The building is smaller than he remembers, less of a gothic horror manor now that the leaves have grown on the vines snaking up the front. It’s almost poetic now, no longer scarred and starved and it’s certainly a far cry from the raw concrete building he went to secondary school in.
Many others on the course would have given a leg to come to the King’s Academy, but truth be told, Eggsy wasn’t certain at all. In fact, he still thinks he would have been perfectly happy at a thousand pupil school in Bexley, but Roxy had wanted the name on her resume, so Eggsy had applied just for the chance to keep her around; she’d been there for the entirety of his laborious, three-year upwards trajectory and he felt a sense of loyalty to her that rivalled a terrier’s.
Walking up the steps alone now, all he feels is a squirm of anxiety. He and Roxy were supposed to have their inductions the same day, but her supervisor had fallen ill, so Eggsy stands alone in the grand foyer rereading the e-mail that has the instructions on where to go.
When they’d come for the interviews, it had been the middle of recess, kids in black blazers swarming the halls, eyeing him distrustfully, well aware he didn’t belong. Now it’s quiet. Classes aren’t due to start for another half hour and the place is deserted. To be honest, he hadn’t thought for one moment he was going to get the spot the last time he was here, but two weeks later the letter confirming his placement had come through the letterbox: For the coming term, he’d be placed in classroom 102.
He finds it in the back corner of the first floor down the hall from the teacher’s lounge, the door ajar.
Uncertain of whether to knock, he risks a peek inside and finds the teacher’s already there, pen hovering over a notebook, his head turned toward a computer screen.
Not wanting to startle the man, he clears his throat as he pushes the door open. “Excuse me,” he says, “I’m here for English literature.”
“Ah yes, the trainee,” the man murmurs distractedly, clicking something off the screen before he swivels around. “I’ve been expecting you. I’m Harry Hart.”
He’s offered up his hand to be shaken, but Eggsy’s too dumbfounded to notice, startled by the fact that he’s looking at what he’s certain is a familiar face and yet simultaneously a one eyed man he cannot possibly know because one doesn’t simply forget an eye patch. Eventually, he catches on, his eyes flicking down to the hand as an embarrassed flush scrambles up the back of his neck.
With a hurried, awkward step, he grasps Mr Hart’s limb to shake. “Eggsy.”
Mr Hart’s forehead draws into a frown that unfurls part of his eyebrow from under the eyepatch. “I was expecting a Gary Unwin.” The handshake is firm and lingers through the confusion.
Eggsy’s the first one to withdraw. “Uh, yeah, that’s my given name, but I’ve always just gone by Eggsy.”
This time it’s him who’s at the end of a long, inquisitive look. “It’s an interesting name.”
There’s a beat in which he doesn’t know what to say, rocking back on his heels like a kid, hands clasped in front of him. Great fuckin’ start , the voice in his head whispers and Eggsy gnaws at the inside of his cheek to keep from talking back. After what feels like an eon but can’t be more than seconds, Mr Hart clears his throat and turns back to the desk.
“The children should be arriving soon. I printed out lesson plans for the term for you –” He hands Eggsy a stack of paper– “if you wouldn’t mind writing today’s topic and key points on the board for me.”
Taking the papers, Eggsy nods. He drops his bag and coat on a desk in the front row and finds a piece of chalk. Jane Austen , the top of the first page reads. This ought to go down a hoot. Although he’s not personally fond of Austen, Eggsy does have an unrivalled soft spot for 19th century literature he isn’t quick to admit to. Even three years into higher education, his roots haven’t left him; a tendril of shame curls in his stomach at the mere thought that he might enjoy the afternoon, as though he’s become a traitor to his teenage self.
He glances away from the board at Mr Hart by the computer. He’s more put together than any of Eggsy’s old teachers, his suit a rich, textured tweed in a muted green, but he’s got that same air – the one that makes him simultaneously eager to please and leaves him on the brink of rebellion. It’s not an impulse that strikes him often anymore. He’s come in contact with enough voluntarily sought out authority in the past few years to undo some of his childhood complexes. The last placement they’d been at, he and Roxy had become something verging on friends with their supervisor, but Mrs Whitehill had a different aura.
For one, she wore patterned 70 shift dresses with wooden pearls for a necklace, her plump face and grey perm putting you at ease from behind her desk. Save for the eye patch, Mr Hart could’ve been sat behind the desk of the sort of bank Eggsy would never even dream of stepping into. In fact, he was a lot of things Eggsy would hesitate to approach: a tall, handsome, brooding hero type complete with the dark lock of hair curled over his forehead.
Perhaps, in a novel, even the scar snaking out of the side of the eye patch would add to his charm. Eggsy follows the sliver of shiny skin to where it disappears in the hair over Mr Hart’s temple and wonders what sort of accident could have led to the loss of his eye.
He’s distracted from the thought by the arrival of the first pupils.
