“Dakin, may I have a word?”
Dakin hung back as the others filed out. Timms’s “ooooooh” was clearly audible, as was the laughter that followed it and faded up the corridor. Irwin turned to the blackboard and began methodically to clean it. He hated the drying sensation of chalk on his hands, hated the smell of it, but needs must. “What was that about?” he said.
“What was what about, Sir?” Dakin asked from behind him. Irwin didn’t know how close he was, but too close, that was for sure.
“Dakin, really”, he replied, wiping an area that was already perfectly clear.
“Don’t know what you mean, Sir.” There were some moments of silence punctuated only by the swish of the board rubber before Dakin went on, “Oh… when I smiled at you, is that what you mean?”
Irwin replaced the rubber on the ledge of the board and turned, bashing his palms together to remove the offending chalk. “In the middle of the test, yes”, he said, without looking at him.
“It was just a smile, Sir.”
“It was a little more than that, and you should have been paying attention.”
“I was paying attention...and so were you. You were paying a lot of attention.”
It was true—he had been paying a little too much attention. He’d been watching the room, scanning the bowed heads but always, always, landing back on Dakin—there was little else of interest to do. Dakin’s head had not been bowed. He was leaning back in his seat, staring at the paper, and twirling his pen endlessly, irritatingly, around his fingers. Dakin looked up and stared straight at him as he glared at the restless hand. Dakin looked at his hand and back at Irwin and back at his hand, then lifted the pen thoughtfully to his mouth. They locked eyes, and Dakin gave him a sweet smile before resting the pen against the full, wet swell of his lower lip and touching his tongue to the tip of it. It sent a jolt through Irwin he hadn’t expected and didn’t want, blood rushing to his face, to his groin, everywhere—he was glad to be hidden by his desk. He looked away, and Dakin didn’t. He’d lost. Damn, that boy needed to learn some respect.
“It’s my job to pay attention”, he said. “I’m the invigilator.”
Dakin leaned in—fingertips splayed on the desk. He said, “You were doing an excellent job, then. Very...vigilant. And I was just having a think, and there you were and... you were an inspiration. Don’t you like my smiling at you, Sir? I won’t do it again if you don’t like it.”
“An inspiration?” Irwin asked, ineffectually shuffling some papers. His field of vision was restricted to Dakin’s fingers and the pressure pushing the blood away from their whitening tips.
“Oh, yes, Sir”, said Dakin. “You’re my muse.”
“Don’t take the piss, Dakin.”
“I mean it, Sir.”
Irwin sat down and looked up at him. He said, “Which muse would I be then, seeing as they were all women?” And here, this is where he knew he’d lost—again. He should have dismissed him, told him to leave and to mind his manners in future. But no, he was inviting more. He wanted it. He hated himself for letting it show.
“So they were”, said Dakin, pulling up a chair and turning it to sit backwards and hug the backrest—a stance at once open and shielded. Irwin laughed inwardly and named him a walking cliché, but he kept quiet and awarded himself a point.
Dakin said, “You’d be Klio—Muse of history. I couldn’t think what to write and then I caught your eye and, well, inspiration struck. But no, not Klio, it’s not quite right, is it? She was mother of Hyacinth, you know, lover of Apollo”. He paused. “Male lover, that is, despite the flowery name—the flower being named for the boy and not the other way about.”
“Indeed”, said Irwin. This was intended to convey he knew that—obviously. But he did not know that. “Are you particularly interested in mythology, then?” he asked.
Dakin said, “Boys have passions, don’t they, when they’re young, areas of intense interest? Before they move on to… other things. It’s odd, but it seems to me there are three reoccurring themes: Dinosaurs, Outer Space, and Mythology.”
“And you had a passion for the Greeks?”
“And the Romans, I wouldn’t want to discriminate. Never quite got into the Norse gods though–too cold, too... covered up... too dour. What was it for you, Sir, as a boy? I don’t see you as a palaeontologist. Pre-history not your thing? No, my bet’s on the cosmos, and the infinite mysteries of time and space. You’ll have been about ten around the time of the moon landings, won’t you?”
“I was a babe in arms.”
Irwin rolled his eyes. “You were four, Dakin”, he said.
“Was it that then, that fuelled a desire to know what lies beyond? A leap into the unknown? Did Neil Armstrong set your young heart a-flutter?” Dakin sighed and rested his cheek on his fist. Then, he said, “Imagine that, Sir, being the first man on a virgin satellite”.
Irwin laughed—the gall of the boy was breathtaking. He said, “I have no idea how you’ve sucked me down this hole, Dakin. You’ve missed a vocation of some kind. Professional Nosy Parker, probably”.
Dakin feigned affront. “I’m just interested, Sir. I’m Interested in people”. He stopped and raked Irwin with his sleepy expression and slow grin. “I’m interested in you”, he said.
