There was a tune in my head, every moment when I think of that time, Summer Song by Ronnie Foster, imagine the sound is coming out of the centre of your brain, an earworm like the kids say, present every occasion that I walked through the little university complex, the streetfront campus pubs, the concourse, the Arts Tower, the ivied and submerged buildings, in the centre of all this in the seminar room, she herself – Dr Adair Tarrant.
It’s strange because I don’t go for older women or for ‘arty’ women. Tall and handsome as I was back then I always used to pull at the student nights, and I was also involved with a crazy, passionate woman from back home called Cheryl Bevan who periodically descended on the city for arguments and sex and who I knew even back then that I would end up marrying. The Doctor. What was it about her. The legs, the skin, the body, the hair, the lips? The voice. The things she said in that room that seemed meant for me directly and alone.
‘So according to Edmund Burke,’ she said (in a class full of girls) ‘only Mr Lawton here would be able to appreciate the sublime, by virtue of his good fortune to possess an extra Y chromosome.’
‘You’d think your man here,’ – waving a book of 1930s poetry – ‘would think of including some damn footnotes.’
Think about it’ – we were talking about Ulysses, no one had read it or could make intelligent contributions, she was pointing at an early passage – ‘what is happening in this para? The surfaces. The feel of things. Don’t look at it in a linear way. Don’t look at it like it has a beginning and a middle and an end.’
That she was passionate about things. That I think was it. That feeling I get on site when I see a lad work past his timesheet to finish a job. She loved books and reading and teaching. And that was a rare thing because most of my fellow students were doing Eng Lit because that was what white middle class children did. They’d collect their two ones and marry a hometown boy and work for an estate agent and have kids, same as I would end up working fucking sites, like my dad. But these others in my class didn’t read for pleasure, they had no passion for it, and the Doctor did.
‘I want you to have read this book by the time we meet again,’ said the Doctor.
I read Ulysses on the sofa while the housemates watched TV, I read in the club in the lull hours before the first drunks rolled through the door. Cheryl Bevan made one of her surprise crashing visits and we had a row because I kept taking the book out in the restaurant and reading it instead of concentrating on her usual hometown gossip.
I got to the seminar and only the Doctor was there.
‘You’re the only person who turned up,’ she said. ‘I think I scared them.’
What did we talk about in that hour? I don’t recall, except that we talked a lot, and that hour passed quick, but at the same time remains caught in my head as a stillness, the rolling fluent Scottish voice (or Irish, I don’t recall) and the shaft of window sunlight that hung in the air between us, summer of ’01 – Christ, that was an innocent time, and it came to me in scary moments of my life since, the Crossrail fire or the Malmaison door when the Rangers fans charged us, I relived that hour, and stayed cool.
We walked out together. I asked if she wanted lunch in the West End, and she said – with no thought or inflection I could make out – that she didn’t have time. I was about to say something else, and a strange noise interrupted me.
‘Hear that?’ She cocked her head. ‘Oyster catcher. You don’t often get them round here.’
When term broke up I worked on my dad’s site for the summer. I thought of the Doctor often, and hallucinated her in shadows. I had dreams where she came to my door and then I awoke and felt an awful regret because the dreams were not real. Existential feelings of panic and loss overwhelmed me. This mooncalf stupidity isn’t much approved of and ain’t really my nature, I rationalised that I was bored – there wasn’t much to do in the town apart from get drunk and fuck Cheryl Bevan, and working for my dad was no fun, he’d never approved of my college time, and moaned about the impracticality and the cost of it (cocksucker’s dead now, electrocuted on site, power line job, I’m happy to add).
I’d have felt even worse if I’d known that the end of term drink in the West End was to be my last site of the Doctor: by the time I got back for my final year she had vanished off the scene. I googled her, searched university sites: nothing. I even wondered if I had imagined our entire relationship.
I did end up working on sites, until the crash, and then I worked doors. I also ended up marrying Cheryl, and we had three beautiful children. I wasn’t much of a dad, I was a little hard on them, I wanted them all to go to college, I loved them, though, and it makes me wish I was still alive, but the cancer got me, decades of twenty-deck days plus whatever corrosive chemicals I ingested in seventeen years of sites, and my final muddled hours I remember mainly for the distinctive birdsong from the trees outside my window. The birds would wake me up at five in the am, and I would lie there waiting on the morphine and trying to identify the birds from their songs.
I think Adair Tarrant would know.
Max Dunbar lives in Manchester, UK. He’s currently working on a novel, and also writes short stories and articles on politics and religion. He’s the Manchester regional editor for Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. You can find him on Twitter @MaxDunbar1.
Image: Jazmin Quaynor