Well before the sun went down on that first day of the new academic year, Michael knew that he was in big, big trouble. He’d just completed the induction for twenty one first-year A-level drama students – a mixed bunch, but largely carbon copies of the previous year’s intake and the one before that, but this time with one single, overwhelming exception – Maia Mary Montgomery.
From the moment the girl had walked into the studio a few minutes before nine that morning, Michael had found himself transfixed, quite unable to drag his attention away from her for more than a moment at a time.
She was straight out of an impossible dream – five foot eight inches tall, with shoulder length, tightly curled auburn hair, huge green eyes, a figure to die for, and a smile that had demolished his entire being the first time she’d directed it his way.
Maia Mary, a sixteen-year-old student and her forty three-year-old tutor.
At six o’clock that evening, seated at his desk with nineteen uncompleted student profiles to his left and one completed file to his right, Maia’s lay open in front of him. He’d been through the pile twice already and completed just the one, that of a grossly overweight lad who shouldn’t have been on the course anyway.
Michael’s trouble was that, try as he might, he couldn’t remember a single thing about any of the other students. Each time he tried to conjure up a face, all he could see was Maia’s earth moving smile.
He shook his head for the twentieth time to try to clear her image from his mind and, for the twentieth time, failed. He could hear her laughter too, echoing across all the other sounds from the day. By then his mouth was dry, his heart pounding and his palms damp. Why me? he asked himself, and why now? Just when I’m beginning to get my life together again.
“For Christ’s sake, get a grip, Michael Stevens,” he shouted, “You’re a professional!”
Of course, there had always been gorgeous girls, some provocatively so, with endless legs, figures to die for and clothing and attitudes that left little to the imagination. They were an occupational hazard. But up until that day, he had always coped. They were good to look at and fun to work with, natural actresses mostly, regardless of academic achievement or application.
But Maia was different.
The sterile words at the top of the profile sheet indicating her name, age, sex, address, form tutor, next of kin – just her mother’s name for some reason – and contact telephone number represented the sum total of all he knew about Maia, except for the simple fact that, if he wasn’t already hopelessly in love with her, he soon would be.
Nothing in his entire life had ever felt so certain, so inevitable. He shivered at the thought and slammed his hand on the desk. “It can’t happen!” he shouted again, “It mustn’t happen. Look at yourself, you’re middle aged for heaven’s sake!”
But then, as he calmed down a little, he thought, Ah, but would it be so wrong? Surely it happens all the time. It isn’t as if I’m not attractive, if a little battered around the edges.
The very process of asking himself the question proved terrifying enough to take all the moisture from his mouth, it was as if he was already attempting to justify the unthinkable.
He gave up trying to complete the profiles that evening and, leaving the unfinished pile and the two single pieces of paper on his desk, he turned off the lights, locked his office and headed for home.
Michael let himself into the small but comfortable flat over the florist’s in the High Street, the place he had called home ever since his wife had died five years previously, the house they had shared too full of memories to bear.
He walked through into the kitchen where his current live-in girlfriend, Anne, an infant teacher, was standing at the sink, rinsing vegetables. She had her back to him and didn’t look round as he came up behind her.
“Hi, babe,” he said, kissing the back of her head. “How are things?”
He knew what was coming before she said a word, there was something about her hunched shoulders and the lack of any reaction to his kiss.
“Bloody place! Bloody children! Bloody job! I don’t know why I put up with it. It’s not as if the pay’s any bloody good, and you never get any thanks. And as for the blasted parents…”
And so it went, on and on. The usual litany of crises, problems and drawbacks. There was nothing about challenges or opportunities, just bad stuff. We’ve just had a long, relaxing summer holiday, he thought, and yet here she is, back in moan mode after just one day.
As her barely heard words rattled past his head, Michael couldn’t prevent himself thinking back to the wave of unbridled enthusiasm and hope that had washed over him that morning as he had outlined the term ahead to his new group. Then, with a guilty shock, he remembered where most of the wave had originated, a beautiful student with laughing eyes.
He shrugged his half-removed coat back on, told Anne to grow up and get a life, that he was going to the pub, and slammed the door behind him as he left.
The usual warm welcome at the Coach and Horses failed to lighten his mood. Four pints of Becks and a steak sandwich didn’t help much either. As he sat alone in a corner, he wondered what has really happened today? Just thirteen hours ago, everything was fine, well, mostly fine.
He and Anne had rattled through their usual morning ritual; getting up, showering, dressing, throwing coffee and toast down their faces and kissing briefly before heading off to their respective schools for the start of another term’s work. OK, so it wasn’t the most exciting life in the world, but it was comfortable and safe.
