No so long ago when I was twenty three, I managed to get some work teaching English as a foreign language through the university here in Glasgow. My undergraduate degree was in English, and then, after getting a TEFL qualification, I worked in Spain for a year before returning to Scotland. A friend said that one of the teachers who was in the brochure to teach a few courses had suddenly decided not to return, and would I like to take over. It was probably the best paid foreign language teaching job in the city, and I happily agreed. Teaching two classes each term over three terms, I could make enough money to eat well and pay the rent on the small room I had in a flat I was sharing with a couple of others in the city's west end, not too far from where I was teaching the language classes. I also added to my tutoring cards that I was teaching EFL classes at the university, and this seemed to help me get a few extra private clients as well.
At the beginning of the second term, an email was sent round asking if any of us would be willing to sign up for a course that was a person short. All the courses needed a certain number of people to run at all, and the beginner's French class required one more student. As tutors we were all entitled to one free course a year, and so I enrolled. There was no obligation for me to go along to the classes; my enrolment was all that was required. Nevertheless, out of curiosity, I chose to attend the first one, and see whether I still remembered much of my school French.
Over the next ten weeks I attended every one of the classes, but not because I had become enamoured by the language; more by the language teacher. Virginie was several years older than I was, and though of course I was there to listen to her speak French so that I could learn it, what I really liked was how she would speak English. Each odd inflection would create a tingle of desire in me, and when she pronounced certain words it was as though I was hearing them for the first time. In Seville I had never found the Spanish accent when someone spoke in English pleasant to my ear, and couldn't even recall on the couple of occasions I had been in France, when a teenager, anybody speaking French with an accent that appealed. I had never heard a foreign accent quite like Virginie's.
During the term my French had improved a little, but I couldn't pretend I was continuing because of the language. When at the end of the term a few of the others said they were going to continue as well (this was already their second term with her), I saw no reason why I shouldn't sign up for the next one too, even if this time I would of course have to pay. Perhaps the others wanted to continue for the same reason that I did: to hear Virginie speak English rather than have her teach us French. Perhaps it was also that Virginie was attractive to look at as well as tantalizing to listen to, and though she was not a beautiful woman (a photo of her wouldn't have got much of a reaction from a friend), her presence, her voice, the subtle mobility of her face, and her movement around the classroom, all made her more than beautiful. She was indeed bewitching: she was a woman who could cast spells. In fact she was a woman who seemed to cast different spells, for when at the end of that term a few of us went for a drink, with Virginie absent after saying she was too busy, she became the subject of much of the conversation as one person admitted they loved her sensitivity, another her confidence, a third a hint of insecurity and so on. Of the six of us in the pub, two were women and four were men, and though the women weren't lesbian, and two of the men robustly married, everyone found her enchanting.
So I signed up along with all the others for the next block of classes. However, the day before her class I was teaching my first lesson of the term - advanced English - and noticed, arriving half an hour early to prepare a couple of film and TV clips that I wanted to show, that her name was on the register. If I had signed up again for her class to hear her occasionally speak English in between teaching us French, here I had the opportunity to ask her to speak English whenever I wished. As with the previous terms, the class was full (maximum fourteen), and as people crammed into a room that could have been bigger (it was smaller than Virginie's classroom despite her lower numbers), I felt my body temperature rise through a combination of the heating that had been full on despite the warm day, the number of bodies in this small space, and Virginie sitting there waiting for me to teach.
During that earlier term where she taught me French, whatever interest I had in Virginie I did not feel was being reciprocated, but now there seemed an ironic complicity, with her turning up on Monday night to improve her already very good English, and me attending her Tuesday evening class practising my very bad French. Yet where in her class I would often feel like an idiot, in my own I realized how much I knew about my culture and language partly though the ignorance I showed in hers. As I would show clips from various films and TV shows, from A Kind of Loving to Our Friends in the North, from Secrets andLies to On the Buses, so I pointed out differences in accents, cultural mores and even body language. I would discuss the Angry Young Men of the theatre in the fifties, the kitchen sink films of the early sixties, the strikes of the seventies, Thatcherism and its discontents in the eighties. I even showed clips from football games, a sport I still played and five years earlier, just before university, I had contemplated playing professionally. I would sometimes have the students trying different regional accents, and I couldn't pretend that one reason I offered the exercise was to hear Virginie speak not only English with a French accent, but English with a French accent combined with a Liverpudlian one.
