A matter of perspective

5,985 words – approx. 20 minutes

Mr Baxter was not like any teacher we’d ever had before. That much was clear from the start.

It was the first day of the new school year, warm with autumn, and we poured into the last room on the right in the Humanities block. Our blazers were slung over our shoulders and our mouths laden with the summer’s exploits. We were Year 10s now, ready to take our rightful place at the front of the dinner queue, aware of the threshold we had crossed in those last six weeks and the exalted position in the school we now held.

As we crowded in and chose our seats, I was listening to Miguel Vettori tell me dubious but tantalisingly unverifiable stories of his holiday in the Italian lakes, and particularly the sexual appetite of his sister’s friend who had stayed with them. Miguel and I were not usually allowed to sit together, but in the first lesson of each class we had shared for the last two years we had tried it. It was a small act of pre-rebellion, a way to test a teacher’s willingness for conflict, forcing them to take action. That wasn’t how we thought of it then of course, but it must have been obvious to the teachers. We found a desk in the middle of the class and sat down.

I didn’t notice him right away. The teachers’ style at our school was to stand sternly by the door, barking instructions: “Spit that out, now.” “Shirt.” “Stop that silliness.” But Mr Baxter didn’t even turn to look at us. He just sat with his hands clasped on the desk in front of him, a small smile on his face and the heavy brown sleeves of his jacket not quite reaching his wrists.

It seemed like everyone saw him at once. A “ssh” rustled round the room, its origin unknown, and one or two students pulled their blazers back on in deference to the lack of permission. Once we were quiet – it was like the lights had gone down in the theatre – he stood, and wrote on the whiteboard with a squeaking pen: Mr Baxter – History. Inside the ‘o’ he drew two dots and a horizontal bracket to make a smiling face. He stepped back, then hesitated as though considering whether to erase the face, but instead turned towards us.

“Good morning Year 10. My name,” here he gestured to the board, “is Mr Baxter, and I’m your new History teacher.” There was a slight flatness to his vowels, but otherwise no discernible accent. Now that he faced us for the first time I could see that he was a slightly short man, somewhere in his 40s (at the time it registered only that he looked neither especially old nor especially young), towards the heavy side of normal build, and with a distressed thatch of short, light brown hair atop a round, pleasant face that smiled nervously out at us. In sum, he appeared quite ordinary, although this in itself was in stark contrast to his predecessor Mrs Morley, a haggish woman who stretched the stringy, fascinating cord at the corner of her mouth whenever she spoke. Her retirement that July had been met with delight – particularly among the girls, who believed her to be personally responsible for the requirement to wear skirts. And, coincidentally or not, that summer trousers had quietly appeared for the first time on the girls’ uniform order sheets.

So Mr Baxter undoubtedly benefitted from the simple fact that he was not Mrs Morley. But it was his next statement that really caused hope to swell within us.

“This is my first job as a teacher, and you’re my first class. Before this I was a fireman, a butcher, and a mechanic.” After delivering this news he glanced apologetically around the room as though we might be about to rise as one from our stiff plastic chairs in protest at being left with this ingénue, demanding that a more experienced hand guide us through what, as we had been told for the last several months, were the most important years of our lives so far.

We, of course, were about to do nothing of the sort. Upon realising this Mr Baxter visibly gained in confidence, and began to explain why he had chosen to devote the remainder of his working life to teaching. I don’t remember his reasons, although I imagine they were dull and worthy: a love of the subject, a desire to give something back, and perhaps a burning belief in the promise of the next generation. In any case my attention (and it is unlikely I was alone in this) was firmly fixed on his previous revelation. A new teacher was one thing – but a new, inexperienced, middle-aged teacher! This was an altogether new phenomenon. He would be perfectly balanced between the enthusiasm and the ideas (oh, the ideas) of new graduates and the weary authoritarianism that inevitably calcified around those who endured the first two decades in the classroom. And such a wealth of opportunity for distraction! Every schoolchild knows which teachers can be relied upon to spend an entire lesson waxing lyrical about his motorbike, or her blueberry plants, at the slightest provocation. With half a lifetime of stories available it seemed in those heady moments possible that no work might ever be required in Mr Baxter’s lessons.

