Art: An Education
He was finished with love, that much was certain, but his first glimpse of Marina – through the hinge-crack of the front door of her mother’s house – had made him reconsider. Though only for a faltering moment. She was seventeen, after all, and Joe (aged forty-two), was to be her private English tutor for the following year.
It was September, and he was still reeling with the heavy pain of separation from a woman who, coincidentally, had a daughter at Marina’s school – the formidably bourgeois Fortismere in nearby Muswell Hill. He was used to paternal feelings for the frivolous, dramatic, serious, unique people that were teenage girls, but not the romantic. Eva, his ex, and her sixteen-year-old daughter would have scorned his immediate besotted reaction on the Crouch End street. They would have detected it at once, so well had they all got to know one another. Growing up with a Portuguese matriarch and two sisters, Joe thought he knew how to get around women. Much could be deliberately hidden (and much needed to be with Marina, he decided), but he had never been able to pull a fast one on Eva and her daughter, Daisy.
‘Why don’t you come in?’ said Marina’s mother.
‘Thank you. Thank you –‘
It wasn’t that his new student was conventionally pretty, though her glassy-grey eyes and Nordic cheekbones would have honoured a Vermeer, it was more that she was the kind of girl he had yearned for, but could never find, as a teenager himself. Where were you when I was covered in acne? he found himself thinking, as he followed Marina and her bumbling, forgetful, loveably middle-class mum into the kitchen. With his long experience of daughters, he could see in Marina the vestiges of her old child-persona, retreating quickly as she adapted to the grown-up social situation. Rebellious currents still showed under her freckles, in skin clear as a Bavarian brook; but she was grown up now. So grown up. And, unfortunately, juicy as a newly-plucked tomato.
‘I’m Joe,’ by the way, he smiled, as he set down his battered shoulder bag of books.
‘We know,’ said Marina, exchanging what he thought was a knowing glance with her mother, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’
‘Well . . . What exactly can I be of help with?’
So they sat down, and set about her stack of coursework essays; Marina’s dyed-black fringe drooping over the scrawled pages. How he would have worshipped that hair at eighteen! But he successfully put this thought, and many others, to the back of his mind. Her set texts were Jane Eyre, The Duchess of Malfi, and Larkin’s poems, and it was the latter they tackled first around the rustic dining table, overlooked by a pelmet of cured saucisse, iron trinkets. The kitchen was a pleasing space in which to teach: down-lit, with the aroma of freshly-baked bread; a wine rack and overflowing vegetable-basket in the corner. Joe had once delivered a tutorial on Steinbeck in the bathroom of a council high-rise, so he was grateful for the ambience.
At first, Marina was the expected mix of shyness and teenage front, her essays full of the usual blunders – clause-heavy sentences that crashed into one another; missing prepositions, plagiarised passages. She clammed up at criticism, and smiled like a sunrise when he praised her for her ‘close-reading’. She wanted to study English at ‘Uni’, though he told her she had a long way to go. Her school had been giving her Bs and Cs. Nevertheless, there was a rare sensibility at work, of that Joe was sure. Certain words and phrases fascinated her. Despite hating Larkin, she was transfixed by his line, ‘the million-petalled flower/ Of being here’. The fact that a lonely, sad old man could have come up with this in a Hull bedsit amazed her. Only when Joe demonstrated that Larkin had pre-empted this criticism with his scabrous, self-directed line from ‘Posterity’ (‘One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys’) did she begin to warm to the Laureate of Loneliness.
Their next session was set for the same time the following Monday. However, on arrival, Marina’s mother informed him she needed the kitchen to prepare for a dinner party. ‘Would you mind awfully doing the tutorial in Marina’s bedroom? I’ve made some tea!’ This, he knew, was against all the protocols of private tuition; but he reluctantly agreed, knowing the door had to be left open at all times. After climbing the five Victorian staircases, Marina gabbling over her shoulder about hockey practise, her History A-level, her boyfriend, he was relieved to find the top-floor room even more enticing than the kitchen. There was a high ceiling, with three wide sash windows letting in abundant light. A wall of books (surely not all hers). A bed – which he daren’t even look at. And a wooden table under the third window, on which stood a tiny pile of books and the promised cups of tea, steaming in the early autumn light.
