All eyes were on Neil as he had started almost the moment the doc had posed the question. Neil locked eyes with him and spoke as if it were just the two of them in the room.
“The name of a character is so important. If you think about it, you start writing and some name arbitrarily pops into your head, maybe a magazine lies nearby and you pinch the name off the cover, or you look for a smaller article to be more original.”
Neil realised he had blurted out the first thought that entered his head, quite egotistically, but then, felt it best to see the thought through to its conclusion for fear of appearing an idiot altogether.
“David West recently wrote a piece on...and so on. OK, you think David West. But no, can`t use the whole name, OK so David? No, too boring. But West, OK so somebody West. Umm, who? What name can I pull? Someone I met last night. A radio newsreader. Anyone. Someone pops into your head you were in prep school with. Jacob Morris. OK, so Jacob West.”
Neil`s cheeks fizzed with a growing redness to which the class had become accustomed whenever he made any of his rare lengthy observations.
“Then finally I ask myself, am I going to be okay having to hear that name in my head, and see it on the screen, for the next year of my life? Jac-ob West? If not, get out now, call him something else. And so I have taken twenty minutes coming up with a fucking name.”
His words having spewed out almost ahead of his mind`s decision to use them, Neil slunk back into his chair. The doc smiled at him and then around at the other six students. He seized on the moment to show off his exaggerated shoulder hunch and juggler`s hand motions that made up his second rate impression of a comedic Hasidic Jew routine.
“All I ask is how you choose a character name and I get Rainman over here.”
Everyone smiled, except Neil, whose face suddenly flushed more fully than before, causing the doc to put an end to his performance. Neil did not utter another word for the remaining eleven minutes of the class.
Afterwards, as everyone dispersed, the doc noticed Neil had retracted into a shell and came over to him as he stood with his hands in his bag fidgeting with his note book.
“Neil, why are you on this course?”
The question took him by surprise and he let go of his bag for a moment.
“I want to write. I mean I want to learn. From a writer.”
“You are a writer. You`ve written two fabulous plays.”
“Thanks” Neil muttered, but with a swelling pride enveloping him. “But I want to make the correct decisions. I want some clarity of thought in what I`m doing.”
“Your outburst on picking a character`s name-”
“I`m sorry about that.”
“Not at all. You nailed it. Ignore my silly joke afterwards.” The doc perched on a table with his hands interlocked. “You live and breathe it. The others don`t think like that.”
“What are you saying? I should quit?”
“I won`t tell you one way or the other, but you don`t need to be here to write. Maybe think about it over the weekend.”
Neil nodded and the doc walked slowly off into the corridor. If the university knew he was talking his own students into quitting, would he not be in some kind of serious trouble? Neil then walked down the corridor slowly, looking at the posters on the walls. A thin leg in dark tights stood, with its attached boot kicking its partner`s heal. The attached body out of sight hidden behind another girl, belonged to Agnes. Neil knew this as he had stared at the same thin legs across from him for the first month of the postgraduate degree. Agnes turned her head precisely at that moment looking at Neil, catching his eye briefly, and then turned back to the others.
Neil did not know where to look and felt his neck flush slightly for a moment, and then he stopped, feigning interest in the posters on the wall that appealed to undergraduates to attend demonstrations about something going on in, or near, the Middle East. His eyes ran over random words very quickly as they usually did when he was distracted, the result of which was that he took in nothing at all. He tried to listen in to the conversation a little way down the corridor as Agnes spoke to two others from their creative writing class. She had a soft voice that he found most appealing, but it was inaudible from his current position, then suddenly, her head popped round the shoulder that had blocked it for the preceding minute.
“Neil, we`re going to the Gate for a couple, if you fancy it?”
Neil looked over at her sweet round face, the inflection at the end of her sentence grabbing him somewhere deep within.
“Sure” he said, half turning, realising he had responded so quickly, it were as if he were eavesdropping on their earlier conversation, and so to compensate, he stood, continuing to glaze over the same student poster, his eyes jumping all around, picking out the occasional word, Gaza here, blockade there, and further down illegal war, in the hope that he appeared as casual as a normal person, pretending not to think about Agnes kicking off her boots and untying the bow that held together her tightly bound brown hair.