If he was aware of our seditious designs, Mr Baxter took no notice. Instead, to our collective horror, he announced that he wanted to get to know us. I braced myself for some tortuous PGCE-course icebreaker – say your name and something about yourself beginning with that letter (pity Janet and John, forever condemned to be jolly, or enjoy jumping or jogging). But what came next was rather more original, if no less unwelcome.

“I’m going to take the register, and I want each of you to tell me why you chose to take History at GCSE, or what you like about it.” Mistaking our silence for egalitarian concerns, he added with a smile: “Don’t worry, I’ll ask anyone who’s not here today to answer when they’re in.” When he smiled you could see his gums, above the off-white cliffs of his teeth.

With my surname nestled gratefully in the middle of the alphabet I knew I was safe – Mr Baxter did not seem the maverick type to begin in the middle. Miguel, on the other hand, had no such security. Perhaps our new teacher would ‘mix things up’ by starting with Nina Yates and working backwards.

But it was alliterative Andrew Armitage who was called upon first. He answered his name with a resigned air, before somewhat lamely declaring that history was ‘quite interesting’.

“Great!” said Mr Baxter, clapping his hands. “What is it you find interesting?” In large printed letters he wrote ‘interesting’ on the board – dropping the qualifier, if indeed he had heard it at all.

To falsely believe your ordeal is over is a terrible thing. I did not know Andrew Armitage well, and have not spoken to him since, I think, starting college. Nevertheless, I think I can say with some certainty that at that moment not a single feature of the combined millennia of British, European, Indo-Chinese, African and American history came to his mind.

He was saved from his mental flailing by the opening of the classroom door. In the many years between then and now, when some of us have met at reunions, weddings, or on one occasion a funeral, conversation has inevitably drifted to the events of that year. And while we differ profoundly in our interpretations and conclusions, there is a general consensus that our introduction to Mr Baxter had been unremarkable until the moment the door had swung open.

It was, of course, Julia.

She strolled in, her tie barely reaching her third button and her ponytail slapping from side to side. Even from several rows away I could hear the wet smack of chewing gum between her teeth.

“Sorry I’m late, sir,” she droned, not looking towards the front of the class where Mr Baxter was tracking her with distant interest, the way you might watch a low-flying plane.

“And your name?” he asked mildly. He traced a finger down the register. The answer came with a slight rising inflection – a hint of challenge – but Mr Baxter betrayed only his obliviousness to this threat to his authority.

“Julia.”

“Julia…?”

“Moore.”

“Moore. Right, let’s see. Where are we?” he muttered. “Ah yes. Well Julia, perhaps you’d like to tell us why you like History and chose to study it.”

“It’s better than Geography,” she said. She had clearly anticipated the laughter that followed as she grinned to both sides of the room. Mr Baxter had not.

“Right. Well.” He breathed out through his nose. “I hope you’ll find something more positive to take from the coming lessons. Nicholas – is it Nick? – Astley, I think you’re next.”

Julia was sat two rows behind me, but I was able to turn to look at her as my classmates spoke. The summer had been kind to her development. Indeed, as the year continued, it became a matter of discussion among some of the boys as to which would be further from an A come next year’s GCSE results day: her grades, or her bra size. I chose not to engage in this slightly unfair speculation. Instead I would wistfully imagine myself asking her to the cinema, or, in the safety of my room, picture her looming over me, hair tickling my cheek, something animal in her eyes.

My daydream – chaste on this occasion – was interrupted by Miguel’s elbow pushing into mine, which prompted me to look up at Mr Baxter’s expectant face. He had called my name. I did not have an answer prepared, and lost in my thoughts I had not heard the answers of those preceding me. Rather than appear mute I recalled something my father had said more than once when I had come home with History homework.

“History? It’s just one thing after another.” I must have delivered this with some brio, because Mr Baxter was delighted.