They sat down, Joe facing the panes of glass; Marina bunched on the harsh wooden chair he imagined her mother had acquired specifically for study. She brought her knee up to her chin and said,
‘Jane Eyre is a slag. Discuss.’
‘That’s what our English teacher said today. Can you believe it?’
‘Is he trying to be, uh, progressive?’
‘She. No, she’s just trying to be an idiot . . . God, I’m so glad I’ve got you!’
Joe glanced out of the window at the satisfying elevated view of houses opposite on Mayfield Road; then up towards the horizon, where he could see Alexandra Palace with its radio masts; the stretching harvested fields of Hertfordshire beyond.
‘It’s a great spot you have here. Let’s go back to the text and see why Jane could be called in any way, erm, loose.’
‘So I can’t use the word slag?’
‘No! It’s hardly a technical term.’
‘So why did she use it?’
‘You know, the first thing we need to do is work on your critical vocabulary.’
Thus they spent the next hour wrestling with ‘mimetic’ and ‘prosopopoeia’ – terms he knew to be slightly too advanced, but which she would appreciate nonetheless. Because Marina Hungerford was ravenous for knowledge, for experience. A real appetite. Many times she would stop Joe to moan that she ‘knew nothing’ or ‘hadn’t done anything yet’, despite the fact that she seemed to have visited more countries and had more love entanglements than he had had by the age of twenty-five. She wanted to learn, she said, to be instructed, guided. She had a sponge-like capacity for facts, insider know-how, strange words.
One thing was clear as he walked away after their second session, Marina’s smile lingering in the corridor: they had a tremendous rapport. An intellectual rapport. Over the coming days, he puzzled this. Sure, there was the intimacy of the one-to-one tutorial which always conferred a falsely conspiratorial atmosphere. But it was more the instant mental access they had with each other that stunned him – like a hand thrust into the clear stream of the opposite consciousness, returning with a salmon. There was the troubling dance of body-language too, but that he could deal with. There were glances she intended as innocently flirtatious, which he would neutrally return. He had experienced the same thing with Daisy. ‘She’s just trying out behaviours,’ Eva had explained. ‘Don’t be flattered.’ But he couldn’t help but be flattered by Marina’s rapt attention, or her girlish impetuosity when she scoured a text for a quotation he had requested, breaking the spine of the book on her desk. And he couldn’t help but be troubled by the way his voice faltered as he explained the lascivious nature of Jacobean theatre (a stammer corrected by remembering he was three times her age; also the fate Dante gave to Paolo and Francesca). Many times she would sit erect on her uncomfortable chair to tie her hair back with a scrunchie, thrusting her breasts towards him, giving him his cue to look out of the window. But all this he could handle. It was more the fact that, had he been younger, he would have been declaring Marina his life-long soul-mate. This was what upset his interior balance. By now, he would have proposed marriage, if not a long session in the forbidden bed.
After a month of tuition, she had become the highpoint of his week. His life, even.
One day, as the October leaves fell outside, Marina pointed out something that should have been obvious to him from the start.
‘You’re looking at what Larkin would’ve seen.’
‘What’s that? Ally Pally? He lived in Hull.’
‘No,’ and she drew back and fixed him with the direct look she saved for quotations. ‘”The deep blue air, that shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”’
Joe stared out of the window, into its gift of azure, and saw she was correct.
‘Of course, yes. A resonant image of death.’
‘Because blue is the traditional colour of eternity.’
‘Really?’ marvelled Marina, her eyes clear prisms of light. ‘I thought you would associate blue with the sea or the sky, not an abstract notion.’
She was improving, he could see, becoming more critically adept, articulate. Within, he smiled to himself, but showed nothing on his face. She would remember this moment, he thought, maybe in old age; the afternoon her love-weary tutor told her that blue was the shade of forever.
‘Well, that’s the metaphor there exactly. The sky and ocean are sometimes perceived to be endless.’
‘Wow . . . Any others? Symbols, I mean.’
‘The butterfly is another. A traditional emblem of the soul.’
‘And it means the same in all literature? Every time you get a butterfly it represents the spirit? Across every language?’
‘Not all literature. But much of it – painting, too.’
