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The Lesson

By Peter Adamson

‘Monkeyface, Monkeyface!’ the cries followed him as he shuddered down the uneven, dew soaked slopes below the city wall. Above and behind him the others hung out of the dormitory window, laughing at the awkward youth who now wobbled with adolescent discomfort through the frozen mud caking the shadowed side of the College Hill. Splashing through an unseen puddle, the boy stopped and groaned in dismay at the brown streaks of mud which clung to his goosepimpled legs and, trudging, worked his way up the hill and out of the cold. Nearing the brow he squinted over toward the stonebridge ford and saw the other boys of his cell group already clustered about the Tutor. He was for it now.

Azmael heard the murmuring of the boys around him and turned to find the source of their private joke. It was a boy, slightly heavy and in what seemed to be a set of the most ill-fitting robes the College had seen fit to provide the poor wretch. The youth approached, his face flushed, but exhibiting the most peculiarly deep set eyes - as if the dark rings beneath them were brushed on; but the boy was obviously lacking sleep. Probably the dormitory victim, Azmael judged by the derisive sniggers the boy seemed to summon. He called for quiet and straightened his back as the boy came before him, regarding the substitute tutor worriedly.

‘Boy, you are late. Do you have a reason?’

‘I- I overslept Tutor. I'm sorry, it won't happen again. My alarm didn't work - I think it must have-’ his eyes darted quickly around, recognising warning glares from his classmates. Immediately his mouth gave up its efforts to save his skin; he was definitely for it, he decided. Breaking contact with their eyes he looked at his muddy shoes and thought of the previous night's episode - his head pushed into his pillow to stop his crying while one of the bigger boys sat on his back, pummelling him with bunched up fists. He'd decided long before that he hated all of them. Now he just wanted out and away.

‘What is your name, boy?’ the Tutor inquired. The boy looked up, but before he could stammer out an answer someone probably Ampridat, blurted out ‘Monkeyface!’ in a high-pitched parody of his voice. The group erupted into laughter, and once again Azmael hushed them down while the boy sulked, head hanging, face burning with shame.

‘Come along! We've wasted a good part of the morning already!’ the Tutor growled, and the class fell into a rough line, following the old man along a goat's track down into a sunny cleft where the brook ran.

The boy felt better in the quiet, and the new sun warmed his back again. It could have very nearly brightened his mood, but instead he thought of the laughter around him, and how the Tutor had just watched and not done anything for him. Nobody ever felt any sympathy. They all thought he was just stupid.

‘Now then - the lesson,’ said Azmael ‘Who can tell me why we are standing at the brook-side this morning, and not in the lecture room?’ he looked around expectantly over the heads of the boys.

‘Is it to do with Time?’ volunteered Sashister.

‘A good answer, boy, but a trifle obvious. Think about it some more before you speak again.’

‘Well, didn't Gavilon see Time as being like a river?’ asked Ampridat.

‘Perhaps he did, boy, perhaps. We shall just have to accept that which is written, which at least says he did. But do you know what he meant by that?’

There was silence again. Bornis muttered in the back ‘This is kids' stuff - why is he asking these dumb questions?’ But no one came forward with anything. Tutor asked too many questions and gave too few answers. This wasn't a lesson, it was an ordeal. The latecomer felt his gaze wander automatically as boredom set in. Over the hills and far away. He was always one to daydream, to let his imagination get the better of him. The others hated him for it because he made it so obvious in class - he'd be discovered and the whole cell would be punished for it. That was what he'd had the beating for last night - and he'd get another if he didn't wake up now, he reminded himself.

Ampridat sighed. ‘He meant the river to be a symbol of Time's Essential Integrity.’

‘Which is?’

‘Nothing can alter it's structure, and it can't be diverted. It just goes on.’

‘It just goes on,’ said Azmael, smiling in satisfaction. He stooped and pointed his stick along the course of the river to its destination.