One evening when a few of us in the French class went for a drink (we continued the habit that we started at the end of the previous term) we were joined not by Virginie but by the wife of one of the married men who happened to be in Virginie's advanced class. This was half way through the third term, and, when she talked about what they were doing in the French advanced, she said it was quite different from the previous two terms, as she described a class that wasn't too unlike the way I happened to be teaching the advanced English. The woman said it had become more culturally specific, based a bit more on the nuances of the language and customs rather than on general principles. Perhaps this was just how Virginie would usually teach it in the third term, but I felt also that she had responded to my teaching style enough to absorb one or two of the details into her own. As I asked the wife further questions about Virginie's course, so she mentioned that Virginie always started the advanced classes with a query. She would sometimes show a clip, read out a passage, ask a question about French culture that had been in the news (the banning of headscarves in schools, the new top rate of tax, even a question about a well-known actor who had left the country after taking umbrage at the tax rises), and though of course this could lead to political debates that were perhaps not ostensibly useful to teaching the French language, that she insisted people answer in French meant it was a good way of getting everyone to expand their vocabulary. People would often have a strong opinion, and Virginie would witness the frustration on people's faces as they tried to develop a powerful argument without always the vocabulary to match it.
The following Monday I started the class for the first time with a question, and I did so partly because I thought it was a good technique to get the class talking, but also of course because I wanted to see if Virginie would think I had stolen the idea from her, just as she seemed to have stolen one or two ideas from me. The question I asked concerned the popularity of private schools in the UK, and much of the class was taken up by the conversation. Of course had I offered a question for no other reason than to find out how Virginie would have reacted, this would have been dereliction of duty, but I was sure that it could lead to an interesting discussion, forcing people to confront the limitations of their vocabulary, and that is exactly what happened. But it was also interesting to see Virginie's face as I suggested we start with a question, and also to hear what Virginie had to say about private education in both form and content: to listen to her voice and also hear her views. In the beginner's French class she was usually reticent in her opinions, and factual in her analysis, but given the opportunity to have an opinion in the English class she revealed her contempt for the English class system, and saw its basis in education. Even Scotland was a nation full of private schools, she noted, and said that any egalitarian gesture on a government's part should start with the dismantling of the private educational sector. It was quickly clear to me that several students in the class had gone to, or had kids in, private schools, and what I found so appealing was that many of the arguments I would have been happy to have offered in a different context (and that were in the class withheld because of my pedagogical role) were taken up by Virginie. It gave her an added authority, yet one quite distinct from the qualities she possessed as a teacher, and the voice and accent also changed. It was less beseeching and helpful, and what she lost in attractiveness she gained in intrigue. Here was a woman with two sides that weren't simply divided by language: she spoke English with a sense of enquiry and also with a sense of certainty; how many personalities did she have in French?
A few days after this class I asked a colleague who taught French literature, and someone whom I played football with, whether he knew much about Virginie; tackling the topic without announcing it directly, but taking advantage of a conversation that made it easy for me to bring up her name. We were talking about how many courses tutors were given, and Brian said I was lucky to be offered so many classes in my first year, but of course there were others luckier still. Like me, he taught six courses over the three terms; some, though, taught only one each term and some tutors not even that. Virginie, however, taught nine classes over the year, and some must have seen this as slightly odd since not all of Virginie's courses were close to full, and one or two (like the one I signed up for), could have been cancelled altogether. Wouldn't it have been better to have different tutors teaching each language level, Brian had first thought, until one day a few months later he had seen Virginie in the corridor talking to the course coordinator and understood a little better why Virginie was a favoured tutor.
The co-ordinator (who was responsible for French language and literature) and Virginie were sitting in the canteen in the early afternoon, around half one, presumably just before her intermediate class, and looking at the pair of them, Brian said, you would have thought Virginie was the course organiser and not the other way round. Maybe they were talking about the courses she would choose to teach the next year, since the colleague also met his course organizer around the same time to discuss what courses he would be taking. Yet where Brian had to cajole and coax the man into giving him the same number the next year, even though all six classes that he had been teaching for five years always ran, Virginie seemed to be proposing still more classes to teach than the French ones she was already running.