Agnes and her friend Brittany, a tall Swedish girl with a long neck and short blonde hair, whose bony shoulder had blocked Agnes from sight moments before, walked over casually with Rick, an American with small earrings in both ears and thick dark eyebrows. Rick wore heavy military style boots which were in constant motion in every class, kicking, and circling, always somehow in Neil`s eye line, driving him to distraction. Rick was probably the kind of person as a child that parents would euphemistically describe as a ball of energy but later turned into the Ricks of this world, attention seekers or those who could make the loudest noise, or in other words, those that got the girls.
The four of them walked down across the short lawn that gave the university its average entrance, and into the street, towards the pub. The three others walked so casually, what felt like the slowest elderly-people walk to Neil, but he maintained their pace trying to keep his growing longing for Agnes in check at least until they might be alone at some point. That Rick with the eyebrows and the army boots was probably fucking her, he thought, and so was surprised when they took a natural two by two pattern, Brittany and Rick ahead, with Agnes to his right, still walking ever so slowly. When it became just the two of them, it was fine to walk this slowly. In fact, why not stop and talk here? Who needed alcohol at this time anyway? Then he realised they had walked in silence for nearly a minute behind the chattering duo ahead, and like they seemed to in every second rate romantic comedy film, they both began speaking at the same time, only in real life this was just awkward.
“Oh, go ahead Neil.” Agnes said, as she swept some shiny brown hairs behind her small shapely ear. Was she deferential because she respected his input in class? Neil wished there was a button he could press to switch off all the neuroses when he was with a woman to whom he was attracted, but alas, there was not.
“I just wanted to ask what made you pick this course? Was it the doc?”
“I guess so.” she said, looking at the ground. “Well that was part of it. Also a couple of old friends spoke highly of this university and I guess like the rest of the class, I just wanted more formal structure. I seem to be a starter, you know someone who starts a new poem or play every few days, but struggles to finish.”
The pub was nearing and Neil wanted to take Agnes away from here, from this crowd of four and back to his flat, or at least a quiet coffee shop where they could speak of things that people did when there were no others there, but alas it was probably not possible. He noticed she said I guess twice in a sentence and how it gnawed away at him, such a wishy-washy, uncertain way of expressing something, but he turned to her for a moment and her big brown eyes cast a short spell so that her lexicon was suddenly irrelevant and again he felt that too much time had passed and that he ought to utter some way of a response.
“I hear you, it is tough to get through things to completion.”
Dry and humourless, and he nicked a paving stone`s edge with his shoe. They came to a zebra crossing in front of the pub and stood next to each other which gave Neil a moment of inner joy that the watching world might consider them a couple, of sorts.
“You must have submitted some good stuff?” he said, half turning his head towards her.
Brittany and Rick were entering the pub and Agnes looked over towards them.
Neil tried to win back her fleeting attention.
“To be accepted on the course I mean?”
Good God, was he an exam commissioner?
The first patter of light rain drops hit his forehead.
Agnes`s eyes were still on the pub.
“I wrote a few short stories, a couple were published in literary magazines, and I think that was probably it.”
Neil nodded over enthusiastically as an elderly woman standing next to Agnes with an umbrella already erected looked at him for a moment in that very deliberate way that older people did. She could see his naked lust, and he looked across at the pub and the thought of Rick`s eyebrows and jumping boots which suddenly outweighed the longing for Agnes and again, he blurted out something before he had thought about it.
“You know what, I`m probably going to head back.”
As he spoke the road crossing beeped as if to tell the world he was pathetic. Agnes looked over, having not heard, and a half smile crept over her face.
They crossed in unison and Neil looked at the elderly lady walking slowly next to Agnes half hidden under the umbrella.
Agnes looked over for a moment at him and her big brown eyes caught his attention once more, under her tired looking heavy eyelids.
In the pub, Rick was standing at the bar with his back to Neil and Agnes. If only he could be made to stand there all afternoon, Neil mused. Brittany sat at a table by the window. Neil followed Agnes inside and the warmth of the room immediately hit his face that had now cooled back down from its earlier outbursts. Brittany offered a ‘here’ in a low pitch and Agnes moved around and sat down on the first chair below the window. Neil looked at Agnes, trying to catch her eye, but she was already drawn into some conversation with Brittany.