They paused, and contemplated – silently, separately – the world of symbols and the real things they attached to. A kind of fresh wonder, like that experienced by the first voyagers on the Mayflower, was upon them. Such rapture! Such harmony! So much of their conversation was fugue-like, exquisitely adventurous, that it almost begged for a bum note. Marina cleared her throat.
‘You know, I split up with my boyfriend.’
Joe had heard much about this guy – some twenty-year-old roustabout with a motorbike, currently re-sitting his A-levels at a sixth-form college. He knew girls of her age scorned their male contemporaries, but he was secretly content the beady little shagger wasn’t the wrong side of thirty. Marina’s mother must have felt satisfyingly liberal to allow the liaison.
‘Really? Who did the splitting?’
‘I did – no, he did actually.’
‘Well, well, well. What a . . . madman.’
‘But I wanted him to.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
She was hunched on the chair, chin resting on her fist, in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. Joe decided young women nowadays were taught to be in control from an early age. Unlike previous generations, they thought nothing of deciding everything, felt entitled to it. Here was her first experience of not having any control at all.
And then Marina asked an unexpected question.
‘Have you got a wife, sir? Or children?’
A vision of Eva and Daisy, on the last occasion he saw their faces, briefly assaulted him. Or rather, the last time he saw Eva’s face, as Daisy had locked herself in her bedroom after a row with her mother, and had refused his gentle knock of valediction as he walked out of their lives for good.
‘Neither . . . And you don’t have to call me sir.’
‘That’s sad,’ she said, looking directly at him, her mental hand reaching straight into the stream of his heart.
‘Not that sad,’ Joe lied, smiling; luxuriating in the moment, the attention. ‘They’re just the cards you’re dealt.’ Apart from his mother, no one had enquired about his love-life for months. He wanted to sustain the poised, time-stopped beat for ever – the young girl next to him; her gentle questioning; the lapis lazuli sky blazing outside.
Instead, he coughed throatily and announced in his gruffest voice: ‘Why don’t we leave Larkin and spend the last ten minutes on Webster? The exams come round quicker than you think.’
In December, while he struggled with various money-related adversities, Joe received some bad news regarding his health. A sudden loss of balance at a bonfire night party, resulting in his almost falling into the flames, had led him to his GP. After weeks of tests, of neuroimaging and a lumber punch to analyse his cerebrospinal fluid, the grave news came that he had developed multiple sclerosis. The fluid had revealed a chronic inflammation of his central nervous system, his consultant patiently explained, though it was too early to discern which type he had. Joe had faced the wall in the windowless room and tuned-out the bewildering taxonomies, while contemplating his future. Relapsing-remitting, secondary progressive, primary progressive, galloping . . . He was flattened by the news. Terrified. He only decided to call his mother and sisters in order to enquire about family medical history. He didn’t want to worry them. With one younger sister in Brazil and another making waves in LA, he felt they should be aware of any advance symptoms lest they develop the condition too. Along with the loss of balance, he had been experiencing a strange electrical zip of pain when bending his neck – Lhermitte’s Sign – coupled with muscle spasms that felt like he had a forest of small animals under his skin. Classic symptoms both. But neither sister, thankfully, had experienced any of these, only blurred vision, which he put down to alcohol. They were concerned, upset, as was his mother, Maria, who was unable to name anyone in their family who had had MS. So he was at a loss as to the aetiology. A primitive man might have blamed his condition on his infatuation with Marina. Sometimes, when he lay on his bed marking essays, his legs burning as if he had walked through a brace of stinging nettles, he felt this to be correct. It was all he deserved for desiring forbidden fruit. Now a physical disability had come along to prevent him putting his absurd longings into action. With his jaundiced, Levantine skin that held sallow patches and stretches of indeterminate hue, he had never looked well. But for once he was genuinely ill. The term multiple sclerosis, his consultant had gently explained, simply meant ‘many scars’. That made much sense. Now he had the physical wounds to go with the mental.
He hadn’t intended to tell Marina and her mother, but on returning to teach in the glare from the three high windows he found their enquiry, ‘How have you been?’ eliciting the whole saga. To his surprise, they were both mortified, especially the mother, who immediately ran off to fetch the number of a homeopathic doctor who had been of great value to her family, ‘Just in case conventional medicine fails.’ The latter phrase was both comforting and devastating. Conventional medicine had already failed in the case of MS. There was no cure. He would progressively degenerate into slurred speech and impaired faculties until, wheel-chair-bound, his students would stop visiting him. He would be forced to go back to scoring weed, like a teenager, for any kind of relief.
