N.B. This wasn’t quite the final, published version as I’m a zealous tweaker, especially at the last minute, and have a meticulous editor at TSL. Obviously I’d be delighted if anyone bought the book as a result of reading this, but if not, it’s good to share!
She was the only Marilyn in seven hundred and fifty girls. In her class there were four Susans, two Annes and some Janes, Janets and Janices, but her name set her apart. It was modern, with an aura of sophistication – even though she wondered why her parents had called her Marilyn at all, if they wanted to treat her like a Jane and insist that school rules about make-up and uniform were there to be obeyed.
But when she came home at four o’clock each day, her mother would ignore the brown mascara she’d applied to her lashes in the Girls’ Toilets before registration, as if she only saw what she expected or wanted to see: a good girl who happened to be blonde. Marilyn made sure the school skirt with its rolled-over waistband was always lowered to skim her knees as she stepped off the bus, but she didn’t tell anyone at school just how old-fashioned her parents were – or even how old. In twin sets and pleated nylon skirts, her mother might as well have been a gran; even the younger teachers wore shifts that showed their knees. Marilyn would never waste herself like that. She was going to flaunt what she’d got.
By the Lower Fifth, the status her name gave her had been raised by another accident: the size of her bra and the tightness of her white blouse across it, with a button or two undone. “Oops, popped again!” she’d tell the teachers on patrol, adding a helpless, “Sorry!” Over that year she grew taller than most of her peers. Her friend Lorraine said she could get served in a pub with lipstick and a casual cigarette, but for all her big ideas, Lorraine was five foot three and freckled. Marilyn had no one to go along with such Let’s Pretend, or make it real. Not even a boy.
Everyone assumed she was well practised in French kissing, but that was because they didn’t know the way her parents imprisoned her in the name of protection. Most of her classmates lived close to the school and some went to the same Youth Club. Marilyn was the only one from Wickford, far enough away for her to keep the restrictions of her life a secret while everyone assumed she was out snogging in a dark corner with a Sixth Former in an ankle-length Afghan coat. And she had the vocabulary necessary to sustain the deception, including the word that made her parents shudder if they ever heard it in the street: ‘the F-word’ that spelt instant detention. She enjoyed the sound of it, and the frisson of disapproval that followed it.
‘Who likes fucking?’ she printed in a note she passed around in Latin, to see who blushed and who dared to answer ‘Me’. She watched the progress of the folded note from one desk to another, noting who smiled, who was startled and who looked around hoping to identify the author. Marilyn just continued to stare at the clock above the teacher’s head, eyes dulled – even when she saw, in a sideways glance, a quiet girl (one of the Lindas) write something behind a curved hand. But the girl in the next row was an Anne who went to lunchtime C.U. and had apparently met her so-called boyfriend at church. This Anne scrunched up the little scrap of paper in her fist before she dropped it on the floor and kicked it towards the wall with the side of her lace-up shoe. All Marilyn could do was target the back of her head and hope that the front of it was crimson. If holy Anne had to wreck her research she could at least have told the teacher. That would have made an entertaining diversion, embarrassing Miss Needham, who was unmarried at something like fifty and wouldn’t know the answer.
As it was, Marilyn stifled a disappointed yawn, slipped from her desk her copy of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and began to read when she could. The couple in bed on the cover were either post-coital or about to begin foreplay; the photograph was a furtive talking point. Marilyn’s mother had been appalled when she found it in her school bag, and even more shocked when Marilyn said, “It’s a set text,” and smiled because that was so close to the s word they didn’t say, not in her house. It was a funny story to tell the others, and her mother said she would write to the school to complain, but Marilyn didn’t suppose she had. She’d shy from the words she’d need to shape in her own handwriting on best Basildon Bond.
Her teachers used those too: ‘An intelligent girl who could achieve a great deal more should she see fit to apply herself’, ‘quick-witted but less than industrious’, ‘Marilyn’s attitude to her studies leaves room for improvement’. When she was aiming, within limits, to be rude. To show that she didn’t care. That school was just petty and the teachers were so dried-up it was impossible to imagine them doing the deed – even though Caesar must have, in between fighting the Gallic Wars. Her parents always said, when the report book came home, “We were hoping for better this time,” so she always pointed out the percentages: nothing below 68, Division One for everything and sixth or seventh in class, all without trying. The numbers carried some weight with her father, who was a tax man, but all her mother wanted was nice manners, good behaviour – “You never smile, darling, and you have such a pretty smile.”