“Agnes, what would you like?” Neil asked.
He had popped his head low towards the women like a bird swooping for a fish, but Brittany, without turning her head threw out “Rick`s getting them Neil, sit, sit.”
Neil took off his bag and made for the chair next to Agnes who still wore her light brown coat. How presumptuous to order without asking us. Neil looked over at Rick`s back as he stood chatting to the pretty bar maid. It amazed Neil how small modes of everyday behaviour struck him as so out of place, or that conversely, it was he that felt out of place, as Brittany and Agnes chattered away about something without thinking to involve him at all.
“He is finishing his doctorate in New York, then plan is to join a firm here in a few months, he`s already had offers.”
Neil assumed Brittany was speaking of her boyfriend as he had once overheard her in the university corridor talking about him studying at ‘NYU’ but he could not care less and felt his head released into a perfunctory nodding that happened when he was half in a conversation and served to state that all was heard and accepted.
“What about you Neil?” Brittany was staring at Neil as if he had been in the conversation from its beginning; another thing that he found quite rude or out of touch with in everyday conversations.
“Sorry Agnes?” Neil asked, whilst his head still bobbed dutifully.
“Brittany was just talking about our studies before the MA. You did an English lit undergrad right, up North?”
Agnes` recapping of the missed chain made Neil feel more connected again. He looked at Agnes for a moment reflecting on how thoughtful a person she might be in another circumstance away from this conversation at this moment. And she had remembered what he had told her that evening after the first class.
“Yes, English up in York. A bit of creative writing thrown in.”
“Cool.” Brittany said, looking at Neil`s eyes for the first time since they had left the university building.
“Your boyfriend doing a PhD in New York was that?” Neil blurted out, trying to involve himself though he found it so tedious when people he vaguely knew discussed their partners` lives in any detail whatsoever.
Brittany nodded, smiling, with some kind of pride as if she were about to obtain the doctorate of finance herself. Agnes looked at Neil, and slowly slipped her jacket off, edging forward to fit it in behind her, and Neil felt her stare uncomfortably on his face, as if he were part of some unspoken joke. He locked eyes with Brittany until her face was momentarily obscured by two pint glasses brimming with beer as Rick thrust them down to the centre of the table.
“Be right back” he said with that smile, that Neil felt was purely for Agnes` benefit, and he turned in his big old boots back towards the bar. Those boots. How they annoyed Neil. Wearing those army boots to a creative writing class, well it was like middle class mothers dropping off their little children to prep school in a four by four jeep.
“Go ahead you two.” Brittany said.
Neil and Agnes picked up the glasses; Agnes taking a large drink of hers whilst Neil sipped his as if it were some rich liquor.
“Not much of a drinker Neil?” Agnes said.
Neil replaced the glass on the table, and he saw her full toothy smile at him for the first time since they had met one month ago.
“Probably should get cracking on the doc`s homework later, otherwise-” and Neil mimed pouring glass after glass down his throat, immediately regretting it as he did.
Rick sat down and in his accent, which Neil was still trying to pin down, somewhere South but mixed with the Midwest or somewhere else, said “Cheers folks” and drank a quarter of the pint down in one go as if it were water. Neil felt Agnes acknowledge this open show of manliness without turning to his right and his arm, now instead of his tongue, acted without the rest of his body`s authority and thrust his own beer back towards his mouth, as if he were in a drinking competition with Rick that no one knew about. He placed the pint glass half drained back down proudly but the others were all oblivious as Rick had started on a new subject.
“What you guys make of Doctor Graham? I can`t tell, like, if he`s one of those dudes that knows everything, you know, or if he is literally turning up every class stoned out his brain, making all that shit up as he goes along?”
Neil watched Rick`s mouth as he uttered his tedious observations on the doc; a man Neil considered among the country`s finest novelists. As soon as Rick had finished speaking Neil noticed Rick`s slightly grubby fingers had begun rolling up a small cigarette without even looking down at them and Neil tried to think of a first line of defence for the doc`s status, stopping occasionally to drink his beer and nod enthusiastically at whatever Brittany or Agnes uttered.