If the accident hadn't happened you'd have that permanent post by now, a decent steady income and a bit of security. You'd stay in the school forever, maybe, and you'd forget about the first bunch in time. You'd forget about Dakin, forget about what it felt like to be nervous and uncertain of who was master and who was pupil. You would grow old (grow old, and wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled; the lines come automatically even though Prufrock is hopeless as a text to quote knowingly when it comes to history exams). You would remember Hector and you would teach the boys – not Prufrock, but Little Gidding, the useful bits. Perhaps a line or two from The Waste Land, which you never quite understood (you reassure yourself by insisting that no one is supposed to quite understand it) but is useful for wars, disintegration, the universe falling apart, the universe disturbed.
In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse – and you wouldn't get on the back of that bike, and Hector wouldn't have crashed (he would not have crashed if you had not been there; after all he never crashed when the boys were on the back, the boys he loved too much), and he would have retired in a year or two and you would still be in the headmaster's good graces, the teacher who got the boys into Oxford and Cambridge, and you would be able to walk, not limp, be able to stand properly and know the next time that a beautiful boy too confident for his years (or is that the problem, that the confidence can only be the product of youth and beauty, and does it inevitably fade with age?) offers you a cigarette, you will do what a teacher should do and say no and lecture him on his health and be a wet blanket about the whole business. Even if you don't believe it. Even though you know it's the sort of hypocrisy that drove you demented when you were a schoolboy and vowed that when you became a teacher you'd be different, you'd really understand, you wouldn't apply different rules for them. You know now that there is a reason for the hypocrisy: it keeps you safe and them safe. It keeps you where you're supposed to be, the ever-aging, ever more eccentric history teacher. And as you grow older you will become more like Hector, not caring about exams, understanding that there is more to life –
Or would you, if the accident had never happened? Perhaps you would remain you as you were, enjoying the mental gymnastics of finding that argument that the examiner would never expect, revelling in getting the boys to think, really think, and you would be in your sixties as you were in your twenties, searching for the questions to ask them to provoke the kind of essays and exam papers that will take them to university, to firsts, to the world of cleverness. You would still value it above all else. Perhaps you would have returned to university yourself, worked for that masters, that doctorate that you always wanted. You would have tired of teaching in five years, the same old story year after year, the same kind of boys turning up in your classroom. There would be nothing new and exciting. You would realise that Dakin was not special or unusual but the kind of boy who turns up every year or so, the same arrogance faced with the challenge of impressing the new teacher with higher standards than ever before. The same expectation that half the world would fall for him.
And perhaps you would have fucked Dakin, if the accident had never happened, or he would have fucked you, more precisely, or whatever was building between you wouldn't have crumbled in the aftermath of Hector's death. It might not have been the worst idea in the world. It might not have been unethical, entirely. He was finished school. There was not that much of an age gap between you. He was not a victim, letting himself be seduced, far from it. Not like Posner, not like the others. It was the one time you could have slept with a student and not need to feel like a monster for it. In your thirties or forties it would have been a violation of so much. In your fifties, sixties, it would have been repulsive, the kind of story that the newspapers print and people gasp over and shake their heads in disgust. In your twenties, the young supply teacher who may well have left the school after a term or two – and a boy more man than anything else – Dakin – you could have lived with that.
You would have somehow ended up sticking with the teaching, you think. The comfort of it, the repetition, the reluctance to leave the space that had been carved out for you by the school. Within years you'd have known them all already, be able to identify on the first day who was going to be trouble, or who might have been for your younger self. You'd go through the motions. You would not dare disturb the universe, not again.
If you hadn't said yes to Dakin, the accident would not have happened. There it is, the cause-and-effect you know in your heart to be true even though logic can come up with a hundred reasons why this is not the case. If you hadn't given in, been Poland, then Hector wouldn't have died. Then you would still be a full man, or allowed grow into one, not this body that reminds you daily of how young you once were and how you can never move beyond this.
If you hadn't said yes to Dakin, you would have been able to move on, forget, live your life, not dwelling on what might have been. The mermaids might have sung to you, echoed in your mind in lieu of that siren, over and over again, the minute you can't reverse.