In fact, the spectre of losing his income loomed large in his mind. He would have to make many adjustments. Not only with a life of physical decay and discomfort, but practically too. He had already looked into Incapacity Benefit. Joe had been teaching English as a private tutor for just over four years, and the end seemed in sight. He would have to return to proof-reading technical manuals, a job he had slaved at, largely at home, for a decade. But how much of a loss would not teaching be? The money wasn’t great, to say the least, and he was getting tired of the endless cancellations and flaky arrangements that families, centres of their own drama, thought nothing of inflicting on the army of people who catered for them. Often, he felt like a tradesman, albeit an intellectual one, coming round once a week to sweep the mental chimney. He found it illuminating that the many anxious parents he encountered imagined he made his main living from it. Did they both share the same fiscal planet? Without a small inheritance from his long-departed father, which leaked tainted funds into his bank account, like carbide gas from a processing plant, he would have been dead in the water of London long ago. He had always known that he taught to remain in contact with two vital things: literature, and the human race – and the human race, its beauty and its future, now seemed embodied in Marina’s face.
With the revelation of his illness, Marina became almost daughter-like in her concern, a devoted Miranda tending on some sort of broken Prospero. She enquired about his symptoms, his visits to the consultant; wanted exact, almost literary descriptions of his pains. It struck him with a kind of relief that their age difference was the same as Woody Allen’s and Mariel Hemingway’s in Manhattan. Of course, during that wonderfully delineated relationship (eating Chinese food in bed while watching old movies; riding in a carriage through Central Park), it is the painfully young girl who turns out to be the most mature character. She sustains the drifting divorcee and acts as his rock, restoring his faith in humanity. Joe’s pupil was serving much the same role in his life. Despite the disaster of his health, the weekly euphoria from his intellectual engagement with Marina kept him going. He would shift other students around to accommodate her schedule, even declaring her his ‘Star Pupil’. Her grades improved until she was receiving only straight As. He knew, when it came time to say goodbye, it might break his heart.
Christmas arrived and departed in a blur of baubles and kind wishes from friends. If before his diagnosis there had been a vague possibility of love and starting a family, there certainly wasn’t now. It was the compound failure of love that filled him with hopelessness, that had ended his dreams of a future. Not just the lost decade he had spent with Eva and Daisy (he had known the daughter from ages six to sixteen – a whole evolution), but all the failures that preceded it. He had sent Daisy a festive card, his deep mourning at not seeing her ever again kept hidden under a barrage of exclamation marks. He thought better of addressing one to Eva. They were both receding into his past now, getting dimmer, like the memory of their one deliciously rich holiday in Tuscany. He was resigned to the role of leathery old bachelor, and would joke about this to Marina when he resumed teaching in what the educational system idealistically called the Spring Term.
One day in February, Marina revealed her plans for the upcoming half-term break.
Her bedroom was so cold, he found her sitting in her coat and scarf. Just recently, she had begun to really blossom, becoming more womanly by the week – her legs pleasantly plump in her tight jeans, her face fuller and more proleptic of the shape it would settle into. And intellectually she was broadening out too. Now their hours were free-form rambles through Plato, Aquinas, Montaigne and the films of Martin Scorsese, using Webster as a jumping-off point. Every visit he would find her brighter and more delectable, full of big plans. She wanted to try for Oxbridge now, then work in arts administration or the film biz (anything but the waitressing job she now yawned through in a Crouch End bistro). They talked of futures (hers), of UCAS forms, and how, in her words, love could be both ‘simple and complex at the same time.’
In the steely light of a winter afternoon, she swished back her scarf and touched his wrist to get his attention. She gave him her wry-eyed smile.
‘I’m going snowboarding at half-term. I feel terrible for telling you that, what with your condition.’