Marilyn said she couldn’t help it if the teachers thought her mouth looked sulky. Sexy was what she meant. Too sexy for Miss DCHS (Derston Country High School) because all they wanted was a girl with lots of white teeth and a private school voice who could open the Summer Fair without wearing anything too far out for Princess Anne. Sometimes Marilyn practised pouting in the bathroom mirror, trying to look like Julie Christie with full, Nivea-creamed lips and thick hair falling on her naked shoulders. Maybe when she was fifteen she’d be allowed on the train to Carnaby Street and the Kings Road. She’d need clothes to fit in but by then she’d have a Saturday job. She wouldn’t mind working in the new Wimpy Bar, next to the record store with the listening booth. Then life would begin.
But her parents didn’t want her working in the town. Her father said he’d pay her the going rate to clean his car, cut the grass and weed the borders. And she had to listen on Mondays to the stories Janice told, about her job on a beauty counter and the ‘dreamboat’ manager who told her she was a natural.
So Marilyn spent her so-called wages on cigarettes that she lit as soon as she turned out of the street. Standing by the bus stop with her skirt up to her thighs and a sour stare, she smoked where she could be seen by neighbours and reported. To serve them right.
But there was no scene, in spite of the smell that clung to her hair. She more or less gave up the fags, and bought albums instead, the kind her parents hated: Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, LA Woman. In her room she played them on her little deck and danced as if Jim Morrison was holding her, one hand on her bottom as she swayed.
By the autumn of 71, when a boring summer came to an end and her parents pointed out how serious the Upper Fifth would be, with ‘O’ Levels at the end of it, Marilyn told her diary that she was in prison and if she didn’t find an escape route soon – like Lorraine, who was in Australia – she’d probably set the place on fire. At the bus stop on the first day back at school that September, she noticed, among the boys passing by on their way to St. Ignatius, one who’d transformed over the holiday from a boy to a dish. If he’d been Upper Sixth, she might have smiled at him when his friends called her ‘a Pan’s Person’ and he looked concerned about their manners. Marilyn just showed them a couple of Flick Colby swerves that sent them laughing on their way.
Arriving at school, she heard the rumour that the new Head of English was a man. Someone had seen him with an old briefcase and mac, hurrying from the station and almost late on his first day. “Oh, at least forty” was the estimate, greeted with groans.
“It says on the job ad,” said Marilyn, and switched to her Headmistress voice, “Applicants any sexier than the Prime Minister will not be considered.” A few people thought that meant Wilson but Marilyn knew better because her parents liked Heath and called him a gentleman.
Still, it was disappointing to have no English timetabled for the first day, but in the dining room people said Mr Jones was ‘really funny’, ‘outasite!’ and ‘so sweet’. So as U5H class waited for him to arrive next morning, in the upstairs classroom overlooking the newly-mown field with the tennis courts beyond, Marilyn felt more interest than she showed.
Using his pregnant-looking briefcase to hold the door open, he struggled in with a pile of books balanced on his other arm. Everyone stood but he as he said, “Oh, no need for any of that,” the pile broke up and tumbled; girls picked up the scattered paperbacks. Marilyn watched. The title on the black cover was The New Poetry. As the copies were passed around he introduced himself, spelling his Christian name in chalk (and very bad handwriting): Bysshe Jones.
“Weird, you’re thinking?” Someone laughed. “My parents were Shelley fans,” he explained, “who believed in standing out from the crowd. I hated them for it – and at university I claimed to be Mike.”
His shoulders went back, his chin up. People giggled. “You grow into yourself in the end. Names represent us out there, whatever identity we construct for ourselves in here.” A hand flicked the side of his head where the curls were glossy in spite of the only kind of haircut that would get him through an interview. “I need to know yours, and how you feel about that.”
The girls looked at each other, smiling in surprise. He looked at the nearest Anne, inviting her to begin. She hesitated. Marilyn noticed the imperfect edges of his brown shirt collar and the woolly texture of his modern art tie.
“Do we get an action replay, sir?” asked someone. People laughed. “I missed the question.”
“Answer your own if you wish,” he said, “but bear in mind that this is only a double lesson and the idea is to dive into some poetry before break time.”
Anne began mumbling about her name because she didn’t know what to say really, apart from how ordinary it was.
“Are you ordinary?” It was a flicker of a question. Anne coloured, and pressed the spine of her glasses back. Barriers up.
