He stood confident at the head of the lecture room. He was learned, cultured. His voice and every word he spoke was seductively sophisticated. He was the quintessential handsome professor. His accent was his only vice. It bothered most of the students, but not Anna.
She was born and raised on a cattle farm in the small town of Wagga, by parents whose minds spanned far beyond the dirt and the dust of outback Australia. It had given the otherwise naïve country girl, a far more worldly and enlightened perspective than her fellow scholars; although she may not have realised it, and they were not about to acknowledge it.
She was new to the university. As was Professor Erich Bauer, her philosophy lecturer. Neither seemed to belong. They both possessed an inescapable flaw; she was a woman and he was a German. It had been five years since the war ended, but, for many, old wounds still ran deep.
“What do you want?” And why?“, he asked, repeating aloud the questions he had written on the board earlier.
Anna had already been contemplating the questions, but as she heard him read them aloud, her desire to answer them became stronger. He spoke with ‘European passion’. That’s how she described it. And hearing him speak inspired the conscientious young lady. Her parents had spoken fondly of their trips to Europe, and although they had not had the chance to take Anna, she felt the memories, as if they were hers to claim.
For Anna, moving to the city was getting her one step closer to what the big wide world had to offer. Professor Bauer and the worldly mystique he possessed made him feel strangely familiar to her. She liked him. He represented the different views she had been searching for.
“Now, answer them” he directed.
The class sat quietly.
“Open your books, pick up your pens and write...”
“Write what sir?”
“As I said; the answer to the questions on the board”.
Reluctantly, the class opened their books, and picked up their pens, but no one wrote a word. “How?” A young man bravely asked what everyone else was thinking.
“You’re all intelligent young men, and women. I’ll let you decide”.
After further pause, they began to write. They were still clearly struggling with the concept, but no one wanted to expose their ignorance. After about twenty minutes he asked them to stop.
“Please pass them along to the front, and do not put your name on them”.
“How will you grade them if you don’t know who they belong to?”
“I won’t be grading them”.
A wave of mumbles echoed through the room, and again, the brave young man spoke up;
“What’s the point then sir?”
“Good question”, he replied simply, unphased by their disillusion.
Anna smiled. Anna was intelligent, but a quietly conscientious student. She appreciated Professor Bauer’s methods and was more than happy accept their value and learn from them.
Not so much the others. With sighs and rolled eyes, they all began to pass their papers to the front. Once he had received them all, he continued with the lesson.
When class had finished, he dismissed everyone but requested Anna stay behind for a moment. She waited patiently for the others to disperse.
“How are you?” he asked, when they were alone.
“Fine, thank you” Anna replied instinctively.
This was her eighth week in his class, and this was the first time he had requested a private meeting with her.
“I wanted to express my pleasure at reading your brilliantly insightful essay. And the reference to Transcendentalism. I had no idea that people here knew of this type of historical theorem.”
“Well, we may be geographically isolated from the rest of the world here, but that does not make us culturally ignorant”.
He had inadvertently insulted her, or rather her home country. A mistake he took quite personally, as he knew all too well how it felt to be judged for where you come from.
“I apologise if I have insulted you. It was far from my intention. I was most impressed with your work. I shared it with my colleagues, some of which would have struggled to understand it, and the others suggested it could not have been written by a first year student.”
“So, you’re judging my cultural sophistication and accusing me of plagiarism?”
His attempt to be flattering was not going to plan.
She would not normally have been so defensive, but the past week’s events had left her feeling vulnerable and over-sensitive. She knew she was misdirecting such emotions, but she was unable to control it.
“No! Not at all. I’m sorry. Let me start again, and simply say that I was most impressed by your work. The reference you made to the movement and its core values being comparable to...”
He picked up her paper from his desk and began to search through it for the referenced paragraph. Unable to locate it fast enough, he continued;
"Well, lets just say that its the best I’ve read, and I’ve read a few. It was an essay that matched in advanced wisdom as it did, insight”.