“Ah!” he cried. “An Alan Bennett fan!” I arranged my face into a knowing look, then a noncommittal stare, a little embarrassed at having so pleased a teacher. In truth I had no idea who Alan Bennett was or what I had apparently referenced. It didn’t matter: Mr Baxter was away. “Now, this brings up an interesting point. Is History really so linear? Is it points on a timeline, discrete, unconnected to any other contemporary series of events?” He was talking, really, to himself, not us, indulging in a variant of the onanistic pleasure that Julia had so inspired in me. If I had looked around the room at that point I am sure I would have seen my classmates exchanging little scornful looks at his display. But he would not have noticed. He continued: “Can you say that the history of the United States and Britain split in 1776, when the echoes of British imperialism lasted longer in America? Had America remained in the Empire, slavery would have ended decades earlier. History isn’t a set of independent lines.” He drew four straight horizontal lines on the board. “But a mass of interconnected lines, constantly intersecting, each informed at any point by what has gone before, and what has gone before in other lines, and what is happening now in other lines.” As he said this, he drew more lines, criss-crossing, some straight, some curved, others with no regard for form at all, until the original four lines were a swirling, tangled bundle. “It is nothing less,” he paused here for effect, then chopped his hand in the air to emphasise his conclusion. “Than the totality of human affairs distilled to a single point.”

If Mr Baxter had hoped that a sincere passion alone could sustain a teaching career, this was the moment he realised his mistake. A limp silence followed as we tried not to show our disappointment that his speech had ended. There were, after all, forty minutes of the lesson remaining.

To his credit, he collected himself well, and pressed on down the register. The rest of that first class passed without incident, if a little subduedly in the wake of the first twenty minutes’ excitement. When the bell rang we streamed out, and his voice fought to be heard: “And Julia Moore, stay behind please.” This would ordinarily have merited an ironic ‘Oooh,’ but we were nearing the lockers, and had already put all thoughts of our new teacher from our mind.

*

In the weeks that followed, Mr Baxter proved disappointingly adept at avoiding our attempts at distraction. His past careers remained mysteries, and there was no repeat of his soliloquy of that first afternoon. Indeed, little of note happened between that first day of term and the visit to the Imperial War Museum. My classmates’ main recollection of that period is Paul Watson being shepherded, streaming-eyed and raw-nosed, from the science laboratory, having violently sniffed at an unattended bottle of chlorine.

There, is, however, one History lesson from that time that I remember. We had largely given up on Mr Baxter by this point, and his classes were conventional, raised only by the fact that he was teaching that most exciting of periods: World War II. There is no teacher, surely, who can render Hitler’s maniacal plotting, the bold heroism of the Spitfire pilots, and the swollen shadow of Russia dull. It is a story so impossibly vast that it would be implausible and gross if written in fiction, and as a result we entered each lesson greedy, ready to gorge ourselves on its truth.

That particular morning we came in to find a black-and-white photocopy on each of our desks. “Sit down, sit down,” said Mr Baxter (several pupils, myself included, were stood staring at the sheets as though they contained inviolable instructions to remain standing). The photograph had been blown up so it filled the width of the page: it was the famous image of the fallen soldier, the one that was proven to be fake a few years ago.

Once we had taken in the picture and were awaiting further instruction, he asked: “Who can tell me the limitations of this as a source?” Between us we reeled off the answers with the disdain such a question deserved: it is only a moment in time; it is a snapshot and might not show the wider context of the scene; it might be staged or otherwise fabricated. Our scorn seemed to surprise Mr Baxter, although he hid it well. It’s easy to forget the certainty of youth, and so to be shocked when encountering it once again. New generations do not just build upon the old; each has to learn afresh.

Mr Baxter listened patiently to our responses, then leant over the desk. His tone was conspiratorial. “What if I told you this was a German soldier?”

“A dead Nazi!” called Paul Watson (this was, I think, the week before the chlorine incident). The suppressed gurgle of laughter was cut short.

“Right. Right, you’d be pleased,” Mr Baxter said, earnestly, as though he wanted Paul to recognise that this was what he had in fact meant. “And what about if you were a German soldier? Yes, Ian?”

“Sad, and worried. And angry,” I replied.

