LOVE SONGS IN AGE

A gentle romance. The sex, when it arrives, is relatively short but hopefully sweet - I suspect, just as in life, you'll wish there was a tiny bit more of it

At the end of the summer it was clear that David was too sick to manage on his own, so I packed in my job and moved in with him. He protested, of course, but I told him it was a horrible school and I was planning to leave anyway. This wasn't really true and he knew it, but he pretended to believe me.

I got a few small jobs doing private tuition. Mainly English, some history, even a little mathematics. A mixture of students, aged between fourteen and eighteen. Some brats, some nice ones. About what you'd expect. Even with my modest savings it wasn't quite enough and after a couple of months the money was starting to run out fast.

So I was on my best behaviour when I was summoned to meet the Haverstocks. They lived in a very smart part of London where property prices started at eye-watering and moved up from there into the region of the utterly obscene.

I like to think I'm open-minded but, as I waited for their door to open, I suspected that: a) Mr Haverstock worked in the City, b) Mrs Haverstock would be one of those younger wives who enjoyed spending their husband's money, and c) their offspring would be spoilt, unpleasant and probably unteachable.

I was immediately proven right on the first of these. Mr Haverstock did work in the City. He was a monosyllabic man in his sixties, given to staring at you in a cold, unfriendly way, like a butcher eyeing up a side of beef. Mrs Haverstock -- "call me Gillian" -- more than compensated by gushing endlessly about how frightfully interesting everything was and how fortunate I was to be able to spend so much time reading books and studying. I resisted the temptation to say that she probably had much more leisure time than I did. And yes, she was a good twenty years younger than her husband.

And then there was Isobel, who sat quietly and sullenly and said next to nothing. She was tall for a girl. I'm over six foot and the top of her head would easily have been level with my shoulder. I glanced at her a few times as we spoke about what they were looking for but only once did she hold my gaze and then just for a moment before looking away again. She was slim and moderately pretty but there was a kind of unattractive lethargy about her. Her eyes, for that split second, were vacant and contemptuous. I sensed -- no, I knew - that lessons with her would be frustrating and unrewarding.

But we needed the money and so I smiled and said what I hoped were the right things. Yes, I could cover both English and history up to pre-university level. Yes, I could work with Isobel over the next three months to coach her for the re-takes of her examinations. Yes, I would be happy to do extra sessions each week to try and give her the best possible chance of passing. Yes, I could give them references.

We all smiled rather falsely at each other as the interview concluded. They had some other tutors to see and they would be in touch. I suspected that, unlike most other parents, they would actually follow up on my references. Mr Haverstock had that air of somebody who didn't leave things to chance. Half of me hoped that actually I wouldn't get the job. Still... double sessions meant quite a lot of extra money coming in. And the possibility, I suspected, of a bonus if I got her through the exams. Though that seemed a tall order.

I went home and told David all about it. He was more positive -- he always was -- and said that not only would I get the job, it wouldn't be anything like as bad as I feared.

"So... you're not saying it'll be good? Just... not as bad as all that?"

"Kind of." David grinned at me. "I mean... it'll probably be shit. Just not as shit as you think it'll be."

"Thanks," I said. "You're a real rock."

Then I kissed him, and helped him undress and get to bed.

**

"OK," I said. "You got an E in English and an E in history and an A in art."

She nodded. Though the lethargy was still there, even more pronounced now, and it was a very faint nod.

"An A in art is very impressive," I said. "I'd like to see some of your work sometime."

She just looked at me, more openly contemptuous now.

"And in order to get into college, you need to get those E's up to at least C's."

I knew this already, she knew I knew it, but I was trying to get some kind of conversation going, to establish some kind of common goal we could work towards. It wasn't working.

She sighed. "It's a waste of time. It's OK if we just sit here. Read a book or something. Whatever."

"Why is it a waste of time?"

She fiddled with her hair. "Because I'm stupid. There's no way I can do it. The only reason they even let me go to college to sit these exams is because Daddy's got so much money. But I'm never going to pass history or English. Not in a billion years."

I nodded thoughtfully.

"Do you read?" I asked.

"What?"