They’re not what he remembers fourteen-year-olds to be. Yes, there’s the crop of zits splattered across one boy’s cheek, and the unexpected, mortifying squeak in another’s voice that shuts him up mid-sentence, and there’s the girls. When they arrive, they’re tall and mismatched with the wiry boy still awaiting their growth spurts, but there’s an air to many of them he never carried at school (or anywhere at all at that age) that he doesn’t understand. A girl brushes past him, hair a luxurious blonde, her makeup something straight out of a commercial and her uniform something resembling fitting clothes as opposed to a funeral suit borrowed from an obese relative she’s waiting to fill out.
Still, the kids make the same cacophony of noise he used to, fifteen overlapping conversations and a burst of raucous laughter filling the room as he makes his way to the back. Behind the teacher’s desk, Mr Hart rises and clears his throat.
Eggsy notices he’s donned a pair of broad-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, one of the lenses tinted dark to obscure his missing eye and the sides covering up most of the scar.
“Settle down, please,” Mr Hart says. His voice is much louder now than it was before, gravelly as it booms off the walls. The kids reluctantly shuffle into their seats. “Welcome back from the Winter Break. I hope you all had a relaxing time at home and are ready to devote yourselves to another year of study. We have with us this semester a teacher trainee, Eggsy.”
On cue, twenty heads turn to look at him, each doing the hostile once over that makes Eggsy insecure even though he’s wearing the brand-new suit he bought just for this school. It seems barely adequate now.
Mr Hart barrels on unfazed. “You will see him in the classroom during the coming months,” he says, scratching Eggsy’s name onto the board for good measure, “and you will receive some lessons from him later in the term. Please do not hesitate to engage him; he is here to learn from you as much as you will learn from him. Does anyone have any questions?”
His gaze sweeps across the room and lands squarely on Eggsy, as if it’s an offer that extends to him too. And it’s in that moment that Eggsy is certain he’s seen him before, something about the brown eye so piercing, it’s like it’s already seen through him once.
Wouldn’t someone like Mr Hart be unforgettable though, Eggsy reasons, unless they’d met before the loss of the eye, but who is he to speculate when or how that happened. He’s certainly not going to ask.
In the front, Mr Hart carries on with the lesson.
“This term,” he says, “we’re returning to a beloved, witty English writer some of you may already be familiar with: Jane Austen. While I am sure you have heard of previous years reading Sense and Sensibility and Emma . However, this year, I have decided to make a change and have you read Pride and Prejudice instead.”
There are a few murmurs and an eye roll. Eggsy catches a whispered, “Not this again,” from a kid in the back row. Some things never change.
“Why can’t we read something exciting?” One boy pipes up. The girl next to him nods emphatically.
It’s not much of a protest compared to what the response in his day would have been, but Eggsy can’t say he’s looking forward to teaching a book no one wants to read.
Mr Hart doesn’t appear the slightest bit put off by the response.
“Perhaps you ought to open your minds to the varieties of excitement. Many of you appeared to enjoy epistolary novels last term in spite of their reputation.”
“Yeah, but that was because it was Dracula: murders and crime galore!”
“And it’s also an exemplary piece of storytelling. Just as this will be,” Mr Hart says, a flicker of a smile gracing his lips for a moment. “Please give it a chance for my sake.”
Another mumble, but no more protest. He’s clearly a liked teacher, Eggsy thinks. The kids are easy around him, bold but not to the point of rudeness, relaxed yet attentive in their seats. It’s exactly the kind of teacher he wants to become (albeit in a different population), so Eggsy breaks out his notepad and jots down not the contents of the lesson but how it’s delivered.
Coming home is still no easy affair. Walking the final stretch of the street up to the estate, he feels alien in his straight, wrinkle-free trousers meant to be worn in his other life. An hour ago they were borderline inadequate but now they’re neat enough to ask for a mugging. Eggsy had folded his blazer into his bag on the tube and swapped it for a hoodie and the puffer jacket that’s starting to wear at one of the seams on the sleeves. The oxfords - old but well-polished shoes - he’s swapped for trainers, a half-hearted attempt at metamorphosis.
Lately the thought that he should move away has been snaking up on him, not as it used to in the middle of a fight, but appearing in the quiet, exhausted moments after he shuts off the alarm in the mornings, hand still on the button. There’s no screaming on his end, no ground teeth and corrosive anger, just the notion that he wants better for himself. Still, he comes back every night.
He jiggles the key in the lock by muscle memory alone and the door slides open. You couldn’t tell the lock has been jammed for years by watching him, but it still cuts into his wrist every day. On the other side of the door, there’s a pot of pasta on the boil and Daisy sitting cross legged at the kitchen table. Eggsy throws his keys on top of the fridge, moves the pot on the verge of boiling over, turns down the stove, and ruffles his sister’s hair.
“Hello, poppet. How are ya?”
She angles herself up expectantly, stuck between angel eyes and a put-out face when she says: “Mummy’s makin’ me do homework. It’s not fair.”
“Well, it’s got to be done, sweetheart. Let’s see what you have,” he leans down and twists the pages sideways. One’s a sheet of undone maths, another is covered in shaky lettering.
“She never lets me play,” Daisy complains and before Eggsy can reply, their mum shouts from across the room.
“Ya were outside all afternoon playin’ with yer friends. I come home from work to see the school bag’s been abandoned at the edge of the yard for footie.”