‘God, no, don’t think in those terms!’ Joe thundered, feeling pierced within. More than ever, recently, he felt he resembled not Woody Allen, but the jealous, drunken Michael Caine in Educating Rita. He thought of the Alpine mica-light, and the boys that would pursue Marina during a week of sybaritic après-ski orgies. If only he were twenty years younger, not a smoking wreck of separation and, now, chronic illness! ‘You have to live your life. God knows, I did –‘
‘But you never want to tell me anything about it!’ Marina exclaimed, coquettishly twirling her hair around her right forefinger.
It was true they still knew virtually nothing about each other. From the cheques he received, he could tell the mother had remarried or was using her maiden name, as Marina’s surname was different. Certainly, there was no father, or stepfather, or other siblings around. But it wasn’t his place to enquire, or even care. He could see how Marina would grow to resemble her mother in a superficial way, in her enthusiasms, her hunger for life, the way she held herself and bustled around. However, the girl herself, the unique consciousness, was her own creation: a developing individual – like a hot wax seal newly imprinted by life and everyday experience.
‘Listen. I’m here to teach you English Literature. If you get anything less than an A now, your mother will want her money back.’
He didn’t really believe this, but knew he had to keep the sessions on some kind of straight and narrow. Maybe in sympathy with his furtive ardour, she had developed a vague teenage pash for him. Knowing mothers and daughters, he was excruciatingly aware that the two had probably already discussed him together. Marina was being prepared for the hard world of men and their imperatives, of being independent. Joe had observed this process – an almost physical one he’d seen many times before – of a mother gently but bravely setting a daughter free into the world, like a vet releasing a captive animal into the savannah.
‘So you won’t mind me telling you about boarding and all the fun I had when I get back?’
‘Look. I’m a crumbly bachelor of two-and-forty, as Charlotte might say. How could I possibly be jealous of your life?’
‘That’s brilliant! Because I need to experience things. Really. Honestly. I’ve done nothing in my life so far –‘
‘Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Life happens to you in unexpected ways. Especially when you’re not looking.’
‘As you’ve found out.’
‘As I’ve found out.’
They were both staring deep into the interior of the other. A silence revealed a rustle of branches in the stripped trees outside. Squirrels maybe, or a trapped bird. In a parallel universe, they would be kissing.
Then Joe noticed something on the small table, a paperweight holding down a sheaf of practise exams. It was red and dome-like, with a hollowed interior holding crudely painted pips.
‘A tomato. Or half of one. I made it in Year Seven. Clay into a fired oven, then glazed.’
Joe picked up the halved tomato and weighed it in his palm. It was wonderfully smooth, and surprisingly heavy.
‘It’s great. Nicely achieved, as they say.’
‘Thanks,’ and she went to tie her hair back, her chest expanding into his personal space. ‘I’ve got the other half somewhere.’
Joe put the tomato down and waited for her hair to be fixed. When it was safe to meet her eyes, he said,
‘Let’s look at Mr Rochester one last time.’
When the end came, it was neither as sudden nor as brutal, nor as sentimentally overblown, as he had feared. In May, Marina turned eighteen and she threw a big party, to which he was invited, but declined to attend. The musculoskeletal weakness he had been experiencing, coupled with the bowel upsets and blurred vision meant that he only left the house to teach and buy groceries. Also, he didn’t want to be stuck with a bunch of swearing teenagers dangling Ipod headphones, all going down the long bloody slide, talking in an argot he failed to understand. He didn’t want to be paraded or shown off like some kind of mascot of maturity. Plus the exams were upon her, as they were everybody, conferring a frenetic ‘showtime’ urgency to the last tutorials. There was much to go over, much to get out of the way.
In Marina’s penultimate session, she announced she had read Lolita. She had ‘grown fond’ of the old pervert and madman Humbert by the end, which gave Joe some kind of hope, though for what he wasn’t quite sure. He now felt like the old bugger that every young girl has in their lives, the one they whisper about with their best friend in tones of wonderment and occasional disgust. He was both sad and strangely happy that their time together had come to an end – relieved that the strain of keeping things hidden was about to be over. And a new maturity was definitely upon her, post-birthday. While having a great time on the slopes in February, she said she found the après-ski antics ‘childish and boring’. Her face no longer occasionally revealed its lost young-girl persona, but instead gleamed with a womanly vitality – as if the years of teenage turbulence had been definitively hurdled. She positively glowed; ripe and burgeoning.