"Do you read? Books."

"Yeah. Of course. But... I just read crap. Mummy always says I read total trash, but she likes it herself too, I know she does.

"Me too," I said. "Sometimes a good trashy book is just what I want."

"Wow," she said sarcastically. "We're really connecting, aren't we? Well done!"

I laughed at that.

"You're right," I said. "We have nothing in common. Except... we both read books. And that's something. That gives you a chance, if you want to take it."

She looked at me, contempt still predominant but a little more questioning this time. "That's bullshit. And you know it."

"I don't think so. But we've got three months to find out. What are you reading at the moment?"

She looked surprised. "What does that matter?"

"Just tell me, if you don't mind. So - what are you reading at the moment?"

She reached into the bag beside her and rather diffidently pulled out a battered paperback. The Gatekeeper's Daughter. By an Elizabeth Jones. I picked it up and read the blurb on the back. Apparently it was a "racy historical romance." It sounded completely awful.

"You've nearly finished it," I said, noting the folded down page corner about three quarters of the way through. "Are you a fast reader?"

"Stuff like this, sure. I'll probably finish it tonight."

"Good. I'll pick up a copy on the way home. We can discuss it tomorrow."

For the first time she looked genuinely surprised. "What's the point of that? They're not going to ask me questions about that in the exam, are they?"

"Humour me," I said. "It'll be more fun than talking about Shakespeare, don't you think?"

She shrugged. It was a gesture I was becoming familiar with. "Fine. You're the... teacher." This last word was delivered with an icy scorn.

"One more question. Of the books you did have to read for the exams, which one did you like best? Or... which one did you hate the least, if that's easier."

She twiddled with her hair, suspicious of the question but not able to find an immediate reason not to answer it.

"The Rainbow was OK. I mean, it was boring in places, but... yeah, it was OK."

I wanted to press her for more, I sensed there had been something else lurking in that sentence that she'd decided not to say. But that could wait.

"OK," I said. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Again she looked surprised. "You're going already? I thought you were supposed to be here for three hours."

It was my turn to shrug. "Not today. I want to go and read that book you're reading. And I need to go through my notes on The Rainbow again."

I got up to go. She looked indignant.

"Are you going to charge my Dad for the whole three hours?"

"Are you going to tell him he shouldn't pay me?"

She looked doubtful and I grinned.

"If you don't tell I'll split the money with you," I said. "See you tomorrow."

**

"Is she attractive? For a girl?" David was always nosy about things like that.

"She will be, I think," I said. "She's a bit too... droopy at the moment. Everything's too much trouble, too much effort... negative energy sort of radiates from her. That's not attractive at all."

He picked up the book I'd found at the second-hand bookshop near the station.

"God, what is THIS?"

I took it from him. "The subject of tomorrow's lesson, I hope."

"Jesus! That really is a sacrifice."

"Maybe it'll turn out to be amazing," I said. "If it is, I see that she's written about forty more, so I'll be sorted for my reading for a while."

He studied it more closely and shivered dramatically. "It looks frightful."

I shrugged, then caught myself in the act and turned it into a stretch instead.

He patted my arm lovingly. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Yes... go and find my books on DH Lawrence and read up on The Rainbow. We can discuss it over supper."

He thought about this. I suspect he flirted with the idea of making another wisecrack but instead he shuffled his way over to the crates of books and started sorting through them. He always knew where everything was. But he was painfully thin and it hurt to watch him. So instead I picked up The Gatekeeper's Daughter and began to read.

**

The following day we met after lunch. I produced my copy of The Rainbow, a book of essays on DH Lawrence, and my copy of The Gatekeeper's Daughter.

She eyed the pile of books dubiously. "Did you really read some of it?"

"I read all of it," I said.

Her eyes went wide. "All of it? The whole thing?"

I nodded.

She looked resigned. "You probably thought it was awful trash, didn't you? Daddy says this sort of stuff rots your brain. But all he ever seems to read are business magazines. I don't think I've ever seen him read anything for fun."

"I thought it wasn't bad, actually. Better than I was expecting."

She was suspicious. "You're still just trying to bond with me, aren't you?"