Irwin was sure Dakin’s interest in people was Machiavellian. But Dakin’s interest in him? Who could say? It swung violently between desperate attention-seeking and mockery, bordering on cruelty—each one an overcompensation for the other. It gave him that queasy, back of the school bus feeling. “I’m not interesting”, he said.
“I beg to differ. I think you’re very interesting.”
“Let’s say it’s not my job to be interesting, then.”
“Yes, it is. That’s exactly your job—making all this dust-dry stuff interesting. You’re very good at it.”
“But it’s not my job to be of personal interest… Oh, good God. Alright, yes then, Outer Space—as a boy.”
“Knew it. Infinity and all that. But back to the mythology. It’s a funny thing that it’s not more frowned upon, what with it being so full of the forbidden. I’m amazed little boys are allowed to read it, it’s quite racy. Apollo and Hyacinth, for instance. Very romantic. Tragic.”
“I know you want me to ask, but what’s the point; you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“No, no, not if you don’t want me to. I can go.” Dakin stood up, straddling the chair but not stepping away from it. Instead, he said, “I probably should anyway, I’m late for... wherever I’m meant to be next. And we wouldn’t want gossip, would we?” He paused as though waiting for instructions before saying, “Do you want me to go, Sir?”
Irwin didn’t answer.
Irwin knew the answer—the correct answer—was, yes, you should go. But he said, “No... sit down… please. I’ve forgotten why I asked you to stay in the first place... but—”
“—What if I get in trouble though?”
“I’ll say it was my fault. It is my fault.”
Dakin smiled and sat back down, “Shall I tell you the romantic and tragic story of Apollo and Hyacinth then?” he said.
“Yes. I’d like to know it.”
“Okay”, Dakin began. “So, Hyacinth was a beautiful youth who Apollo loved. Everyone loved him, he was sex on stilts. And there was this other mortal boy called Thamyris, who adored him and who was a brilliant singer—he thought he was better than all the muses, and he said so. But Apollo wanted rid of Thamyris because he wanted Hyacinth all to himself, so he told the muses that Thamyris was disrespecting them and they gouged out his eyes and robbed him of his musical talent. Seems a bit much, don’t you think?”
Irwin smiled. “A slight overreaction”, he agreed. He thought how boyish Dakin looked telling this tale, how suddenly without pretension or arrogance he was, his eyes following his hands as he waved them around to pluck images from the air. He couldn’t help but be charmed by it.
Dakin went on, “But for some reason, despite Apollo being a bit of a git, Hyacinth chose him above all his admirers and they became lovers. Apollo taught him all kinds of things, music, archery... prophesy. Anyway, one day, they’re playing a stirring game of discus—running about all youthful and lusty and full of vigour—that kind of thing, and Apollo chucks the discus into the clouds for Hyacinth to catch. Hyacinth dives after it because he’s trying to impress Apollo, but unbeknownst—”
“—Unbeknownst?” Irwin laughed. “Wow—”
“— Yes, unbeknownst”. Dakin tutted. “Pay attention”, he said.
“Sorry. Go on.” He knew he really shouldn’t let Dakin speak to him that way.
“Unbeknownst”, said Dakin, pointedly, “Up in the clouds was Zephyr, god of the West wind, who was also in love with Hyacinth and eaten up with jealousy. So, in a fit of pique, Zephyr blows hard on the discus, wallops poor old Hyacinth in the head with it and he dies in Apollo’s grief-stricken arms. Apollo is distraught because he can’t heal his lover and a hyacinth grows from the drops of blood that fall from the boy’s forehead.”
“Hmmm, tragic and romantic, as you say. Is that where it ends?”
“Well, some versions have Apollo rescuing the boy from his fate and resurrecting him to immortality. But I’m not sure how I feel about all that happy ever after stuff. Tragic and romantic. And shocking. Shocking now, but not shocking then. It doesn’t necessarily move in a straight line does it, things we’re shocked by… social mores?”
“No. History is rarely strictly linear, it moves inexorably forward, certainly, but it does tend to loop back on itself as it goes. It feels as though now is how it’s always been, the natural order of things, but we’re a mere blip. Do you know, we’re closer in time to the T-rex than the T-rex was to the Stegosaurus?”
“Really, Sir? Dinosaurs? I thought you were a Cosmos Boy.”
Irwin grinned. “I have eclectic tastes, Dakin”, he said.
Dakin grinned back. He said, “We’re Renaissance men, you and me.”
And there it was, solid ground, a sense of solidarity and joint endeavour. Equilibrium. “Right”, said Irwin, feeling now was the time to quit—when the bus had stopped lurching from side to side, and the nausea was passing. “Enough of this nonsense”, he said. “Fuck off to wherever you’re meant to be.”
Dakin laughed and stood up, “Sir, I’m shocked!” he said.
“No, you’re not.”
“No, you’re right, I’m not”, said Dakin, returning the chair to its proper place and making to leave.
“Dakin?” said Irwin.
“In future, concentrate on the job in hand.”
“I was”, said Dakin. “I always am, Sir.”