This is the story of a father who is estranged from his daughter.
| You’re not a man. Not really.
Stephen remembered. It was a distant memory, but like many other memories, it was activated every now and then. He didn’t quite understand what actually triggered it. Every time he remembered these words and, by extension, the person who had said them to him, he tried to look at the situation he was in. But no matter how hard he thought about it, he couldn’t connect the dots. The memory always seemed to pop out of nowhere, for no particular reason. He could be standing in line at the supermarket, he could be out with friends, in a pub or at the movie theatre, he could be under the shower in the morning, he could be at work, in class, he could be just about anywhere at any time, and all of a sudden, he would remember.
Sure enough, it wasn’t the only thing he remembered. There were other sentences he had heard or looks he had received which wouldn’t leave him. Some of those memories were good, some not so much. But he was the kind of person who would remember the bad stuff more often than the good stuff, and the bad stuff would tend to get him really down, even depressed, whereas the good stuff simply didn’t get his hopes up the same way. Good memories would just make him smile for a second and then he would forget about them. Bad memories would cling to him, like a shroud, usually for a few hours, sometimes a whole day, occasionally even a week.
Stephen, still lost in thoughts, felt as if someone was calling him from a distance.
In a split second, he snapped out of his stupor and saw the Provost’s secretary, Mrs. Albright, right in front of him.
“Mrs. Albright”, Stephen said as if he had asked her a question and was growing mildly impatient because she wouldn’t answer.
Mrs. Albright gave him an odd look.
“Mr. Stewart will see you now.”
Stephen nodded and smiled at her. He got up from his seat and walked straight towards the Provost’s office. He grabbed the handle of the heavy wooden door and gave it a firm push as if to prove something. I am strong, he thought. Why he thought that precisely at this moment, he didn’t know. Just like he didn’t know what the Provost wanted to see him about.
“Good morning, Stephen”, the Provost said as Stephen entered his office and came from behind his desk to shake hands. Stephen grabbed the Provost’s hand just like he had grabbed the door handle seconds before and tried to squeeze it. But before he could even muster the physical force, the Provost had gotten hold of Stephen’s hand and pressed it like ripe fruit. Ouch, Stephen thought, forcing himself to conceal the discomfort.
“Good morning, John.”
John Stewart and he were on first name terms, but that actually didn’t mean anything. John Stewart was on first name terms with pretty much everyone on campus.
“Have a seat, Stephen.”
Stephen eased into one of the two chairs in front of the desk.
“I’ll get right to it”, the Provost started. “I called you in because there is a rather sensitive issue I’d like to discuss with you.”
Stephen raised his eyebrows.
“Well, it’s nothing to worry about, really, I’d just like your opinion on one of your students.”
“I see”, Stephen replied. “What in particular is it that you would like to know?”
“You gave him a fail grade for his term paper on Sartre’s existentialism, I believe?”
“That’s quite right.”
“Would you care to elaborate?”
“Well, Holden Fisher is a rather mediocre student, with little interest in French literature, let alone French grammar. He came up to me prior to the intermediate exams and asked if he could do his term paper in French literature.”
“Well, I was surprised that he would pick French for his term paper but of course I said that he would be in his right to do so. I suggested that we should meet before he got started on his paper and that we should discuss and eventually agree on the content and structure of his paper.”
“He didn’t show up to the meetings that we had scheduled. The course had already finished and I wasn’t able to reach him by phone. The e-mails I sent him went unanswered.”
“But he did hand in the paper?”
“Yes, he did. On time even. But as I started reading his paper, a paper on Sartre’s Mains sales, by the way, I soon was alarmed by the language. It didn’t sound like him at all. So I googled a few of the phrases and I got some matches. To make a long story short, his paper was nothing but a concoction of various sources. You know, scholars who had written about Sartre’s work. I have proof if you want. And our university regulations, I’m afraid, are quite clear when it comes to plagiarism.”
There was a short pause, which made Stephen uncomfortable but didn’t seem to bother the Provost at all. He was clearly mulling something.
“How would you…”, he began again. “How would you define the student’s performance in class?”
“Well, he never missed any of my classes. Always showed up on time. He had his homework when I had given homework. It wasn’t great, but it was homework. He probably read it once or twice and I think he participated in class from time to time, regurgitating facts that were obvious, but he never said anything that would impress me.”
John Stewart nodded.
“Alright, I get the picture. Well, plagiarism is a serious offense and everything but a misdemeanor. Be that as it may, I just got off the phone with his parents who are seriously worried. He has had a fail grade in mathematics before and if he is going to get a fail grade in French this year, then he would have to postpone his graduation. You know, he was due to finish his studies this December and start working at his father’s company early next year.”
“Okay”, Stephen said. Now he understood. The Provost obviously wanted him to revise his verdict on the term paper.