But now, he thought, instead of sitting in front of the TV, full of dinner and a half bottle of wine, chewing over the day like they had every evening for the last nine months, there he was, sitting in a pub on his own, facing the end of a relationship and, quite probably, his entire career. “God,” he muttered, “The things we do for love.”
A couple on the next table looked round. He raised his glass and gave them a four pints grin, “Sorry. Just thinking up words for a song. Cheers.”
Sleep on it. Everything’ll be different tomorrow. After all, nothing’s actually happened and all I’ve got to do is see that it stays that way. The words rolled around his head like a mantra as he hurried the cold half-mile back to the flat.
There was no sign of a light and Michael was relieved that he might avoid a confrontation if he could get into bed without disturbing Anne.
Put it off. Deal with everything tomorrow.
The anticipated confrontation never occurred simply because there was no Anne. A note on the kitchen table said: Gone to stay with mother. Just that. Not a word about when, or even if she was coming back.
Michael climbed wearily into the cold, empty bed and set the alarm.
It’s already Tuesday morning. Another day. Everything will be different. Everything will be OK.
The minute he closed his eyes, Maia’s face smiled warmly at him from the darkness and he knew, with a dread certainty, that everything would definitely not be OK in the morning.
In fact, things developed faster and in a more intense manner than he could have imagined. Maia turned out to be a consummate actress and quickly assumed the role of unofficial leader of the group, consequently spending more time closer to Michael than he could possibly have wished for. And then there were the smiles and the gestures; her hand on his arm, her support in an argument – so much but so little, and all dependent on his interpretation, his reading of what might, or might not, be passing between them.
After just two short weeks, during which time Anne had arrived back at the flat, sparked off a terminal row, packed and left for good, Michael stopped pretending. He was completely and utterly in love with a sixteen-year-old student and it was only a matter of time before he made some horrible mistake and the rest of the world found out. And that, as they say, would be that.
He was already a partial pariah at school, a maverick subversive who’s freely acknowledged aim in life was to shock as many people as possible out of their middle class bourgeois ruts. But, whereas such a challenging attitude connected well with students, it had never been warmly received by his colleagues or the board of governors. No, it would only take a whiff of impropriety and he’d be out on his neck with very little chance of earning his living as a teacher ever again. But even such an apocalyptic threat wasn’t enough to dull his new found love. He worked with Maia whenever he could, handing her all the plum roles and only just stopping himself one sunny Friday afternoon from demonstrating a stage kiss between two of Shakespeare’s best known star crossed lovers.
Even though his working days were more stressful than usual because of the necessity to keep his emotions under tight control, the intensity of human contact was sorely missed when he walked into an empty flat every evening. The weekends were even worse.
The flat was particularly empty since he had become its sole occupant, the small circle of friends he and Anne had enjoyed whilst they were an item now effectively closed to him. He’d only come across one couple since Anne had left and it was brutally obvious whose side they had taken. Jesus, he thought to himself, there’s nothing like the breakdown of a relationship to sort out your real friends from the rest. And, God forbid, the last thing he wanted was to bump into Anne herself, certain that his guilt would be completely transparent to someone with whom he had shared a bed for even such a short time.
After six long weeks, the loneliness at last got the better of him and one miserable October Friday evening, instead of going straight home he found himself propping up the bar in the most popular student pub in town.
Everything was fine for the first hour; one or two other members of staff who had dropped in for a quickie on their way home made polite conversation before moving on. But then, just as he had decided to call it a night, eight of his drama students burst in, Maia amongst them. Perched on his bar stool, alone at the bar, he stuck out like a sore thumb and the group could hardly miss him. After a token hesitation, they crowded around him, all talking at once.
Individuals greeted him with varying degrees of enthusiasm and, without thinking it through, he slapped two £20 notes onto the bar to pay for a round. Four rounds later, after a migration to a dark and intimate booth towards the back of the pub, he found himself crammed into a corner with an over-exuberant Liverpudlian called Simon to one side and Maia on the other, pressed hard up against his side and making no effort to put any space between them. And she was laughing with the rest of them at the string of theatrical anecdotes that dropped effortlessly into the conversation, remembered with ease from eighteen years of teaching.
Naturally, as time went on, the conversation splintered into a number of individual arguments and animated discussions. Gradually people began to move on, either headed home or to another pub until, before he even realised it was happening, Mike was alone with Maia, still sitting close up against him, obviously with no intention of going anywhere.