Brian wasn't surprised; several years earlier, during Virginie's first year of teaching, he had attended one of her courses when it looked like it was struggling for numbers, and could see why she always had students but often not always enough of them. He could see her teaching style was seductive as much as instructive; based on charm as readily as pedagogical persuasion, and saw that for every student taken in by her charms another was resistant to her manner. The course organizer was someone who had been taken in, Brian said, and seeing them together it made sense that she was one of the most successful tutors in terms of the number of courses she taught, if not always in the number of students she attracted to them. Perhaps that is how people succeed in the world, he mused: not on the basis of democratic success but merely seducing the right people. Isn't that now how most politicians function; they appeal to a few sponsors, charm a few interviewers, and yet when you meet them in person they seem odious?
I didn't disagree with Brian's analysis of politics, even if I didn't quite share his Communist sympathies, but thought he was harsher on Virginie than seemed justifiable, or at least justified by him. It was as though instead of attacking her personally with concrete anecdotes, he did so indirectly by analogy. It was more a form of hyperbole than insight. Yet of course I would later find out why he preferred the indirect method, and yet had he been more open that afternoon would it have made any difference to my own actions?
Over the summer I got to know Virginie very well, or more accurately one side of her personality. At the end of my class I invited the students out for a drink and she came along, and as the others left partly because of personal responsibilities, tiredness and a social life more exciting than spending an entire evening in the company of students and tutors from a night class, so Virginie and I were alone and perhaps pretending to be a little more drunk than we were. She came back to my flat, and over the next couple of months we slept together often, even if she didn't want to claim we were in a relationship, and said that she was still attached to an ex-lover she would see now and again. Virginie had the ability to make her wants, no matter how suspect, seem more natural than the other person's reservations. The idea that she might have been unfair would never have occurred to her, and I knew that if I proposed it I would have sounded like I was whining, like someone unfairly trying to get my own way.
Yet troubled I was, and it was this feeling of anxiety that should have stopped me acting on a suggestion she made that August: she reckoned we should give up our teaching jobs and go to France. She was missing her culture and her language; what did I have to lose by giving up a job that was based on a zero hour contract anyway: if the course didn't run I wouldn't get paid? The job was permanent as a contract, but insecure when it came to actual teaching hours. Over the next couple of weeks she would cajole and persuade, and by the end of August, only three weeks away from the new term, I e-mailed my course organizer that I wouldn't be teaching that year; I was moving to France. What I didn't know was that Virginie had been much wiser than me in how she announced her departure, but that can wait.
We arrived in Paris at the beginning of September, and Virginie managed to secure an apartment for around 700 euros in the 20th Arrondissement. It had a walk-in kitchen, a bedroom, and a sitting room, but the landlady said she had recently sold one of the rooms to finish paying off the mortgage, and sure enough we saw that there was a space where a door had been that she had plastered over. During the next couple of months Virginie and I lived off savings and looked for work. She was more successful than I was and found a job teaching in a language school; I managed to get two private students that earned me enough money to pay for my food, but where I still needed to rely on savings to cover the rent. During this period from September through to Christmas, I noticed aspects of Virginie' personality that I hadn't seen before in Scotland, and I didn't know whether it was because she was back home, whether the traits took time to reveal themselves as she hid them, or I was initially too oblivious to spot them. She would laugh when I would attempt to speak French, and get annoyed when I would ask questions about her day or enquire about a friend she was going to meet.
It was in the middle of March when she asked me to leave the apartment: she had met someone else and there would hardly be room for the three of us. I thought my indifferent reaction as I packed my things was one of shock, but after a couple of weeks, and still feeling no great pain at our parting, I could see that it was more relief than loss I started to feel. Virginie had been so happy to exclude me from her life except when she would occasionally allow me into her bed (most of the time I slept on the couch), that most of the loss had been accumulated in the prior months. On leaving I stayed at an acquaintance's place for several days, someone I had met with Virginie and others a couple of months earlier and who said to me one evening a few weeks after that, when a few of us got together again, that he didn't like her, knew someone who had dated her before she went to Scotland, and everyone had been relieved when she left Paris. He said to me that night it was of course none of his business, but since I was quite new to the city, and didn't yet seem to have many friends, if his advice was impertinent it was also well meant. If I ever needed a place to stay for a few days if I did leave her, I could stay over at his, even if there wasn't much space. During the next couple of months before Virginie threw me out, I saw Clement often and so by the time she asked me to leave it was not awkward at all to ask him if I could stay at his flat till I found a room.
