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Gretna Sunrise (extract)

‘Work banishes three great evils...,’ he begins.

‘Stop that! Don't say one of those things! Just tell me.’ Hannah stamps her foot.

The Professor takes a step back in consternation. He is stung. ‘It is not “one of those things”, as you call them. It is Voltaire,’ he protests.

‘It's bullshit. It's what you say when you don't want to answer. I thought you liked me.’ She places the non-sequitur with confidence. She begins to scrape one foot along the ground. She is working up to something. Out it comes.

‘And you wear those stupid clothes. Teenage clothes. You're all wrong. You're in the wrong place. You're just kidding all the time. You should be working in... in... a library or a museum or a school,’ she adds, suddenly exorcised and shy. ‘You'd be a nice teacher.’

He scrapes his own foot along the ground and speaks to himself.

‘I was a nice teacher,’ is what he says and he is suddenly pitched somewhere else. He is back at his “proper” work. He faces the teenage tribe that mocked and humiliated him, he sees again their angry red faces, he hears their jeers as he ducks the shower of text books.

‘Monsieur Merde! Monsieur Merde!’ they shriek, and he flinches, contracts into a corner, knees and arms bent, head down, sobbing under a tessellation of French texts.

He is terrorised by memory.

Hannah immediately cheers herself. She reads his posture as pleasure at a secret shared though he is actually limp with misery. ‘What did you teach, then?’

‘French,’ he answers.

‘Say some, go on, say some French.’ Hannah is enchanted with her new knowledge of him.

‘Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français...’ he seems very shy again and speaks quietly so just Hannah can hear. She notes this.

‘It's okay, I won't tell the others — Monsewer,’ she adds grandly but in a whisper. ‘But could you teach me... on Sundays? Could you teach me how to say it proper?’ Hannah thinks of the currency she will have with her friends speaking in French and at school. No more D minus, “could try harder.”

‘Would you like that? It's a long time since I taught...’ he seems dubious.

Hannah knows about lessons and she minimises the possibility of tedium immediately: ‘If it was just you and me... and just words, just the names of things. Not writing,’ she shudders.

He knows about lessons too and wonders if Hannah's aptitudes include a capacity for cruelty. She certainly had a temper. He thinks about his “proper” work, feels the weak throb of fear running through his veins, tries as he has tried countless times to swallow the past so that he can say yes to this eager child. He stares into the market space.

All around them vans and lorries are being loaded with the leftovers of the day, the task only marginally lighter than the morning's unloading. Sammy's stall has been folded away. There is now a rectangle of dropped and spoiled fruit and vegetables marking its boundaries and Sammy is stacking boxes to shoulder height in his Transit, smoking furiously. The Country and Western Showcase stall has finally ceased its twanging and howling. A cowboy-clad man and wife team have covered their fringed jackets with oilskin coats and packed hundreds of CDs and tapes into a motorbike sidecar. The ground is speckled with plastic and paper bags, squashed burgers and ice-cream cones. Willum scrubs the catering van to shining perfection and the smell of overcooked oil permeates the drizzle that starts to fall. He waves at the Professor who feels a tug at his sleeve.

‘Are you mad at me?’ Hannah asks. ‘Will I come and help you again next Sunday? You can forget the French. I won't keep you off your work.’

He turns to her and smiles. ‘Indeed, you may, Hannah, and I don't see why we shouldn't conduct our work in French from time to time. N'est-ce pas?’

‘Nessy paaa,’ says Hannah, grinning.

Vivien Jones

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