I wanted my students to talk to Kant and I remember that day feeling restless at their silence, their heads bent as they faithfully recorded everything I said. I was usually pleased at their sincerity but I wondered that day if it was not just acquiescence.
‘The Shitland of the East.’
I couldn’t get anything out of them, and headed down to the library, swearing. The next thing I remember — not because this is the next thing that happened but because rage or disappointment has arranged it in my memory that way — is sitting in my little office in the department and marking end-semester papers. I was smoking too much and irritated, repeatedly ignoring the students or colleagues who happened to knock on my door. One candidate in particular — I didn’t have his or her name, because the names were not given to us — had written a punctuation-mark-less tribute to that other grand German idealist, Friedrich Hegel. The piece was a horrid mishmash of what I’d said about Hegel in class. It was almost possible to trace the student’s rising and waning attention in the classroom through the missing links and the broken, trailing sentences. I scanned through the rest of the paper and gave it 10 out of 50. Next came what was recognizably John’s paper — I knew his handwriting — and my mood improved.
The third image that has stitched itself into this story is this: I am standing in a dark lane, the one I always took to the little shop on the main road to get cigarettes. The lane opened out to the road with the sawmill, and one walked up past the sawmill to the cigarette shop. I could see the lights of the mill but the head of the lane was blocked by three men whose silhouettes meant nothing to me — just three men standing around. When I reached them, though, they didn’t move aside to let me pass.
‘You shouldn’t have failed him,’ said one of them.
‘Francis,’ said another. ‘Why did you fail Francis?’ I looked at him squarely, smelt the alcohol on his breath and realized, in the same instant, when he angled his face away from me and towards the lights on the road, that this was John.
‘John, what’s up?’
I peered into their faces, the light in my eyes.
‘Francis has to repeat the fourth semester,’ said John and I understood that the boy who was standing quietly to one side was the failed Francis.
‘I’m not surprised,’ I said. ‘If your paper was anything to go by, I’m not surprised. You need to go back to high school if this is how you think philosophy is done.’
‘You’re not surprised?’ asked the other boy sarcastically, who was definitely not one of my students. What do you know about philosophy and examinations, I was going to ask him, when he drew out the hand that was under his jacket and showed me a knife. It was a small penknife, its sharp edge glinting. ‘Are you surprised when you see this?’
‘You don’t understand anything,’ said John as anger rose in me. I clenched and unclenched my right fist. ‘Francis was supported by his uncle but he won’t support him anymore. His two years is up. He’ll have to join the church and become a priest to feed his stomach. He’ll have to study theology now.’
I looked at Francis who refused to meet my eye and then I said, ‘Look here, this is insane. Why don’t we all sit down…’
But John pushed past me and the three disappeared up the lane. I was left there with my unfinished sentence, my fist still clenched.
‘It’s been a long time,’ says John, looking sympathetically at me.
I haven’t seen him since that night in the lane. Maia and I left town soon after.
The rain is starting to let up; John shakes the droplets off his umbrella.