A few weeks before I had moved out, Clement had vacated his apartment, or rather a room, a chambre de bonne attached to his parents' apartment but with a separate entrance, and he proposed I take it. His parent's place was in the sedate, wealthy 17tharrondissement, and I found it amusing that he offered the room apologetically. The rent was very cheap and the area still in the centre of the city; how could I not accept?
I still had a couple of private students, but if I wanted to stay in Paris through spring and summer I knew I would have to make more money. One afternoon while I was walking through the 5th, I saw someone with a cap in front of him and a few coins in it playing keepie-up. I watched him for around thirty minutes from the other side of the road. He was competent rather than exceptional, but nevertheless people were putting money into the cap, and later that evening I bought a football on the way home, went into Parc Monceau before it closed, and practised juggling with the ball at my feet. It was something I hadn't done for a few years though I had still been playing football regularly at university and afterwards also. I could still do a few hundred without difficulty, and on a number occasions over the next couple of days, as I practised in the park, I managed a few thousand without the ball dropping to the ground. Several days after that I went up to Montmartre, stood outside Sacre Coeur, and in a few hours made almost a hundred Euros, nearly a third of my month's rent.
I would go up to Sacre Coeur for a few hours every other day, and averaged two hundred and fifty Euros a week over the next three months, and enjoyed Paris for the first time since arriving: I no longer worried about money, and didn't have to worry about how Virginie was treating me. Where before I was reliant on Virginie's friends for company, now, through Clement, I had what felt like friends of my own. With the people Virginie knew there always seemed to be a feeling that they either shared her contempt for me, or felt pity for what she was putting me through. She would often joke at my expense in French, knowing that I wouldn't understand, and then later, when she wanted to be cruel all over again, explained to me what she had said to my uncomprehending face in front of her friends.
Why couldn't I have seen this aspect of her personality in Glasgow? Because, as I've said earlier, she was bewitching; Virginie had the capacity to make her personality morph into the shape others expected, but the equal capacity to shape it into the reverse of what she had earlier offered. It was as if the effort required in giving the other person what they wanted demanded that Virginie had to get her personality back at a ruthless cost to the person who had benefited from it. Even that day where she attacked the British class system she later told me was for me: she didn't care about the system in Britain, but could see that I did and was amused at how easily I would nod and agree even though I was supposed to be playing the impartial teacher. It was one of the revelations she offered me not long before we split up, and it was as if the relationship were in a contractive phase in Paris after the expansive in Glasgow: it seemed like our world went into reverse.
I was explaining this to Brian when he passed through Paris to visit his girlfriend in Narbonne, someone he had met while on holiday in the region the previous summer, and he apologized for allowing me to take off with Virginie. He should have been more dissuasive he said. I told him that he hinted strongly that he didn't like her, and he said that maybe dissuasive was the wrong word; that he should have been more honest. While he had insinuated that others had been charmed by her, he seemed to have suggested that he hadn't. They briefly had an affair after her course, but perhaps she was less fond of him than she was of me. Within weeks she had turned the charm she showed in the class, and shortly afterwards when they started seeing each other, into a withering distaste. He then asked me if I had arranged to defer teaching for a year: the university allowed tutors to take a maximum of one year out, and then if they didn't return the courses would go to the tutor who filled in for them. I said that I didn't know this was an option, and he said that he was sure Virginie did. He said I should get in contact with the university and it might still be possible to come back in September.
I looked at the email I had sent and noticed that I hadn't stated that I was leaving the job, only that I was moving for a while to Paris and that I wouldn't be available to teach the following year. I assumed that meant I had offered my resignation, but taking into account what Brian had said, the job was still mine as long as I returned in a couple of months. I sent an email to the course organizer, for English Language and Literature, and he said that yes they were expecting my return in late September.