“I don’t believe it! And you mustn’t either. Nobody’s ordinary.” He picked up the poetry book. “This here proves the ecstasy of agony. How full emptiness can be. We come from the stars – nothing ordinary up there!”
His finger pointed upwards and a couple of girls even looked at the slightly grubby ceiling. Marilyn felt the warmth of a grin on her face. He was loco and she loved it.
Now he was naming famous Annes and asking Anne Clegg to pick one she connected with.
“Boleyn,” she said, and blushed at the giggly gasps. Mr Jones reached out a hand that silenced it all. He was waiting. “It’s sad,” she said.
“Tragic heroine or manipulative go-getter? Or both? We can never really know, and yes, that’s sad – and bottomless too. You’ve been reading Jean Plaidy.” The hand stopped her answering. “That wasn’t a charge. Confessions are best turned to poetry.” He waved the book, one finger pointing at the centre of the cover.
Marilyn listened as Janet said she had no Janet to identify with at all, and Mr Jones said, “Ah. Rochester calls Jane Eyre ‘Janet’, in tenderness as I recall. Judge for yourself whether a victim can be a heroine. And whether like Darcy he’s a legitimate heartthrob. Who’s yours, Janet?”
She shrugged, and her neighbour showed him her wooden ruler, decorated with the names of lead singers he was afraid he hadn’t heard of.
“You don’t need to know,” Marilyn muttered, because their voices were weedy. And he heard, looking straight at her, just for a moment. She knew her turn would come. And some of the others had so little to say – even though it was so much more than they’d ever revealed in a classroom before.
The cleverest but most silent of all the Susans said she wasn’t Susan at all, but Sue. “Only teachers call me Susan, because they don’t know me.” Her voice fractured. “It’s not me they’re talking to.”
There was a thick pause of astonishment after that, while Susan reddened to the roots of her frizzy hair and Mr Jones smiled, nodding. “I shall try to earn the right to call you Sue,” he said, quietly, seriously, “because I’d like to know you.”
His smile was boyish. Marilyn could imagine him at school, ‘full of beans’ like Jennings but knowing things without swotting. It made her feel the loss of a brother. He thanked Susan for her honesty, adding that without that there would be no poetry. He circled his forefinger and landed it on the register, looking up and asking, “Marilyn?”
He wasn’t handsome; his eyes had a froggy bulge and his lips were thick, almost puffy. Marilyn didn’t need to raise her hand because all the others had turned; she was in focus.
“Ah,” he said. She wanted him to know her, better than Susan, and she had an idea that if she just gazed straight back at him, he could see inside her. But what could she say? That her name made her cheap, a tart like the character in Crossroads?
He began, “Norma Jean – a tragic heroine for our times? More innocent than Anne Boleyn and more vulnerable,” and had to explain what he meant. When he called Arthur Miller ‘a great playwright,’ and said Monroe must have been clever too, Marilyn had never felt more stupid, because she knew so little about this actress he seemed to admire, and her parents certainly didn’t like it hot (if at all).
“I’m sorry,” said Mr Jones. “I jumped in. I shouldn’t have.”
She shrugged. If she chose silence now, would that make her fascinating? “I’ve never known whether to live up to my name or down to it,” she said, and although her voice didn’t crack like Susan’s she felt suddenly sad. It was as if everything she’d counted on had vanished. She didn’t want to work in the Wimpy Bar, or lose her virginity to a Sixth Former, get spotted by a modelling agent or hitch-hike around the States in a mini skirt, with strings of beads around her neck and enough cash to buy some grass and see how it changed her. She just wanted Mr Jones to like her, but not the same way as the boys in the street. She wanted his respect, his understanding, his time.
“What do you want your name to say?” he asked, his voice gentle, curious.
“Confidence,” she said, afraid of losing it. “Independence. The opposite of tragic and vulnerable.” She remembered her mother’s sniffiness about ‘bra-burners’. “Liberated.”
He nodded. “Bravo. I’m relying on women like you to demand your space and be heard.”
Women like her. If she could hold his hand and walk in the woods she’d be real at last. Mr Jones said he didn’t want any of them living or dying like Sylvia Plath, whose work was in the collection, but that writing could give them a voice and that was power. Words, he told them, reshaped everything.
