Dakin seduced me. He told himself that over and over, testing the weight of it on his tongue. Dakin seduced me.
It would have been true, as far as truth went, but that didn't reconcile Irwin to the idea at all. It didn't sound true; it sounded a an intellectually glib self-serving justification, just the sort of lie that a perverted schoolteacher would conjure up in pursuit of his goal. Irwin, more than anyone else, knew that truth was in the eye of the beholder and appearance very much more than half the battle.
I was seduced. Wasn't that the very argument that Nabokov put on the lips of Humbert Humbert in Lolita? Irwin wasn't sure. He had never, truth be told, read Lolita, though he had more than once lectured on its themes... yes, glibly, admittedly so. He did feel fairly certain that Lolita had never, unprompted, offered Humbert the chance at a strings-free blowjob as a gesture of gratitude for helping her to pass her exams.
Still circling. Time to descend a bit further into the undergrowth.
He had never been what one might call intellectually comfortable with the concept of seduction. Another thing that he might have learned at Oxford, had he been given the chance.
He had seen only the briefest glimpse of that world while at interviews, sitting huddled in a corner of the smoky common room, listening to the raucous laughter of a group of third year classicists. They were passing around a heavy tome on the art of Greek vases.
"Intercrural," said one, followed by laughter and a furtive glancing around that seemed to be daring one of the candidates to overhear.
Irwin sat hunched inside his oversized suit jacket, clutching at the typewritten and mimeographed set text that he'd been handed barely half an hour earlier, and didn't see a word of it. When he was finally led upstairs as if to the execution, he hadn't a word to say about the third chapter of Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England.
Back in the common room he felt light headed, as if a bus had just missed him by inches and the air of its passage was still swirling around him. Stunned, he sat down on a cigarette-burned leather couch, staring at the green baize of an empty noticeboard and feeling a suppressed laughter bubbling up in him that was only inches from turning to tears.
Numbly he accepted the lukewarm mug of cocoa brought to him by one of the runners. He felt as if something were slipping away from him and he didn't even know what it was. He wondered what he was going to tell his parents.
"I think I forgot everything I knew," he said.
"They all say that. Happens to me in tutorials every week."
Probably it did. He was a sturdy geographer who looked as though the life of the mind held, for him, neither terror nor attraction.
"Look," said the geographer gently, "I'll show you the way to Hall."
For a moment Irwin misheard. Making his way across the quad through the foggy December darkness, he thought of the abduction of Persephone, Virgil guiding Dante down into the underworld.
He sat alone in a busy college dining hall, fish and chips on crested china. They were soggy and swimming in vinegar, but he ate them with mingled grief and gratefulness, the last meal that Oxford would feed him for years.
After dinner he sat up all night in the empty college room that he had been assigned, knowing that he would never be invited back, watching through leaded panes the progress of the moonlight across the empty quad and imagining himself a part of it all.
Irwin allowed himself to be seduced only by argument. Not the facts, never the facts, but the process: inexorable, self-contained, channeling everything in the world down to one tiny point of space and time.
It reminded him, once again, of Oxford: at interviews, one free afternoon, he had found his way to a small coffee shop on the High, though he did not drink coffee. On his way back he had turned down a lane, thinking that it would take him straight back to college, and found himself between high stone walls turning this way and that, led by the whims of overlapping architects centuries dead, until finally he had emerged windblown and dazzled under the Bridge of Sighs. That was argument; it had nothing to do with the fact of compass directions.
And yet Dakin was a fact. There was something uncompromising about him, hard-edged, not at all susceptible to the sway of narrative or the unfolding logic of a dialectic. He was a fixed point, defiantly opaque. No quantity of blowjobs would change that.
Nor did Hector's death.
If it had been fiction, Dakin would have died. (The Turn of the Screw.) If it had been fiction, perhaps Irwin himself would have copped it. (Death in Venice.) Neither happened, of course. Irwin had survived, as argumentative and desire-tormented as ever, which proved that literature offered only the vaguest of guides to human affairs.
Maybe a historical analogy would be more apt? Briefly Irwin toyed with the idea of Dakin plunging romantically into a Sheffield canal, along the lines of the Emperor Hadrian's doomed Bithynian boy.
One more successful seduction occurred that summer: Irwin had a better offer from King Edward VI School in Birmingham. He never went back to Cutler's. And in the rest of his short teaching career he never had another pupil make him an offer like Dakin's.
On television he could say what he liked. Arrant rubbish mostly, but none of it dull.
If there were anyone watching, it was safely at a remove, behind the glassy eye of the camera. No expectant gazes, no half-formed questions. No Socratic seduction, except in his own imagination.
He kept up with the literature. John Boswell, Rictor Norton, all of it, not without a twinge of jealousy. Every mention of the Castlehaven scandal recalled the ghost of a doctoral thesis never written. He told himself it was the lack of funding but knew that really it was fear.
Intermittently he thought of doing a series on queer history. He nearly got up the nerve; he never did it. He ignored the encouragement from his producer, whom he sometimes thought knew him better than he knew himself. What would they say in the papers? To suddenly be assumed to be in earnest… it would be a terrible, exposing, intimate thing, and he did not think that he could bear it.
He started to wonder whether Dakin, like Oxford, might have been the key. And yet he told himself that surely to know, or seek to know, was the most intimate thing of all.