“Now, Stephen, I really hate to say this, but Holden Fisher’s parents are one of the biggest sponsors of Hailsham University. They have donated more than two million dollars to us in the last five years. We owe them a great deal. Now, I am not questioning your integrity, I am not questioning your judgment. If he has plagiarized his term paper, then he deserves a scolding. He says that he didn’t have the time to write it, because his mother was in treatment for lung cancer, which isn’t an excuse really, but an explanation. But the question I am laying before you, I guess, is whether you believe that his misconduct regarding his term paper is serious enough to make him repeat the whole year. Because his other grades are fine, it’s just his French grade that’s subpar.”
“Well”, Stephen intervened, “I do believe that if he had told me up front of the predicament he was in I would have been more lenient but by simply evading the issue he..”
“There’s no doubt about that”, the Provost cut him off. “There’s no doubt about that. Okay, I’ll tell you something. You can think this through until Friday and if you haven’t changed your mind by then, we will just have to accept that. I want you to know that I’ll back you regardless of your decision and that we will pay for the legal fees should the Fishers decide to sue you”.
“Well, let’s not go there just yet, but there have been cases like yours before and from experience I can tell you that it can get pretty messy.”
Stephen was taken aback. The idea that someone would take legal action against him because he had given a fail grade seemed so unbelievable to him that he didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
“Well”, the Provost said as he got up, “why don’t you make an appointment with Mrs. Albright for next Friday and then you’ll give me your answer. Think it through and please remember: I am with you on this. All the way.”
“Thank you, John.”
When the door clunked shut behind him and when he saw Mrs. Albright smiling at him, Stephen felt as if he had just awaken from a daydream. What had just happened in the Provost’s office seemed so unreal. Stephen had heard about stories like this before, he had just never thought that it could happen to him, too.
“Good bye, Mr. Hill”, Mrs. Albright said as Stephen walked out of her office and back into the hallway. But Stephen was lost in thoughts again. He didn’t even realize that he had forgotten to make another appointment with Mrs. Albright.
You’re not a man. Not really.
His ex-wife had said it to him. Nine years ago.
When Stephen reached the lounge for the teaching staff of the Department for Romance studies, he had managed to shake off the temporary fogginess. De toute façon, he thought, je n’ai pas le temps d’y penser. As he entered the room, he noticed his friend and colleague Jonathan Hart standing close to the window, leafing absent-mindedly through some weighty tome.
“Hey, John”, Stephen greeted him.
But all that Jonathan Hart gave him was the whiff of a nod. Stephen didn’t mind and walked towards his pigeon hole to get the books he would be needing for his impending seminar.
“Hey, Stephen”, Jonathan replied almost half a minute later, placing the book he held in his hands down on the table before him. “How you’re doing?”
“Not bad”, Stephen lied. “I am just about to get ready for my seminar.”
“Sartre’s existentialism again, isn’t it?”, Jonathan asked with a sarcastic undertone. “Don’t you ever get tired of that?”
“Not at all”, Stephen said, with a grin on his face. He grabbed the two books of secondary literature on Huis clos, waved one last time at Jonathan and stepped out of the lounge and into the hallway again. He checked his watch. He was already two minutes late but he didn’t mind. Today, one of his students was expected to give a little presentation on Sartre’s concept of hell in Huis clos. And since she would do most of the talking while Stephen would be sitting in the auditorium along with the other twelve students or so, there was no need to be stressed out. Stephen actually enjoyed these lessons. First, because the students who gave the presentations could see what it was like to speak in front of an audience that is not interested in the subject matter and secondly because he could use these presentations as cues to delve deeply into the intricacies of French literature.
As he entered the room 3.11, he saw the student in question, Miss Amanda Cuthbert, fiddling around with a projector, a laptop and some cables she had obviously brought to class herself. She had placed the devices on the desk from which Stephen would usually give his lengthy and exuberant sermons on French literature.
“Hello, Miss Cuthbert”, he said. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Oh, hello, Mr. Hill, no, I’m almost done here”, the blonde and beautiful Amanda, your typical sorority girl, answered.
Stephen turned away from the desk and casually smiled into the auditorium where roundabout a dozen students were gathered to listen to the presentation of Miss Cuthbert. He then walked up the stairs in the middle and chose a seat in the upper ranks, conscious about the fact that all of the students would have to turn around to him for any interjection he was going to make.
“Okay, then”, Amanda Cuthbert said after a while, “here goes.”
Equipped with a pen and a notepad, Stephen, a tad uncomfortable in his wooden seat, shifted his body weight from left to right.
Amanda started the first slide of her presentation. The word ‘Hell’ appeared in bold black letters on the white surface of the screen above her.
“When we think of hell”, Amanda started, “we usually have a few common conceptions that come to our mind. We consider hell to be a very hot place, with flames blazing away left and right and the devil awaiting us with a punishment so cruel that we wished we had been good or at least better while still alive and on earth. We expect demons to tie us to racks and torture us next to well-known figures from history such as Adolf Hitler, the Roman Emperor Nero or some other notorious villain. Now, as we all know, this is the way Christians traditionally depict hell, but the concept of hell exists in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam as well. The artistic illustrations of hell all look a bit like this…”
Amanda flipped through a few slides of paintings or sculptures of artists who had chosen to create a piece of art about hell. There was Johannes Gehrts’ Hel, an illustration by Doré, The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico and also a Japanese rendering of an infernal place.
