Past ruin’d Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth…
Dr Gerald Tubbs should have been moved, even tearful, but he was experiencing exhaustion and little else. He was now to feel exhausted permanently, it seemed.
He looked down at the three boys who were getting ready to leave their desks a final time and knew that he should be feeling some fondness toward them, and toward all their predecessors, and toward their college. It had, after all, been his college for more than sixty years, first as student, then teacher of classics, then master of classics, then part-time teacher of the last remnant of classics students.
But it was hard to feel anything. Dr Tubbs was so fearsomely tired. Nobody before had ever worked to such an advanced age at the college; then winding down the classics syllabus had required his return after an already late retirement. It had been a listless end to his career, with little interest on the part of the college and understandably little energy coming from “Tubbsy”. The whole affair had been nothing but a necessary “out-phasing of relic subjects”, as the school committee had expressed it. Perhaps out-phasing was gentler than phasing-out: Dr Tubbs was not up to date with management language, since the dialect had not existed in his young days.
The present youthful headmaster had remarked at the recent end-of-year ceremony that more than one global climate was changing. Perhaps that was a reference to classics. Who could know? Ambitious young people just like to mention climate whenever they can these days. Certainly the new headmaster was more interested in what he called “issues”, by which he meant matters discussed often in the Guardian. Dr Tubbs was of the opinion that an “issue” was a product or result, not a debating point; but the old latinist often held fast to word origins against the tugs of fashion.
Well, he needed to say something to these last three students, on this last day after six decades of Greek and Latin. They seemed to know it, and looked toward him with sluggish anticipation – except for young McKenna, who had, in fact, been among his keenest students ever. McKenna looked far more engaged in the moment than his relic of a teacher, or his two fellow students of relic subjects.
“Well, it would seem that this is all, for us and for classics at the college. Which makes this something of a moment. I…I’m sure you will handle the exams, such as they are.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You are most welcome, Ramsay.”
“Yes, thanks for everything, sir. Hope you enjoy retirement.”
“My thanks to you, O’Mara. And best of luck with your football career.”
“Oh, if I’m picked, sir…”
“You’ll be picked. I feel sure of it.”
Meanwhile, McKenna had risen and was approaching Dr Tubbs with a little parcel. He handed it to his teacher.
“Sir, just something from all of us. Some of the boys in metalwork helped.”
“Why, thank you, McKenna.”
Dr Tubbs pulled away the coloured tissue – teenaged schoolboys do not wrap – and looked with bewilderment at his present. For a moment he puzzled on, then realised what it was he held: a tiny gate fashioned from metal and with some sort of white cladding.
“Ah, one of the Gates of Sleep. What a fine memento for the likes of me…Do you remember the passage from Homer, McKenna?”
“Sir, I do remember it:
“δοιαὶ γάρ τε πύλαι ἀμενηνῶν εἰσὶν ὀνείρων·
αἱ μὲν γὰρ κεράεσσι τετεύχαται, αἱ δ’ ἐλέφαντι.
οἵ ῥ’ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε’ ἀκράαντα φέροντες·
οἳ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ’ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.
“And in English, knowing you prefer prose translation, Dr Tubbs:
“For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.”
“Why…that’s extraordinary! I must be a better teacher than I knew.”
“I studied the lines last night. They’re…you know, part of your present. And you have been an excellent teacher.”
“Well…I’m very touched, very touched. I do hope the white substance is horn, not ivory?”
“Yes. We made it from old forks with bone handles.”
“Thank you all. And thank your schoolmates from metalwork…Look here, there are even little hinges…”
“Taken from an old spectacle case, sir.”
McKenna now handed him an envelope.
“A card to go with it, sir. I painted it myself, but Ramsay picked out the cardboard and O’Mara did the cutting.”
Dr Tubbs opened the envelope, drew out a folded card and opened it.
“Ah, my favourite word: thalassa. A Greek word too old to be just Greek. Thalassa. The sea! You hear the sea when you hear that word, don’t you think, gentlemen? You’ve written the characters so perfectly! And here you’ve painted a sea scene, McKenna, with a merry crew on a Grecian coaster, a rocky headland…And the colours are just like one imagines…”
“Maybe in retirement you might get there at last, sir.”
“Oh, that certainly is a dream of ivory, I’m afraid, Ramsay. Not sprightly enough now for European travel. Greece will be something only for my imagination now.”
“But…you said you almost went, years ago, sir?”
“Yes…yes…when I was young, but, you know…”
Now Dr Tubbs went a bit teary. He continued:
“You know, things crop up. My late wife’s illness came upon us a month before we were due to go. In those days, without medical insurance…Well, such things happen to all. I’m sure I have a stock of classical quotes which say as much, but my brain is slow today….”
“Your wife…you said you called the lady your tanupeplos?”
“Why, yes, she was my tanupeplos, my flowing-robed one. Like Helen or Athena. I don’t suppose I’m the only old Homeric scholar to have called his lady by that title. Such a fine way to elevate a woman for whom one feels…well, you will soon know. Something to keep in mind, now you are not boys but young gentlemen. Yes, she was my tanupeplos, she of the flowing robes. I think my wife enjoyed that, though she had no Greek, just some Latin…”
He sniffed back some tears and continued to inspect the card.
