A bored and lonely teacher on a long summer holiday sets off to see what may have been and instead, stirs up shameful memories and struggles to reconcile with the past.
During the long summer break from teaching, Mcguire remembered a friend whom he could visit: an old high school buddy who had married one of Mcguire’s former lovers. The memory of his affair made his lips twitch with fondness. She had been a piano player. Yes, he told himself, that’s right. Her name evaded him. She had long elegant fingers that could...
He stopped himself and looked around. He was surrounded by families with children who whined incessantly for whatever high tech gadget their parents were using to babble their endless problems into. Summer holidays were brutal for young parents and the air fizzed with supressed impatience for the speedy arrival of autumn so their offspring could return to school. Mcguire rolled his eyes. Was he nothing more than a glorified babysitter?An almighty row was brewing within the family opposite him. Mcguire could almost feel the thinning impatience of the father as the situation approached the inevitable crack across the bare, chubby thighs of the squawking children. He had to get away before he might be called as a witness to some child protection case. He abruptly stood, paid his bill and left. But not before he heard the petulance in the mother’s voice as she said: “Now see what you did? You made that nice teacher leave.”
Mcguire looked at his cell phone, breathing in the fresh air. Surely he could just type his friend’s name into a search engine and find out where he lived. A long weekend in the country might do him some good. He could certainly use the peace and quiet.Not too far above him came the sound of a magpie terrorising the nest of some smaller bird. Looking up, the only sign he could see of the commotion was the violent disturbance of leaves, a few tufts of feathers and tiny bits of broken egg shells beneath his feet.
Adam was his friend’s name. Mcguire had studiously avoided him once he realised he had fallen for Ruth. Ruth! He thought victoriously. That’s her name. She not only fallen for Adam but had plummeted from a high cliff, rolled down a steep ravine and crashed unceremoniously into the abyss. Mcguire chuckled to himself. They had been such an odd pairing: Adam the virgin and Ruth…well, Ruth was something else. More than anything, he was curious about how the story ended up. They had married of course. Had Adam worked out what Ruth was like? Really like? Suddenly he needed to know if Ruth had ever said anything to Adam about their affair. He couldn’t imagine Adam would have married her if she did, so intent was he on marrying a fellow virgin.
As it turned out, it hadn’t been difficult to locate Adam and Ruth at all. They lived in a different state but hell, that didn’t bother Mcguire.
They had four children and Ruth was heavy with a fifth. She moved about their substantial yet modest home with efficiency. His first sight of her was as she licked a spoon clean of the icing she had finished using for the sumptuous chocolate cake that sat on the counter. Her small, pointed little tongue poked and prodded the spoon with such casualness that Mcguire had completely forgotten himself. Then their eyes met. For a few seconds, the two regarded each other with shock. And then recognition washed over them like a plunge into icy waters.
“Hello,” Ruth said, putting the spoon down and turning back to a small pile of dishes. A child of no more than three hid itself behind her legs and peeked at Mcguire shyly.
“Ah hi,” Mcguire answered. His eyes involuntarily moved up from the soles of her bare feet to the crown of her head on which balanced a carefully positioned bun. She still had it going on. Adam must be a happy man.
“Ah,” said Adam as if thinking of a polite way to interrupt Mcguire’s impure thoughts. “Shall we go into the parlour?”
The parlour was a simple room filled with wooden furniture and carefully positioned cushions of muted tones. Mcguire sat down on one of the chairs and shifted to make himself more comfortable. It did little good.
“So it’s good to see you after all these years,” Adam began.
Mcguire nodded, still looking around the room. There was something not quite right about the place but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“I take it you’re teaching?” Adam tried again for conversation.
“That’s right,” Mcguire had found his tongue again. “Music. I do public and private tuition. I can now call myself a senior teacher,” he laughed as if he could hardly believe it himself. He tugged his earlobe as if straining to hear something faint and far off.
“Well, me and Ruth try to be self-sufficient as we can. There’s not a lot of money in itinerant preaching these days but I do get to travel and Ruth. . .of course, she’s busy with the children.”
As if announced, the door to the parlour opened and a teenaged girl entered, followed by a slightly younger brother. They smiled at Mcguire politely.
“These are my eldest,” Adam said proudly. “Kate and Rex.” Each shook Mcguire’s hand. As he shook Kate’s hand, a bolt of recognition shot through him. She was the spitting image of Ruth. And about the same age when he and her mother. . .Even the familiar twinkle of mischievousness in her eyes was there. She looked him straight in the eye as a small smile curled at the corners of her mouth. A quick pinch of his manhood would not have had less of an effect.
