“Cheeky little git! What’s this we nonsense?” Re-reading the e-mail, he never ceased to wonder at the out-and-out brazenness of some students:
Dear Professor Gilmore,
The university has informed me that I am to be de-registered and must withdraw from the degree programme because of my failing maths grades. As my course director, I would like to meet with U as a matter of urgency to discuss how we are going to deal with this.
Sent from my iPhone
Alan Gilmore gulped a mouthful of coffee to wash down the three aspirin he’d tapped into his palm, savoring the bitter smack on his tongue as jazz softly riffed from the battered radio next to his computer. He closed his tired eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb in an attempt to kick-start his sleep-deprived brain.
“We’re not dealing with anything, mate,” he said, returning his gaze to the screen. “You’re the idiot who failed. And just how the bloody hell am I supposed to know who O is?” He didn’t recognize the e-mail address. An image materialized in the throbbing space behind his eyes of some lazy tosser – an Orlando or an Oisín – sprawled languidly along the length of a soft sofa with a textbook open in his lap, not a pen, calculator or notepad in sight, bare feet perched up on the radiator and head occasionally lolling back into the deep comfy folds of the cushion. With eyes glazing over as earphones vibrated noisily against his ears, the lad would be oblivious to the world, the equations on the page about as remote as an alternate universe.
“Mathematics is an exacting endeavor,” he’d patiently lectured his students, “one that demands absolute attention to detail.” But when it came to his beloved subject he felt that most of them these days had abandoned themselves to mediocrity.
“Whoever put the M in STEM never tried teaching this lot,” said Baxter, his colleague, drawing hoots of laughter from around their lunch table only weeks earlier, Gilmore included.
“Christ, Alan,” he muttered to himself as this last thought flashed through his mind. “When the hell did you become so cynical?”
Sighing, he tapped out a brief reply confirming for two o’clock before leaning back and entrusting his headache to the therapeutic thrum of Charlie Haden’s double bass.
“COME IN!” Gilmore boomed. Oliver Prendergast was late. Bustling into the office at two-fifteen, a canvas backpack hanging from his shoulder and a well-thumbed novel tucked under his damp armpit, he sat down. Gilmore turned around from his computer fully prepared to berate his young visitor’s tardiness, when his gaze fell upon Prendergast’s round deadpan face, the sight of the hat perched above it instantly jogging his memory. It was a light blue trilby with a band around the brim sitting at a jaunty angle on Prendergast’s large plain head, where it looked comically small. He groaned inwardly.
Gilmore immediately recalled the first time he’d spotted that hat in his lecture hall. Its wearer always sat in the front row utterly engrossed in that very same door-stopper of a sci-fi novel, humming away unselfconsciously to himself and occasionally scribbling little doodles into his book, seemingly unaware of the quarantine zone of empty seats around him or of the lecture unfolding before him. He’d initially tried to engage the lad by getting him up to the blackboard to complete a problem only for Prendergast to promptly seal up like a clam, his panicked face flushing wetly. Stubbornly snubbing the proffered chalk, his eyes refused to meet Gilmore’s, choosing instead to focus on some spot just over his right shoulder as if silently communing with his shadow. Fearing a possible flare-up of some kind, Gilmore decided it best to recruit a more willing volunteer.
Detaining him some weeks later, Gilmore enquired, “So, how’re you finding the course? Attempted any of the sample problems yet?”
“Yes,” Prendergast softly replied, his large frame awkwardly hugging his battered novel to his chest like a shield, bright red pimples scattered across his pale cheeks like poppies in a field of wheat.
“Aaannnd….?” Gilmore continued, eyebrows raised in hopeful anticipation. But Prendergast seemed averse to making eye contact or to elaborating beyond monosyllabic answers, Gilmore’s ensuing questions simply rolling off him like water over a stone. He decided to change tack.
“So, tell me… Oliver, isn’t it? What’s the book?”
Prendergast appeared to brighten up. “House of Leaves,” he replied. “It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve read it nine times. Have you ever read it?”
Gilmore replied that he had not. “I don’t suppose there’s any maths in it?” he then asked. Clearly immune to sarcasm, Prendergast simply nodded and continued on his way.
Over the next two years Gilmore caught regular glimpses of that hat around the campus, its wearer always seeming to be on the periphery of things, attempting to osmose into the student body and take on the color of belonging. But Prendergast was invariably regarded by students and staff alike as something of an oddity. An other.
Seated alone during lectures, his remote demeanor made it difficult for Gilmore to gauge his abilities and teach him. Their conversations were invariably awkward and despite his efforts the lad seemed disinclined to properly engage with the subject and put the work in, dooming him to failing grades and an ensuing academic limbo that prevented him from moving forward. Gilmore had eventually written him off as a lost cause.
And now Prendergast sat before him in the office, his forehead moist and fingers fidgeting. Their conversation was mercifully brief.
“Professor Gilmore,” came the nervous reply. “You got my message.”
“And speaking as your course director I have to tell you that I’m afraid there’s nothing can be done. It’s very obvious that you’re struggling. It’s been two years now and you haven’t been able to progress.”