Despite her initial reaction, such praise from him meant a lot to her.
He stared at her thoughtfully.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine” she replied instinctively, but he seemed unconvinced.
“Are you sure?” he asked, with genuine concern.
Anna appreciated his concern but didn’t quite understand it. Could he read her mind? He seemed reluctant to elaborate.
“Really, I’m fine” she replied.
It wasn’t true, but her problems were her own to deal with. He pointed to her swollen eye. She had forgotten about it, but she now realised what sparked his cause for concern. She stroked it gently
“Oh this? It’s nothing…Just a little accident”.
Again, he seemed unconvinced but didn’t push the issue.
“Ok, well if ever you need to talk” he assured her.
His offer was chivalrous, and she did appreciate it, but she feared what Barnaby was capable of now, and she didn’t want anyone else caught up in the drama. She knew Eleanor would see it too, and she had yet to decide how to deal with that. She excused herself politely, fearing what she would reveal if she stayed longer.
She had so far managed to avoid allowing Eleanor to see it. It helped that Eleanor often kept late hours, or sometimes didn’t return home at all. But they had plans to go out together on the weekend, and Anna knew all would be revealed.
The week dragged on painfully. She was concerned that the group would plan another attack, and she exhausted herself with worry, that Barnaby would show up. It wasn’t so much the shock of what he had done, but the betrayal it represented. He had been her first boyfriend, and she had once believed it was true love. Now everything seemed wrong.
Despite her concern, there was no further drama, and miraculously she had managed to conceal her eye from Eleanor. But it was Saturday night and there would be no more hiding.
Anna arrived at the hotel, which was already bustling with activity. She had arranged to meet Eleanor at 6pm. Surprisingly, Eleanor was early. Spotting her waiving from a small table, Anna made her way through the crowd.
Eleanor had already ordered drinks and placed one in front of Anna as soon as she sat down. The pair exchanged pleasantries, before Eleanor finally noticed Anna’s eye. The bruising had subsided considerably, but it was still visible, and Eleanor seemed to know straight away.
“Take it from me, once they start…”
Anna took a drink.
“It’s not what you think”
“He’s not worth it Anna”.
Eleanor knew what she was talking about. She was only a couple of years older than Anna, but she had lived an informative life, and had already learnt many hard lessons.
“I know” she agreed, only to appease her friend.
“Could we just enjoy our night, and not talk about it anymore?”
Eleanor shook her head ruefully but continued with their evening, without mentioning anymore about it. They ordered some food and enjoyed each other’s company.
Other than Barnaby, Eleanor was one of the first people Anna met when she arrived in the city. The two had little in common but were instant friends. Eleanor had a reputation for being a woman around town. But it never occurred to Anna to see her as others did. She never saw people through society’s eyes, and it was a quality that drew the right kind of people to her.
Anna was an attractive girl, and it was this quality, at times, that attracted the wrong kind of people as well. Barnaby was one such person. Anna couldn’t see it yet, but Barnaby saw her as a trophy. Growing up in a wealthy and influential family, Barnaby was gifted with the best of everything. He was instantly attracted to Anna and was determined to have her. Anna, intelligent but naïve, fell right into his trap, and now she was paying for it.
After a couple of hours, some food, and a few more drinks, Anna had almost forgotten about her troubles.
“One more drink and I’m off” Eleanor announced, noticing the time.
She had a prior engagement. A date with a wealthy businessman. She finished her drink and got up to leave. Before she had a chance to bid her friend goodnight, Barnaby appeared out of nowhere, blocking her path. Anna shook her head, indicating for Eleanor not to say anything. Instead, she took the lead, hoping it would subdue her friend long enough for her to leave;
“What are you doing here?”
“It’s a free country last I checked”.
Eleanor struggled to restrain herself. She knew it was no coincidence him showing up there. And Anna did too.