Then he said he couldn’t resist poetry any longer. “A love poem by Adrian Henri,” he said. “A pop song without a tune.” He pulled a slim volume from the inside pocket of his olive green corduroy jacket, thumbed quickly and read: “Without you every morning would feel like…?” He slapped the book down on the nearest desk and held out a hand, cupped but with fingers wiggling.
“A winter Monday.” Someone said, “A power cut,” and another girl said, “A train with no wheels,” which made everyone laugh, Mr Jones loudest of all. Marilyn wanted to offer a line he’d always remember, a line to make him forget the ones in the book. She thought furiously, impatient with her slowness. Then she raised her hand.
“Without you every morning would feel like dancing on jelly.”
Someone spluttered. She heard it echoed. But Bysshe Jones tilted his head to one side. “Wait…” he said, and she could see he was excited.
“You know, you can’t balance,” she said. “And you’re a mess. You’re really only dancing because the jelly wobbles you around. You feel ridiculous.”
“Ah yes, and it makes us think of childhood parties but this is the opposite, a kind of torture.”
Marilyn nodded. She was in love.
At the end of the two hour lesson, the girls were slow to leave the room, but Marilyn didn’t want to hang around like a twelve-year-old at the stage door after a Donny Osmond concert. She just walked away, running her fingers through her hair, remembering that her line wasn’t wrapped in brown paper on anyone’s doorstep, like in the poem. It was in his head. He’d be going to the Staff Room now, to share it: “Is she gifted, Marilyn Green? She reminds me of Lara at the start of Zhivago.”
The weather was still summery enough to sit on the grass, so she took out her copy of the anthology and saw there were only two women in it. But in the nearest conversation, the female in question was Mrs Jones – whether there was one, and what she might be like. Why she didn’t iron his shirt better! Irritably, Marilyn moved away. Weren’t they inspired?
That night she spent four hours on the homework he’d set them: to find a poem they loved, and write as honestly and thoughtfully as possible about what it meant to them. She chose Larkin’s Wedding Wind, read it aloud in her room three times, four, and wrote: I love the wildness and the passion, the words like ‘thrashing’ and ‘bodying-forth’, the intensity of ‘the wind of joy’ that makes him ‘sad that any man or beast should lack the happiness’ he had. I love the idea of ‘perpetual morning shares my bed’. It makes me think of a couple lying, warm and sleepy, with the sun shining on them as they kiss. It makes me feel like the bride, waking to a new world because I’m in love. The cattle ending seemed strange at first but then I realised what he’s writing about is an animal instinct as well as romance, and love and sex are as natural and necessary as water. It’s romantic, because he hopes the love won’t ‘dry up’ even in death, but wind can dry lakes so maybe he’s afraid it might. We all feel the same about love, and we thread our beads on it knowing one snap and they spill everywhere. But when we find it we kneel, which for humans means worship, if you believe in God: someone to thank for the love and the loved one. If I could ever write anything as intense and beautiful as this poem I’d be glad I lived. As it is, I still feel ‘stupid in candlelight’ most of the time.
Her parents were incredulous – not that she let them read it; they’d lock her up for the rest of her life – that she should work so hard, and that her eyes were so bright when she explained, “I love poetry. When you go deep into it, it’s the best thing ever. It’s everything.”
Only one thing mattered more to her than the way he read poetry, talked about poetry, used his hands to accompany poetry, and the words that sang and shone, and darkened and remained mysterious. The following day it came, scrawled in ink under a vigorous A+.
I applaud you for this genuine, well-expressed and open response, which is in itself as passionate and lyrical, but as honest too, as the poem. Even after a few hours of marking it made me return to Larkin’s words and appreciate them even more. Thank you.
All, she thought, was ‘ravelled under the sun by the wind’s blowing’. Rereading the poem in bed that night, she could almost sense his hand under the sheet. Would she be ‘let to sleep’?
After half a term of poetry they switched to Shakespeare. “More poetry!” Mr Jones told them. “Everything’s poetry. Look out of the window at that field, and the sky above it. It’s poetry even while we struggle for words to recreate it.”
Marilyn luxuriated in Macbeth: not just the text but the context he took them through with all their senses, the excitement and the shock of a new kind of love that fuelled murder. It made her daydream about ways of killing Mrs Jones to possess something more precious than a crown. If he were in love with her, that would be the only power she would ever need.
