by R. J. Kinnarney
Hoffman sat at her desk and stared out of the window. She wasn’t staring at the last remnants of the daffodils, nor at the blue tits darting in and out of the apple tree, making a home from the cast-offs of other winters. She was walking through the long corridors, noticing the unpolished corners of parquet, the gleaming brass plate on the left-hand door and the dull, untouched plate on the right. There were so many unspoken rules in life and yet almost everyone followed them.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. One hour thirty-five to go.
In her mind, she was climbing the four flights of stairs to the department where she’d spent the last thirty-two years. She had not anticipated spending the final term of her academic life, sitting behind her desk at home, conducting virtual tutorials. She’d pictured descending those stairs to the sound of applause, and maybe a little whooping and cheering.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. One hour thirty to go.
She was pushing open the heavy Victorian door to her study and sitting at the desk, every knock and splinter of which felt like home to her. The view over the river was as pleasing as ever; the sun highlighted the ripples on the surface. Hoffman shook her head and laughed. How ridiculous! In truth, were she sitting at her study desk five storeys above the Thames, she would have taken a cursory glance out of the sash window at the grey water beneath, at the traffic on the bridge spewing out fumes and she would have fired up her computer, while sorting through post. This isolation was making her uncommonly sentimental, something she could ill afford right now.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. One hour twenty-five to go.
Professor Hoffman switched on her Mac, pleased to see a full inbox. Essay deadline had been midnight the night before; in fact, this was essay deadline, with extra, extra time. True to form, the bulk of her students had taken it down to the wire.She smiled. She was familiar with how the pressure of deadline focused the mind; her mother hadn’t called her Last Minute Lucy for nothing.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. One hour twenty to go.
The last shall come first. Received at 23:59, April 21st from firstname.lastname@example.org. Hoffman hovered her mouse over the message. No, she was going to do this properly. She would start at the beginning and do a quick overview of all submissions.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. One hour fifteen to go.
Wading through the fourteen emails, her thoughts vacillated. Why on earth had some students chosen this course? Why on earth had some students chosen university at all? Here is a stroke of genius, ruined by pages of what could only be described as waffle. There’s an interesting point, if only it hadn’t been quite clearly lifted wholesale from the internet. She knew that hers was not a vocational subject, that it was one of those subjects that students chose simply because they’d been good at it at A Level. She knew, also, that most students did not understand her passion for it and she supposed that that was all right.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Fifty minutes to go.
Hoffman made herself a coffee from the machine which she’d installed in her home office. She was prolonging the moment. Delayed gratification had a lot to commend it. She stood by the window and savoured the coffee. she took a moment to listen to the silence. No, this wasn’t silence; it was just different sound. Birds, fighting for territory; children a few gardens away, fighting for attention; sirens, fighting for life. she missed the high level sound of the traffic on Waterloo Bridge and the students thundering up and down the stairs outside her study, talking, amongst other things, about her and her fellow lecturers, believing, presumably, that the doors were entirely sound-proofed. she was heading down Sentiment Street again.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Forty minutes to go.
Finally, she’d reached the last, first, email. She clicked and Eva’s chirpy tone popped into her head. ‘Prof Hoff! How are you doing? Hope you’re not missing us all too much. Here’s my essay. See ya. Bye!’ She’d rarely had a student who was such a stranger to deference. It was refreshing. She’d never have let her see that, of course. She’d forgive her a lot, however, because she was a rare talent; in tutorials, she’d sit silent for the best part of the hour and just when she thought she must surely have nodded off, she’d whisper some insight, which she, with more than three decades of assiduous study, had failed to notice. It was maddening and exciting.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Thirty-five minutes to go.
Thirty-five minutes wasn’t going to be nearly long enough to devote to Eva’s essay but she had to see some of what she’d written. And besides, it would take her mind off the phone call. she absently rubbed her chest and waited for the document to load. Why had she given Donaldson her landline number? She never used her landline. She wasn’t even sure that she could remember what a landline ringing out sounded like. And worse, when it rang, it couldn’t be anyone else. She’d have to answer it. She’d have to find out. The document flashed up on her enormous monitor.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Thirty-three minutes to go.
Eva’s work was astonishing. It was the work of someone who had been born knowing. It was all the more astonishing because she knew that Eva had her own struggles. The professor didn’t know because Eva had told her. They didn’t have that kind of relationship. Hoffman knew because she’d heard, through the great Victorian door, the other students complaining about how Eva never went to any parties because she was always working. They worried about the danger she put herself in every night on the rickety old scooter on which she did the deliveries. They discussed how awful it was that she got no support at all from her family and that she had to pay her own way for everything. They also joked about how ‘old Hoff’ was clearly in love with her.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Twenty-one minutes to go.
They were right. Hoffman was in love with her. She was in love with Eva’s intellect, with her phrasing, with her razor brain. She’d experienced this love only a handful of times and each graduation day, her heart shattered a little more. It was probably a good idea that she was retiring because there was only a small portion of heart left and she really needed to keep that for herself. Hoffman tried to picture Eva now. She couldn’t. She could picture her over-sized black motorbike helmet with its incongruous sticker of a cartoon bird. she could picture the holy white trainers which she’d worn every week for three years. But she couldn’t picture her face.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Eighteen minutes to go.
She could, however, imagine her voice. She could hear that gentle whisper, filling her study and silencing the group. How she looked was irrelevant; what she said was devastating. Hoffman knew that she would never have been that bold, as an undergraduate. she knew that she wasn’t even that bold now, with two degrees, a Masters and a PhD to her name. She’d loved her subject, of course, but Eva had made her realise that she’d been pedestrian in her approach to it, terrestrial. She, on the other hand, was stratospheric.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Fourteen minutes to go.
Hoffman closed the document and stared at the mountainscape, which the computer had chosen for today’s screen-saver. She wondered what Eva was going to do with that intellect. Surely not some dreadful graduate training scheme somewhere? That would be tragic. Still, it wasn’t for her to judge. She’d done her bit and now it was time to let go. Of everything.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Ten minutes to go.
Hoffman went to the bathroom adjoining her office. This was a luxury not afforded to her in the University. If she wanted to pay a visit to the bathroom there, it would take a full twenty minutes out of her schedule. She let the water run for a while, then washed her hands and face thoroughly. She wanted to feel clean and fresh, in readiness for the news.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. Three minutes to go.
She’d managed to keep the dread somewhere deep in her solar plexus but it now began to rise. She knew that the phone would ring exactly at the appointment time. This was another thing which had had to change. She’d anticipated sitting in Donaldson’s office while she gave her the news. Now, she was not going to be able to read her body language as she shook her hand; she was just going to have to listen out for sympathy, or despair, or just plain sadness.
She glanced at the clock; she glanced at the telephone. One minute to go.
Hoffman stared at the computer screen and saw one notification. she opened up her inbox and there was a new email. Subject: Application for Masters degree. Received at 09:29, April 22nd from email@example.com. Hoffman’s chest tightened.
The telephone rang.
Hoffman smiled as she looked at the screen and, at the same time, listened to Dr. Donaldson’s voice. ‘Professor Hoffman, we have your results.’