“You know what I mean, you usually go to the Bridge Hotel”.
“So, I came here tonight. How about a drink?”
“I don’t think so”.
She stood up to leave with Eleanor. He grabbed her arm.
“She said no, Barnaby” Eleanor interjected, no longer able to stay silent.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be or someone to do?” He sneered insultingly.
“Look, I just want to talk to you”.
Eleanor tried to convince her not to, but Anna agreed.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll be fine” she assured her friend.
Eleanor wasn’t comfortable about leaving her, but she was late for her date, and Anna would not let her stay. Eleanor scowled at Barnaby, before leaving.
“Come on, let’s sit over there” he demanded, leading her to a booth tucked away in the corner, out of sight of the crowd.
Anna sat down. Her trepidation was obvious.
“Relax. It’s me…Aren’t you happy to see me? Let’s get a drink?”
He raised his hand for service, but no one could see them from where they were seated.
“I’ll have to go get them myself” he complained, getting up and forcing his way to the bar.
“None for me” Anna called after him.
She sat, feeling all-the-more nervous. They hadn’t seen each other since the night of the fire, and Barnaby was acting as if nothing had happened.
Anna decided to leave. She owed him nothing, and she was starting to realise that it was not a good idea to have accepted his offer to stay. She stood up, ready to make her move, but before she could leave, Barnaby returned with two drinks in hand.
“Where are you going? I ordered you a drink”
“I told you I didn’t want one” she protested.
“Come on, it’s just a drink. It’ll relax you”.
He began to push her back toward the table. He put the drinks down and ordered her to sit.
“I think I’m just going to go” she explained.
Barnaby was not impressed.
“No, you’re not. Now just sit down and stop being silly”.
He placed his hand firmly on her shoulder and pressed down. Anna pushed his hand away and tried to manoeuvre herself around the table.
When she turned around, Professor Bauer was standing there.
“Hello Miss Freeman. Everything ok?”
It seemed odd seeing him outside of class and the timing left her feeling instantly flustered.
“Its fine” Barnaby replied, agitated.
“I was asking the lady” he rebutted.
He knew Barnaby’s type, and wasn’t scared of him.
“Listen Nazi, this is a private conversation, why don’t you go back to where you belong, like a POW camp or something?”
“Stop it Barnaby” Anna pleaded.
“We’re fine, thank you” she insisted politely, turning to Professor Bauer.
“Yeah, we’re fine, so get lost” Barnaby replied, grabbing Anna’s waist and pulling her into him, in an obvious show of possession.
He looked directly at Anna
“I only care if you’re ok”.
Barnaby sniggered; “Who do you think you’re talking to mate? Do you know who I am?”
Deep down, Barnaby knew he was nobody. As a government minister, it was his father who held the position of power, but the arrogant young man never tired of using it to his advantage.
The Professor was not easily intimidated though.
“I don’t care who you are, but I know what you are” he assured him.
“I’m fine” Anna reiterated quickly, trying to diffuse the situation.
She separated herself from Barnaby.
“Please? I’ll see you in class on Monday sir”.
She didn’t want the volatile situation to escalate further, and she figured she could handle Barnaby. Professor Bauer was not convinced. The remnants of her bruising, still being visible, he knew now who had caused it, and it angered him. He wanted to punch Barnaby right then and there, but he could see in her eyes, that such an action would not be wise at this time. When he was satisfied that Anna was ok, he excused himself, and left.
“You know that Sauer Kraut well, do you?” Barnaby accused.
Anna was tired.
“Don’t be silly” she insisted.
“He seems to know you well?”
“He’s just one of my professors” she defended, realising how ridiculous it was that he expected her to explain herself to him.
It did, however, give her the confidence she needed to walk away from him.
She hurried home, looking behind to make sure he wasn’t following her. Did she ever really know him? She couldn’t escape the sad irony. The young man she once admired was now a stranger she feared.