My eyelids felt heavy, too heavy to hold up. The bedroom mirror showed blackish skin sagging under my eyes. Last night I had a nightmare. Thunder and lightning crackled above me as I lay on the side of a mountain. I had no strength to go and find shelter, no strength to even get up, as if I were melting into the ground. After waking, I was afraid to go back to sleep. Instead, I lay there for hours, watching the crack in the curtains slowly turn from dark into light.
I closed the front door behind me. Outside, the sky was an endless, steely blue. Cold November air grazed my cheeks; the mid-term break was over. I took the narrow, darker path to the left, by the brook flowing in the opposite direction. I savoured the lapping of its water over the stones. Halfway up the street, I crossed over to the wider path, which felt appropriate on this day; I always used to walk on this side. On the main road, hordes of them went by, some in large or small groups, others by themselves. We were all going the same way.
Inside the main entrance, I passed the old class photos and my eyes lingered on 2007. In the picture, about halfway up and on the right stood someone not unlike me, with a head of long, earthy-brown hair, but I did not want to look at him. Neither did I want to contemplate that other face a few rows further back, whose rosy-cheeked face and devilish smile reminded me of his repeated punches to the back of my head, until I headbutted him into stopping. In the staffroom, I hung up my jacket, hat, scarf. I took a deep breath, and stepped into the corridor. I walked through shouts of boys and locker doors slamming against their frames. An object flew through the air, too fast to make out. The bang off a classroom door told me it was hard. Coming down the stairs, I already had my keys out.
Barry was already in the classroom. Sparks shot up the back of my legs. I knocked on entering. He was alone. With one of those big, steady paws of his, he gave me a manly slap on the arm and asked ‘How are ya doin’?’ Although he was a bit croakier now, my legs still loosened at the recognition of his voice, deep with a faint Irish accent diluted from his time spent abroad. I checked my watch: two minutes to two. Students wandered into the room. The uniform had not changed: cloudy grey jumper, sky blue shirt, black tie with streaks of gold and blue, trousers of wet stone grey. ‘Get dressed!’ Barry shouted at somebody with his jacket still on. He removed it quickly. A pen rose into the air, twirling and landing in the hand of another student with watery eyes further back. Barry looked at him. I wondered what he might say. ‘Empty-head’ and ‘Gumby’ were two of his most common put-downs. His way of talking to students used to make me laugh, but it could also be chilling. Barry’s eyes remained on him, fixed.
‘I’ll make you eat that pen if I catch you doing that again.’
‘Sorry sir,’ the pupil muttered and put the pen down. He looked around, and when his gaze met Barry’s, it dropped immediately to the desk.
‘Do you see what I have to put up with?’ Barry said to me with a frown. Although mildly disgusted, I also felt a degree of delight; the students were likelier to welcome my approach as long as it was lighter and warmer than what they were experiencing at that moment. Instead of intimidating them, I hoped to push them in another direction.
‘Right,’ Barry said, ‘let’s make a start.’
‘Sir, we’ve another minute,’ said a student to the left, his pale, freckled face nodding to the clock above the whiteboard.
‘Lordy, that hasn’t been changed since before the bank holiday weekend,’ Barry said.
‘I can do it,’ I said and took the clock down with a shaky hand. When I was a teenager, it used to feel uncontrollable, like having a convulsion. It was worse after people noticed it. ‘Jesus man, that’s freaky,’ they used to say. I set the correct time and put it back.
‘This is Mr. Tyrrell,’ Barry said, gesturing with his arm towards me. ‘He’s going to be taking you for this class every week.’
‘Regardez le tableau, s’il vous plaît,’ I said. Standing to one side of the interactive board, I displayed the regular verb manger and how the future tense was formed: drop the last two letters of the verb and add the ending depending on the person. With a steady hand, I pointed out je mangerai, tu mangeras… just like when Barry had taught it to me. The clarity had never faded. How could it, given the joy French brought me, relieving the crippling ennui of maths, business and the sciences. I continued to study it at university, and even lived in France for four years after that. I hoped to push my students in a similar direction. Surveying the hands on heads and frowning faces in front of me, I was reminded of my classmates from eighteen years before. I smiled to myself; the clock really had gone back.