Day 17 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

This time the challenge is to write a story beginning with a famous first line from a novel. This is my offering, based on the first line of ‘Eureka Street’ by Robert McLiam Wilson.

My First Love

All stories are love stories – and this one is no exception.

I was nineteen, a naïve and idealistic undergraduate, when I fell for one of my English lecturers.  Dr Small wasn’t particularly good looking, but his voice, when he taught us about Romantic Poetry, was hypnotic, mesmerising. I used to close my eyes and let his smooth, mellow tones caress me into a state of almost-ecstasy – instead of making notes, which is what I should have been doing.

Martin Green was my tutor for the first term: he specialised in American literature and we read ‘Catch 22’ and ‘The Tenants’, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. At the time, I wanted grand outpourings of emotion – something akin to ‘Wuthering Heights’, which I’d done for A level, or ‘Jane Eyre’. I longed for a brooding, Byronic hero to cast smouldering glances at me, then sweep me off my feet. None of the protagonists in modern literature did anything for me at all.

Everything changed, though, when we went back after the Christmas holidays. We’d been assigned new tutors and Dr Small was mine. Supercilious to a degree, he was, nevertheless, amazingly erudite; and, like I’ve already said, his voice had me from the first moment I heard it. When he spoke, it was a soulful, smoky blues song and a soporific wine; it was plunging into a waterfall of tones and cadences, and being rocked to sleep in a cradle of sound. I listened intently to every word he said about Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats; when he read out loud in his mellifluous tones, I fantasised that he was speaking to me and me alone.

He was married – I think he might have had children too – but none of that mattered. In a way, his unavailability enhanced his attraction: like a trophy of courtly love, I placed him on a pedestal and worshipped from afar. It was the idea of being in love that mattered most; I see that now.

It’s not as if I’d never had a boyfriend before. I’d had a reasonably long-term relationship with a boy at school when I was sixteen and seventeen – you know the sort of thing: friendship gradually deepens into something more and then you start spending all your time together. We were surprisingly innocent though: the physical side never progressed any further than (what I thought of as) passionate kissing. When I later discovered he’d ‘come out’, I wondered if that was why he hadn’t wanted to take things further: had he been secretly aware of his repressed sexuality all along?

Despite the lack of sexual chemistry, it was a fairly successful courtship. I think we both enjoyed having someone to talk to who could give us the opposite perspective. I had close female friends, but there was a different dynamic in talking to a boy. Even when we stopped dating, we still spent a lot of time together, only without any kissing. At the time, he was an important part of my life.

Maybe that’s why I found myself looking for a replacement once I got to university: I wanted a male confidant, a soul mate who was happy to remain ‘just friends’ without either of us feeling any pressure to make it something more. Paul Simms was in my Hall of Residence – I’d spotted him hanging out in the bar several times before I recognised him in one of my English lectures and struck up a conversation with him afterwards. He was Combined Honours, like me; but whereas I was taking English and French, he had Music as the other component of his degree. We spent a fair few hours together in the Arts Faculty Coffee Lounge after that: drinking tea and eating custard creams and putting the world to rights. Eventually, I found myself telling him about my crush on Dr Small and how incapable I was of writing anything down in any of his lectures. He teased me constantly about it – even more so once Dr Small became my tutor – but it was an affectionate ribbing, nothing malicious.

As the second term drew to a close, I found myself faced with an essay to write for my idol. I desperately wanted to make a good job of it: I’d done well in my assignment for Martin Green, even though I didn’t particularly like the texts; surely writing about poetry was my chance to show Dr Small how much his teaching had meant to me?

For two weeks I travailed over text books, sweated over syntax, burned the midnight oil. This essay was my love letter to a man who’d barely noticed me in tutorials: it was my way of saying, ‘Look, here I am. I exist.’ Painstakingly, I researched every last detail of William Blake’s life, wanting to leave no stone unturned. I desperately wanted Dr Small to take me seriously. A week after the essays were handed in, he returned them with feedback. When he asked to see me in his room – just me: not any of the others – I felt delirious with happiness.

It says something about how delusional I was that I actually convinced myself that he was  going to tell me he liked my essay, maybe even suggest he felt something for me; instead, he tore my writing to shreds. “The title of the course is ‘The Idea of the Poet in the Romantic Period’ but your essay reads like the Ladybird book of William Blake!” His voice was as cold as his eyes as he continued mercilessly, “Maybe you should think about switching to a different degree course – something you might be better at.”

I stared at him in disbelief. I had loved him so passionately, so hopelessly, pouring out my heart in seventeen pages of literary analysis – how could he treat me so callously?

A storm was brewing as I walked back to Hall, the purple and grey sky looking as bruised as my heart. No longer starry-eyed with optimism and inexperience, I had learned the difference between love and infatuation – it’s an easy lesson when you discover your idol has feet of clay.

I couldn’t face dinner that evening. Paul came to call for me – at least, I assume the loud knocking on my door came from his fist – but I remained where I was, curled tight in a tiny, broken-hearted ball beneath my duvet. I couldn’t bear to see him or anyone else who would question my red eyes and tearful face.

It must have been about an hour later when a knocking sounded again – gentler this time, as if the person outside my door was genuinely worried about me. I crawled out of bed and let him in, sniffling miserably whilst I told him my tale of woe. I think I half-expected him to laugh; instead, he wrapped his arms around me and enfolded me in a hug that lasted aeons. “Let’s go to the bar,” he said at last. “You need cheering up.”

I said I couldn’t face the bar at the moment, so Paul disappeared for ten minutes and came back with a bottle of wine. It was only cheap stuff – slightly fizzy – but it did the trick. Within two glasses, I was feeling more relaxed; and as we emptied the bottle, he leaned forward and kissed me. “You know I’ve always had a thing about you, Sarah,” he breathed, the longing in his eyes speaking volumes.

I know what you think I’m going to say: that alcohol and vulnerability conspired to push me into his arms; that when our lips touched, it was with an explosion of desire that incorporated Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, July the Fourth and every other major fireworks display; that all the months of agony and heartache disappeared when I realised that my best friend was also The One … Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not how it turned out.

We sat and stared at each other for what seemed like ages, the silence between us growing more uncomfortable by the second. His declaration had built a wall between our easy intimacy: things would never be the same again and we both knew it.

Eventually, he spoke. “I shouldn’t have said anything, should I?”

My silence was the only answer he needed.

“I suppose I’d better go, then.” The awkwardness we both felt was palpable.

“I suppose you should.”

We never spoke of that night again.

The following day, I took my rejected essay to Martin Green for a second opinion. If he agreed that it was terrible, then I’d rethink my course; but, in the end, his criticism was more kind than Dr Small’s.

“It’s not a total failure,” he told me, having read the first page. “I’d jettison the first paragraph and start from the bit where you talk about Blake’s reception as a poet. After that, it’s not too bad – not as good as last term’s essay, maybe; but it’s not dire.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could have you back as my tutor?” I asked hesitantly. “I think maybe there’s a bit of a personality clash between Dr Small and me.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he promised and, a week later, I was back where I’d started.

After a while, I began to forget Dr Small. His voice ceased to thrill or mesmerise me the way it had before; and now that I no longer hung on his every word, I realised that he wasn’t even a particularly good lecturer. He was adequate, but not that great.

That’s when I finally fell in love properly: not with a man, but with a subject.  I rapidly became aware that English Literature was my true love – my first and last.

When I did finally marry, years later, it was someone I met by chance at a friend’s party: he was a scientist, not an English graduate, but somehow we just clicked.

All stories are love stories; but they’re not always predictable.

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