Read A Single Man Online

Authors: Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man (6 page)

So now, leaving Dreyer, George goes into the office. It is right across the hallway. Gottlieb isn’t there, for a wonder. George peeps out of the window, between the slats of the venetian blinds, and sees, in the far distance, the two tennis players still at their game. He coughs, fingers the telephone directory without looking at it, closes the empty drawer in his desk, which has been pulled open a little. Then, abruptly, he turns, takes his briefcase out of the closet, leaves the office and crosses to the front classroom door.

His entrance is quite undramatic, according to conventional standards. Nevertheless, this is a subtly contrived, outrageously theatrical effect. No hush falls as George walks in. Most of the students go right on talking. But they are all watching him, waiting for him to give some sign, no matter how slight, that the class is to begin. The effect is a subtle but gradually increasing tension, caused by George’s teasing refusal to give this sign and the students’ counter-determination not to stop talking until he gives it.

Meanwhile, he stands there. Slowly, deliberately, like a magician, he takes a single book out of his briefcase and places it on the reading-desk. As he does this, his eyes move over the faces of the class. His lips curve in a faint but bold smile. Some of them smile back at him. George finds this frank confrontation extraordinarily exhilarating. He draws strength from these smiles, these bright young eyes. For him, this is one of the peak moments of the day. He feels brilliant, vital, challenging, slightly mysterious and, above all,
foreign
. His neat dark clothes, his white dress shirt and tie (the only tie in the room) are uncompromisingly alien from the aggressively virile informality of the young male students. Most of these wear sneakers and garterless white wool socks; jeans in cold weather and in warm weather shorts (the thigh-clinging Bermuda type; the more becoming short ones aren’t considered quite decent). If it is really warm, they’ll roll up their sleeves and sometimes leave their shirts provocatively unbuttoned to show curly chest-hair and a Christopher medal. They look as if they were ready at any minute to switch from studying to ditch-digging or gang-fighting. They seem like mere clumsy kids in contrast with the girls; for these have all outgrown their teenage phase of Capri pants, sloppy shirts and giant heads of teased-up hair. They are mature women, and they come to class dressed as if for a highly respectable party.

This morning, George notes that all of his front-row regulars are present. Dreyer and Kugelman are the only ones he has actually asked to help fill the gap by sitting there; the rest of them have their individual reasons for doing so. While George is teaching, Dreyer watches him
with an encouraging alertness; but George knows that Dreyer isn’t really impressed by him. To Dreyer, George will always remain an academic amateur; his degrees and background are British and therefore dubious. Still, George is the Skipper, the Old Man; and Dreyer, by supporting his authority, supports the structure of values up which he himself proposes to climb. So he wills George to be brilliant and impress the outsiders – that is to say, everyone else in the class. The funny thing is that Dreyer, with the clear conscience of absolute loyalty, feels free to whisper to Kugelman,
his
lieutenant, as often as he wants to. Whenever this happens, George longs to stop talking and listen to what they are saying about him. Instinctively, George is sure that Dreyer would never dream of talking about anyone else during class;
that
would be bad manners.

Sister Maria belongs to a teaching Order. Soon she’ll get her credential and become a teacher herself. She is, no doubt, a fairly normal and unimaginative hardworking good young woman; and no doubt she sits up front because it helps her concentrate, maybe even because the boys still interest her a little and she wants to avoid looking at them. But we most of us lose our sense of proportion in the presence of a nun; and George, thus exposed at short range to this bride of Christ in her uncompromising medieval habit, finds himself becoming flustered, defensive. An unwilling conscript in Hell’s legions, he faces the soldier of Heaven across the frontline of an exceedingly polite cold war. In every sentence he addresses to her, he calls her ‘Sister’; which is probably just what she doesn’t want.

Mr Stoessel sits in the front row because he is deaf and
middle-aged and only lately arrived from Europe and his English is terrible.