All her other subjects came more easily now. It was as if a window had opened and the light shone all around. She was able to show her parents – casually of course – A after A in her exercise books. They were like children surprised with sweeties. Her father rewarded her with crisp new pound notes and her mother said, “You won’t smoke it away, will you darling?” but she had no intention of spending it on anything but books. Apart from eyeliner, which she wore to school unchallenged, and a red lipstick which she was saving…
He was forty-two! He told them so, when someone asked. It made no difference; how could it? Every night, by torchlight, she added to a letter she was writing him – full of love, and struggling for words to recreate it – always remembering the importance of honesty, and of searching for deeper truths about her core self, and what it was to be alive. It was more obsessive than she had dreamed. Yet in spite of the closeness of him when she sat in the front row for the first time in her school career – “can’t see the board,” she explained, “but you can stuff specs” – they hadn’t touched. She knew, in her loneliest moments, that it would never happen, but she must long for it anyway.
Christmas came and went, and Marilyn couldn’t be sure whether he’d found the neatly-wrapped present she left on his desk in his Form Room – or recognised her writing even though she hadn’t signed it. On Christmas Eve she started work on a Without You… poem that began with the dancing in jelly but had grown twenty lines by morning. When her dad gave her tickets for Hamlet in the West End she burst into tears – and reviewed it afterwards for the school magazine Mr Jones now edited.
“Really incisive,” he told her in January, stopping in the corridor an hour or so after she’d delivered it. “You gave such a rich, detailed sense of it, I might as well have been there.”
“Wish you were,” she said, before she walked away.
A couple of bitter mornings later, the Catholic boy she used to like came over to her at the bus stop where she was shivering, and asked whether she’d wanted to go to the pictures with him. She said, “Sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend,” and gave him a smile that was meant to be kind. Girls talked about ‘blokes’ but the word didn’t fit him yet. He looked disappointed but how could it be fair to snog with him in the cinema when her heart was taken – or at least, given?
It was unsettling when Janice, who was pretty in a doll-like way, got pregnant and left school as soon as her bump began to show. There was no official version, just rumours that the father, who might or might not be the dreamboat, was twenty-three and wouldn’t marry her – so her dad chased him down the street, yelling. Marilyn felt sorry and envious at the same time. Anne Clegg got engaged and was planning to marry at a registry office in a long purple dress, so there was speculation that she was expecting too. Even the chubbiest, frizziest Susan had slow-danced with someone at a church youth club – although she didn’t want to talk about it, said she hoped he wouldn’t ring and refused to tell Marilyn why when she asked.
The friendships Marilyn kept in school were even looser now that she loved Bysshe Jones too much to tell, and literature with a devotion that made reading – and her essays for him – a priority. But she preferred the company of the others aiming for the highest grade, so she could talk about love, betrayal and death on the page, and make warm, private connections they couldn’t guess.
In the mocks she came top in English Lit: 88%. Lower in Lang but the teachers for that were mainly women, and she was fairly sure the youngest of them didn’t like her. Mr Jones was already busy starring in panel games like Just A Minute or Call My Bluff for the girls’ lunchtime entertainment, in rehearsing the Sixth Formers for an all-female production of King Lear and in playing vigorous piano for assembly, but she asked him to run a Writers’ Group and he said, “Yes, of course. Poets’ Corner. Thank you, Marilyn – great idea.” Now she could compose love poems and read them in the intimate environment of what was a kind of store cupboard for English text books, where the grouping of four or five chairs meant she could reach him, skin to skin – theoretically, if not realistically. The ecstasy of the agony.
“He shone a searchlight into emptiness,” she wrote, and read aloud, “and filled it. In his eyes she found humanity. In his voice she heard music. In her bed she sensed him, lover-angel. And turned away, alone with tears.”
In spite of the nervous fervour of her poetic exposure on Tuesdays, when she sometimes found herself troubled by the intellectual control of Susan’s poems-as-exercises, no one asked questions. He must know her now; how could he not? Sometimes the certainty seemed almost enough.
Then in April, just before the Easter holidays began, her father interrupted her homework with an unexpected question. She looked up at the evening stubble that made her think of Fred Flintstone and realised he’d been sent. He was on a mission.
“Marilyn,” he said, “we need to talk. Your mother and I…”
“I’m not pregnant or on the pill,” she said. “I hardly ever smoke and I haven’t got legless yet. And I’m in the middle of an essay I need to finish before I draw up a revision timetable.”
He flushed. She could see he was angry but she hadn’t time for this. Her mother appeared, shadowy behind him.
