Little Wild Things

By Gabrielle Blondell

Gil padded across the thick grass of the quad, past lounging students under trees and on park benches, reading, chatting, smoking, sleeping.  No one noted his passing.  He was already a ghost.  He stood in his ghostly fashion in the middle of the stone path.  The clock tower rose above him against a very blue sky.  Birds swirled above it, so frank in their freedom, so very sure of their position against the big blue.

“Gil, old man! I’ve been looking for you.”

William Bright strode toward him.  Gil did not want to like his friend today.  He started off again toward the archway leading to his office.

William fell into step beside him and laid an arm across Gil’s shoulders.  “So, how are you going with the speech?  Do you need an ear?”

“No, its alright, I think,” Gil said.  “I’m just going to shoot from the hip, you know.”

William nodded.  “Of course.  I’m glad.  Those are the kind of speeches which stay with you.”

They passed through the archway and into a narrow corridor lined with noticeboards.  William removed his arm from Gil’s shoulders due to the narrowness of the passage and Gil felt its absence.  At his office, William leaned on the door jamb looking in.

“Would you like to join me, William?”

“I would Gil.  I really would.”

Gil smiled at William’s certainty.  He was not jealous of it.  He did not find it tiresome.  He was encouraged by it, but invariably startled by its ability to endure.  Gil removed two full cardboard boxes from his visitor’s chair.

William stretched his long thin legs out under the desk and Gil shuffled his short stumpy ones to one side to make room.  They sat quietly for a moment.  Gil’s attention was drawn to a twitching in William’s hands, a rubbing of the thumb and forefinger tips together.  “Is everything alright?” Gil asked.

William exhaled in a gust.  The momentous outbreath rustled what remained of the papers on Gil’s desk.  “Yes, yes.  I’ve been meaning to ask you the same thing.  I just haven’t known how to put it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean your retirement,” William said.  “It’s a big step.  I know you don’t want to hear any of my rhetoric, but still….”

As a professor in behavioural economics, William was prone to fixate on human motivations.  Today, Gil hoped he wouldn’t.

“I’m fine, I think.  Really I am.  I suspect today is going to be difficult.  That’s all.   After this, everything will settle down, don’t you think?”

William nodded.  “I suspect so.  Yes.”

They sat for a while and Gil began to wonder if it was his friend’s intention to remain with him until the bitter end.  “It’s okay, William,” he said.  “You don’t have to stay.”

“Are you sure?  I’m happy to, you know.”

Gil did know and was grateful, but he couldn’t fight his need for solitude.  “I do think I would like a little time to myself just to think the speech through, if you know what I mean?”

William sprang to his feet at once.  “Right. I understand.  You always were quieter before your lectures, weren’t you?”

Gil blinked at this remark, but William was gone and he was alone.  He nodded to himself.  His self-pity welled.  To William and very possibly most, if not all, of the faculty he was already much diminished.

Gil placed his hands flat on his desk and took a deep breath.  It troubled him to be both there and not there all at once.  This lack of perspective made him feel very unlike himself.  Perhaps, he really could use the time to think on his speech and be better for it.

So, Gil sat.  His gaze flitted from the boxes on the floor to the empty shelves wrapping around the walls.  He could not take stock.  He was without his usual background of photographs, reference books and the tiny statuettes no one had wanted after his mother’s death.  He looked to the corner, where James Joyce, his sizeable cactus, normally bristled, but it too was gone, removed to his home the previous day.  A knocking on his open door distracted him and he was pleased, until he saw one of his PhD students teetering forlornly on the cusp of entry.  “Come in.”

Daniel sat, his eyes sinking to the Gil’s nearly empty desk.  “I wanted to say goodbye, Professor,” Daniel said without a glimmer of hope.

Gil waited, but the young man said nothing more.

“Well thank you.  I guess this is goodbye.”  Gil rose a little in his chair for the inevitable handshake.

Daniel did not move, his eyes riveted to the table.  Instead he said, “I don’t think I’ll continue on.”

Gil was not surprised.  Every six months throughout Daniel’s academic career, a kind of emotional crisis occurred where his student questioned his ability and his life’s purpose.

“You mustn’t let my retirement interfere with your work, Daniel.   I’m sure Professor Worth will be a fine advisor, don’t you?”