“Very good, well done. It isn’t just important what the source shows or doesn’t show you, although you were all right with your answers. It’s also important who it is showing it to.” He repeated this last sentence for emphasis. “Things have different meanings to different people- even people in different times. World War II looks very different to us than it did to people living through it.” He paused. “Yes, Julia?”

I had become so involved in this exercise that I hadn’t fully registered Julia’s presence in the room. But the sound of her name caused an imperceptible alertness in, it seemed, every nerve of my body.

“Sir, what about Hitler?” The name still carried a voltage that set off a few snickers.

“What do you mean?”

“Like…” I took this opportunity to crane my neck around. She was running a finger loosely around a straw-coloured strand of hair. “Didn’t they think he was a bit of an idiot and stuff?”

“Not in the way we do today,” explained Mr Baxter. “Remember, in 1938 the Prime Minister thought Hitler wanted peace, and there were people here who secretly supported Germany throughout the war.”

As Mr Baxter spoke, I watched Julia’s hair-encircled finger near her mouth and then in a scarcely believable movement that would replay endlessly on my bedroom ceiling, slid her finger inside. Perhaps I made some noise at that point, or perhaps it was just chance, but her eyes drifted then locked onto mine. She scowled, then removed the finger.

They say that there is no faster process in the human body than the mind constructing a narrative to explain why it is right. By the time I had turned back around I already fully believed – fully knew – the reason for Julia’s sudden flash of anger: her actions had been directed towards me, only she was too embarrassed to show it. The thought sustained me for the rest of the day, through the remainder of History, then double French, then the bus home, until I subsided that evening onto the sheets my mother had recently laundered.

*

This shining hope glowed within me for weeks. It was wondrous and warming, and I considered writing poetry. I did not confess my plans to anyone, even Miguel – that would risk a public revelation, followed inevitably by an equally public and intractable denial. But I decided that the Imperial War Museum would be the site of my approach to Julia: I was going to ask her out.

The Year 10 Imperial War Museum trip was without doubt the highlight of the year’s excursions, and this year was made doubly exciting by the special exhibition of home life in WWII that happened to be running. There was an anticipatory chatter throughout the hour-long coach ride, the duration of which I spent with my head pressed in the rough gap between the seats in front of me, eyes closed. The orange and brown pattern of the seats only heightened my nausea, but if I shut my eyes I could let myself drift on the rhythms of the conversations around me. Occasionally Julia’s voice sounded clear above the rest, and the thought of her nestled into me on the return journey, perhaps with our hands interlocking, made the drive bearable, if not enjoyable.

Through some combination of my wandering young mind and the constant shivering hum of the coach I did not feel able to stand with comfort for some minutes after we had arrived. As a result I kept my head between the seats in front and elicited a few sickly moans (my travelsickness had in fact quickly subsided, replaced by a curious clean freshness, as though the top of my head had been removed to allow the air directly onto my brain).

We were to get into pairs upon leaving the coach. I looked around for Miguel on the asphalt, but although he had sat next to me he had disembarked earlier and I could not see him. Then, to my horror and delight, I saw Julia walking determinedly towards me. I was frozen. I had not had time to plan my strategy; I was entirely unprepared for this. Even the thought that this could in fact be my one chance was not enough to spur me into action. So it was with some relief that I watched her stride past my rigid body and swing her arm through that of Nina Yates, who was stood directly behind me.

In the end I was paired with a fellow reject, a plain, flat-chested girl named Abigail Morton, who has no further relevance to this story. Once we were inside the museum, Mr Baxter instructed us to stay in our pairs and to look around for one hour – “Only!” he barked – before meeting for lunch. In the afternoon we would take in the exhibition, then return to school ahead of the rush hour.

I, of course, had no intention of staying with my given partner, and abandoned her at the earliest opportunity to practice what I would say to Julia. This was not difficult; Abigail was not an observant girl. The idea of asking Julia out filled me with such dread that I had decided to drill myself to the point that it would seem  to me like I was watching myself in a film, simply repeating lines that would lead to a predetermined outcome.