“But in Huis clos”, Amanda continued, “Sartre chose to deviate from the common conceptions of hell. Instead of finding themselves in a traditional Christian hell, the three protagonists, Estelle, Inès and Garcin, end up in an ordinary hotel room with furniture from the second Empire. I looked it up, it’s old and fancy furniture from the 19th century. The temperature in the room is above average and it becomes clear very soon that Inès, Estelle and Garcin are dead and that they are to stay in that tiny room until hell freezes over, that is, until eternity, I mean.”
A few of the students chuckled at the pun on hell, whether intended or unintended. As Amanda continued her presentation, Stephen allowed his gaze to roam the auditorium. The few male students were looking intently at Amanda, but in all likelihood not because her presentation was so great, but because her cleavage was rather ostentatiously displaying her assets. The majority of female students didn’t look up to Amanda, some took notes of what she was saying while a few others were utterly bored by it. And so was Stephen. He only listened half-heartedly to what she was saying, but from what he was hearing he could tell that Amanda’s presentation was going to be an ordinary, run-of-the-mill exposé that wouldn’t present the listener with insights that he hadn’t heard of. Although Amanda wasn’t really a bad student, her presentation today was a lackadaisical performance. She ended a few of her sentences with ‘stuff like that’ and she threw a few ‘you knows’ and ‘likes’ in here and there. On top of that, she refrained from analyzing the deeper meaning of the hotel room. Why had Sartre chosen a hotel room as hell? Well, one assumption was that hell is usually a place you have to stay at for eternity, whereas hotel rooms are specifically designed for temporary stays. And there is your punishment. If Inès, Estelle and Garcin had to stay in their own rooms or houses, if they were to linger in a sitting room, then the coziness of those places would make hell a more comfortable place. Instead, Sartre chose to put them in a place that would become extremely dull and unpleasant after a certain time. Because, who would want to spend the rest of their lives in a place between two worlds, like an airport, a train station, a doctor’s waiting room or a hotel room? Nobody, that’s who. And to increase the punishment, the three protagonists were sentenced to spend their time with people that would hurt them the most. L’enfer, c’est les autres! And Amanda didn’t say anything about the probable nothingness that was awaiting every human being after his demise. She could have involved the audience by asking the students: What do you think happens when you die? Do you believe you’ll continue to exist, if not physically, then as some other form of consciousness? Does the idea of eternal life, or eternal existence, frighten or motivate you? Imagine spending your afterlife in a motel room on Route 66! Would you agree with Sartre’s statement that we humans are our worst enemies and that there is no functioning relationship between two humans that is not about control, power or some form of trade deal? Instead, Amanda just waffled on about the scenes from Huis clos where the hotel room was described in detail, only to paraphrase a few scholars that had written about the meaning of the furniture in a rather lengthy, almost off-topic analysis.
When Amanda was done after twenty minutes, most students applauded her politely, some male students, however, enthusiastically.
Stephen’s gut reaction was to tear the presentation apart, to tell Amanda that she had no idea what she was talking about and that she was wasting his time. If you can’t manage to understand the essence of hell in Huis clos, then you won’t be able to instill passion for French literature in us. Nobody will leave this seminar today with an original thought because you haven’t managed to enlighten us. You don’t know what the play means at its core and that’s why we were all bored with your presentation.
Instead, Stephen refrained from saying all that and threw a question into the silent audience.
“So?!”, he asked, “any questions or comments?”
After a moment of silence, a young man raised his hand. Despite his physical appearance, tall and well-toned, he was very conscious, even shy about voicing his opinion.
“Well, I think your presentation was really good”, he started, “and it seemed, at least to me, that you really knew what you were talking about. I also liked the structure of your presentation. All in all, I think it was really good.”
Could you be any more vague, Stephen thought.
“Oh, and I don’t have any questions”, the young man finished his statement with a grin.
The two other comments that were made, one by a female, the other by a male student, were almost identical to what the young jock had said. They had liked the presentation, but they were very vague about the reasons.
When it became clear that nobody else would say or let alone ask anything about Miss Cuthbert’s presentation, Stephen felt inclined to give a lecture on how to do a good presentation and why Amanda’s work hadn’t lived up to his expectations. But, as always, when it came to walking the walk, Stephen, in a jiffy, did a 180 and said something completely different from what he was thinking.
“Well, Miss Cuthbert, I agree with the opinions that have been formulated by your fellow students. I would say, too, that this was a very good presentation and that the amount of research you put into your presentation showed here and there. Well done”.
The students knocked their fists on the table in another round of appreciation and then waited for Stephen to take the stage again. And that was that. Stephen would go to the front, Miss Cuthbert would sit down again, and then the students would read the final chapter of Huis clos together, practicing their pronunciation of difficult words such as cellule, embarrass and défaillance. Stephen would make the students look up and discuss the forms of the passé simple and the subjonctif in the last chapter and after ninety minutes all of them would go home, already distracted by other things on their way out.