Ken Champion

Semiology

Resting against the whiteboard he looked across to the empty chair on his left where Marci had always sat, until a year ago when her estranged husband’s jealousy had finally won and she’d left the course. He knew nothing of her and David, her lecturer, he was jealous of every man.
  It was a common story amongst mature female students. Men, feeling inadequate and frightened that their partners or wives were stretching towards new horizons - and wondering who was helping them get there - would occasionally come to the college and demand to know where their women were. When he asked for ideas for research projects a third of the females would opt for something to do with domestic violence, which he would turn into a working hypothesis that they could test.
  Hope was such a one. She would sit next to him when discussing her work with heavy bruising under her eye. She was twenty, the youngest in a class of thirty.
  ‘I don’t deserve this, do I.’ she’d say.
  Marci used to sit there wearing a tracksuit, her braided extensions rising above a headband, gazing at him with Bambi eyes and a knowing mouth, and occasionally sipping brandy from a plastic bottle. He thought it was mineral water.
  It had been a frenetic time. He’d been to a gym with her, seen the frown under the darktight nest of hair to ward off posing machos, the burnt umber skin, ear-to-ear grin, watched her puffing out her pain in press-ups, drowning her sadness in saunas, lifted weights with her, and attempted ungainly to keep time with her aerobics group. He’d held her up in a nightclub, rushed to her bedside in a local hospital because she’d collapsed, gazed at the zigzagging, merging colours on the screen whilst her liver was being scanned, and after being dragged for a sunset ride on the Barracuda at Southend, lying next to her on his bed like a contortionist dying in his own arms.
  The tables and chairs he’d arranged in a three-sided rectangle, for many mature students had had bad educative experiences when young and, especially at the beginning of an academic year, desks set out in well remembered rows would trigger the same fears. Most of the people on this course were from ethnic minorities, mainly African females, and nearly all went on to university.
  He played devil’s advocate. When he first met them he would explain that under the guise of an evangelical mission Europeans had introduced Christianity to Africa for the purposes of social and economic control of half a continent - the more politically aware would nod wisely - and that God hadn’t created us, but we, him; the real question being, why?
  The classroom would glow with outrage and anger and, often, pity. He wanted to shock their mindset, to create a sliver of a chance that he just could be right, thus helping them to detach, to step back. They were then halfway to a sociological view of the world, and that’s what he was teaching. There were always some female students who would say to him on their way out after the first lecture, lightly touching his shoulder as he sat at his desk, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ He was sure they did.
  He’d begun the sociology of deviance the previous year at the beginning of term two and started on the semiotics part the day before Marci had left. He’d suggested that the police worked within the class structure, had pre-existing concepts, ‘pictures in their heads’, of what criminality was and ‘criminals’ were like. He’d asked them for the signs the Bill pounced on.
The two Dagenham lads, who’d always sat together, immediately and in concert had said, ‘Workin’ class, innit.’
  ‘They’re protecting the bourgeoisie from the proles.’ Abosede had shouted, her Catholicism weakening after a month of Marx.
  He’d asked for the signals that would suggest ’working classness.’ Pam, the Afro-Caribbean had suggested it was the walk; another that it was the Sun stuck in back pockets of jeans. He’d then turned his back to them, bouncing on his heels, squaring his shoulders and asked for, ‘Two lagers, John.’
  He did this every year, ‘the calf muscle move.’ He’d then ask if they thought he was mimicking the son of an Emeritus Professor of Literature at Kings College, Cambridge - a cheap laugh, but it made the point. One of several Nigerians had said a car was an obvious clue, another, leisure activities and musical tastes, a usually silent Somalian suggested that accent and appearance were the obvious signals and, rather late, someone had suggested race. And so they’d gone on, most of them saying something and in the end creating a comprehensive coverage of perceived clues.
  Marci, as ever, had said nothing, merely looking at him steadily. He’d hinted strongly that there would be questions on this at the end of term and suggested a mnemonic to help them. Their answers came back like drumbeats, and they’d made up a little chant:
  dreadlocks, hip-hop, beemer, mean,
  tattoos, skins, hard, obscene
  Some of them had left the classroom happily singing it - possibly because they were going home to change for a birthday party for the twin girls in the class. He’d reminded them, tongue in cheek, they were to turn up in English time, not African.
  Now, he let this evening class go early. His car had been stored in the nearby motor vehicle buildings - and probably used for teaching - for the length of his drink and driving ban, and he was wondering how it would feel when he drove it for the first time in a year. Marci, a lot noisier then than when she’d occasionally slipped into the staff room, unheard and unseen, and put a sandwich - and even an apple - on his desk, had been involved in that, too.