It’s an argument Eggsy’s had with her many times, so he can empathize, but as an adult he can finally see their mum’s viewpoint too.
Daisy slumps in her seat and frowns. It’d be all too easy to give in to her the way his mum did with him, but lately, she’s started being present again the way she used to before Eggsy’s dad died. He remembers the nights of workbooks at the table just before, wishing she wouldn’t be quite so attentive and then finding that, when she slipped into grief, Eggsy was left drowning in the river of life she’d been trying so desperately to keep him afloat in. And she hadn’t even taught him to kick; he learned that one all by himself.
When Daisy was born, he didn’t think things would be any different. The pregnancy had been difficult enough, apathetic and stressful in turns, and Dean an all around piece of shit throughout. Back then he sometimes felt the whole weight of her tiny being resting on his useless shoulders, but they’ve both shaped up in the past few years.
Since Dean went to prison three years ago, Michelle Unwin has pulled herself back together into something resembling a human being rather than the giant emotional bruise she used to be. It’s not better underneath, Eggsy knows that, but the bit that’s hurting is buried somewhere just out of sight where Daisy can’t see.
His mum says, “I’ve gotta go cover Nadine’s night shift; she’s ill again and Roger’s gonna fire her if she’s absent one more time. Will ya be alright?”
It’s not really a question. The Sainsbury’s jacket zipped up under her chin, she stuffs her keys into her bag, halfway out the door by the time Eggsy actually manages a reply. One foot over the threshold, she remembers Daisy at the table, swoops back in to give her a kiss on the head, murmuring, “Behave yourself,” into her hair before the door slams.
Daisy, ever the opportunist, tries another pleading look on Eggsy. Sighing, he caves just an ounce. “Look, I’m lettin’ you off the hook, but you can either finish your homework now or after dinner. Just think of which one to pick if you want the telly tonight.”
It’s as good a bargain as she’s going to get, so Daisy counts her losses, picks up her pencil, and returns to her worksheet.
Eggsy considers the half-cooked pasta and his trousers and decides he deserves a change of clothes before he starts rummaging around for a jar of bolognese.
In his room, there’s still the air of a nervous morning. The bed is made to military precision, not a habit of his unless he’s up early for the sort of occasion that begs for a backup alarm. That patch of neatness is contrasted by the scattered mess of papers on the wobbly little table in the corner that he’s been using as a desk. He drops his bag next to it and hangs his jacket over the back of the chair.
Once he’s in sweats and a t-shirt, the day heaves a sigh and he feels his insides collapsing faster than a card house caught in a tornado. All he wants to do is lie face down on the bed for a moment, but from the other room, Daisy shouts, “Are ya gonna cook or what?” and Eggsy’s feet begin to move again.
He grabs his laptop on his way to the kitchen. “Pipe down and focus, will ya?” he tells his sister.
With the pasta back on the boil, a jar of sauce, and a can of beans on the counter, he slips into the chair opposite Daisy and opens his laptop. It’s the same shitty second-hand thing he bought for uni a few years ago and he could’ve bought a new one since if he hadn’t been spending the scraps of his bursaries and loans on all the bits and bobs of Daisy’s Dean isn’t providing.
Looking at her as he waits for his email to load, he doesn’t regret it for a moment. When he looks away, there are two new items in his inbox: the generic ‘welcome to placement’ email from his institution and another titled ‘good evening’.
Subject: good evening
Please find attached an electronic copy of the term schedule. I hope your first day was not too daunting; I know children of this age are not always the easiest to approach.
As this is my first time as a mentor, please do not hesitate to give me feedback on your needs and ask for guidance where you require it.
It’s an unexpectedly sweet message after Eggsy barely got a goodbye from him when he left earlier and he stares at the lines for a long moment until the pasta boils over again and he shoots out of his seat, shouting, “Shit, shit, shit,” as he pulls the pot aside once more.
The following morning is frosty. Eggsy’s fingers tingle as he takes the steps two at a time up to the teacher’s lounge. It’s only half eight and the place is still mostly empty, only three other coats hung on the rack in the hallway. He takes his supplies with him and slips into the main lounge where he’s greeted by Mr Hart’s back by the copier and the brief, disinterested glance of a lady at a desk at the far end.
“Mornin’” Eggsy says, mainly to Mr Hart, though he makes sure it’s loud enough to be heard by the woman too.
“Can I help in any way?” Eggsy asks, “If you’re getting materials for class, that is.”
“No thank you, I have it well in hand.”
Not knowing what else to do, he simply nods and takes a seat in the closest armchair. He reads over his notes from the previous day and makes little annotations in the margins of the day’s lessons that he’s written out into hand drawn boxes.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Mr Hart asks from behind him and Eggsy smudges the word he’s writing in his surprise.
“Uhh, yeah sure, but I’ll come make my own.”
He’s up in a flash, clasping the notebook against his belt as he follows Mr Hart into the kitchen branching off the end of the room. It’s the same kind of worn, graceless space he’s seen in public schools. The refrigerator looks about twenty years old and the tabletops are scratched up from people cutting things on it without a chopping board. Expertly, Mr Hart finds two passable mugs among the many stained and chipped candidates in the cupboard. He fills the kettle and fetches the milk while Eggsy stands by awkwardly like a kid that’s stumbled into a forbidden space and now doesn’t know what to do with himself.