I laughed. "No. I think that's not going to happen. But... I thought she told a pretty good story. I genuinely wanted to keep reading to find out what was happening."

"But she's not a good writer, is she? Not what somebody like you would call good, anyway." There was a curl of the lip when she said "like you", but I let it pass.

"She's no stylist," I said. "She's not good on description, her dialogue is quite ponderous, and I think her knowledge of some of the history she uses as the backdrop is pretty... questionable. But..."

She waited expectantly, her eyes searching my face.

"She's very good at plotting, and her characters are really likeable and engaging, and her story absolutely whizzes along and... well, I couldn't wait to see how she managed to get them together at the end. I mean, about fifty pages from the finish I couldn't see how she was going to do it..."

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "Me neither. That was SO good!"

Then she remembered that displays of enthusiasm were deeply uncool, and slumped back into her chair.

"It's not going to help me in the exam though, is it?"

I shook my head. "Not directly. But... let's talk about it."

We spent the next forty minutes talking about the story and breaking it down into its component parts. It took her a while, but I think she saw that my enthusiasm for the book was genuine. Or mostly genuine, anyway. I had maybe overstated the virtues and understated the vices of the writing, but it had been a real page turner and I didn't have to exaggerate too much.

There are few more things more pleasurable, for me at least, than finding somebody else who has enjoyed a book that you've also enjoyed and comparing notes upon it. Things I had found a little far-fetched she sternly defended. She conceded that some of the plot twists were a little unlikely. We agreed that as a story, it had more than a few parallels with Kidnapped, the Robert Louis Stevenson story that she had once seen the film of.

Perhaps I flatter myself, but I think it had been a long time since she had so fully engaged in a conversation. Certainly not a conversation that didn't involve social media or school gossip.

After a while I looked at my watch and said we should spend a bit of time talking about The Rainbow. She was less enthused but I think the momentum carried us forward. She had a good memory and although it was some months since she'd read it, sections of it had clearly stuck in her mind very vividly.

This was all encouraging, but I was aware that I was in a position similar to a horse wrangler creeping up on a particularly skittish colt. One move that was too sudden, too obvious, and she would retreat back into her slumped posture and her infuriating shrugs.

We were talking about the last third of the book, which focuses on Ursula Brangwen and her emerging sexuality, including a lesbian love affair. This was tricky territory to cover with an eighteen-year-old girl, so I kept the discussion fairly general. She was clearly quite taken by the character though, and I decided to push my luck a little.

I produced another book from my bag. "Did you ever read this? Women In Love?"

"Another DH Lawrence? What's that one about?"

"It's the sequel. Did you not know he wrote one?"

She shook her head, and looked faintly embarrassed. "I suppose I should have done."

"Not at all. It wasn't on the syllabus. But... if you're interested in what happened to Ursula, you should really read it. He originally planned it to be all one book, you know, but the publisher made him do it as two volumes and the first one caused such a fuss it was a while before the second one was published."

"Why? Because it... had all that sex in it?"

I nodded. There was a slightly awkward pause.

"But... thank god he didn't write The Gatekeeper's Daughter," I said, and she giggled. There had indeed been several very detailed and very graphic sex scenes in that, far more explicit than anything Mr Lawrence had felt daring enough to include.

She picked it up doubtfully. "Well, maybe I'll read a few pages tonight. Since I've got nothing to read at the moment."

"Yes," I said. "Just the first few pages, and see what you think."

We spent the rest of the time reviewing what she'd studied for history. She made an effort to focus but I could see that history was going to be even more of a challenge. A few times I caught her looking at the cover of Women in Love.

Fingers crossed, I thought.

**

"Oh god," said David, when I'd described my day to him. "She's going to be a Project, isn't she? I can tell." He peered at me, as if looking for tell-tale signs. "You want to Improve Her. You want to be her Special Teacher, the One She Remembers Forever." He threw back his head in a theatrical pose, a hand shading his eyes from the imaginary light.

"Fuck off and pass the vinegar," I said.

He smirked as he did so. We were eating fish and chips, David's favourite. His doctor wouldn't have approved but David was past caring and I couldn't see the harm in indulging him now and again.

