Totty was first to come to him, of course.
Obviously, there were lots of well–wishes and that sort of gifts; he couldn’t make out the scripts since his glasses were ruined and he hadn’t got another pair yet; and even if he could do that, it would be unbearable to look at them. But thanks to Joan, a vivid black–haired nurse, who carefully arranged the cards reading them aloud, he knew them in details: several cards from pupils, a couple from their parents, a message from school administration (get well soon and don’t make a problem with curriculum, Irvin chuckled cynically); a touching one from his house lady; there was even a card from the milkman, God knows why.
Still he felt quite unready to meet anyone. Faint–heartedly Irvin was hoping they might forbid visiting him for a day or two – at least, considering his state, that childish hope seemed reasonable. He felt sick all day over, his left side ached on every move and breath; as for his leg – Tom tried not to think about it at all. Although it was somehow distracting, it gave something simple to concentrate on. Drifting at times to a welcome sleep, it was much easier to think that his self–sickness is just due to the dizzying head; that it was his cracked ribs that hindered his breath, not that twinge of emptiness he felt within since he first woke up in hospital and learned about Hector.
‘How are you?’ asked Totty looking at him with almost unbearable compassion.
It must’ve been that awful hospital robe he wore, or the fact he still hadn’t his glasses on and felt somewhat naked so far, – or perhaps all his other shields also got left somewhere on asphalt crippled and useless – but he answered way much sincere that he was to.
‘Still cannot quite believe it happened’.
‘Me too. Poor Hector! Such a terrible shit. – And he’d been riding that damned bike for years, and nothing ever happened till –’ – she paused and gave Irwin an intent look. – ‘You do not blame yourself, do you?’
It was all Totty, with her careful, perceptive eyes. Totty who seldom gets pupils’ problems – still often knows about them more than others.
‘I don’t know actually if there’s anything to blame for’, – he said bluntly. – ‘I can’t recall anything.’ – It hurt him a lot. A gap in history that couldn’t be filled, something he couldn’t help but craved all the time. Such annoying things they are, those unreliable witnesses thanks to whom there are blank spots, missed key parts of the history here and there. And here he is now, one of them.
‘No one is to blame, ‘– Totty said pointedly. ‘It was pure accident.’
It was, indeed. There is no such thing as God’s wrath falling upon two miserable wrecks outraged their professional behavior. At least when you look from historian’s point of view, not a devotee spinster’s, there should be no such word as ‘fate’ in your personal dictionary. There are millions of random circumstances, – he recalled Totty’s precious passage on the matter performed once in the dusk before Headmaster’s door, – and some of them concurred in a bloody unlucky way – twice unlucky, as per Hector, really. But, thinking of God, if there’s any, it is considered He gave us, humans, free will – what for, Irwin wondered, if not to grieve at miserably absurd, despicable, pathetic ways we make use of it?
He knew it for sure, he could convince anyone else of it – and then why, for God’s sake, he couldn’t get rid of that fucking senseless feel of guilt?
‘How do things go? At school?’
‘Boys are shocked, of course. All school mourning. Except Felix, who is vulgarly relieved with the fact that no boys are involved this time and the school reputation is now out of danger’.
‘By the way, you’ve got a sort of local glory waiting for you. As a hero who in some way saved not only our esprit de corps but also Dakin’s life – by replacing him at that back seat, if you remember.’
Dakin. It was as a punch to the guts. He hardly managed to keep his eyes not shut.
‘I’ve done nothing!’ – a protest slipped a bit too fast, and it rang almost true – only the thing was he did something, damned idiot, and he knew it bloody well, and sparks of that memory made him feel hot and flushed from the chest up to his neck, up to his face. Fuck.
What was it for? It ached latently all this time, the black hole in place of a simple answer. His talk with Dakin, the line he defended to the last for such a long time and then crossed so easily – where would it lead him now?
To nothing, perhaps – it echoed with dull ache inside him – but it’s not the worst end, indeed. He’s still a teacher, at least. He did nothing wrong, since there were just words. He will never have heard from Dakin again most probably, and will return to school and proceed as if nothing happened. Will he? Or will Dakin simply publicize their conversation, in form of gossips maybe, or the truth he revealed visiting Corpus College – might that be the most likely scenario? He didn’t know. That was the point. He didn’t know, just wandering in the fog, as if he’d lost – or never had – the sense of the real state of things on the matter.
‘Oh, you know the boys, ‘– Totty proceeded calmly, – ‘It doesn’t do with the reasons. A very Gipsy is that fame – though it might be useful for you, apparently.’
He didn’t answer.
‘What do doctors say?’ – She made a nod toward his leg.
‘It’d be all right. A limp would remain, perhaps. But I’m lucky with it,’ – Irwin chuckled awkwardly. He said that very thing, that gloomy and impassive doctor who visited him after the surgery. An inch higher, an inch deeper, and he’d now have no leg below the knee. Irwin shivered every time he remembered it.
‘It’s good to hear. It’d be – ‘– she glanced away – ‘It’d be horrible to lose you both’.
‘I don’t think it’d be much worse for the school’ – he retorted softly, with some rueful absence in his voice.
‘Bullshit! And I only count it on your current shocked state, young man! You are a perfect teacher. So get well and get back, for someone is to stay at school after all this – all this terrible mess.’
Totty collected her things and rose. – ‘I’ve brought you a pie, by the way. I thought you’ll need to reinforce your strength.’
Suddenly it occurred hard to articulate a simple ‘thank you’ from the deep and hot and bitter tide that flooded him from inside.
‘Tom,’ – she called back, yet from the door. – ‘I mean it. You are an exceptional teacher. Or at least you would be, if only you give yourself time to prove it.’