“How are you finding the group so far?” Mr Hart asks as they wait for the water to boil.
“Yeah, nice enough. It’s hard to tell yet, but ya know, I look forward to getting to know them…” Eggsy fades into silence at the nod he gets, too tied up in his own embarrassment to say anything more.
Then the kettle whistles and Mr Hart returns to making tea. He pours them both water, then asks, “Milk?”
“Yes, please, but no sugar.”
Eggsy swears he sees the twitch of a smile though Mr Hart says nothing and when he turns around to put the milk back in the fridge, his face is inscrutable. He stirs both mugs with the same spoon, deposits it in the sink, and hands Eggsy his tea.
After the first sip, Mr Hart says: “You’ve got jam.”
“On your face,” he elaborates. “You have jam on your face.”
“Oh,” Eggsy says, heat rushing into his face. He tries not to spill his tea as he pushes it onto the closest available surface and starts scrubbing at his skin. The sticky spot spreads under his finger and he has the absurd realisation it’s not going to come off unless he licks his finger the way his mum used to when he was little and chocolate stained on the playground. He tries to be as inconspicuous as possible, aided by the fact that Mr Hart seems to have perfected the art of discreet aversion of the eyes, his gaze always resting in the middle distance of the space he’s in.
Having managed to transfer most of the jam from his chin onto his hand, Eggsy murmurs a, “Thank you,” that garners him a fresh bout of stinging eye contact.
Mr Hart’s remaining eye is a washed-out brown that’s tainted with the ghost of another colour Eggsy can’t identify from this far away. The look it casts not only seem to search but also to find. Pinned under it, he blurts, “Have you worked here long?” just to say something.
Mr Hart clears his throat. “Three years almost to the day. I started in the middle of the year.”
“Someone on maternity leave?” Eggsy asks, because it’s the most common cause of mid-year staff changes.
“As a matter of fact, yes. Of course she then decided not to come back and I chose to stay on, so here we are.”
“And d’you enjoy it?”
There is a pause that makes Eggsy wonder if it’s an inappropriate question, but then Mr Hart says, “I like it well enough. It took a moment to find my feet here, but now it’s routine.”
“Have you always taught English Lit?” Eggsy asks.
“No,” Mr Hart says, gaze phasing out again, “Not until this school. But it has been a good fit, so I decided to stick with it. What about you? Is this the subject you want to teach?”
For many the dreaded question, this is the one thing Eggsy is certain of. “Oh, for sure. I never even considered anythin’ else. It was literature or bust.”
“And this is the age group you chose?” Mr Hart asks, and Eggsy has to fight a smile because it’s the toned down version of the same question Ryan had asked him in the pub when he’d told his mates about the placement.
“I ain’t settled on that yet. Figured it’d be good to check out all the options. I know I wasn’t keen on it at that age, but maybe I can be the person to change someone’s mind about that, ya know?”
Mr Hart nods, slow and thoughtful, softer around the edges. “Yes, I do.”
Their moment is interrupted by the arrival of another teacher, so Eggsy returns to his tea and Mr Hart shuffles off to fetch the stack of handouts he’s left in the other room.
Austen takes on a new meaning in Mr Hart’s mouth. He’s thorough and holistic with his introduction to the author: home life, important relationships, the central role of women in her life and how all of that translates into her writing in a way that continues to be compelling two centuries after the fact. It’s not so much a lecture as a discussion, the students proactive. They’re vocal and unafraid to chime in with their questions and opinions.
Eggsy sits in the back thinking of how much he’d love a group like this. They’re a canvas waiting to be painted, their minds still in the process of taking on shape. The potential is almost palpable.
One girl, Amelia, speaks quietly but with determination: “I don’t think it’s surprising that Mr and Mrs Bennett have such different reactions to someone moving into Netherfield. I guess their personalities are meant to contrast and play into stereotypes for comedic effect, but they’ve also got a completely different understanding of what marriage means. His position in society was fixed before he married. He had an inheritance. But for her, safety, survival, and her status depends on a spouse, and she knows it’s the same for the daughters.”
“She’s an old biddy,” someone says and Amelia’s voice falters, her cheeks pinking as Mr Hart shoots a sharp, “Digby,” at the offender.
Eggsy locates the kid not by the direction of the sound but by the smirks of the two boys sat on either side of him. Digby shrugs in a boyish way, clearly not bothered by delinquency. He seems like the kind of kid Eggsy used to be, in other words: a bit of an arsehole. The taller boy next to him is leaning casually on the back of his chair, slicked back brown hair, and a pound of cockiness to boot; the third one has the same prep school air about him but lacks the same hint of undeveloped handsomeness that the other two will clearly grow into.
Another girl picks up where Amelia left off, this one dominant and glossy, every inch of her drenched in debutante brilliance. Class queens are always easiest to pick out. It’s as if once upon a time a fairy godmother sprinkled her with a certain glow that’s carried through for years and years.
“Alright,” Mr Hart says after that thread of conversation dies out, “let’s move on to the introductions of the party at Netherfield. What were your thoughts on the infamous Mr Darcy?”