Any further impure thoughts were completely quashed by Rex, who had huge hands and feet and promised to be as gangly as his old man. There was no mischievousness behind his eyes, only a faint dullness brought about what Mcguire assumed to be slow wittedness.
They were directed to sit at a table that looked like it belonged out in the back garden. But Kate quickly took a cloth from one of the wooden drawers and covered it, transforming the table into an elegant setting. Mcguire knew what hand embroidered cloth looked like and he resisted the urge the rub the material between his fingers lest he leave smudges.
“Do you like this?” Kate leaned closer to him to ask. There was a slight pong of body odour which Mcguire did not find offensive in the least.
“It’s beautiful,” Mcguire murmured, trying not to notice her developing breasts.
“I made this,” Kate said proudly.
Mcguire did a double take of the fine cloth. It really was exquisite work. He wondered how long it would take to do something like this.
“We only use it for best company,” she said.“In fact, this is the first time we’ve used it.”
He looked back to Kate to see she was smiling openly. Immediately, Mcguire recognised the slightest start of decay on her otherwise perfect teeth. He made a note to talk Adam about this. Perhaps in their busyness, her parents had not realised her oral hygiene was not what it should be. He looked back to the cloth in obvious awe.
“You are clearly very talented,” he said, “Very talented,” he repeated.
“I did the woodwork,” Rex piped up. Again, Mcguire was taken aback by the craftsmanship. He didn’t know much about woodwork but he sure as hell understood the painstaking effort it must have taken the lad to create the intricate designs.
“Wow, you kids. . .”Mcguire could think of nothing else to say. He looked around the room and saw various framed cross stitch samples of various qualities. Suddenly, he got it: these were little projects they must have worked on when they were younger. He got up to have a better look. The frames that surrounded the less complex cross stitch pieces were rustic and at least one of them was slightly wonky. Tears pricked at the backs of his eyes. Hobbies! These children had hobbies, not like the Neanderthals he taught who drooled over the latest (and most expensive) style of trainers and tracksuits. What love and patience Adam and Ruth had shown to their children. He would have to show his pupils when they returned in the autumn. Taking out his mobile phone, he moved quickly from frame to frame taking photos of the art works.
“What’s that?” Kate and Rex asked at the same time. Mcguire shrugged and held it up for them to see.
“Oh I’ve heard of these,” said Kate knowingly as Rex gaped. “You make calls with them.” She turned to Mcguire. “There’s no reception here,” she informed him. “Daddy made sure of it.” She sure had a pretty pout, Mcguire thought.
The door to the parlour opened again and Ruth and Adam entered bearing bowls of food. Rex and Kate quickly set the table and within minutes, Mcguire was surrounded by the whole family. They all bowed their heads as Adam prayed. Overcome, Mcguire could only look from one bowed head to the next—until he looked straight into Kate’s eyes.
The meal was probably the simplest he had ever eaten: mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, boiled onions and a small piece of stringy chicken washed down with ice cold milk. For dessert, he had a large piece of the cake Ruth had been frosting earlier. He slept better than he had ever slept before and as he nodded off, he recognised what was so odd about the family’s parlour: it had no television.
Up early the next morning, the house was eerily quiet. He looked out the bedroom window and saw the two youngest children were tending to the rabbits which he hadn’t noticed before. From far off, he saw Kate and Rex in the garden. There was the faintest smell of fresh bread in the air so he made his way to the parlour again. He pushed open the door and peeked in. Adam and Ruth were kneeling in front of the opened window, praying fervently.
Mcguire hadn’t prayed for years and suddenly became afraid that maybe he had forgotten how. The previous night, he couldn’t even bow his head and close his eyes without gawking at everyone else. He strained to listen. Other than the occasional “Dear Lord” or an approving murmur from Ruth, he could not make out what they were saying. He was about to turn and give up when he bumped straight into Kate who had been standing far too close to him.
“What are you doing?” she asked, trying to look over his shoulder.
He couldn’t just tell her he was trying to eavesdrop on her parents’ conversation with God so he merely shrugged helplessly.
“W-would you like to pray?” she asked shyly. “With me?”
Before he could think it all through, he took her outstretched hand and followed her outside. They walked silently yet amicably through a field and into a shallow wood. She led him to the side of a shallow stream. Above them was a canopy of green leaves and above that the brilliant blue of the sky.
