Nathan and Felicity sat there, papers arranged with a surgical care and wearing identical expressions of smug, glacial triumph. Henry walked into the meeting and swore under his breath at the sight of them.
Felicity was the Director of Preventative Measures Against Gendered Violence, she was broad with wide, flat features. Her cats eye spectacles perched on the bridge of her nose. She had an athlete’s build. Henry smiled at her as he strode in and enjoyed the polite scowl of contempt she gave.
For one of his books, Henry had researched chess to better flesh out his protagonist, and there was a phrase which came to his mind as he looked between the pair of them.
Zugzwang. Where you were in a disadvantageous position but had to move. He patted his phone in his pocket and turned his attention to Nathan.
Nathan had a face like a malnourished child He had his legs crossed tight enough to make Henry’s balls ache in sympathy..He inspired a whiff of contempt at how he could not hide his cold glee at being able to bring Henry down. His small head and red bow tie made Henry wonder if he could reach over and wrap his hand around it. He wouldn’t squeeze, but he would hold the manlet in his hand to show him how offended he was in his flamboyant dishonour. Henry would not have characterised Nathan as a eunuch because it implied he had balls in the first place, and there was a nauseous ambiguity to him. Nathan aspired to be nice, and nice men were dangerous, Henry thought.
Felicity was in it for the money. Her job was to project her own pain and inadequacies onto the university and took a large paycheck home each month. Henry respected the allure of money, it had brought him here. An award of a contract and a completion bonus at the end of it. Henry saw the furtiveness when she thought no one was looking. She had occupied an ideological niche and saw a way to make money out of white guilt but she carried a wilful diagnosis of impostor syndrome.
Most activism in identity politics,chose the wrong targets. He wondered who had hurt these people, fathers, he guessed but he was here as an apogee and it had all started out with the best intentions.
He came to teach writing here, fancying being an Englishman in America and keen to educate young people on the power of story. Henry lacked a formal education beyond having the discipline to write through injury or insult and keep taking all the rejection on the chin. There was an element of ego in it for him and when he sat with the applications for the course, he had visions of inspiring bold, feral writers to tell good, engaging stories. He sat with the stack of applications and a notebook to write his thoughts.
Lauren was expanding the bandwidth of what it meant to be a woman. She wrote a piece about growing a beard but it was not the possible transgressive act which dismayed Henry. There was no story, just a diary entry. An unpublished draft of a blog post.
She put more detail into her biography. The list of preferred pronouns, the word salad of their sexual identity which amused Henry until he realised it was not part of the story. Her writing meandered, nothing moved and it did not even have the tang of nihilism to mitigate it. Competence of technique but no story at the centre which bored Henry rigid.
Jennifer wrote about dating her father’s colleague but it was so self-serving and boring, Henry struggled to finish it and even the end escaped him. She left for college and he went back to his wife. They didn’t even fuck, just held hands and she cried. Henry wanted to believe a better story was in there.
There was one who was angrier than the others.
David did not surprise him. He was thin, with sharp, ascetic features and a genuine humility. He had changed over from business studies and talked about having to work two jobs to cover tuition for the rest of the year. Henry recognised the hunger in the writing, but winced at the clumsy leaps in narrative, the obsessive need to describe everything. David wrote about a woman, who he did not name but he knew well. Something had passed between them and then broke them apart. An old boyfriend, and David wrote about his feelings for them. An act of violence and the day before it happened, captured in spare, detailed language. Walking through the corridors with an assault rifle, looking to save his girl from a bitter, loveless marriage but facing armed resistance on the way. It was a power fantasy, but so was everything Henry wrote, so he was kinder to the work because it showed genuine promise.
‘Good afternoon.’ Henry said.
Nathan gestured to the chair and Henry sat down, put his shoulders back and stuck his chest out. He held Nathan’s eye until he looked away. Felicity turned the first page.
‘Mr Ellis. We are investigating a complaint of gendered violence and trans phobia from a student.’ she said.
Henry gave her a pointed look and smiled.
‘Who?’ he said.
Valerie frowned and looked towards Nathan.
‘That’s confidential.’ Nathan said
Henry chuckled which made the pair of them sit back in their chairs.
‘How many students have complained?’ Henry said.
Nathan pouted and looked at the papers in front of him.
‘One or over one student has registered a complaint -‘
‘Which is it? One or over one. Do I possess Schrodinger’s Student, Nathan?’ he said.
‘This isn’t helping, Henry -‘ she said.