“Bit of a twat,” one of the smug boys says.
“Please be more imaginative with your words, Mr Argyle,” Mr Hart says. The kid’s actual name is Rufus and he heaves a sigh before he says, “Alright, let’s say he’s not very nice even if he’s not wrong.”
“Not wrong?” Sophie, the debutante, challenges him.
Rufus shrugs. “It’s not the way to win any favours with the ladies but what’s Lizzie done that’s so worthy of admiration? Nothing. If you ask me, she’s a bit stuck up.”
“Good thing no one asked you,” Sophie says and half a dozen people snicker. Eggsy hides his smirk under a feigned cough and clears his throat.
Mr Hart cuts in again then, saying, “Let’s settle down. Nathaniel, any thoughts?”
“Well, I agree with Rufus on his behaviour being inappropriate. But I guess he’s in a situation he didn’t wanna be in anyway and every girl’s mum at this party is tryna get his attention even if Lizzie isn’t.”
“Are you referring to Mrs Bennett?” Mr Hart asks and the boy nods.
At that, another boy dares to raise his voice, “In all fairness, she’s being annoying, so it’s only normal for him to respond in kind. They could all behave better.”
There the conversation spirals again into what’s considered polite and what isn’t, and Eggsy finds it funny how many of them forget to argue the customs of the time as if nothing’s changed in two hundred years. Then again, in certain spheres and places it might not have.
Mr Hart is there to diffuse the situation before it heats up beyond salvation. “That will be enough for today,” he says, two minutes before the bell. “There is no need to become any more involved before the story has even begun in earnest. Please do your reading for next time and we shall discuss the entourage at Netherfield in some more depth then. You’re dismissed.”
Set free, the kids don’t waste a moment packing up and filing out of the room. There’s only a short break before the next lesson, so their recess starts before they’re even over the threshold - discussions about TV shows, crushes, and weekend plans drifting into one another.
The board wiped clean, Mr Hart heaves a sigh and takes off his spectacles. Somehow the action both ages him and makes him look younger. Or perhaps the latter is achieved by the wavering smile he directs at Eggsy.
“Only three more sessions in the day, huh?” he asks, nothing left between him and Eggsy besides a sea of empty desks and shared exhaustion.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, Eggsy asks: “Have you taught the book before?”
“No. Austen is no stranger, of course, but Pride and Prejudice had yet to make it to my classroom.”
“Do you have a favourite?” Eggsy asks, “To teach, I mean.”
“To teach?” Harry repeats, the words slow like he’s mulling them over in his mouth. “I’m not sure actually. Every work changes with every class you teach, the story shaped by all those you allow to touch it. Each run comes with its own banal and profound moments.”
It’s far too poetic an answer for ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning and not knowing what else to say, Eggsy asks: “Has it ever ruined a book for you?”
“Oh, I don’t know about ruined . Spending so much time with a work, rereading it a few times over the course of the term, immersing yourself in various analyses, and then the inevitable essays from the students - it can and does oversaturate you. I don’t think it sours the stories themselves, but I’ve never reread a work I’ve taught in my spare time after the course finished.”
That’s sad , Eggsy thinks though he doesn’t say so. He’s doing this for the love of literature and to think it could wither by being taught makes his throat tingle with grief.
Mr Hart must sense the sudden dip in conversation, because he draws himself up a few inches and takes over the asking. “Do you have a particular work you would like to teach one day?”
“Uh- I guess. It’s a bit unusual; it’s a play, not a novel.” When Eggsy hesitates, Mr Hart says, “Plenty of plays being taught every day; Shakespeare would hardly have a footing otherwise.”
The remark disarms the tension and Eggsy, mouth lopsided on the verge of a smile, confesses.
“Mine’s not that run o’ the mill, thanks. Got enough of Romeo and Juliet doin’ GCSE’s myself and I can’t imagine puttin’ anyone else, or myself, through it again.”
“So what is your play of choice?”
“My Fair Lady.”
There is a flash of surprise in Mr Hart, buried almost before it surfaces but Eggsy catches it’s surfacing and his heart quickens.
“I will admit it’s an unusual choice,” Mr Hart says, “but, in a field where the same four dozen classics are beaten to death, a surprise is a pleasant thing.”
“I- Thank you,” Eggsy says, his tongue hovering in an open mouth looking for more words. He’s rarely dared to share his fantasy of getting to teach My Fair Lady some day and he’s certainly never gotten more than a politely neutral reaction to it at best, so the response unmoors him.
They’re saved from each other by the bell ringing. Hurriedly, Mr Hart replaces the glasses and transforms into a different version of himself, one with an even cadence and no eye patch. No smile, no sighs, no flutter of emotion below the veneer. As he turns to prep the board, the corner of his glasses catches the sunlight, rendered golden, bronze, and amber as it fractures through the spots, and once again, Eggsy gets the feeling he’s experienced this moment before.
“So, what’s yours like?”
Roxy scoots deeper into the semicircle booth they’ve slotted into for drinks after their third day of school. Her ponytail is in disarray from an afternoon in the lab and it reminds Eggsy of the end of last term when they sat together at her dingy kitchen table cramming for exams.