‘Where?’

This was getting beyond a joke. Ampridat sighed impatiently.

‘Nowhere! - this brook eventually ends there -’ he pointed to the Capitol, where the mingling waters met and slipped quietly through the grates and beneath the stone walls, ‘but Time isn't like that it's not as literal as that!’

‘Correct’ said Azmael. ‘Good boy. Time is not a river, but it shares some of its characteristics. Allow a metaphor to reach that analytical mind.’ Ampridat frowned, unsure whether he'd just been insulted or not.

‘All of us’ said Azmael, ‘travel along the same body of water. Here and there are tributaries, eddies, pools of quiet and flurries of various disturbance, but the main stream urges ever on. Interminably.’ The old man's eyes were almost glazed over. Bornis made a face and picked at the hem of his garment.

There was silence for a time, and then a voice piped up: ‘Sir, what if you could stop Time?’

This broke the Tutor's daze and he looked down at the muddied mess before him. ‘Don't be silly, boy. You can't stop Time.’

‘But Time is fluid - if it is like this brook, then it changes with the seasons. Grows bigger... in the winter- uhm... and sometimes slows down to a trickle. Erm...’ he could feel the others glaring at him; burning a hole in his back with their eyes.

Azmael's face began to harden, but on reflection mellowed. ‘Child, perhaps you could imagine a bed of this Great River to ebb, or slow down, but remember what we are really discussing: the whole of Time itself. Instead of it being one body it is comprised of a multitude of streams, all combined, all running off at tangents and carving their own courses. You couldn't totally control it even if you had the greatest powers available - it would beat you. Time will not be reckoned with.’

The old man turned around to address the rest of the class: ‘Gavilon's theory seems simplistic, but the fellow thought it through thoroughly. We of course, are manipulators of Time - in our delusion we may see ourselves as being more than this, but ultimately we too are in its embrace - mere passengers. Time carries us inexorably to our end-’ his foot was cold. Wet. Dampness. He looked down to see trickles of ice water coursing over the toes of his shoes. A few paces upstream, the latecomer was busying himself, placing regular round stones from the hillside into the stream, while all around the miniature dam rivulets ran, growing rapidly. He trod over to the wastrel, the boys about him chuckling in anticipation. Roughly, he grabbed the boy about the collar and dragged him down to where he had stood. The boy struggled, his stones thumping to the ground where they fell from his pockets the old man had taken him by surprise, and he was a strong old coot for his apparent age. Planting the boy down without ceremony into the slush, Azmael seized him by his hair and pulled his head up. ‘What in blazes were you doing?’

‘I w-was making a dam! Stopping the water!’

‘Stupid boy what is the use of explaining anything to you if you won't listen! When you contain Time you don't halt its flow, only delay it. This is what I am trying to say. What would you do wash the whole Citadel away?’

More water gathered about the stones, rocking those along the top. The boy already knew what was about to happen he wasn't stupid. The others thought so, but if he'd only just put some more stones ‘round at the sides, they'd have held it all in. Too late - the stones tumbled away, carried a foot or so by the welling water which fanned out and mingled with the grass, running freely around the boy's shoes and making his cassock soggy again. He looked down, dismayed at the mess. Azmael cuffed him ‘round the back of the head.

‘You won't be told!’ he scolded. ‘I was warned about you. Report to the Provost at the end of this lesson Monkifas - you're a menace!’

The others gathered once more about the Tutor and disappeared as they followed him back toward the main gate. Ampridat sneered back as they descended. The boy stood stubbornly in the mud, his feet growing numb with cold. He felt shamed and humiliated. More than anything now he wanted away away from the others, the stupid teachers, and the boring know-it-alls who told him what he could and couldn't do. ‘Stupid class. Stupid old goat.’ He muttered, his fists clenching. ‘Don't even know my name. It's Mortimus. Mortimus.’

This item appeared in TSV 54 (March 1998).

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