I hadn't planned to stay in France beyond the summer, and I felt not only pleasantly surprised but also greatly relieved that I would have work to return to, and the idea that Virginie would presumably also be returning didn't perturb me at all. I even found it quite amusing that I would once again be her colleague and that I had accidentally trumped her. It reminded me of the game we played with each other as we took aspects of the other's teaching style. Virginie presumably didn't tell me about the chance of taking a year off because she wanted to return without the irritation of my presence. But there I would be, glad for work and indifferent to her existence in the same building. Over the next few weeks I continued going up to Sacre Coeur and in August earned up to three hundred Euros a day. At night I would join Clement and his friends, or people I had got to know after taking a break from keeping the ball up in the air. One evening when I was out with a couple of girls I met at Sacre Coeur, I saw Virginie and a man coming towards me. We were sitting in a restaurant at a square in Popincourt, between the canal St Martin and Bastille, and it looked as though Virginie was about to take a seat at a nearby table when she must have spotted me, said something to the man she was with, and chose to keep walking. From behind, the man looked a bit like her course organizer. I didn't mind that she refused to acknowledge me, but I wondered how she would react when walking past me in the corridor back at the university.
A couple of days after arriving in Glasgow, I arranged to meet up with the course organizer and admitted that it was only by accident I would be teaching once again. I had thought in giving up my job even temporarily I was giving it up permanently, and I asked whether the person who had taken my place didn't mind that he wouldn't have a permanent contract. I didn't really know the course organizer that well, but I knew from Brian that he wasn't afraid to talk bluntly when the moment demanded it: whether that meant professionally or personally. When I had seen him in the corridor not long after agreeing to sign up to Virginie's class he gave me a smile, shook his head and said be careful. I took it as a joke, but now saw it had been a warning. As he said he was glad to see me back, he added that he suspected that I had handed in my resignation, but since I had worded it ambivalently, and that he knew where I had gone and with whom, he thought I would want to return, and so held the position open. Wasn't there an element of partisanship there, I asked, smiling; rather less than what a French tutor had received in recent years he said. He went on to tell me that the tutor who had filled in for me had left the job just before I started because of none other than that French tutor. They had been having an affair during the summer before I had started teaching, and she left him a few days before the start of the term. He couldn't see how he could teach in the same building, and resigned. He came back for the year only because he knew she was out of the country, and found it ironic that she was with none other than the tutor who replaced him.
If in Paris I had felt manipulated by Virginie, now back in Glasgow I might have believed I was being controlled by others as well. What with Brian suggesting that I could get my job back, the course organizer keeping it open, and my replacement only filling in for me because I had left the country with a woman he was avoiding, so I felt even younger than my years. However, I also felt strangely safe, as though Virginie's manipulations were there to let me fall, and those of the others there to break it. I then asked with all these activities going on behind the scenes, why hadn't they managed to remove Virginie. The course organizer shrugged, saying that there were people looking out for Virginie too. She can be a terrible person with men, he said, but a wonderful tutor for the right sort of person who has the good sense not to fall for her charms but only to learn from her teaching skills, skills that of course involved charming her students to the point, he more or less proposed, that they became enamoured by her, but who then nevertheless managed to avoid infatuation.
Was that possible, I wondered, and then supposed that a little bit of charm carefully deployed and then necessarily withheld can give the student the impetus to learn without the added impetus to become more interested in the tutor than the subject. Was that my downfall: that I became more intrigued in how she spoke English than how she could teach me French? I assumed she taught me another lesson instead, one in love, however harshly, and for a perverse moment I thought I might sign up to her classes again, this time learning a bit more of the language that I had practised during my year long excursion. It was a momentary thought, but a self-destructive pang nevertheless, and for some reason I felt a strange empathy towards Virginie as I thought that the self-destructive in her was not an occasional pang but an ongoing pain, one that could help explain her behaviour, but perhaps not quite my own if I decided to again attend one of her classes. I thought also of the difference between doing keepie-ups and playing a football match: between playing with a ball based purely on one's own abilities, and seeing football as a team game.
© Tony McKibbin