Despite the fact that her exams were only a week away, they still spent the second-to-last session with their usual round of jokes and flirtations, under the high windows that now showed trees coming fully into leaf. He even managed a potted history of Enlightenment thought and late eighteenth-century politics, while reminding her to gather the books he had lent her together for the following week. These were volumes of Wollstonecraft, Ruskin and Berger, all of which, in his secret heart, he wanted to leave as mementos of his visits. Realising the session had overrun by ten minutes (as it often did, finding they got on like an American flag on fire), he sidestepped all her customary personal questions and asked her, as usual, to show him out.
In the corridor downstairs, with her mother for once mysteriously absent, he gave her his spiel about ‘not working too hard’ and the importance of sleep, then turned to leave. To his surprise, as he heard Marina’s goodbye, he felt her finger trace a quick line down his spine, giving him an electric shock of such sublimity he almost keeled over. She had touched him!
The door opened, and he was gone, but she had definitely touched him – impulsively, spontaneously. Both shocking, but intensely right, somehow . . .
All through the trembling journey home, as he drove back to his empty flat to heat up a chillie con carne, then sink a bottle of red wine to relieve the pain in his back and legs, he obsessed over this action of Marina’s. It was astonishing. Then, after twenty minutes, he began to doubt it had ever happened. Maybe she hadn’t touched him at all – maybe it was merely Lhermitte’s Sign, back again, with its strange ghostly finger tracing a route down his spinal column. Finally, he turned in, mad as old Humbert, Marina’s face haunting all his dreams.
Their last tutorial came around all too swiftly. Everything about it turned out to be strangely memorable. The drive to Mayfield Road in the Mediterranean heat; the trees scintillating in the glossy parks. The way he found Marina asleep in the downstairs den when he arrived. The way she appeared, groggy from revision in a low-cut top and unseasonal scarf. The way her mother closed all the windows in her room against the gathering rain, as she set the cups of tea on the table. How they sat together, the strong glare through the sash lighting them, riffing on Wordsworth and Kant and Newman and everything in between. Putting the question of her touch from the previous week to the back of his mind, all he could think of now was how paternal he felt towards her. A mantra was in his head: ‘You will go far! Yes, you will go far!’ As the clock inched its way into their last half hour, she told him to think of his illness as ‘Just another of the million petals.’ To which he barked back, quoting Woody: ‘Don’t be so mature!’
Then he asked her, regretfully, to gather all his books together.
When she disappeared downstairs to find them, Joe took a last look at her room. The low bed. The groaning bookshelf holding everything from Plato to Murdoch to old Penguin Classics. Then his eyes alit on two shiny red objects: the clay half-tomatoes, together on a sheaf of papers.
Marina reappeared, holding a stack of paperbacks under her chin.
‘You found the other one!’ Joe declared, with an odd ecstasy.
‘Yeah, it was under my bed. Been there for years.’
Picking them up, he surprised himself by asking: ‘Is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?’
‘A fruit. For definite. We learned that in Food Tech.’
‘Oh, dear . . . ‘
‘Why “oh dear?”’ she asked, setting the books down; moving so close he could smell her stirring aromatic scent.
Joe stared out at the trees, which were indeed like something almost being said. Then he announced: ‘It doesn’t matter . . . Let me settle up with your mother before I forget.’
He got to his feet unsteadily, and began packing the books into his satchel. Finally, he made for the doorway.
‘Okay,’ she murmured, defeatedly. And he turned to see her, stranded in the centre of the floor, as if waiting for something further to occur.
But nothing further did. In the corridor downstairs, Joe urged her to ‘Get some sleep’ before the exam. They joked for a while, aware a parting that might prove eternal was upon them. And then she spontaneously hugged him. It felt, to Joe, like the melting of summer ice cream.
‘See you,’ Marina smiled at the door, her eyes very old. But he knew she might not.
In August, his MS now settled into Progressive Relapsing, he heard via email that Marina had received three straight As. He was delighted, vindicated. She also wrote that she was taking a gap year to go surfing on the beaches of Hawaii. For this, too, he was oddly happy. He always knew she would go far. She urged him to stay in touch, requested a list of books that would teach her about the world. But he resisted. She would have to find all that out for herself.