‘A Professor On The Lawn’

This story about the melancholy love-life of a sloshed academic was first read, haltingly, by me, at Storytails in London, and then, rather more professionally, by Greg Page for Litro in January 2013 – and then again, and again brilliantly, by Cliff Chapman at Music & Words in Bethnal Green.

There’s something unbearably plangent about windows lit yellow from within and curtains drawn close against the night.

From outside, anyway. From the inside I suppose you’d have to be some sort of soft-furnishings enthusiast to get too choked up about it. I’m outside. I’m sitting cross-legged on the lawn. I’m watching the front door and waiting – as a dog does, in dumb, gormless expectation – for it to open.

Daphne had a point. I probably am a degenerate. She said I was a sot, too – and, wait, a reprobate, a satyr, an ogre – yes, I’m sure Daphne had a point. All those university degrees she’s got – who am I to argue?

“It isn’t as though,” she said, as she paused, one hand on the doorhandle and the other gripping me by the scruff of the neck, “it’s the first time.”

Quite right, Daffs. It’s isn’t at all as though that.

On this occasion I’d been out for a drink (though of course no-one actually means a drink when they say “I’d been out for a drink” – do they? Maybe Daphne does. Maybe everyone does, for all I know. But anyway – I don’t mean just a drink).

This was the Lord Nelson, a pub of the sort they seem to be trying to phase out. Or rather, they’re just letting them die out – they’ll let them die out, and then they won’t build any more. Anyway. We were in the Lord Nelson. And, look, here’s the thing, there was this girl –

Maybe Daphne won’t open the door this time. I might be out here all night. The grass is damp and I am already quite chilled in the fundament.

“You’re a professor?” she said, the girl, this girl in the Lord Nelson. She added: “Wow.”

Wow. That’s actually what she said.

I’m fifty-nine years old, I have two distinct bald-spots, my trousers seem to be baggy around the knees even when they are freshly laundered, and I believe that at least one of my vital organs is, if not quite entirely jiggered, then certainly well along the road to jiggeration. And this wide-eyed, blue-eyed young thing starts saying “wow” at me.

I say young. It would be ungallant of me to say anything else.

She asked me what I was a professor of and I told her English literature, which is perfectly true, and then I think I asked her who her favourite writer was and she named some dreadful ham of a Romantic poet or something similarly insufferable and I –

Well, it’s all rather a blur – it’s all rather indistinct. I believe I started quoting, which is a terrible habit. Waggling my erudition around in public like that.

“You must be so brainy,” the girl said. I remember that. I think – I think – that when she said that she was perched upon my arthritic old knee. I may have – you know – jiggled her a bit. Playfully. I don’t really recall.

The moon tonight is enormous. Oh, I know – it isn’t really enormous, it’s really the same size as it always and immutably is, it only seems to be enormous because it is low in the sky and therefore compares favourably, sizewise, with the earthly furniture of chimneys and treetops and television aerials – but all that notwithstanding, the moon is enormous tonight, and it’s also the same heartbreaking yellow colour as the yellow-lit windows.

“Shall we get a cab? We’ll get a cab.” I don’t remember just how the conversation went or who exactly said exactly what but it must have gone something like that because of course we ended up in a cab, this girl and I.

She kissed me. Do you have any idea what it is like for a man like me, a man with hair in his ears and old man’s hands that shake too much for shaving, to be kissed in the back of a taxicab by a girl, even a girl who isn’t very clever, who might not even be as young as she at first appeared, who is certainly wearing too much perfume and may have drunk too much white wine, even a girl like that, do you have any idea what it is like?

Perhaps you do. No matter. In any event, Daphne peered from the bedroom window at something like eleven-thirty and saw me and the girl dancing a haphazard tango up and down the pavement. The girl was laughing. I was singing. And that just about brings us up to date, I think.

Hedgehog. A hedgehog, here on the lawn. He pauses in his rummaging. He looks at me. I return his flinty gaze.  We are fellow creatures of the midnight garden.

“You just can’t help yourself, can you?” Daphne demanded.

Well. I don’t know about that.

It seems to be the done thing these days to say, no, I’m afraid I can’t help myself. I can’t, I can’t, poor me, poor, piteous me – but my feeling is that I probably could help myself if I were so inclined. It’s just that all too often it transpires that I am not so inclined. Is it my fault that I am not so inclined? Well, this is a Russian doll of a question.

I could wish, I suppose, that Daphne made me happy. She is, after all, not a bad-looking girl. Clever, what’s more: she’s written books and things (whereas all I’ve done is read books and things). I could wish that I were inclined to return home to Daphne and the fireside each evening at six o’clock. I could wish – why not? – to be enthused by soft furnishings.

Whether or not I do wish these things is immaterial – for they are simply not so.

What was it I was singing, out there on the moonlit pavement? Daphne will remember but it probably isn’t the sort of question I ought to be asking her in these uncertain times.

Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain –

I forget the rest. Not much of a tango number, anyway – don’t know what I was thinking. And furthermore it wasn’t even raining.

The hedgehog suddenly bolts. Light! Golden light floods the lawn: the door opens. For a second Daphne is there – I fleetingly see against the yellow hall light the dark, impatient silhouette of her chin, her curled hair, her shoulder, her hand on the doorhandle – and then she’s gone, back inside, back to bed, leaving the door ajar.

Painfully I uncross my legs. Painfully I stand up.  

I don’t know if I can help myself or not but anyway I look up at the enormous yellow moon and then at the unbearable, the intolerable yellow light at the windows. I walk to the door (I negotiate the three doorsteps with only a slight difficulty). I push open the door and lean with one hand on the doorframe and softly call to Daphne upstairs: “I’m sorry.”

Then I quietly close the door and turn around. Back down the three doorsteps. Back across the lawn. Back on to the moonlit pavement. I don’t sing and I don’t dance. I just walk. But it’s a sort of walking that feels rather like singing and rather like dancing.     



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