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Fiction

It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. As she drove across the flat landscape of East Anglia, Jodie could see the familiar outline from miles away. It looked like some graph showing population statistics or the number of casualties of an illness, though the peaks were blunted. She knew that other campus universities had undergone renovation, had lost much of their distinctive 60s silhouette, but this one had not. Even though when she was there in the 90s there had been talk of demolishing here, and building there it had never happened, and somehow she doubted it ever would. She was reassured, and yet couldn’t help comparing it to herself. It was a quarter of a century, she thought, and willed the thought to become mundane and prosaic and insignificant. It did not oblige. It was a quarter century since she had last driven up that drive, and had last walked along those corridors. Not that far short of half her life. The last time she had been there she had been in her twenties. Now she was in her fifties. She had still done some of her coursework on a typewriter, though admittedly an electric one, and now she doubted that any of the students except the mature ones even knew what one of them was, unless they’d read about it or seen it on TV or their parents had told them. They had still allowed smoking in the cafeteria and the common rooms, and some even allowed it in the lecture hall. Princess Diana had only recently met her tragic end and it would be several years before people started worrying about the Millennium Bug, or thronged to the West Coast Beaches to watch the solar eclipse. 

     Yet still she had this feeling of being in a time-warp. It looked the same. It would not feel so very different, or sound so very different, or be so very different. 

     She still couldn’t help feeling like a bit of an intruder for agreeing to teach on the University’s prestigious creative writing course. The irony was that she wasn’t even an alumna of it! Her own studies, and subsequent postgraduate work, had been in languages and then literary translation. But after years of freelance translation eked out with tutoring and call centre work, and the odd spell of greater success, she had actually written a book of her own, not a version of somebody else’s, and then a few more. And they had been well received! Oh, they had never and would never make either the bestsellers list or the Booker shortlist, but they had achieved a degree of both popularity and critical acclaim. They attracted words like sensitive and nuanced and tended to have covers in tasteful pastel shades that did not always necessarily bear a direct connection to the contents of the novel. 

     She was realistic enough to know that she was regarded with mixed feelings by the Creative Writing establishment at the university. For some she was too popular and not literary enough, and for others she was not successful enough. But still, she had been invited as a guest lecturer on the MA programme, at least on a temporary basis. I was always determined I wasn’t going to just follow the teaching path, thought Jodie, and yet now, when some folk are even beginning to half think of retiring, here I am, a teacher of sorts! Somehow tutoring wasn’t the same thing. It didn’t count. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, and wasn’t entirely happy with what she saw. She knew she had never been conventionally pretty, though others threw her the almost clichéd consolation of her having nice eyes and a clear skin. There were wrinkles round those eyes now, and she had started buying the sort of creams that she had thought were for much older people until a few years ago, though she was cynical about them and stuck to the cheaper ones. She also wished she hadn’t been so easily convinced when the hairdresser told her that having her hair cut shorter would make it look thicker. It just looked shorter.

     Well, this isn’t a beauty contest, she reminded herself. The names of the little villages on the approach to the campus were still familiar, and they didn’t seem to have changed. Well, not much. True, some had convenience stores belonging to national chains instead of little privately owned ones, and some didn’t have a shop at all anymore, and some of the older houses had gone, and some new estates had been built, but they were still recognisable. 

     They had a different welcome sign at the main entrance to the campus, and, weirdly, it seemed decidedly more old fashioned than the one she remembered, though it did include a request not to smoke anywhere on the site (she doubted that was adhered to strictly!) and the email and website details seemed to be even larger than the name of the university itself. Yes, she thought there had been email when she was there before, and they had pioneered all the students technically having an email address with a .ac.uk at the end of it, but most of them, herself included, had not even had a mobile phone. She wondered if there were payphones on the campus still, and somehow she doubted it. There had been phoneboxes by the bus stop and outside the Union Building, she recalled, but at other places throughout the campus, and there was something random about it, there had been those phones with plastic hoods like an oversized space helmet. If you stayed under one of them for too long, especially in hot weather you could start to feel light-headed and disoriented. 

     She had half-expected a security guard and a barrier, but there were none, and she could drive up to the campus unchecked and unqueried. They had considerately emailed her a little map, and at first she had laughed, though it was kindly meant, thinking that she didn’t need it. But the truth was, she did. At what point did the familiar cease being entirely familiar, and at what point did it become a bit strange and make you need that map? I’ll get my bearings again soon enough she thought. Yet somehow she wished it was either wholly familiar or wholly unfamiliar, not this strange limbo.