‘Mr Ellis, thank you. Let’s keep this formal as much as possible.’ he said.
Valerie nodded and looked down to read from the statement.
‘In a recent round of feedback, did you describe a student’s submitted essay as childish?’
Henry chuckled and shook his head.
‘No, I said the story was childish. I am trying to teach writing here, and I’ve sought to be constructive but nothing makes them look up from their phones.’ he said.
Nathan simpered and looked down at his paperwork.
‘Did you refuse to use a student’s preferred pronouns in class?’
Henry sighed and put his hands together.
‘It became difficult to remember them once we got to the fifteen mark. Nathan.’ he said.
Nathan’s face was still. Henry looked for a reaction but Nathan lifted his chin. Henry observed how the second and third chins were drooping with age.
‘Please answer the question’ Nathan said.
Henry sat back in the chair.
If they’re terrified of feedback then they are in for a terrible shock, aren’t they?’ he said.
Felicity sighed and turned a page over.
‘Please answer the question, Mr Ellis.’ she said.
‘I did not refuse.’ Henry said.
Nathan wrote something down and looked up at Henry.
‘Your methods of giving feedback are problematic’ he said.
Henry drew his lips back over his teeth.
‘So, is that an official position of the university, Nathan?’ he said.
Nathan adjusted his bow tie and Henry returned his attention to Felicity.
‘So, Schrodinger’s Student has complained. I think it’s an excuse because I’m honest with them about the areas of development they need to work on.’ he said.
‘We’re here to protect the students. ‘Felicity said.
Henry breathed in, taken aback and incredulous as she gave a slow blink.
‘From whom? They’re in a university. I’m here to teach them and I shouldn’t have to work so hard to do it. I’m trying to disabuse myself of the idea it can’t be taught, but some of these students are the worst blend of narcissism and puritanism.’ he said.
Nathan saw Henry’s passion as panic and he leaned forward as he made notes.
‘Well, when Human Resources receives a complaint or complaints, we investigate it.’ Nathan said.
‘They’re children, and you won’t let them grow up. If they have issues with how I teach, they’re welcome to discuss it with me.’
Henry noticed how the corners of Felicity’s mouth flickered upwards. It was not a pleasant sight, seeing the pleasure she took in the dull sport of this meeting.
‘Do you feel you’re being accused, Mr Ellis?’ she said.
He pressed his palms together.
‘ It’s ridiculous and unwarranted.’ he said.
‘But you can understand why some of your students feel threatened by you?’ Nathan said.
His enjoyment was clear, the flamboyant dishonour there in his smug smile and looking down his nose at Henry.
‘No. I’m clear my comments challenge but it’s guide them to produce stories of quality and appeal.’ he said.
Felicity shook her head.
‘Mr Ellis, some of your students are suffering from neurodivergence and their gender identities are threatened by your approach.’ she said.
Henry’s temples throbbed as he sat back in the chair.
”You’ve used words but I’m not sure they meant anything.’ he said.
He wanted to point out it was almost a pangram, but he decided against it. He glanced around at the airless, antiseptic office. It saddened him how at ease Nathan and Felicity were, fragile and domineering without the cheer of outrage to warm them.
‘Is this a formal meeting?’ Henry said.
Nathan and Felicity glanced at one another. Henry got to his feet.
‘You two keep looking at one another like you’re in a play and you keep forgetting the lines.’ he said.
Felicity furrowed her forehead and looked down at the paper in front of her.
‘Mr Ellis, this is not a formal hearing.’ she said.
Nathan took a sealed envelope from the pile of papers and held it out for Henry. Henry’s chest ached for a moment at the frustration and disbelief of what was happening.
Henry looked at it but did not take it. Nathan held it out for him for a painful, awkward moment before he set the envelope on the table and pushed it across to him.
‘Opening it means I am acknowledging it. Which I am not. So tell me what’s in there.’ Henry said.
Nathan smiled, showing baby teeth behind thin, bloodless lips before he composed his expression into a false paternalism.
‘Your behaviour has breached section 3 of our gendered violence and conduct policy. Pending an investigation, the dean of faculty has agreed to suspend you until we’ve carried out further interviews.’ he said.
Henry fought the urge to reach out and grab Nathan’s head in his hand and grip it. His affected effeteness offended to Henry on a personal, visceral level. He felt his body throb with a focused burst of aggression but he took in a deep breath and got to his feet.
‘What policy?.’ he said.
Felicity leaned forward.
‘It was introduced at the most recent racial and gendered violence awareness workshop.’ she said.
