1997: The Contract
Written 1997; never published.
I hate students. I loathe and detest them. They’re lazy, stupid, ill-mannered, inconsiderate, think they’re important, don’t read, don’t think, don’t take anything seriously, dress like scarecrows, have no respect for people who’ve been a lot worse off than they ever will be. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same. My misfortune is that I earn my living teaching them, so I have to see rather more of them than other people.
I once met a man who spent thirty years of his life working on the assembly line in a car factory, putting the left-hand windscreen wiper on cars. He used to have nightmares of one windscreen wiper after another bearing down on him. I feel pretty much the same about students queuing up for my lectures.
And every year there are more of them. ‘Expansion of opportunity’ the government calls it. Expanded opportunity to make my life a misery. I keep thinking of the little boy in Jude the Obscure who hangs himself and the rest of the kids because they are too many. I wish some of my students would have the decency to do the same.
I teach in what is called a University, though I have great difficulty getting my head round the idea. It used to be a Polytechnic but one morning we woke up and we were a University. They didn’t mend the broken windows or put any fresh paint on the woodwork, just spent thirty thousand pounds on a new flag and sacked six part-time lecturers to pay for it. I could call myself Buddy Holly, but nobody would believe me – and I don’t believe I work in a University.
My job is teaching English Literature – if you can call the stuff I have to teach literature. In my day doing a degree in English meant you studied great writers all the way from Chaucer to Henry James. But that’s a bit hard going for the present generation. So nowadays the syllabuses seem to start with DH Lawrence and end up with people who weren’t born when I started teaching. Lots of women and gays, of course, to make up the numbers, whether or not they could write a proper sentence. I mentioned Lycidas to one of my final-year classes not long ago and someone asked me ‘So what did he write then?’
My great love is Shelley. In fact I spent years working on a book on Shelley’s politics. Shelley was a radical when there really were good causes – people living in terrible poverty and deprivation, not the sort of thing the youngsters moan about nowadays (they think they’re poverty-stricken if they haven’t got a video and a car). But I was spending so much time filling in forms that I hardly ever got the chance to work on it.
If there was one student I loathed more than any other it was Darren Cobb. The very name irritated me – there weren’t any Darrens when I was a boy; we’d have chased a kid off the playground if he’d said his name was Darren. Darren Cobb seemed to sum up everything that irritated me about modern students. He had bright red hair – I don’t mean ginger but dyed pillar-box red and glued up in spikes into what they tell me is called a ‘Mohican’. He didn’t seem to be able to leave home unless he had his ears plugged into a ‘walkman’ playing some monotonous jingle that they tell me is called ‘techno’. If you tried to speak to him in the corridor he couldn’t hear anything you were saying.
I remember the day he walked into my lecture about fifteen minutes late, wearing the walkman, which he unplugged only after he had sat down and made himself comfortable. It was election day; trying to be jocular – if I said what I felt I’d make life impossible – I asked if he’d been held up at the polling station. He almost spat on the floor and said: ‘Vote – if it changed anything they wouldn’t let you do it.’
I almost threw up at that. My grandmother had been a suffragette – one of Sylvia Pankhurst’s lot, the working-class ones. She was in jail, on hunger-strike and forcibly fed. She was still alive when I was a boy, and I remember the glazed look of horror that came into her eyes when she talked about those things. And my father was an election organiser for the Labour Party – spent hours walking the streets on rainy nights canvassing to make sure that people got out to vote. Then an idle little parasite like Darren can say he can’t be bothered voting. People died so that we could have that right.
At the cost of nearly rupturing my neck muscles I restrained myself from engaging in a long political argument, and got on with my job of trying to teach Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus – just about the only text written before 1967 that this lot were going to encounter. I’d been talking for about ten minutes when Darren’s mobile phone rang. Now to be fair to the lad, he did tell his caller that he wasn’t available to talk at the present moment – but he took five minutes to do the explanation.
I’d more or less written off the possibility that Darren might have learnt anything from this particular class; certainly he didn’t seem to be taking anything in. Marlowe might as well have been writing in Greek for what it means to most of our students. But there was a passing reference to alchemy and suddenly Darren wanted an argument.
I have quite a lot of difficulty following the arguments of young people – they don’t seem to have grasped the concept that words fit together to make a sentence. But if I could make anything of what Darren was saying, he was arguing that alchemy was just as true as modern science, and might even be preferable.
At this I did explode. It seemed to me quite intolerable that a young person should actually reject the whole inheritance of scientific thinking and try to revert to some sort of primitive mysticism. So I launched into a defence of modern scientific rationality; I suppose I must have gone on for quite a few minutes, but I did feel strongly about it. When I had finally made my point, Darren just smirked with a trace of insolence in his eyes and said:
‘I never heard of an alchemist who made nuclear weapons.’
Then he turned his head back to his book as though he were bored with the discussion and didn’t want to continue it.
It was nearly a week later that I next encountered Darren. I’d had a particularly bad day, including a very nasty row with my Head of Department. I couldn’t face going home without a drink, so I went into the college bar and sat down on my own with a pint. I was hoping for some peace but Darren appeared from nowhere and sat down opposite me.
‘All right if I join you, Dave’.
This was clearly not a question but an assertion of fact. I know everybody uses Christian names nowadays, so I could not legitimately object to the familiar address, yet I did resent being called ‘Dave’ when I always use the form ‘David’. But I was too tired to remonstrate, so I said nothing.