     Though there were probably more mature students than there had been before, Jodie couldn’t help but know that most of the students she saw, some in little clumps, as she headed towards the buildings that weren’t a distant silhouette anymore could easily have been her children. Best not to think about that. Dear God, in a few years time they could be her grandchildren. That thought was absurd, but not quite absurd enough for comfort. She was suddenly reminded of an experience she’d had a few weeks ago, something and nothing in itself. She’d had a bad cold and though she normally slept less than most people, she’d taken to bed for a very early night, feeling drowsy and heavy with both the cold itself and the medication she’d taken, and fallen asleep within seconds. She woke to see that it was 8 ‘clock. I can’t have slept that long, she thought, I just can’t. And as it turned out she hadn’t. She glanced at her phone, where the display was in the 24 hour clock, and saw that it was 20.00, so she had slept little more than an hour. She wasn’t quite sure if she was disappointed or relieved, but felt disjointed, her body clock out of kilter, for the next couple of days. This was weirdly similar, on a much, much longer timescale. She half wished she hadn’t accepted the flat on campus. Oh, it was in one of the small blocks reserved for families and mature students, and such staff as chose to live on site, and it was undeniably convenient, and a bargain, too, and it wouldn’t really be anything like living in hall. Or would it be just enough like it, and just enough not like it, for her to experience that disconcerting neither/nor sensation? Well, she thought pragmatically, a month’s rent has been paid, so I’ll give it a go and see how I feel.

     She had arranged to meet up with Samuel Sullivan, who ran the Creative Writing Programme, outside the admin building before going over to her accommodation. Teaching didn’t start for a couple of days. She had her suspicions that Samuel, whilst polite, had not exactly been one of her flag-wavers. She could see his point of view. There was a rumour he didn’t deny that he had once nearly made the Long List for the Booker, and his literary brilliance was undeniable. His metaphors positively pulsated. Jodie wished she could like his books more, but suspected he wouldn’t feel the same way about hers. 

     Though she and Samuel had never met, she knew what he looked like, and looked round for him as she got out of her car, realising with a sigh that the last time she was there she wouldn’t have had to stretch and flex aching legs after the journey. But she looked in vain for the tall, serious looking man with the slightly sardonic look in his eyes. Well, make a point of you want to, Mr almost made the Booker Long List, she thought, I don’t need a welcoming committee.

     “Jodie – “ she turned round, doing her best not to too obviously flex and stretch her aching shoulders as well, and saw a man who was, indeed, tall and serious looking, but was not Samuel Sullivan. “Sam had a bit of a family crisis and he’s taking the day off. So I’m doing the honours.” Somehow Samuel Sullivan and family crisis didn’t seem to go together, and Jodie reminded herself rather guiltily that he was a human being with human problems. But that wasn’t the main thing on her mind! She knew this man – and there had been a time when she had known him very well. 

     He was called Shaun Robertson, and he had been on the Creative Writing course while she had been doing the Translation one. He hadn’t quite been a mature student, but was still one of the older ones of the group. It had “clicked” at once and before long they were what people were beginning to call an item. Though they took precautions, she discovered that she was pregnant, and had to be honest about having mixed feelings. She wasn’t exactly pro-Life, but knew that she could not bring herself to have an abortion. Yet she also couldn’t help thinking that it was too soon, and they were too young, and though she bore the new life within her no malice, she could feel no great joy either. 

     She lost the baby. And though she didn’t come close to losing her own life, she was very ill, and the doctor told her gently, but directly, that she would not be able to have any more children. For years she thought that she would form a relationship (Shaun had been kindness itself – and she knew it had hit him heard as, frankly, he had wanted the child more than she had) and perhaps with IVF treatment she would be able to have a baby, and if not, they would adopt. She did form relationships, but they all seemed to peter out. And now she thought, I am old enough to be the mother of most of these kids, and will soon be old enough to be their grandmother, and my only children are made of paper. 

     Perhaps inevitably – at least, that was how she saw it at the time – she and Shaun became just friends, and then got out of touch. She knew he’d achieved some success as a writer himself, with his quirky chess grandmaster detective, Marius Mortenson. He wrote the kind of detective fiction that literary snobs could admit to reading and lovers of a good yarn could thoroughly enjoy. She genuinely hadn’t known that he, too, was teaching on the programme, and wondered how she would have reacted if she had. “It’s – been too long, Jodie,” he said. 

     “I’m sorry.”

     “No – it’s nobody’s fault. But – I’m pleased to see you again.” He had aged, and she was not going to insult him by pretending he hadn’t. She knew that life hadn’t treated him entirely kindly, either. He had been happily married to his agent, a woman called Kate, but she had been killed in a car crash a couple of years ago. As they chatted she found out, or was reminded, that he had two grown up children, Martha and Simon. Martha had recently qualified as a doctor, and Simon was embarking on his own writing career. He was plainly glowing with love and pride for them both, though he admitted that the house felt empty sometimes. They didn’t push things. She realised that very night that she hoped very much that something that had never really died could be rekindled, but for the time being they were good, dear friends, who had been out of touch for far too long, and who remembered how much they had made each other laugh, and who laughed together again, and who felt entirely at ease, entirely able to be themselves and not to have any pretence or false pride or pussyfooting politeness, and that was all that mattered.

November 17, 2020 07:35

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

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