Mrs Netta Torres is also middle-aged. She seems to be taking this course out of mere curiosity, or to fill in idle hours. She has the look of a divorcee. She sits up front because her interest is centred frankly and brutally on George as George. She watches rather than listens to him. She even seems to be ‘reading’ his words indirectly, through a sort of braille made up of his gestures, inflections, mannerisms. And this almost tactile scrutiny is accompanied by a motherly smile; for, to Mrs Torres, George is just a small boy really, and so cute. George would love to catch her out and discourage her from attending his class by giving her low grades. But, alas, he can’t. Mrs Torres is listening as well as watching; she can repeat what he has been saying, word for word.

Kenny Potter sits in the front row because he’s what’s nowadays called crazy, meaning only that he tends to do the opposite of what most people do; not on principle, however, and certainly not out of aggressiveness. Probably he’s too vague to notice the manners and customs of the tribe, and too lazy to follow them, anyway. He is a tall skinny boy with very broad stooped shoulders, gold-red hair, a small head, small bright blue eyes. He would be conventionally handsome if he didn’t have a beaky nose; but it is a nice one, a large humorous organ.

George finds himself almost continuously aware of Kenny’s presence in the room; but this doesn’t mean that he regards Kenny as an ally. Oh, no – he can never venture to take Kenny for granted. Sometimes, when George makes a joke and Kenny laughs his deep rather
wild laugh, George feels he is being laughed with. At other times, when the laugh comes a fraction of a moment late, George gets a spooky impression that Kenny is laughing not at the joke but at the whole situation; the educational system of this country, and all the economic and political and psychological forces which have brought them into this classroom together. At such times, George suspects Kenny of understanding the innermost meaning of life; of being, in fact, some sort of a genius. (Though you would certainly never guess this from his term papers.) And then again, maybe Kenny is just very young for his age, and misleadingly charming, and silly.

Lois Yamaguchi sits beside Kenny because she is his girl friend; at least, they are nearly always together. She smiles at George in a way which makes him wonder if she and Kenny have private jokes about him; but who can be sure of anything with these enigmatic Asians? Alexander Mong smiles enigmatically, too; though his beautiful head almost certainly contains nothing but clotted oil paint. Lois and Alexander are by far the most beautiful creatures in the class; their beauty is like the beauty of plants, seemingly untroubled by vanity, anxiety or effort.

All this while, the tension has been mounting. George has continued to smile at the talkers and to preserve his wonderful provocative melodramatic silence. And now, at last, after nearly four whole minutes, his silence has conquered them. The talking dies down. Those who have already stopped talking shush the others. George has triumphed. But his triumph lasts only for a moment. For now he must break his own spell. Now he must cast off his mysteriousness and stand revealed as that dime-a-44
dozen thing, a teacher – to whom the class has got to listen, no matter whether he drools or stammers or speaks with the tongue of an angel – that’s neither here nor there. The class has got to listen to George because, by virtue of the powers vested in him by the State of California, he can make them submit to and study even his crassest prejudices, his most irresponsible caprices, as so many valuable clues to the problem: How can I impress, flatter or otherwise con this cantankerous old thing into giving me a good grade?

Yes, alas, now he must spoil everything. Now he must speak.

‘After many a summer
dies
the swan.’

George rolls the words off his tongue with such hammy harmonics, such shameless relish, that this sounds like a parody of W. B. Yeats reciting. (He comes down on
dies
with a great thump to compensate for the
And
which Aldous Huxley has chopped off from the beginning of the original line.) Then, having managed to startle or embarrass at least a few of them, he looks around the room with an ironical grin and says quietly, schoolmasterishly, ‘I take it you’ve all read the Huxley novel by this time, seeing that I asked you to more than three weeks ago?’

Out of the corner of his eye, he notices Buddy Sorensen’s evident dismay, which is not unexpected, and Estelle Oxford’s indignant
now
-they-tell-me shrug of the shoulders, which is more serious. Estelle is one of his brightest students. Just because she is bright, she is more conscious of being a Negro, apparently, than the other
coloured students in the class are; in fact, she is hypersensitive. George suspects her of suspecting him of all kinds of subtle discrimination. Probably she wasn’t in the room when he told them to read the novel. Damn, he should have noticed that and told her later. He is a bit intimidated by her. Also he likes her and is sorry. Also he resents the way she makes him feel.

