The Schoolmaster’s Enemy | Missouri Williams | Granta

The Schoolmaster’s Enemy

Missouri Williams

Complaining with a mind to cost his enemy his position, the indiscreet schoolmaster had fallen into a trap. ‘What was the trap?’ asked Dolores, now his only pupil, as they sat in the library beneath her uncle’s study. The circumstances of the schoolmaster’s dismissal were legendary in the university. On the other side of the window dark banks of cloud were convulsing. The sun cut through them, a blade of light. It came sharp and narrow from above and the shadows fled from it.

Sitting in the velvety armchair opposite her, the schoolmaster thought himself to be on the edge of some exceptional event, a great happening. He was agitated, roiling beneath his heavy black robes, his fat red face gleaming with perspiration and his eyes wandering from one side of the room to the other as if he were afraid he had already given too much away.

Dolores lowered her chin into her hands and looked at the schoolmaster. Her bright grey eyes pinned him into place. The schoolmaster’s voice began to slide back into his throat, as it so often did when he thought of his enemy, every word overburdened with feeling. When at last he spoke the schoolmaster saw himself pushing a boulder up an enormous green hill and then rolling it down the other side again, futilely, while before him stood a whole sequence of identical hills, each shape suggesting the same insolent incuriosity he had once seen in the faces of his students, all around him nothing but hills and boulders, and only him to answer their silent challenge, though which of them, if pushed, would admit to having made it?

Outside the clouds pulled back to reveal a sickly, aching sky. Its dull yellow was slowly being threaded with blue.

The schoolmaster’s enemy had cut a dashing figure. It was for this reason that the inhabitants of the city considered him an incomparable theologian. What style he had! And what an elegant coat! No substance, of course. If you looked closely, the schoolmaster insisted, you would realise that every single one of his sentences was nothing more than a cleverly disguised question, that it was you who had been tricked into doing all the thinking, all of the seeing. When the schoolmaster thought about his enemy’s writing he saw overgrown gardens and distant explosions – or people holding back, lingering in doorways, just at the edge of sight.

He couldn’t settle on a single image. Nevertheless, it seemed to him that his enemy moved decisively. The students had flocked to his lectures. And, the schoolmaster had whispered to somebody he considered an authority, he had conducted experiments for them, experiments forbidden for centuries . . .

If the schoolmaster didn’t want anyone to see his heart, then why had he shown a little to Dolores? He ought to have been a city in limits. Instead, the silly old schoolmaster was an overflowing cup. He hadn’t wanted to remember the sad, stone university with the rumours dashing through it. He had intended to situate himself somewhere else entirely – another city, another story – but it was already too late.

The moss that scrolled across the square outside was a bright, remorseless green. It was the case that the schoolmaster’s enemy had seen something the schoolmaster hadn’t. And, being a man of significant drive and stature, his enemy had acted on it, and fast. Yet at no time in his life had the schoolmaster seen himself as lacking in conviction. A cloud crossed over the sun and the sky darkened appropriately.

In the purgatorial gloom of her uncle’s library her thoughts were invisible and so the schoolmaster filled them in. The schoolmaster had fallen prey to a ruinous obsession. Like a stone he had rolled down the hill toward his destiny. Loss of respect! Once he had seen it he couldn’t help but see it everywhere, and now it was rooting down inside her too. When the schoolmaster gathered his courage and looked into Dolores’s eyes it seemed to him that they gleamed with a malice he had hitherto believed her incapable of. Complaining with a mind to cost his enemy the possibility of his student’s love, the schoolmaster had fallen into another trap. Attempting to foreclose admiration, he had awakened it.

The great brow crumpled and the venerable dome of his head dropped down onto the plinths of his two white hands. He imagined Dolores crouched over him, reading away at him, although until now the schoolmaster had been sure that his body was no open book.

As it was she kept her distance. It was easier to study the schoolmaster from her position on the wooden chair opposite. The sun slashed through the window and made directly for them, and then the schoolmaster shivered all over because he knew Dolores was thinking about him, rolling him around in her hard, bright mind like an old glass marble shot through with light.


Image © premasagar

Missouri Williams

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