This piece was written as a provocation to a creative writing teacher who said there was no such thing as non-fiction. It got me in deep trouble that I never really got out of . I still do not know what it means.
The familiar susurrus of entering classmates sharing rehearsed excuses for imperfect completion of this week’s homework assignment fills the cavernous lecture room. Out-of-date invites to counselling training sessions remain layered in dog-eared abandonment on the ignored notice board. Dominic enters the room, noticing something that causes him to pause by his teacher’s desk, where she sits in concentration, head down, scanning the register, deftly arranging handouts for this evening’s exercises.
He watches quietly while she sorts copies of what he recognizes as an extract from ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ the scene where the drunken couple quarrel in a high tension power game over the distinction between ‘truth and illusion.’ ‘Sorry to interrupt’ he says, in a vaguely conspiratorial tone, penetrating the invisible cordon sanitaire that usually protects preparing teachers from student invasion, “But if I may be as bold as to say, it is great to see you in that shirt again, it really suits you. It stopped me in my tracks, seeing you wearing that.’
‘Well thanks,’ she acknowledges, absently, brushing the dense mane of dark curls from her face in that familiar reflexive gesture. ‘I just threw it on after the gym … but wait, you think you’ve seen this shirt before?’ He moves a little closer. ‘Oh, I can assure you that I absolutely have. I have a good eye for such things, and a photographic memory. In fact I remember every detail, the subtle check patterning, the way the two buttons are unfastened at the neck, the collar cut just so, the cuffs hanging loosely …..’
She holds up an adamant hand, interrupting his flow. ‘I very much doubt that you have seen this before, but glad you like it. I retrieved it from my sisters only last week. It has been there for a long time, stuffed in her laundry basket, long before these classes started.’ ‘But it is vivid in my memory,’ he protests. ‘I have categorically seen you in this before, in different circumstances. In fact… yes! That’s right; you entered a dream of mine last night, wearing exactly that shirt. You’ve broken my dream.’ ‘Impossible,’ she repeats, flustered, returning to her register, then pausing … ‘Unless, unless … ahhhhh you rogue! Now I know. You only recognize this shirt from my description of it in my short story, the one … ‘ ‘Oh yes …… now I think I recall the story, wasn’t that the one with the scene where you seduce your sister’s ….’
‘Wait a minute. How could you suggest that it was me that seduced or whatever, just because my shirt featured. You cannot infer that.’ ‘How do I know that it was not you, or a description of a………?’ ‘Because I am telling you that it wasn’t,’ she hisses. She notices to her visible annoyance that the class has long since given up pretence of symmetrically lining up their water bottles and bananas, guiltily rapt as they are in collective voyeurism of this escalating drama.
Her scolding upward glance returns them to displacement activity, witnessing much self-conscious paper shuffling and pen arranging. Dominic relishes the tension of this moment, particularly when he and teacher have uneasy witnesses who really should be occupied with something else. The pendulum is poised, he could swing it either way, he is in charge, free to push it further, or to back off. As he dwells in this moment of choice, the boom of the University bell sounds six o’clock, signaling the time for life writing. Dominic returns to his seat, heart racing, savouring the crackle of static between them both still.
He checks, satisfied that he has not gone too far this time around, just far enough to destabilize things, but not too far, not like the time when his interruptions became too insistent, too obvious, too personal. Teacher’s public expulsion of him from class that time was exquisitely memorable, the frisson of triumphant humiliation with him still. That banishment was the ultimate sensation for them both, but the endgame meant a death also.
This time around they need to keep it close to the edge and no further; they cannot afford to lose each other again, not like that. Last nights dream pervades his mood with aftershocks, the flash backs irrepressible.
She was wearing that self same checked shirt again, distributing remaindered copies of her novel to the whole class. She had copies of the DVD version of the book on display too, though we had to pay for these. Each DVD came with plastic figurines of the main characters taped to the box. One of the figurines wore that shirt too. I tried to steal a DVD, but she confronted me, standing over me demanding that I paid. I said “ I never pay for it,” and with that we were suddenly locked together, my fingers gripped in her hair, pulling her towards me, tumbling towards the floor, lips bruising, fists pummeling, figurines scattering everywhere, landing in improbable juxtapositions ….’
She composes herself, absently playing with a button on her shirt while reminding the class by way of introduction of the workshopping rules forbidding questioning of the verisimilitude of each others’ related life stories. Dominic feels a rush to challenge these strictures, but holds back, wary as Jim the Brixham trawler man sitting directly across the U-shaped classroom stares him down. Jim bristles with protective hostility, feeling secure in the praise that is heaped upon him by teacher for the ‘ refreshing primitivism’ of his tales of fishy-do upon the not quite so high seas, buoyed by the suggestion of publication, and the implicit promise of closeness to his Siren’s heart.
He has ceased apologizing for his lack of letters, exhibiting instead pride in his singular expression .He words his world with the vocabulary and rhythms of the sea, and of seafarers. She begins class with a reading from an anonymous student’s work, an extract illustrating how to draw upon personal experience to enliven the description of fictional characters inner emotions. Today’s emotion is jealousy, jealousy to the point of possession.
Dominic’s attention is far away, locked into an alternative narrative concerning a literary fight to the death between two quite opposite scribbling protagonists. The rules are quite strict, the prize being … he cannot quite divine the prize. A shift in the cadence, in the intimacy of her recital draws him back to the present …. ‘He could not remove his gaze from her face across the dinner table. After all these years, all these long years ago, since she had released him, since she and she alone had helped him find his voice. And now here they are, together at last, but she blanking him utterly or so it seemed in public. In private she would no doubt scornfully acknowledge him again, reminding him of her surrender, of his betrayal, then of his cowardly fleeing. A
nd while she told her everyday tale to her fellow guests, her hand casually found that of her partner, fingers entwined, her diamonds twinkling in the candle night, as her lover indulges her with that possessive smile that says money can buy whatever you want after all, once a heart is broken.’ Dominic is transported , with wincing immediacy, to the pain of that time when he invited and deserved betrayal,, understanding all over again the price he has had to pay for his tricksiness, how from now on all else about the relationship must be consigned forever to secrecy and ambivalence, to illusions and shadows. How could she choose to read this now, when she so surely knows what it will release? She has taken this too far this time, jeopardizing everything.
This is no random reading, no anonymous student …. Jim’s soft whistle of recognition breaks the class’s contemplative silence, catching teacher’s attention. ‘Jim, you first. What do you make of that reading, in terms of emotional resonance?’ She sweeps the hair from her eyes, shoots her checked cuffs while leaning forwards, the arched eyebrows demand nothing less than sincerity. ‘Well, Miss, to be quite honest with you, I don’t know nothing about emotional resonance, whatever that is, we don’t have no meter to measure that in our engine room, but it was well put, I must say that, it was well put. But I hope it never happens to me. I just hope it never happens to me.’