"What about the history?"

"We're doing early twentieth century European. Usual stuff: Versailles, rise of Hitler, League of Nations, origins of the Second World War. You know."

He faked a yawn. "God, so dreary! But at least you can do that in your sleep. Even you know all that reasonably well."

David's degree was in history. Mine was in English literature. For some reason he considered himself at least my equal when it came to my subject, but in his I was a mere novice in comparison.

"Yes, I think I can struggle through," I said, a little waspishly.

We ate in silence for a while. I sipped a beer but David was on water. He found it helped him keep the food down. I knew there was still a good chance that in twenty minutes he'd be vomiting it back up, but for now he was enjoying it and that was good enough for me.

**

Isobel admitted that she'd read three chapters of Women in Love. "I would have read more, but I got very sleepy."

"So you liked it?"

"Yes, sort of. Not as much... as the other sorts of books I read. The language takes a while to get into, doesn't it? Or it does for me, anyway. Being a thicko."

"You're not a thicko," I said sharply. "Don't say that!"

She looked startled and a little scared. It was the first time I'd raised my voice to her, and I regretted it immediately. But sometimes her relentless denigration of herself was very tedious and grating.

"Sorry Isobel," I said. I was aware of using her name. "But... you're not thick, you're really not."

She still looked nervous, and again I thought of the image of creeping up on that skittish colt, alert for anything that might spook her.

I tried to make her smile. "I've taught a lot of thick people. You have no idea."

Still no reaction.

"I mean people who were so thick I wanted to chew my own arm off rather than spend another minute in the same room as them. For the life of me I don't know why I thought that would have helped, I would have just been a one-armed teacher in a room of thick people, but..."

A glimmer of a smile at that.

"... you are not even close to being like them. You are smart, Isobel, you read fast, you get things quickly, and believe me - the first few pages every time I pick up a DH Lawrence or a Shakespeare or a Marlowe or even a Jane Austen... it's like... well, it's like the first few minutes of going running, isn't it?"

She was relaxing slightly.

"You're thinking, oh god, why did I go for a run, it's so horrible, I can't do this, I'm going to die, why do I do this to myself, I should just go home and eat cake and biscuits and... and... and..."

I was running out of inspiration.

"Trifle?" she suggested. "Doughnuts? Lemon Meringue Pie?"

I gazed at her. "God, I love Lemon Meringue Pie!"

"Me too! But... I never feel like that when I go running. So I'm not sure it's a good..." She was struggling for the word. "... analogy?"

"What... you just start running and it's fine?"

She nodded.

"God, you're so lucky," I said.

"Or maybe you're just unfit and bad at running," she said, smiling quite broadly now. She was really very pretty when she smiled, I noticed.

"I guess that could come into it."

We looked at each other, pleased with having amused ourselves, and I had the sensation again of having made it through another line of her defences. There were still some -- perhaps many -- to go. But it was progress.

The rest of the lesson was spent mainly with me telling her a bit about DH Lawrence's life and the history of his novels. She listened quietly, occasionally asking questions, particularly about his most notorious work.

"Is Lady Chatterley's Lover really that filthy?" she asked.

"It's a bit more extreme than some of his earlier works, yes. It was shocking for the time. But now... with the Internet and twenty-four-hour porn catering for every taste...I don't think it would even raise an eyebrow for most people."

"Do you think it's good?"

"I don't think it's as good as some of his others. But it's... OK. Middle rank, I would say."

"Should I read it?"

"Only if you want to," I said.

She thought about it. "What about some of the other books I'm supposed to read? We should get on to them, shouldn't we? You know... the Shakespeare and the poetry."

"All in good time," I said. "But I tell you what. Let's read one poem from the Larkin collection, and chat about it a little."

She pouted. Then a gleam came into her eye.

"OK," she said. "But we'll talk about it while we're running."

"What?"

"I want to go for a run. And you can tell me all about the poem as we go around the park."

"But... I haven't got my kit with me."

"You can borrow some of my dad's trainers. He never uses them. I don't know why he even has some. His feet are about the same size as yours. And I've got some spare shorts that are way too baggy for me."

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