“This is my special place,” Kate informed him. “I only come here when I have something important to ask.” She looked at Mcguire in total solemnness and he involuntarily shivered.
Without another word, she leaned forward and pressed her lips against his as she threw her arms around his neck. He could feel the nubs of her breasts pushing awkwardly against his own chest. For a moment, he was so startled that he opened his mouth to receive her tongue and then he remembered he wasn’t kissing her mother. He untangled himself from her—which was quite a task as she kept trying to put her arms around his neck again. Stepping back away from her, he tripped over a fallen branch and they both fell into the stream. For once in his life, he wished the water had been colder. Instead it had been warmed by the summer sun. She quickly straddled him, surprisingly strong for someone who probably sat around embroidering all day.
“I’m not so innocent,” she said boldly. “I’ve been this far before.”
“Please—“ he said, taking her wrists. Wasn’t this the reason he came out to visit his old friend? To see what kind of trouble he could cause? “Ruth--” he tried to explain. Her mother’s name was out of his mouth before he remembered what year it was.
As suddenly as it happened, it stopped. Kate glared, pushing herself away from him as if he had developed a very bad odour. She stood up, brushed herself off and turned away. Unlike him, she was dry at the back as only her knees had made contact with the water.
He sat up and watched her huff off, guilt and regret throbbing through him. Lifting himself from the shallow waters, he sat on the side of the stream and put his head in his hands, surveying the damage that had been caused.
OK, he thought, that was probably not her first encounter with a man. He wondered who had been her first contact. Some local farmboy? He doubted it. He had no way of knowing for sure but he was fairly certain a young girl so bold could not be a virgin.
Disgusted with himself, he let the tears fall down his face without stopping them. The self-loathing pulsated through him. What the hell was the matter with him? Did he have to ruin everything? Something good and pure comes along and he just has to go and spoil it.
Oh God, Valerie. The thought of her was as appealing as rolling around naked in a field of nettles. Her sweet, innocent face beamed in his memories and then the other thoughts of her pushed against the door of his conscious recollections.
No! His mind shouted at the memories. Do not enter!
He did not want to think of Valerie. Instead he washed his face in stream and then made his way back to his friend’s house.
There was much good natured teasing when he arrived. He regaled the family with the tale of how he slipped into the stream and got his behind wet and stained with mud. There were pancakes for breakfast but he didn’t feel hungry. What he wanted was a drink.
After breakfast, Adam announced that he needed to go into town for some supplies. He waved a short list aloft as if to prove it. He asked if Mcguire would like to come along. Thinking there might be a pub, Mcguire agreed.
“Can we come too?” Kate asked sweetly, not looking at Mcguire.
“Me too?” asked Rex.
“I tell you,” said Adam as he drove, “The biggest mistake I ever made in my life was taking these kids to town when they were little. Used to go in every Saturday for supplies.Spoiled them.Opened their eyes to the materialistic world of consumerism. Now the younger ones—I won’t make that mistake again.”
Mcguire nodded, still thinking of his pint and how he might be able to sneak off on his own. Behind him, Kate and Rex whispered.
Adam parked the car and got out, stretching himself. It had been a long ride.
“I’m going in there,” he said, pointing to a huge warehouse. “I think I’ll be no more than an hour. Why don’t we meet then? You have a look at the town.”
“OK, I just,ah, have a few letters to post and maybe there will be an internet café nearby.” Mcguire’s mouth watered at the thought of a pint.
“Oh we’d better show you where it is,” said Rex craftily.
“No, why don’t you kids come with me,” Adam looked sternly at the children.
“We should just let him keep his own company,” mumbled Kate.
“He might get lost,” Rex argued.
Mcguire didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to insult anyone by saying he wanted to be on his own. He certainly didn’t dare say he was heading to the nearest watering hole.
“No, you come with me,” Adam said firmly.
Mcguire heaved a quiet sigh of relief, bid goodbye and went off to search for a much needed drink.
He was just seeing the bottom of his third pint when the barman nodded towards the window. Mcguire turned and saw the faces of Rex and Kate peering through the window. He smiled, shrugged and finished off his pint. Running his hand through his hair, he set the glass down on the bar and bid bon chance.
“Dad’s just paying up,” said Rex, throwing a disapproving look at the pub.
“I knew exactly where to look for you,” Kate said with disgust.
Mcguire stifled a smile. She looked so much like her mother when she got on her moral high horse.
Valerie, a voice whispered. Not even half crocked, he couldn’t escape her memory.