“I don’t know,” Eggsy says, mulling over the week. He still hasn’t sussed Mr Hart out despite the odd snatches of conversation over break, pushing their respective lunches around in the awkwardness. “He’s alright. Good at his job but kinda quiet. Not at all like Mrs Wendel.”
Mrs Wendel is the teacher whose classes they’d sat in together the previous year, a woman with grey hair and endless combinations of bright shift dresses and wooden bead necklaces. She was pushy and warm in a way that failed to irritate. There was always the unspoken notion she was simply waiting for you to realise your own potential.
Needless to say, they’d both loved her.
“Maybe he just needs some time,” Roxy suggests. “Which one is he again?”
“Mr Hart.” At her blank expression, he adds: “Eye patch.”
“ Oh . Yeah that’s gonna take a moment.” She sips at her drink, contemplating, then asks: “You didn’t do anything stupid, did you?”
“No! Why would ya think that?”
Roxy raises a shoulder, half shrug half apology. “You can be rash. I wouldn’t count on your mum having beat it into you not to say something silly about the eye.”
Eggsy thinks of standing in the classroom that day, surprise written on his face in big, fat, black marker and has to concede the point. He’s always been bad at hiding that sort of thing. To Roxy he says: “Yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I’m not a complete idiot.”
“Okay, okay.” She lifts her hands up, signalling she’ll let it slide if he moves on.
“Who is yours? Mr Davison?”
“Davenport. James. He’s kind of eccentric, but like eccentric for a scientist, you know?” She asks it so casually, Eggsy almost laughs as he replies with, “Of course I fucking don’t. What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I mean he’s polished but not at all uptight. He’s talkative, kind of like a weird uncle at a party. Which is strange, because he’s always glued to the other science teacher: the one with the dark suit and dark glasses that looks like the brooding protagonist of a noir film.”
She had a knack for describing people like this, something she did all the time in the snippets of the half-finished novel she sometimes floated his way and Eggsy smiles thinking of the way her voice carries.
Sipping at his beer, it occurs to him to say: “I thought that other teacher’s name was Jack.”
“It is. They’re both James’” She leans forward, a hand on the table, and whispers: “Here’s the kicker though: I overheard them calling each other Lancelot and Percival in the break room. Like the knights.”
“Right?” She’s beaming with the joy of shared gossip and in that moment, Eggsy is glad they’re placed at the same school. This wouldn’t be nearly the same (not to mention much harder to organise) if he was five boroughs over in some shithole where he’d hardly spare a split second of thought at something stupid like a moss green suit, a garment Roxy tells him about as if it was a spectacle to that morning’s group of kids.
Another two sips in, she says, “I think they went to uni together or something. There’s history there.”
“Not history like…?” He raises an eyebrow, the suggestion crooked.
“No,” she says, “I don’t think so, at least. Mr Spencer is definitely married and I’m fairly certain it’s to a woman.”
“You never know these days,” Eggsy says and Roxy rolls her eyes.
“Just because we’re queer doesn’t mean the whole world is, you know.”
“That’s not what I said,” Eggsy argues back, though his words lack heat. This is one of the things he likes about her. She’s one of the few people he gets to not only be out to but whom he can have honest, casual conversations with about being gay. There’s no weight to his sexuality around her and the realisation of how light the world is in her company still astounds him.
When they’d first met, he barely paid her any mind. They were simply two people in a class line-up, paired up for a project by chance. And no it wasn’t an instant connection, but by the end of the month, he’d been ready to concede that not every Fiat 500 girl is vapid inside. Roxy, though comfortably middle class, isn’t coddled by her privilege. Under the pointed chin and permanent moue is a sympathetic girl with a tongue as quick as whip in a circus ring, all tricks and rawrs that are a delight to behold when they’re leveled at an unsuspecting audience.
To him, she’s neutralising as a person. Her certainty of her own place in the world and the unapologetic defence of not only herself but those less fortunate have allowed Eggsy to lower his guard around her and shelve the permanent anger he’s carried deep in his pockets for two decades. When it comes down to it, she’d be the kid that’d get bloodied up in the playground for him.
Some days, he’s certain teaching wouldn’t have become a long lived endeavour without her. After all, the initial programme application had only been a reaction to an argument he had with his mum at the time and, by the time he started the following autumn, he wasn’t at all sure he was going to see it through even though he’d already taken out the nine grand loan.
But even if Roxy is the reason he’s persevered with teaching, his life had already been on an altered trajectory for a few years before meeting her.
Of course he isn’t going to give the coppers any credit for it (it hadn’t been the arrest itself, after all) but that afternoon at Holborn station was the day that shoved him unceremoniously out of the hopeless monotony of his life at the time into the arms of a love that has yet to falter: literature. On the bus home, in the back where it always vaguely smells like piss and stale beer, he stumbled across someone’s lost copy of My Fair Lady, and the rest is history.