Then the door closed behind her, and the flood overwhelmed him at last, and the only thing he had been grateful for was there’s no one to see or hear him at the time.
It was a great surprise to Tom that he apparently felt better after Totty’s visit. Not at the moment, of course, but a few hours later he woke up with a clear head and a sense that he could manage to live all that through. Totty was right; at last, someone has to stay at school. Why not then, he might be no worse than others.
God bless Joan–the–nurse for she managed to get him glasses and some books; and of course it was ridiculous to think it was Totty’s pie that helped, but he first felt an appetite sniffing its incredible smell. What an odd way to discover Totty’s exceptional cook skills, he thought, tasting the pie and trying not to be aware that he felt more at home than ever since he arrived to Sheffield.
‘Hello! How are you?’
A vivid air of coffee, cigarettes and some foppish boy’s perfume waved around while Dakin gracefully swayed himself to the chair, carrying two madly scented paper cups. – ‘They do make a pretty good coffee, at the corner outside, and I’ve got you one. Though I don’t know whether it breaks the local rules – ’
‘Not to extent you could’ve been proud for,’ – Irwin smiled as he reached out and grabbed a cup, – ‘But thanks for the coffee, the one they make here is worse than nothing.’
‘I should’ve brought a pack of cigarettes rather.’
Irwin gave another side smile, nodding to his plastered leg – ‘Having no chance to escape to the resting place – ‘
‘Oh, shit! I’m sorry,’ – Dakin’s sudden embarrassment made him look like fourteen, a fleeting and odd impression.
‘Don’t be. I’m a lucky one, after all.’
Hector’s shadow hung among them, making them silent for a moment.
‘How did it happen? Did he ride too fast?’
‘I don’t remember,’ – Irwin chuckled forcedly, – ‘neither a crash, nor a ride at all.’ – It still stung. Wouldn’t it ever?
‘Walking upon dead ground then?’
Those pauses were charged with Hector and his death so much; Dakin remembered that bloody Wittgentstein’s ‘thereof one must be silent’. Could it only help anyone, to be silent in front of such sort of things?
Irwin glanced away and then said softly – ‘It might be hard to deal with. How are you?’
Concerning, careful – a teacher now. He’s pretty good at that, Dakin thought suddenly, as good as Hector, but different – passionate, challenging, concerning, and still leaving them enough space to grow into their own shape.
‘Posner took it pretty hard. No surprise, I think he was fond of him most of us all,’ – following a comforting habit he’s got into and wasn’t really aware when it happened, Dakin started to tell, as he used to tell Irvin different things last weeks – school news and gossips and secrets, all that little stuff.
He shuddered at the memory of Posner, at the backyard, crying like a child into Scripps’ shoulder. And Scripps himself, and Jimmy, and him – they all stayed there pale and teary–eyed, tied together with helpless shock of loss. He hated feeling that way, helpless. Staying there looking around, Dakin discovered an odd and off–balancing thing: once for a long time he felt uncomfortably detached, and couldn’t help with it – as if a thin glass wall wrapped around and separated him from others.
Was it because his previous actions, because the affairs he messed himself into – about Hector’s return, about Irwin – it all occurred to be in vain now? Or was it a cool wave of realization that he was nearly there himself?
‘I owe you. You sort of saved my life. Am I now to be your vassal?’ – It was always an easiest way, choose a provocation and see where it’ll lead.
‘For Christ’s sake! You owe Felix, if it comes to that. Go make yourself a vassal of him, he’ll find you a proper occupation.’
‘Oh, he could! He’ll shackle me to a lawn–mower till the end of time,’ – now they giggled both like in good old days.
‘So, no walking for a drink for a while?’ – A deliberate reconnaissance, while careful and gentle in tone.
‘Yeah, ‘– Irwin sighed. – ‘And I suppose, for much longer than you might think,’ – a color got into Irwin’s cheeks but he didn’t look away, and his voice was serious and certain.
Back to the start position then. Dakin looked into Irwin’s face, studying, challenging.
‘That’s not about – ‘– They started talking simultaneously and then silenced again starring at each other. There was the look Dakin had seen once before. For the moment, all shields and armors dissolved, now Irwin looked at him straight, and looked so – true? So open, so uncovered and sincere, so terribly young; it seemed he doesn’t need to say anything at all, for all his heart to the very bottom was written upon his face openly and widely.
Though then Irwin continued.
‘It’s somewhat about equality. The way I see it. The way I – want it to be.’
No surprise – and rather honest – and still hurting a bit. Or more than a bit maybe. A breath, and then Dakin heard himself saying – ‘I wonder how it would’ve been like, be it another way’.
Irwin tilted his head, looking above, his flushed face wearing an unrecognizable expression, and replied coarsely – ‘Me too.’
‘Well, when do they discharge you? Are you going to the funeral?’
‘Oh, not likely – ‘
Of course. In all his pious glory, he would not descend to our worldly affairs. Did one expect anything other than that?
‘It’s a bit unfair, don’t you think?’ – Dakin said under his breath, looking down at his hands. Fuck, what the hell is he doing at all? – ‘They need you there. Boys. Posner – ’
I need you there; it was so clear in his mind as if he said it aloud; and it made him furious. To hell all this! Dakin used to think he knew when it’s time to retreat; and at the moment his position surely was of Dunkirk sort. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall never surrender, but now it’s time to fleet out, the sooner the better.
Still he lingered, delaying the moment he should say something easy, and raise his eyes up and meet Irvin’s. He didn’t quite know why it seemed so enormously hard to do.
Then he felt Irvin’s palm squeezing his shoulder; the clasp was cool and firm and somehow soothing upon his arm, as soothing was Irvin’s voice when he said only – ‘I will be there. Surely.’