“Thalassa…thalassa…What a delightful gift…”
Dr Gerald Tubbs had packed away the last of his things for delivery to his home. He had nothing to carry away today, no reason to linger about the college.
He was just tired again, feeling nothing again, after the brief warmth of his farewell from his last students. But they had now gone about their late-adolescent business, even McKenna. What would Greek and Latin be for them within a few weeks? Likely, nothing at all – not even for McKenna. What had they been for anybody over the decades? One bright boy he never liked got a government prize for Latin back in the 1960s – then became a crooked bookmaker.
Greek and Latin: what for? He knew what to say to others in favour of it all, but what could he say to himself now? If only he could feel something beyond this fatigue…
He rested against the railing, unsure where to go next.
In the staff rooms and common room there would be bustle, and he would only be in the way. No, he would not go there. He was not a cold person, far from it, but when one can feel nothing but crushing fatigue…
The boys dashing about the school buildings and grounds were intent on exams and holidays. He would only delay them with needless chit-chat and forced politeness. Besides, he hardly knew any of them.
As he reached the bottom of the steps never to be climbed again by Gerald Tubbs, he was nearly blown over by one of the sudden gusts which accompanied the leaden sky and cold drizzle of this, his final day. Why did the weather have to conspire so? And was he now so frail that standing in wind was to be a regular challenge? At least he was not feeling giddy, as he so often did of late.
My God. What on earth had been the point? In the beginning, a strong brain and strong passion for things nobody really wanted but which all claimed to revere. A childless marriage ended by an early death. Then the years of pretending to teach while the students pretended to learn, repetition and drudgery and boredom, with only here and there a McKenna; then the softening of the syllabus to keep the subjects alive, a polite euthanasia of the classics…
Nobody had ever cared, and now Dr Tubbs could not bring himself to care.
Yet he had tried, and tried so hard. He knew he had tried.
To be left with just this fatigue and this void…
Clasping only the card with the little model gate in both hands, Dr Gerald Tubbs began to hobble downhill past the sports oval to the bus stop.
The giddiness! Of all times to get that again!
The doctors said it was due to some re-arrangement of the crystals of his inner ear, but it was indistinguishable from drunkenness. Of all times and places to appear drunk, on his last day and on the school grounds!
He stopped and took deep breaths, just keeping his balance. If he stayed upright it might pass. He spoke to clear his head:
The giddiness seemed to be fading after a minute. He took some steps forward.
As he reeled forward he raised his hands. The last thing Dr Gerald Tubbs saw before losing consciousness was the painted card with the tiny bone-clad gate laid over it.
He fell and fell, but did not land.
At last he was standing somewhere, looking down on somebody else who seemed to have taken a fall.
It was a man in rags, an exhausted man who might be young or old, a beggar sprawled on the ground at the edge of a rocky track. The track led uphill, but the whole landscape was blurred, so that Gerald could not see the top of the hill. As he looked to the side and behind, all was a blur, though there was a sound as of water somewhere, and a cry of gulls perhaps. Was that a ringing of summer insects? The air carried a heavy scent of summer flowers and…fig leaves when they droop under full sun?
Gerald and the beggar stared at one another. Why…it was McKenna. It was McKenna who had fallen, McKenna who was exhausted. Or some stranger, some beggar had McKenna’s face.
The tramp spoke:
“At last. Such a long wait. I couldn’t keep going. But now you’re here.”
“You’ve been waiting for me?”
“No-one else can help me. You can. You always do.”
The tramp extended an arm.
“Just help me up, then I can go on.”
“Go on? But where?”
“Up the hill, of course. Help me now.”
Gerald merely touched the man’s hand and, as if by magic, the two were standing together. Suddenly the stranger looked less of a beggar, still like McKenna perhaps, but older, with a stamp of…what?
“Thank you again.”
“Thank you and farewell, as always.”
“As always? But have I been here before?”
“You have always been here. You are the life of this island, and of much more. The difference now is that you know you are here.”
“An island? I’m on an island?”
The man turned and began to stride uphill. As he did so he seemed fresher, more powerful…And the rags…there were no rags on him now. The stranger was a middle aged man of substance now, an athlete in a fine tunic, with a rich cloak over broad, hurdling shoulders.
“But where are you going?”
“To my palace. I have a patient wife and impatient son waiting, a heritage to reclaim. And there are suitors to be dealt with.”
“But…where should I go? Do I follow you?”
The man pointed over Gerald’s shoulder.
“You go that way, the way I came.”
Gerald turned and there was no more blur. He was standing by sea, sea that was pale green near the shore, dark like wine and glowing purple further out. A bright little bay was clasped by two juts of white cliffs, topped with tight shrubbery.
The scent of brine mixed with that of the summer flowers and the rankness of figs. So stirring those scents. The fatigue had gone. No more giddiness. How he craved the touch of the water! He walked toward the shoreline, murmuring:
A prow nudged forward from behind the headland to his left. It was a horned prow with a painted eye. Now it came into full view. A band of men, laughing men, were rowing their coaster toward him.
And at the prow, a figure dressed like Athena, or like Helen, but with a face Gerald knew better than any other.
The tanupeplos, she of the flowing robes.