continent, transcending the failures of academia with a vision that would bloom. Surrounding them were the ordinary, the national and international average, learning or trained to go through the motions, year after year, much like himself.
And then there was the last group, as rare as genius, lured by adolescent ideals and unadulterated ambition towards some hazy, unachievable goal. The path to greatness warped by time and circumstance and their own mistakes, they would chase fading dreams and utopian mirages for only so long, that chase somehow instilling more meaning than the value of a final grade.
Vanessa Hall studied Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Westminster. She keeps busy.