“Darling,” she said. “You work too hard. We’d like to see you go out with your friends. If you still want to apply for a job at the Wimpy Bar…”
“I can’t now. I’ve got exams in two months.”
“It’s not healthy,” tried her mother, low volume.
Love wasn’t, she thought, not love like hers, but she didn’t suppose they’d know about that.
“You’re not happy,” her mother continued.
Happy? Something she’d never been, not since the sandpit days of dress-up dolls and a teddy on the pillow. Only with him, and Shakespeare and Austen and Hughes and Plath. Happiest of all when she was most hopeless, in Poets’ Corner, his breath almost touching her cheek.
“I’m happy in my studies,” she assured them, suddenly Oxbridge and worthy of respect. “I’ll celebrate my birthday when it’s all over.”
As they left her, it crossed her mind that they were characters too, if she knew their story. Meeting her mother on the landing before bed, she gave her a hug and felt the fragility of bones against her own softness. She felt alive.
The next day a rather dome-bellied Anne Clegg sat next to her in English and asked, almost in a whisper, “Will you come to the wedding? Not a bridesmaid but you know, for support? My parents won’t be there.”
“Sure,” she said. She nodded to the door as Mr Jones stepped through it. “Invite him?”
“I could,” smiled Anne. Everyone else loved him too, in their different way.
She came home that afternoon to find her parents had bought her a second-hand bike: “For air and exercise.” She thanked them, because this was freedom too. Mr Jones lived in the next town and had mentioned a book shop there. She could cycle to the wedding – he’d approve of that – but would he turn up? No other teacher would consider such a thing but that was the point; he was a human being – “with brains and desires, ideals and shame,” he’d said – and he understood that they were too.
The wedding was a few days after Easter. Marilyn told herself something would happen: a twin would be ill or his wife would need him to do some job even though he’d called himself ‘a hopeless handyman’. She liked the way the hot pants looked with the loose flowery blouse tucked in, and her hair at its scented, blow-dried best. Managing to slip out of the house and avoid questions of unsuitability – not just of her outfit but a pregnant bride just turned sixteen – she cycled off in sunshine, glad it wasn’t hot enough to sweat.
Apart from Anne in purple and her skinny groom in white, there was only the official in a cheap suit and Anne’s awkward-looking in-laws-to-be. So Marilyn wasn’t the only one who smiled when Bysshe Jones edged in, just as proceedings were about to begin. He was on the shoulders of the groom’s brother, who might have come straight from a building site.
With the number of guests in single figures, Mr Jones looked around before sitting in the row behind Marilyn, a seat or two to her right. Marilyn didn’t turn her head once through the short business of the ceremony. It was enough to know that he was well placed to see the black bra straps through her top and the length of her legs in nude nylon, but she was sad to notice the absence, on Anne’s face, of the light that powered her now. The light she’d like him to see, and understand. Once it was over, he was the first to applaud. Then he followed her outside after the family. As Anne and her husband held hands for Polaroid photographs he murmured, “I need to go, Marilyn.”
She walked with him a few steps to a bench, where she sat, crossing her legs. Smiling up at him, she shaded her eyes from the sun. There were yellow roses in a round bed behind him.
He looked from the wooden slats to her, back at the newly-weds kissing for the camera and down on her again. “Such a shame,” he said. “Her parents, I mean. I had no idea. And what good can it do?”
He sat down next to her. At once Marilyn felt almost stunned. “I know.” This might be the moment, the only one or the one that turned everything, and either way she couldn’t seem to begin. She couldn’t even lay a hand on his arm, or thigh. All those novels she had read, all that poetry of passionate being, and she had learned nothing. She might as well be a child. She was too afraid of his wholeness, the depth and breadth of him, his brain, his commitment, the life he’d already lived while she’d been posing.
When she lifted her eyes from her lap and met his, she almost cried.
“Marilyn,” he said, and sighed. Such tenderness in his voice! “I know you think you’re in love with me and how can I fail to be flattered? I’m honoured. You’re extraordinary. And I don’t mean this!” He smiled: a tribute to the physical reality of her next to him? “But it’s not me. It’s poetry you’ve fallen for.”
Marilyn shook her head. Her voice was so small: “It’s you too.”
“I’m not for you, I promise. Trust me. In another life… well, I’d be a lucky boy. But not this one. I’m sorry.”
He stood and she knew she couldn’t stop him. Tears brimmed hot, and trickled. He was walking away and he hadn’t even kissed her cheek.