It had been decided that they’d go to a local East End pub for the party. He rarely drank, often being mocked by fellow brickies on the sites he’d worked on as an apprentice years before. The class had settled in well in the three months they had been together and most wanted to go. Marci he’d known outside the classroom since she had tearfully pleaded that her essay had been worth more than the grade he had given it because she had worked so hard; perhaps he should have realised then that she had emotional problems. He mumbled about professional integrity and encouraged her to work harder. He didn’t give in. He hadn’t the year before when a student who had done a lot of research on prostitution and, accompanied by her tough-looking CID husband and pitiful lame child - a two-pronged emotional attack - had harangued him in front of other staff to give her the Distinction she thought her work was worth. But, he rarely failed any one.
  The next day Marci had rung him in the staff room and asked if he wanted to go to a bar that evening with her and some friends; he’d thanked her and declined. Later that night, with tears in her voice, she’d rang and asked for his address. A little afterwards he’d seen her walking up a garden path some houses away peering short-sightedly at the number on the front door, a manoeuvre she repeated on the next one. Taking her hand he’d gently guided her to his flat.
  They drove to the pub late and on the way he’d made the mistake of mentioning the class flirt whom, apparently, he spent more time talking to in class than the others. The car stiffened; he was scared. She had this effect on him and however he analysed it, couldn’t prevent. She was out of the car before he’d stopped, towing his fear to the pub. Ignoring wondering classmates she pushed straight through to the bar and ordered a double brandy,
  There was a small stage to the side and on it was the girl who had organised this get-together and who was groining her mini-skirted thighs around and pushing them out at everybody standing around. The swot whose name he could never remember was next to her wearing a blonde wig and rhythmically lifting up a kilt, showing his briefs. The two Ugandans, looking like bouncers, were chuckling deeply and the Nigerian women, gold bangles and ear rings glittering, were quietly smiling, their Victorian values not far away; not for them the two inch band of flesh at their waists, tops of knickers showing. He noticed the Ghanaian women were wearing traditional dress, which seemed to glow, as did their smooth skins and saw the Romford Marxist leaning against the flock-papered wall frowning disapprovingly. Most of them looked very different from the way they did in class, and seemed genuinely glad to see him.
  He circulated, drank some wine - someone seemed to keep filling his glass - learnt more about Robert Gabriel Mugabe from an extrovert Zimbabwean student, and one of the older women came over to talk to him about social work. Then Marci was by his side, eyes narrowed. She turned and minced to the stage, jumped up and started dancing about in a clumsy, clattering way in front of a track-suited skinhead, repeatedly pressing herself against him. As she briefly pulled away there was a noticeable bulge in his crotch. She looked round at David and grinned. He strode across and pulled her off the stage. He could hardly see through the noise.
  ‘Get off, get off, get off!’ she shouted. ‘Let me go!’
  She tried to pull her hand away, he gripped harder, dragged her across to the door, and in a tiny chip of cold detachment saw them performing some exotic dance where the man strides smoothly across the dance floor dragging his sylph-like partner horizontally behind him. He was angry and as he pulled the door open glimpsed one of the Dagenham students hiding under a table. She continued to shout at him to let her go as he hurried her to the car parked across the road. He held her against the passenger door for a few seconds then ran around to open the driving-side door. She kicked the side of the car and continued doing so as he got in. He leant across to open the door for her and saw two women run from the pub towards her. He didn’t know them.
  ‘He’s her tutor, he’s abusing her.’ one shrilled. ‘He’s using his authority.’
  Again, the distancing irrelevance as he thought that this could be a cue for a lecture on perceptions of power. In the wing mirror he saw some men hastily cross towards him. He’d left the window down; the other woman pushed her arm in and grabbed his hand as it turned the ignition.
  ‘She’s with me.’ he said, as calmly as he could,’ I brought her here, she’s - ‘
  ‘I’m not!’ Marci screamed.’ I’m not with him, I’m not, I’m not!’ and then she began crying. He pushed the hand away and drove off.
  He stopped after a hundred yards or so and then went around the block to go back to see if she was okay. Slowly he passed the pub, a group of women were comforting her. He could hear her sobbing. He drove homewards. Nobody with her had noticed him.
  A few minutes later he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street and realised he was drunk. He stopped the car; it just happened to be outside of a small police station. A constable told him to get out. He did so and irrelevantly emptied his pockets, placing their contents on the roof of the car. He heard himself giggling as they slid slowly down.
  She was leaning against the porch when he got back. He opened the door and closed it behind them. She followed him to the bedroom. He let out a tortuous explosion of the evening’s emotions.
  ‘You could have got me lynched.’ he yelled. ‘Why did you lie? Why?’
  She suddenly slid down the wall and knelt on the floor. He picked her up and gently laid her on the bed. She slept instantly in his arms. He hadn’t mentioned the breathalysing. He held her tightly throughout the night.

The last of them left the classroom - Hope remarking facetiously that she’d seen a squirrel in the college earlier and wanted to know if it was deviant - and just to make sure that the motor vehicle lecturer had got his message he glanced out the window to see if the car was outside the workshops. It was. He hurried down the stairs, wondering why he felt such anticipation at driving again, something quite ordinary, mundane even. He’d got used to buses.
  It felt immediately familiar. Driving slowly out the gate he turned westward, overtook two lorries and accelerated towards a main junction a mile away. As he neared it he became gradually aware that what was irritatingly taking his attention were flashing blue lights hitting the driving mirror. Their significance escaped him - he even flicked the mirror up to dull the flashes - until he heard the siren and saw the panda car suddenly behind him. The traffic lights in front were red. He slowed and stopped. Turning in his seat he saw two policemen step out from either side of their car, their movements synchronised.
  He’d taught for nine hours in a twelve-hour day and was tired; he assumed he’d been speeding. He remembered the last time police had approached his car; the unbelieving shake of the head from the older one, the embarrassed grin from the other - who he hadn’t noticed at first - as he’d picked up his wallet, small change and comb from the roadside, and thought of Marci with her bloodshot beautiful eyes telling him the following morning that her husband was coming back and she wouldn’t be able to see him again. He thought also of the last lesson she’d had with him, what they’d all been discussing, and the little chant.
  Quickly he pulled two paperbacks from the glove compartment; Sociology and Philosophical Theory, and dropped them face upwards on the passenger seat. And as the two uniformed figures looked in at him from both sides of the car he lowered the window and raised the volume on Classic FM.

Ken Champion © 2011