“So what’s school like?” Rex asked at the dinner table. After a nap and a shower, Mcguire was feeling better about things. After all, he had done nothing to lead the girl on, nothing like it had been with Valerie.
“School? You mean where I live?” He rubbed his forehead as if trying to erase an old memory.
“No I mean school. We don’t go,”
Adam and Ruth exchanged familiar glances. Even Mcguire could recognise a past family argument.
“Our children are home educated,” Ruth said proudly. “We’ve taught them everything they know.”
Beneath the table, Kate kicked Mcguire hard enough to make him wince. He delivered what he hoped was a withering glance in her direction.
“Well, there are a lot of kids in one classroom. Kids your age would move to a different classroom and a different teacher for each lesson. Food is mass prepared and served by grumpy dinner ladies, kids are bullied without mercy and most kids your age would give their right arms to learn how to do embroidery or woodworking.”
“Sounds great,” Rex mumbled.
Ruth gasped suddenly and closed her eyes. For a moment, Mcguire thought it was from the shock of what Rex had said. Then he remembered the baby.
“Kate,” Adam said softly as he kept tender eyes on Ruth, “See your mother to her bed.”
Kate glanced sharply at her father, then locked eyes with Mcguire. There was a hint of pride and a small touch of yearning but more than anything, Mcguire felt she was saying goodbye. She stood to help her mother.
Ruth composed herself. “Do pardon me,” she said to Mcguire in a tone that was over polite yet contained not a shred of embarrassment. “I thought I could hold out for awhile longer. You guys finish your dinner and I’ll go lie down.” With that, she excused herself and left with Kate.
“Ambulance?” Mcguire asked Adam.
“What’s that?” asked Rex.
With a confidence that profoundly moved him, Adam said: “Kate will know what to do.”
Mcguire tossed and turned in bed, listening for any signs of Ruth’s labour. He could hear none.
He thought of her as a young girl, no older than Kate. Laughing, crying in pleasure. Playful, angry and then her face morphed into Valerie’s. The memory of her walked into his consciousness as if it lived there all year ‘round.
As a student teacher, Valerie had been hopeless from the start. It didn’t help that she had a strong French accent that the kids mimicked relentlessly. Nor did it help that she had disclosed her dearest betrothed was a meathead Italian called Massimo whose picture adorned her desk.
“Oooooooo Massimo!” the kids would call out. Valerie was awful with names, her Gallic vowels valiantly struggling not to sound guttural. She frequently burst into tears of frustration or bouts of homesickness. The older women in the school took great pity on her but it did little to change the fact that she didn’t have a chance of qualifying.
Mcguire took her out for drinks. Once. He was supposed to do her final observation the next morning and knew that it was his final chance. He advised her to give it up before the inevitable failure. She wouldn’t . . .because of Massimo. As it turned out, Massimo was a teacher too. They were going to get married and she needed a teaching job so she could afford to help pay for the wedding and for the futures of the children they were going to have together.
Good God, Mcguire had thought, there were easier ways to earn a living.
So he bought her whiskey shots and listened to her hair brained plans, her love for Massimo and her longing to be back in Europe where she wasn’t a foreigner but a member of the European Union. And when he said the best way to cure homesickness would be to pretend he was Massimo, she had drunkenly agreed.
Perhaps it was because she was so inebriated that he watched her face so closely. Her pleasure and eagerness to please him made the ruse painful. And when she opened her eyes to see his disappointing face, the self-loathing was so apparent that for the first time in his life he really believed he had committed a sin so wretched that God would never forgive him.
She was, of course, sorrowfully hung-over the next day. Her bleary eyes kept darting—or perhaps rolling—towards the photo of Massimo on her desk even though she had turned it face down in her shame.
Mcguire threw the covers off and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He launched himself over to the dresser so he could see his reflection in the mirror above it and made himself look into his own eyes.
It is difficult to hate one’s self. You want to be angry at yourself but it is you who looks through the world with your eyes and feels and perceives the way you want things to be. Mcguire didn’t have a clue if Valerie had married her Massimo or if she managed to qualify somewhere else. But he understood the contempt in which he held himself was only a fraction of the contempt Valerie held for herself.
He would not disturb Valerie’s reconciliation with the past as he had done with Ruth. He wouldn’t think of wrecking Massimo’s summer. Mcguire would take leave of these good people, Adam and Ruth and the children, as soon as manners would allow but he would move forward with his life and not look back if he could help it.