“But I study everything, all your notes and problems. Calculus is one of my favorite subjects…”
“Ah, Oliver. Please. I can’t believe that.”
“It’s just those exams…”
“Well, it might help if you’d studied for the things in the first place,” Gilmore muttered under his breath.
“But I did, Professor Gilmore,” Prendergast replied with an absolutely straight face.
Gilmore sighed. He’d hear it all before. “Listen, I think we need to move on…”
“So, you’ll speak to the college for me?”
“No, Oliver. As I said, this is out of my hands.”
Prendergast placed his book down on the table and began rooting fretfully in his backpack. Withdrawing the letter informing him of his imminent departure, he handed it shakily to Gilmore, who was already familiar with its wording, its regretful but firm tone.
“Can I appeal this?”
Gilmore shook his head slowly. “Oliver, I think it’s time for you to consider a different educational path.”
“Well, one that better suits your particular personality. Think of this as… as a new beginning!”
Reddening, Gilmore found himself unable to look Prendergast in the eye as he said this, an ironic twist not lost on him. The relief he felt immediately after Prendergast’s departure was quickly replaced with guilt. He’d done all he could for this lad. Hadn’t he?
Struggling to re-focus on work, his gaze occasionally turned to the framed family photograph on his desk of Liz and the boys staring back at him from Lanzarote just three Summers earlier.
“Help me out here, Lizzie. What would you do?” But then he already knew what her answer would be. She would’ve quoted him some little Shakespearean wisdom about how ‘the quality of mercy is not strained…’, as she nearly always did after patiently enduring one of his increasingly frequent academic rants.
Leaving his office later that afternoon, he spotted the tattered novel sitting on his desk, surprised not to have noticed it earlier and even more taken aback that Prendergast had abandoned it so casually. “Probably expects me to read the damn thing,” he muttered, dropping it into his briefcase.
“Has the nurse left?” asked Gilmore, upon returning home. His son, Daniel, was seated in the living room, thumbs flickering over his cell phone keypad.
“An hour ago,” Daniel replied without looking up. “She left you a note on the kitchen table. Said to call her if there’s any problems again tonight.”
“He’s out in the garden with Mum,” Daniel said, still absorbed in the WhatsApp thread on his phone.
“Has he done any study today?” Gilmore asked.
“Yeah, right,” Daniel sniggered. He glanced up to give his father a knowing ‘what do you think?’ look.
Shaking his head and sighing, he walked through to the kitchen. Sitting at the table he plunked his briefcase down on the floor beside him, where it flopped over to spill its contents. Frowning, he retrieved Prendergast’s book and opened it, noting the name and address neatly written in the top right-hand corner of the inside front cover. Beneath this, written out in Prendergast’s neat hand, was a single unfamiliar quote: ‘Mathematics is the place where you can do things which you can’t do in the real world’ (du Sautoy)
Gilmore smiled as he read this. He felt strangely moved by these words – by their rightness and the faint whisper of a moral message contained within them meant exclusively for him – reminding him as they did of his earlier conversation with the book’s owner. Intrigued now, he turned the book over to read the publisher’s blurb on the back cover: ‘House of Leaves… a cult novel by Mark Z. Danielewski concerning a house whose plain exterior belies a richly mysterious interior realm that constantly rearranges its rooms and hallways into ever more complex and unknowable dimensions.’
This time he couldn’t resist the warm gush of laughter that bubbled up out of him. “Hah! Just too bloody perfect. Well played, lad. That’s you to a T.”
Feeling his mood lift for the first time that day, he looked up to where Liz sat at the end of the garden with their younger son, who was stretched out on a blanket smiling up at her, large earphones encircling the circumference of his head like an acoustic wreath. Their quirky little Theo, as soft and sweet as jam.
“That lad’s away with the fairies,” he’d once said to her. “He’s got two gears – slow and stop.”
“He’ll turn out fine, Alan. He might not be the standard model, but he’s a good kid. And kind. That’s the most important thing.”
“He hasn’t an academic bone in his body. How’s he ever supposed to make something of himself.”
“They’re all different, you know that. Have a little faith in him and he’ll shine, just you wait and see. Our Danny did.”
The evening sun glinted off the spokes of her wheelchair. Theo was now kneeling before her holding the straw from a tea cup to her lips so that she could take a sip, her once graceful limbs now clumsy and withered. He then used a napkin to dab away the tiny rivulet of milky tea that ran down from the corner of her wordless mouth. Gilmore melted at the tenderness of the exchange.
“No. Not quite the standard model, my love,” he whispered.
Returning his gaze to the book, he shook his head in wonder.
“Clever little git! Okay then, O. Maybe I’m just not looking at things the right way. Let’s see what can be done.”
Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born academic and writer. He has previously been a runner-up for the Fish Publishing 2020 Short Memoir Prize and his short stories have been long/shortlisted in various competitions. His writing has featured in a range of publications and anthologies including The Galway Review, The Dillydoun Review, and Storgy.