Daniel stared at Gil as if he were stupid.  “No, I don’t.”

“Oh,” said Gil, recognising Daniel was very possibly right in his assessment of Worth.

“It’s not just him, though.  Sometimes I wonder why I’m here at all, you know?”  Daniel shifted in his seat, more animated now he could unload his problems.  “I mean what’s it all for?  Do I really think what I am doing will make any difference at all?”

Gil was repelled by Daniel’s intensity.  He found it an unbearable burden on top of the day’s pre-existing load.  “Really Daniel, you can’t continue to question everything.  The questions become meaningless in themselves.”

“I know.  I know, but still I do.  It rises in me and then I reach a point where I can’t help but ask what it all means.”  Daniel looked toward the floor and shook his head.  “You are the only one who keeps me going.”

Gil felt his frustration spike.  “Perhaps the academic life is not for you.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have kept encouraging you.”

Daniel’s eyes snapped from the floor to Gil.  “You don’t mean that.  You don’t!”

“No I don’t, son.  I’m sorry.”  But Gil did mean that.  He could see, now he was almost gone, his encouragement of Daniel was misplaced.  It was possible he had kept the boy tied to a vision he was unsuited to.

“What should I do, then?”  Daniel was plaintive.

Gil sighed, and then he lied.  “You will go back to your thesis and reread.  You know when you have doubts, it is usually because there is a weakness there.”

“Yes, that’s it.  I should have remembered.  I’m sorry Professor.  I will be back in time for your speech.”

Daniel left then.  Gil stared at the empty chair.  So many students, so many words and so many papers.   Daniel’s academic fitness and Gil’s inability to provide him true guidance need not be held against the entirety of his career and yet his mind stuttered over it.  He stayed at his desk in the grip of it until it was time to leave.

“Such a meaningful contribution you have made to the Law Faculty, Gil.  I mean really exceptional.”  Joy was radiating from Jasper Worth.  The man shook Gil’s hand until the tendons in his bad shoulder groaned.  Jasper was definitely not the advisor for Daniel, but then neither was he.

Gil took a large swig of his whiskey as Worth walked away.

“That’s it, Gil. There’s nothing that a good scotch won’t cure.”

Vice Chancellor Sinclair, stood beside him.

“He’s an idiot, Brendan,” Gil said.

“Who?”

“Worth.”

“Yes, I know.  He’s had a positive hard-on ever since he heard of your retirement.  But what am I to do?  Its not like professors in international law grow on trees.  We had a perfectly good one, but he’s decided to take up gardening.”

“I am not planning on gardening, Brendan.  Still he’s an idiot.”

“Yes, he is.  Not to worry though.  If he screws up, no one will know.  You know why, don’t you?”

It was an old line and they completed it together.  “There is no such thing as international law!”

Sinclair swapped his scotch glass into his left hand and offered his right to Gil.  Gil clasped it.  “Anyway, I’m sorry to see you go, Gil.  You are one of the few academics I have ever really liked.”

“Thanks Brendan.”  They shook hands and Gil watched as the Vice-Chancellor wandered off toward Jasper Worth, took his hand and shook it every bit as warmly.

 Gil stood in the wings and watched as Daniel hurried down the central aisle and took a seat.  He was feeling a fraud, when Sinclair called him to the podium.

Gil stood silent for some time in front of his audience, hoping it would pass for humility…..anything really, other than what it was.  He had nothing at all to say.  He looked for William and found him sitting in that loose way of his, so ready to hear wisdom.

Good Afternoon, colleagues, students, visitors and friends……I’ve spent a lifetime in formal learning.  I’ve never done anything else and I can’t help at this late date to wonder why.  Gil watched as William bent his long legs at the knee and leant over them in concentration.  Three rows back Daniel blinked down at him.

When I was four I remember watching my older brother go to school every day.  He would sit in the front passenger seat of our mother’s little Austin car, while I sat in the back and I felt this rather hierarchal in nature….

Sections of the audience tittered politely and he acknowledged them with a nod.