The book still sits in his room, faded from wear and dog-eared into oblivion on the shelf it once resided on by itself and which has since become crowded with secondhand books. Still, nothing could ever contend with My Fair Lady . Its pages spill like a fan, the words barely contained between the covers, the spine just a series of scars by now. The first 60 pages are still full of the previous owner’s pencil annotations, but the rest of it is blank save for the memory of Eggsy’s finger drifting over the pages again and again. It’s so familiar, Eggsy’s certain some of the ink’s become embedded in his skin.
“Eggsy?” Roxy says, waving a hand in front of him.
“Sorry,” he says, the bar pulling into focus, “I got lost in thought.”
“Yeah, that much was obvious,” she says with an eye roll. “Glad to know you value my company.”
“Oh, come on, you know well and good there ain’t no one else like ya,” Eggsy says.
“Damn right there isn’t,” she says, puffed up from the praise. She reminds him of Daisy for an instant and he can’t say he’d be disappointed to see her grow into a woman like Roxy.
Suspicious of him, she asks, “What are you smiling at?”
“Nothing,” Eggsy says quickly.
Pointing to her pint, he asks, “D’you want another?” and Roxy replies with: “Only if you’re buying.”
He heaves a sigh but gets up anyway. “You’re lucky you’re pretty.”
“As if that means shit to you.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed ‘bout it,” Eggsy says with a wink, his back already turned to her when she flips him off.
Friday hurtles past like a freight train. The classes are too loud, all arguments and cross-talking and Eggsy is exhausted by lunch with half the day yet to unfold. Mr Hart is no better off, tired behind his glasses. Without them, he practically melts into his desk in the aftermath of the morning’s second lesson. It feels like a private moment so Eggsy averts his eyes.
“Quite the day, huh?” He speaks it so quietly, Eggsy isn’t sure it’s directed at him until he looks up to Mr Hart looking right back, his words the olive branch of a shared secret.
“Guess they’re like this sometimes.”
“Unfortunately. Let’s hope the afternoon is better.”
“If not, there’s always the weekend,” Eggsy jokes and earns himself a hint of a smile. Spurred on by it, he asks, “Would you like a coffee? It always helps me in a rough spot.”
It’s a feeble offer at best but it’s the best thing he’s got.
Mr Hart’s gaze is distant for a moment before it returns to focus. “You know, that is not a half bad idea, actually. Although it won’t be that instant drivel in the teacher’s lounge.” Suddenly full of determination, Mr Hart pushes himself up from his desk and snatches his glasses from the top of it. “There’s a decent cafe nearby. You’re welcome to come.”
“Oh, I dunno.” Eggsy hesitates. “I’ve got lunch packed-”
“This is no day for Tupperware. Come on, it’ll be my treat. I’ve worked here long enough to know that on days like these, the afternoon won’t be any kinder and you’ll be glad of a more scenic lunch by the time the three-o’clock class comes in.”
He hardly leaves space for argument, so Eggsy nods. Secretly glad he can skip the tuna pasta in his bag, he leaves the satchel in the classroom as they leave to fetch their coats.
The cafe turns out to be no more than a large room carved out of the ground floor of an old building. It’s littered with mismatched french patio chairs packed around little round tables that display their age shamelessly. It’s not attempting to be charming; it simply is so - there is no fake wear and tear to anything, no pretend nostalgia.
The lady behind the counter doesn’t greet them though she does look up and smile to acknowledge them, happy to leave them be until they’re ready to come to her. Eggsy wonders what she must think of them: two men twenty five years apart, both in suits, but him in a puffer jacket and Mr Hart wearing a neat overcoat of black wool. They’re idiosyncratic.
“What can I get you?” Mr Hart asks.
Eggsy presses his jacket against his stomach and feels the air pool out of the fabric. “I’ll have a cappuccino, please.”
“And to eat?”
“Um-” he stares blankly at the selection behind the glass of the counter. “What’s good?”
“If you’re amenable to feta cheese, I can recommend the stuffed croissant.”
Eggsy bites his lip. “Can’t say I’m a huge fan, soz.”
“The brie and pear focaccia is generally well received,” the girl behind the counter offers, “It comes with a lunchtime salad on the house.”
Mr Hart casts him an expectant look, so Eggsy says, “Yeah, that sounds good, thanks,” because he couldn’t actually care less as long as it’s not from a 70p can.
When she directs her attention to him, Mr Hart asks for the zucchini soup, an item not on the main menu but scratched instead into the little chalkboard of specials resting atop the coffee machine. He pays so quickly, Eggsy doesn’t even get the chance to protest out of politeness.
“I’ll bring your plates over in a moment,” the girl says as she hands Mr Hart his receipt and turns to make their coffees.
He picks a table near the front window but partially obscured by a potted plant behind which he situates himself, leaving Eggsy to be the one on public display. Their coffees sit a prim five inches apart as they slot into their seats, the chairs so dainty, Eggsy doesn’t even attempt to hang his jacket over the back. He pushes it straight onto the floor, watching Mr Hart fold up his own coat. Once seated, he takes the glasses off again and folds them to rest on the table next to the coffee cup the same way as he does in the classroom during break.
Eggsy falsely assumed they were simply for short-sightedness, but Mr Hart hardly would have needed them to walk the familiar two blocks to the cafe. He only takes them off when no one’s around, Eggsy notes, as if he wears them to hide behind.