“Marilyn?” called Anne. “Thanks so much for being here. Come to Den’s house for sandwiches…. Are you all right?”
She nodded. “I can’t.”
“Go on,” said the brother, lighting a cigarette and offering the packet. “You’d be welcome.”
It did cross her mind that this could be when she found out whether she did like fucking. But she was extraordinary; Bysshe Jones was honoured; he might have loved her in a different life, romancing her with Keats. Theirs would have been Wedding Wind, not a quickie after nibbles once cheap booze smoothed the way. How had it happened for Anne – in the back of their dad’s van?
She rose and smiled, made a kind excuse and thanked them, wishing them well.
“Will you still sit the exams?” she called back from the steps onto the street.
“Yeah! Lit anyway. Got to make him proud, haven’t I?”
“Yeah,” said Marilyn, and waved.
Over the remainder of the holiday she began revising. Learning the poems by heart lifted her to a place where she could reach her own images; soon the letter in her bottom drawer was fifteen pages long. The new term began, and it was only when she arrived for the first double Lit that Mrs Farrell thumped in with a longer skirt than usual trailing over Scholl sandals, and said, “Mr Jones and I have done a timetable swap so I’ll be taking you through to the exams.” She sat, a little breathless. No one spoke.
As soon as Mrs Farrell stretched a wobbly arm to the blackboard, Janet passed a note with no words but a face spilling tears. Marilyn pushed out her bottom lip. Whether he wanted to spare her or he couldn’t trust himself, it was her fault anyway. She thought of Zhivago clutching his heart on the tram, with Lara further beyond reach with each oblivious step. But this was different; she’d given him nowhere to go but away.
Cycling home that afternoon, past the pond on the common, she wondered how deep it was. Without him every morning wouldn’t feel like dancing on jelly. It would be like winter fog, a wasteland, with always the same question: to die, to sleep? I love you love you love you, she wrote that night. Now there was nothing more. She folded the pages into a brick-like thickness and tied a ribbon around it.
At the end of her final paper some of the girls took her out to drink cider on the common. When the mother of the cleverest Susan parked her car to deliver a cake with sixteen candles, they hid the plastic bottles behind a bush. Then once the cake was cut and they’d sung a more drunken Happy Birthday than was strictly necessary, Susan said, “First love hurts but you’ll find someone else.”
Marilyn swore, had to say, “Sorry, Sue,” and told her that she must be right but it was hard to believe in anything but poetry anymore. She almost added that he hadn’t touched her, in case they imagined it the way she had, but then Janet asked, “Anyone we know?” so she shook her head, and let the tears run.
Two hours later she cycled home in a haze and was sick on the corner of her street.
On the last day of term she hid the letter in her bag and at lunchtime asked an Upper Third who was on her way to the Staff Room to deliver it to Mr Jones.
“All right,” she said. “He’s my favourite teacher. I wish he wasn’t leaving.”
Marilyn didn’t stay to be officially dismissed in her Form Room. Not to be, not to be. The lessons were over.
She got eight As, including both kinds of English, and a C. Only Sue improved on that. Her parents couldn’t have been more moved if she’d just survived a car crash, and when she called on Anne and the baby, she noticed her friend’s results slip stuck to the fridge with A for English ringed three times in red.
“It was Mr Jones,” she told Marilyn, feeding the baby from a bottle. “He made me care.” Marilyn said she knew what she meant.
“How are things?” she asked Anne, because there were six of them in the house now, not counting a malicious-looking cat that caressed her bare legs.
“Oh, you know…” Anne looked out of the window to the deckchair on concrete, where Den was bare-chested and smoking with his back to them. “It’s not poetry.” With a smile Marilyn thought was brave, she turned to her blue-eyed daughter and asked her, “Is it, poppet?”
When Marilyn’s first poem was published in a feminist magazine a year after university, she sent a copy to the school Bysshe Jones had moved on to, but it was returned ‘unknown at this address’. She hadn’t told her boyfriend; he’d see the humour but the pain would pass him by. But almost ten years later, when she won the Hartland Prize – only a small one – and was rewarded by a collection in print, she called it Ravelled. She was married then, with twins of her own, teaching full-time against her mother’s wishes and her husband’s too, drinking a little too much red wine and remembering each night and most days what Anne had told her baby.
The dedication read: To Mr Jones with gratitude for immersing me in ‘all-generous waters’. Love always.
She hoped he might think the work extraordinary.