Darren apparently wanted an academic conversation – something he rarely seemed to aspire to in a seminar. ‘So what do you reckon to this Faustus bloke?’ he asked. ‘Would you do that – sell your soul to the Devil?’
‘I don’t believe in the Devil – or in God – so the question’s nugatory.’ I was pretty sure he didn’t know what the word ‘nugatory’ meant. But whether he did or not, it did not deter him from pursuing his chosen line of questioning.
‘Fair enough, Dave, but just suppose. Suppose you could have all the sex, drugs and rock ’n’roll you want for twenty-four years – and then burn in Hell for eternity. Is it a bargain?’
The whole argument seemed so fanciful I couldn’t be bothered arguing. But Dave decided to answer his own question. ‘I reckon I would. You know, it sounds stupid, because eternity’s a lot more than twenty-four years. But you end up in Hell anyway – and by all accounts Heaven isn’t that entertaining. You could just waste those twenty-four years sitting around doing nothing. At least you could say you’d done something in your life. All that time you were frying, you could remember the sex and drugs and rock ’n’roll bit and think at least I lived while I had the chance.’
I was so startled that one of my students had actually made an imaginative response to a piece of literature that I started to argue back. I even bought him a drink. It was a dangerous precedent – students shouldn’t get the idea that they’re entitled to scrounge drinks off their lecturers. But I was beginning to see that there might be another, more positive side to the wretched Darren.
We went on discussing Doctor Faustus but we didn’t get very far. I suspect it was my fault; when I’m tired I get pretty incoherent after a couple of pints.
It was probably stupid to eat cheese sandwiches on top of the beer. In any case, that night I had one of the most vivid dreams I’ve had for twenty years.
I was walking through a field when I was confronted by the strangest person I had ever met. He was a short fellow, with a limp. He had a moustache, rather like Stalin’s, and a strange stare in his eyes, a bit like Margaret Thatcher on a bad day. There was something funny about the top of his head, and when I looked closer I could see horns beginning to protrude through his tangled hair.
He greeted me with a smile. ‘David’, he said, as though he had known me for years. ‘How nice to see you. I was hoping we might meet. I have a proposition for you. I’d like to buy your soul.’
‘It would be a bad bargain,’ I replied. ‘I don’t have a soul. Just a brain. A tissue of nerve cells inside my skull that will rot along with my body.’
‘All the better,’ he grimaced. ‘What I’m offering will be cheap at the price.’
‘What are you offering?‘
‘What do you want? Sex, drugs and rock ’n’roll?’
I shook my head. I’d never taken drugs, I’d given up on sex when my wife left me, and I hadn’t heard a record I really liked since the Small Faces broke up.
‘All right. How about academic success? Fame and fortune?’
That was a different matter. When I was younger I had been very ambitious. Pressures of family and work had stopped me writing the books I had hoped to make a name with, but the dream had never quite died. I’d only had a couple of rather obscure articles published in academic journals, but just seeing my name in print gave me a physical thrill – almost like sex. To see my books in a bookshop window would make me explode like a firework.
‘Fine,’ I said, ‘if you deliver that you can claim any soul you find.’
The Devil smiled. ‘There are many hells, in this world and the next. For example, you might write a best-seller and then spend years rotting of a painful cancer.’
I grinned back: ‘I’d cheat. Take an overdose of sleeping pills and dream my last dream of the bookshop windows.’
‘There are other torments not so easily despatched,’ he replied. ‘The thrill of success can be tainted with the pain of guilt. What if your success was bought at the price of another person’s death. Suppose you awoke every day to know that you had bought fame and fortune by successfully wishing an innocent person’s destruction. You could never forget. Wouldn’t it all go sour in your mouth?’
‘You’re not much of a salesman.’
‘The contract’s made already. You agreed to my terms. The wages of fame is death – and you must carry the burden of that death.’
He vanished and I awoke, tossing violently in bed so that the sheets fell twisted to the floor.
The next few weeks I spent marking examination scripts. The memory of my nightmare encounter faded into the limbo where bad dreams all go and I thought no more of it. But when the examination season was over, I got out my abandoned manuscript on Shelley. There was a lot more of it than I remembered, and on rereading parts of it I recognised a talent I hadn’t thought I possessed.
I took no holiday that summer, slaved right through the vacation to complete my book. Except it didn’t feel like slavery. I wrote with greater facility than I had done for twenty years. Apt phrases, fully-formed sentences seemed to glide unbidden into my skull. By September I had a finished manuscript: SHELLEY: POET OF THE NEW SOCIETY.
I felt as though I were driving a car that had been blocked for hours in a traffic jam; now I was free on the open highway, pushing the accelerator further and further down. The very first publisher to whom I offered the book accepted with some enthusiasm. The book would be marketed as a paperback, for both an academic and a general audience. My idea that Shelley held clues that illuminated some of the problems of late twentieth-century society excited interest even before publication. One day I was telephoned with a proposal to make a television programme on the themes of my book.
In all this time I had seen no more of Darren Cobb, who had graduated – with a Third Class degree – the previous summer. In fact my newly acquired success left me little time to think of anything beyond the most urgent commitments. But one morning I was sitting in the staff-room when a colleague, Alice Pitt, looked up from her morning paper and said:
‘What a shame about Darren Cobb. Never liked him much, but I’d not have wished that on him.’
In response to my questioning look she passed me the newspaper. I read the headline:
ROAD PROTEST TRAGEDY: DEMONSTRATOR DIES AS TUNNEL COLLAPSES.