Henry narrowed his eyes and studied her.
‘The voluntary one?’ he said.
Felicity nodded and leaned forward, confident in capturing Henry in his own words.
‘It was mandatory for HR and pastoral staff, but everyone was invited.’ she said.
Henry craved a cigarette, but he used the urge, felt for the hole in the story here with the same brute discipline and insight he had fed on when no one was reading his work and he was learning from failure more than success.
‘So, it was voluntary. I learned it in the Royal Navy, never volunteer for anything.’ he said.
Felicity sat up in the chair and regarded Henry with a neat disdain.
‘These workshops allow us to know the signs of racial and gendered violence.’ she said.
Henry didn’t want to sneer but Felicity irritated him. He never knew how to argue with American women. Men, he could prepare himself to escalate into violence with. Women were capable of being vicious actors but they could never agree to the weapons used in the duel. He drew the blunt club of his obstinance and swung it at them both.
‘And introduce policies I’m being suspended on.’ he said.
Henry had, back when he had day jobs and sidelines designed to distract him from taking on the fear of writing anything, he had been a trade union representative. The irony had not been lost how he defended members from bullying and harassment, and here he was, decades later, being accused of it.
It made him sad how the world had changed, and he rubbed his closed eyes with his fingertips.
‘I’ll expect to be paid and have access to witness statements before any further meetings.’ he said.
He could have raised many things in his defence but he saved it. He thought about David, had sent the first story to his agent in a gesture of genuine enthusiasm. A man did things to help others, through helping himself. It hurt him because he took pride in being a mentor to those willing to accept it and he was accused of it being abusive.
The shots rang out from the hallway. All three of them flinched. Nathan yelped and got up from the chair and moved towards the back of the office.
Henry stood up and went towards the door. He swallowed, heart thumping in his chest as he reached for the door.
‘Henry, please.’ Felicity said.
Henry closed his eyes and opened the door outwards. He took a deep breath and walked forwards.
‘I’m coming out. Please don’t shoot.’ he said.
He waited for the shot.
There was a broken sob, and it hurt him to hear it.
He opened his eyes and turned around.
David had the assault rifle held to his shoulder. His eyes welled up with tears as he looked past the front sight and smiled at Henry. He wore a black long sleeved t shirt, grey camoflague pants tucked into boots with a perfect crease down the front. Henry admired the precision, until he saw the people laid on the ground behind him.
‘Mr Ellis.’ he said.
Henry’s mouth went dry like autumn leaves and his next breath was a chill in his lungs.
‘What’s with the gun?’ he said.
He floated above himself, watched him stand there as David lowered the rifle. He shuddered and shut his eyes as he shook his head.
‘I wrote all those words for her and she’s fucking engaged.’ he said.
Henry fought tears as he nodded.
‘I’ve been there, David. Writing about it helps, the good and the bad.’ he said.
David sucked in a deep breath.
Henry tried not to look at the slumped body in the hallway behind David.
There were screams echoing from everywhere.
Henry walked towards him and opened his arms. David shuffled towards him and Henry realised how the first story, his best if he was honest, was a plan.
‘It will be all right David.’ he said.
David shook his head as he slipped the rifle off his shoulders. Tears streamed down his face and he stared into Henry’s eyes with an intensity which hurt to look at. Henry imagined it would hurt less than a bullet so he kept his eyes with David as he put the rifle on the ground.
David shook his head and grimaced.
‘No, I won’t. But you’ll be okay, Mr Ellis.’
Henry smiled as his eyes grew damp and he swallowed.
‘Call me Henry.’ he said.
David grinned and reached to the small of his back as he lifted his chin. There was a terrible, blank joy to his face as he lifted the small pistol and pressed it to the side of his head.
He squeezed the trigger. It turned him liquid and he poured onto the floor.
Henry went over to him and knelt beside him.
He stayed there until the police arrived. Nathan and Felicity went on six months safety leave and the accusations went away. He signed completes for anyone who requested it but there were less than he expected.
Those who stayed, listened, but he missed David in the classes even when he learned about how he shot the girl he talked about, and her fiance. They had shared one class together but never spoke beyond a few words. He wrote to David’s family, but they never replied. People took his submission of David’s story as a publicity stunt because checking the dates would not be as good a story. It was an irony David would have appreciated, had he lived.
It was during the Christmas break on a flight back to England for Christmas with his family, he wrote about David in a small black notebook. He was tired enough to let himself feel the grief and the first few lines, written in the sealed warmth of a ride home through the blur of tears.