‘Oh well,’ he says, as nicely as he can, ‘if any of you haven’t read it yet, that’s not too important. Just listen to what’s said this morning, and then you can read it and see if you agree or disagree.’

He looks at Estelle and smiles. She smiles back. So, this time, it’s going to be all right.

‘The title is, of course, a quotation from Tennyson’s poem
Tithonus
. And, by the way, while we’re on the subject – who
was
Tithonus?’

Silence. He looks from face to face. Nobody knows. Even Dreyer doesn’t know. And, Christ, how typical this is! Tithonus doesn’t concern them because he’s at two removes from their subject. Huxley, Tennyson, Tithonus. They’re prepared to go as far as Tennyson, but not one step farther. There their curiosity ends. Because, basically,
they don’t give a shit
——

‘You
seriously
mean to tell me that none of you know who Tithonus was? That none of you could be bothered to find out? Well, then, I advise you
all
to spend part of your weekend reading Graves’s
Greek Myths
,
and
the poem itself. I must say, I don’t see how anyone can pretend to be interested in a novel when he doesn’t even stop to ask himself what its title means.’

This spurt of ill-temper dismays George as soon as he has discharged it. Oh dear, he
is
getting nasty! And the
worst is, he never knows when he’s going to behave like this. He has no time to check himself. Shamefaced, now, and avoiding all their eyes – Kenny Potter’s particularly – he fastens his gaze high up on the wall opposite.

‘Well, to begin at the beginning, Aphrodite once caught her lover Ares in bed with Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. (You’d better look them
all
up, while you’re about it.) Aphrodite was furious, of course, so she cursed Eos with a craze for handsome mortal boys – to teach her to leave other people’s gods alone.’ (George gets a giggle on this line from someone and is relieved; he has feared they would be offended by their scolding and sulk.) Not lowering his eyes yet, he continues, with a grin sounding in his voice. ‘Eos was terribly embarrassed, but she found she just couldn’t control herself, so she started kidnapping and seducing boys from the earth. Tithonus was one of them. As a matter of fact, she took his brother Ganymede along too – for company —’ (Louder giggles, from several parts of the room, this time.) ‘Unfortunately, Zeus saw Ganymede and fell madly in love with him.’ (If Sister Maria is shocked, that’s just too bad. George doesn’t look at her, however, but at Wally Bryant – about whom he couldn’t be more certain – and sure enough Wally is wriggling with delight.) ‘So, knowing that she’d have to give up Ganymede anyway, Eos asked Zeus, wouldn’t he, in exchange, make Tithonus immortal? So Zeus said, of course, why not? And he did it. But Eos was so stupid, she forgot to ask him to give Tithonus eternal youth, as well. Incidentally, that could quite easily have been arranged; Selene, the Moon goddess, fixed it up for her boy friend Endymion. The only trouble there was that Selene didn’t care to do anything but kiss, whereas
Endymion had other ideas; so she put him into an eternal sleep to keep him quiet. And it’s not much fun being beautiful for ever and ever, when you can’t even wake up and look at yourself in a mirror.’ (Nearly everybody is smiling, now – yes, even Sister Maria. George beams at them. He does so hate unpleasantness.) ‘Where was I? Oh yes – so poor Tithonus gradually became a repulsively immortal old man —’ (Loud laughter.) ‘And Eos, with the characteristic heartlessness of a goddess, got bored with him and locked him up. And he got more and more gaga, and his voice got shriller and shriller, until suddenly one day he turned into a cicada.’

This is a miserably weak pay-off. George hasn’t expected it to work, and it doesn’t. Mr Stoessel is quite frantic with uncomprehension and appeals to Dreyer in desperate whispers. Dreyer whispers back explanations, which cause further misunderstandings. Mr Stoessel gets it at last and exclaims, ‘Ach
so
– eine
Zikade
!’ in a reproachful tone which implies that it’s George and the entire Anglo-American world who have been mispronouncing the word. But by now George has started up again; and with a change of attitude. He’s no longer wooing them, entertaining them; he’s telling them, briskly, authoritatively. It is the voice of a judge, summing up and charging the jury.

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