“So,” she said with a level of confidence that belied her sixteen years, “How come you’re on your own this evening, Mike?”
Her voice was soft as smoke and deep with hidden meaning and promise. Or so he liked to think.
Ingenuous with drink, and thinking what the hell, he told her the whole story. Not just about Anne’s abrupt departure, but about the long, slow nightmare of his wife’s death from cancer, the ending of the dream that their marriage had been and the dashing of all the hopes and plans they’d made for the future.
Maia and he talked about tragedy then, both on and off the stage.
When last orders were called Michael went to fetch a couple more drinks. Making his way back to the booth, he saw Maia searching for him, smiling when she saw him and shifting to give him room beside her.
They toasted each other. Happiness and resolution. Michael hadn’t felt so happy in years. He hadn’t ever felt so afraid either.
Dare he even consider inviting Maia back to his flat? Or was he just too damned drunk to do anything rational. Was this where it all began or ended? Did she feel the same about him? Would she laugh or scream if he even dared to suggest anything?
He felt dizzy and disoriented, and couldn’t tell whether it was as a result of the alcohol or the blizzard of emotions inside his head.
With their empty glasses collected and having received a frosty parting look from one of the bar staff, they headed for the door and whatever resolution awaited them.
Out on the bitterly cold street, Maia pulled her puffa jacket close around her shoulders, while Michael just stood and shivered. For a second or two they just stared at each other, the space between them alive with promise and invitation, at least it was so to Michael.
As soon as it became obvious that she wasn’t going to walk away into the night, he took a deep breath and prepared to throw his life and his career away on an invitation to his flat. But before he could make a sound, Maia said, ‘Would you like to come back to our place?’ in that same seductive voice she’d used earlier in the bar.
Michael was speechless for a moment. She had said our place, but he’d missed that. He hesitated so long that Maia reached out, took his hand and started tugging him gently along the street.
Michael had done most of the talking in the pub, answering all Maia’s questions and more, relieved to pour out his heart and soul to his love. But as they walked, Maia took over, speaking quietly and calmly, telling him things he could hardly believe. How she had watched his loneliness, how she had seen it played out through the drama he taught the group. How even his comedic work had made her cry herself to sleep at night. She had seen his vulnerability, felt his pain and wanted to share it with him. She told him that she wanted to help him to move on.
“I don’t want you to worry,” she said, “I understand exactly what you’re going through. And it doesn’t matter a bit that I’m your student.”
She squeezed his hand to emphasise her words and to amplify her concern. “Everything will be all right. Just you wait and see.”
Some fifteen minutes later, they came to a set of steps leading to the richly polished front door of an elegant Edwardian town house. At the top of the steps, as Maia reached into her bag for a key, she turned and said, “My father died five years ago. I loved him so much that I found it impossible to imagine any kind of future without him.”
Michael nearly ran then, too overwhelmed by the intimacy of Maia’s words and the deliciously dreadful inevitability of what lay on the other side of that door. All too aware of what would happen if he crossed that threshold, at that very moment he questioned whether he could live with the consequences. But before he could react to the thought, the door was open and Maia pulled him through into a bright, warm, gently perfumed interior.
As the door closed behind him, Michael allowed himself to be led into a cosy fire lit sitting room with big, cushion strewn sofas and quiet enveloping music – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – he was astonished that he recognised the piece considering the state he was in.
As Maia brought him towards the fire, Michael realised they weren’t alone in the room. Curled up in the corner of a sofa, her legs tucked up under her, was an older version of Maia, with longer hair and with sadness and laughter etched into her face. She smiled up at them both and Michael recognised the same green eyes and heart melting smile that had haunted him for so long.
The woman stood, held out her hand and gestured for him to sit directly in front of the fire.
“You must be Michael. Maia has told me so much about you. You look frozen. Maia dear, pour Michael a brandy to warm him up. Have you eaten? There’s some freshly made lasagne in the fridge. I’ll heat some. You both look as if you could do with it.”
As the most attractive woman Michael had ever seen in his life left the room, he leaned back against the cushions and let the warmth curl itself around him. In the blink of an eye, all the guilt and panic slipped from his shoulders to be replaced by an overwhelming sense of well-being, wonder and gentle security, so much so that he almost shouted with relief and happiness.
So, Maia’s mum. All those qualities he had seen in the daughter magnified, matured and strengthened by the tragic history they both shared.
A hand touched his shoulder, Maia. He looked up and smiled. She smiled back. “See, I told you. Everything’s going to be OK now.”
© David Hermelin 2016