….Anyway, Tom and she would  speak of another world and I would sit and wait for Tom to be gone, so I could shuffle over the gear stick and into the front seat beside mum for the journey home.  The idea of school, of joining this more interesting life, free from nap time when Mum would curl up on the lounge and listen to radio shows and I would disappear, was made irresistible to me…

Gil’s terror mounted with each word.  That the very next word would not present itself and he would be caught in his madness.  But as it was, one word came and then another and he found himself every bit as perplexed by it as he felt his audience must be.

…Finally the day came after a week of shopping.  New underpants and socks.  A school port.  Trying on Tom’s uniforms from his first year to see if they fit.  I thought they did, but photos tell me otherwise.  My legs were shorter and so the shorts fell well below the knee and with the socks pulled up, I had no legs at all….

Gil found himself waggling a leg at his audience like a vaudevillian.  A round of laughter ensued with the added expectation, Gil was sure, that it all meant something profound.

….I still sat in the back seat of the little Austin car, but it didn’t matter.  My mother instructed me all the way on how I needed to call the teacher ‘Miss or Mr’ and how I wasn’t allowed to run on concrete, a surprising fact since I had done this since I could run and not once before had I been cautioned… More laughter from his audience, to which Gil was becoming ever more grateful for and concerned over, in equal measures.

….She told me to follow the other children and do what they did and this too was interesting.  Mostly I had played in the stream behind our house or down the road in the big paddock where I would try to climb the trees and jump the cow pats in the middle of the long grass.  But yes, I promised her I would do as she asked.  We stopped at the school.  I clasped my port, stood at the school gate and waved to my mother.  When I turned toward the school, Tom was already running up the path and disappearing amongst the other children.  I took a firm grip and walked through the school, like we were meant for each other….except we weren’t.

Gil prayed for a fire alarm.

….There were children everywhere.  More than I had ever seen in one place.  They bustled, they pushed, they ran on concrete and were shouted at by stern adults.  They frightened me.  I looked around the classroom, all the children sitting two by two at their wooden desks, their ports on the floor beside them.  I lasted as long as morning tea and then I went looking for Tom.  I spotted him sitting on a bench with a group of his friends eating an apple from the tree in our yard.  I felt warm at the sight of that apple.  Gil felt his audience straining toward him in anticipation of a well-rounded tale.  He had no choice, but to go on.  He raised his voice and took on his younger self.

“Tom,” I yelled to him and waved.  I saw him look up.  I saw him see me and then I saw him gather his friends and walk away.  A bell rang and the children ran over the concrete and the adults yelled.  Very soon, there was not a child to be seen anywhere in the play area, but me.  I felt conspicuous.  I found a small space under the first flight of stairs in the stairwell and hid there.  I hid every day for a week, until the teacher sent a note home to my mother with Tom.  I was asked many questions, none of which I could answer…

Gil looked up from the podium.  Nobody moved.  Not arm nor leg.  The silence was cavernous.  Finally, he had run out of words.  He had skipped headlong from one to another and now there were no more.  Gil sought out William in the audience, but just as he found his friend, a hand waved at him.  It was Daniel.  Gil nodded to him.

“What changed?” his student asked.

“Pardon?”

“Why this?”  Daniel indicated the auditorium, the university and by association, Gil’s career.  “What changed?”

Gil looked down to the podium and then back to Daniel.

“Well, everything.  It was another time.  Things were different back then.  We were not born to the idea of schooling like children are today.  We scampered.  We created our worlds in our heads.  We were little wild things.”

Daniel shook his head and Gil wondered if together they might understand.  His student looked to him in that mournful way of his one last time.

“Do you regret it?” he asked, as if the two of them were in Gil’s office together.

“There’s still time and I’m not so very civilised.  It’s still in me somewhere.”

“The little wild thing?” Daniel asked.

“Yes.”

“Thank you, professor.”

A silence rang throughout the auditorium and then the applause began.

“Interesting speech, Gil.”

Gil was standing in the quad again, looking up at the clock tower.  He felt the weight of William’s arm across his shoulders once more.

“I’m not sure I understand it, but you make me want to go and climb a tree,” William said.

Gil laughed. “I don’t doubt that you could with those long legs of yours.”

The two men watched the birds swirling above the clock tower, so frank in their freedom, so very sure of their position in the big blue.

  Gabrielle Blondell © 2015

I hope you enjoyed this short short.  If you did, you might like Genevieve’s Philosophy of Life and Deathnow available on Amazon as a digital book.

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