Maybe that’s why Eggsy can't shake the feeling they’ve met before. If he wore the glasses then… Eggsy assumes the single black lense is something he couldn’t have missed, but perhaps the specs serve their purpose better than he thinks and he simply overlooked the oddity because that’s what people do. He looks at them on the table now, the clear lens dark in the shade and it occurs to him: five years ago, Holborn police station.
He remembers the tinted glasses and the posture, that wash of expensive cologne as he came out of the door, furious and confused. Could it be?
He’s always wondered what mysterious line the number he called had connected to. To this day, he doesn’t know how he got out of a mess worthy of a prison stint with barely a slap on the wrist. It’s so inexplicable, he still wakes in a fit of paranoia some nights, certain someone’s going to figure out he slipped through the cracks.
He’d tried a few times to run down a few contacts from his days in the marines (not that he’d ever incurred any particular favours with the higher-ups), but there had been no suggestion of the existence of a service that could explain what had happened to him. Of course that didn’t preclude that something didn’t exist out of his reach, but if that was the case, could his dad really have been part of something like it?
And if so, why on earth was Eggsy greeted by a secondary school teacher instead of an officer of some sorts after his release from custody? It simply doesn’t make sense. He must be mistaken about the person, projecting this vague sense of knowing onto a situation he can’t explain in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone whilst achieving only one big bloody mess.
Looking up at Mr Hart, Eggsy tries to gauge if this is really the sort of man who could have ranked anywhere important in the army even if it was twenty years ago.
Then it occurs to him: The eye . Perhaps that is what he lost it to - Queen and country - a futile fight somewhere in the same sands that swallowed Lee Unwin’s life.
He doesn’t realise he’s staring until Mr Hart asks: “Is something wrong?”
“What?” Eggsy asks, his mind stumbling on the shift from thought to reality.
“You seem… disturbed by… something.”
“I, uh- I’ve been thinking-” Eggsy swallows- “this whole week, actually, that I know you from somewhere.” Saying the words out loud sounds foolish and still he pushes on. “A-and I think I just figured out where from.”
Mr Hart’s face smooths into an unreadable expression. “Oh? I’m afraid I can’t recall.”
They’re interrupted by the creak of the kitchen gate at the back, their waitress emerging with two plates.
It’d be infuriating but Eggsy is almost glad of the distraction because it leaves him with a moment to think - to consider Mr Hart as he accepts his plate, cordial, a polite smile gracing his lips for a few second before he slips the mask back on for Eggsy, and it’s in that moment, that Eggsy decides on what to say next.
“I don’t mind, ya know,” he says, not meaning to sound angry though he still does. “If you’re trying to spare me the embarrassment, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Really, it’s alright,” Mr Hart tries, but Eggsy cuts in, saying, “It’s been five years and a lot has changed, right?”
He knows he’s flushed now, his face quick to betray the shame he feels. Trying to regain control, Eggsy says: “I can explain myself now- Not that I have to!”
“Eggsy,” Mr Hart pleads and his voice sounds so pained, it diffuses Eggsy in an instant, leaving him standing dazed in the perfectly calm eye of the storm whose brunt he was expecting.
“Please, there’s no need,” Mr Hart syas, “I guarantee you, whatever it is, I don’t remember. Some years ago, I sustained a head injury - hence the eyepatch - and lost a lot of my memory. It’s not something I like to parade around, but whatever secret of yours you think I’m pretending not to know of, I can promise you, it’s not there.”
Mr Hart swallows hard, drawn up defensively in his seat the way Eggsy was just a moment ago. He, in the meantime, has curled into himself.
Still cradling the secret he didn’t intend to take, Eggsy says: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push and bring up painful memories.”
What was he thinking speaking to Mr Hart like that? He was ready to talk a big game about how he’s a different person (and a lot has changed, that much is true), but when it came right down to it, the embarrassment of thinking he’d been seen at a moment as delicate as an arrest made him lash out exactly like he would have five years ago.
Is Eggsy even certain he remembers the right person? It seems too late to doubt it now and, Eggsy finds, he doesn’t. It’s the glasses; he can see them so clearly in his mind now: grey suit, polished curl, velvety voice, and the glint of the tortoiseshell in the sun.
Mr Hart says, “It’s alright,” but how could it be?
Even if Eggsy couldn’t have known - who in this day and age claims amnesia from a head injury? it’s like something out of a soap opera and he’d be inclined to question it if it wasn’t for the potent reminder of the eye - he still shouldn’t have pushed so hard.
“I- I should go,” he says.
He’s making a scene, he knows - bumbling for his coat, far too large to squeeze through between himself and the table, shoes squeaking as he moves.
“You don’t need to-” Mr Hart starts, but Eggsy just shakes his head.
“I’ve got some notes to catch up on anyway. I’ll see you in class at three. And again… I’m so sorry.”
“But your meal-”
He doesn’t hear the rest before the bell above the door chimes and he’s hit by the sweeping sideways wind of a deep-set London street. Mindful of the window Mr Hart is still sitting behind, Eggsy turns the other way, deciding to walk around the block to get back to the school instead of going back the way they came.