And so I spent the hour locked in a cubicle, silently rehearsing: it seemed only a matter of finding the right words. It meant that I missed the videos of war poetry, and the Spitfires hung from the ceiling like a violent, giant child’s mobile, but by the time we reconvened for lunch on a small, grassy hill I was ready. I wolfed down the corned beef sandwich and cheese and onion crisps my mother had packed for me, and wandered over to where Julia and her friends were sitting. Her legs were extended in front of her (she had not taken advantage of the newfound freedom to wear trousers) and she picked at her sandwich, breaking tiny scraps of bread off and eating them one by one, like a beautiful tiny bird.

Although I tried to make myself known to them, neither Julia nor her friends acknowledged my bobbing presence on the rim of their circle. This was not a difficulty I had prepared for, and after a few minutes of this my hard-won confidence ebbed. I began to reluctantly think I would have to find her later, alone, to put my plan into action.

I converted my attempts to find a break in their ranks into aimless wandering, and was turning away when I heard Mr Baxter.

“You alright there girls?”

“Yes sir,” they chorused.

“You’ve not eaten much, Julia. Watching your figure?” He must have realised immediately the impropriety of his remark to a teenage girl. I tried to look uninterested as I watched his face lose any natural smile. I can only imagine what went through his mind as he nodded towards her half-eaten sandwich and added, helplessly, “Well.” There was a flurry of giggles from the girls (to this day a favourite sound of mine) as he stalked away, and I returned to my previous spot buoyed by his embarrassment. Whatever the afternoon held in store for me, I would not be the most humiliated person on the coach back.

Soon enough it was time to go back inside. The exhibition itself was diverting, and several of us entertained ourselves playing with the wireless in the mocked-up 1940s kitchen, sending music or musty political speeches crackling from its speakers. But even as we did this, or cowered in pitch-black living rooms listening to the overhead drone of the doodlebugs, I was looking out for Julia. She was, however, not to be seen, and my anxiety drained the enjoyment from the installations. I set off to look for her.

There were few other visitors to the museum the early afternoon of a Wednesday in November, so as I made my way through the rooms it was easy to see that she was not there. The thought occurred to me that perhaps she was in the girls’ bathroom gossiping rather than looking around. If that was the case then I had no chance of success, but this thought was so unwelcome that I pushed it from my mind. Besides, I told myself, my current plan was the only one with even a possibility of my longed-for outcome. Seeing her in a crowd would offer as little opportunity to speak to her privately as not seeing her at all – and so it was only by finding her in some as-yet deserted corner of the museum that I might be able to achieve my goal.

As I proceeded, I made cursory inspections of the text on the wall and any interactive elements of the exhibitions: LEDs showing the position of German bombers that lit red when you pressed a button, clickable screens about rationing, that sort of thing. This was in part to stave off any embarrassment if my search failed – I could at least pretend to have been in pursuit of knowledge, rather than Julia – and partly to make myself look less suspicious to any tourist (or security guard) who might be watching. I also did not want to hurry, in case I somehow missed Julia altogether.

In spite of this, it was not long before I reached the final part of the exhibition, an impressively well-preserved original Anderson shelter. It stood alone in an otherwise empty area, although the text on the walls gave explanations of its history, design, and usage. I walked around it once, trailing my fingers over the corrugated sides. The museum had not thought to rebury it, so it stood starkly naked, shorn of its usual covering of turf. Around its perimeter, at ankle height, ran a rope, with a gap in front of the door to the shelter. I took this as a sign that the door could be opened (perhaps Julia was there, waiting for me!), but it did not yield when I pushed it, and, my spirits finally depleted by this, I slumped against the side of the shelter, at last convinced of the futility of my efforts. I had no intention of returning to my classmates, so decided to wait there until they caught up with me. I had not been sat there for long, however, when I heard an indistinct whispering from inside the shelter, followed by a metallic clank and creak, then the snapping sound of shoes on the concrete floor. There was another whisper, and another, higher-pitched clack representing a second person. I remained almost unbearably quiet as I heard the two mysterious people move in separate directions, full of unfounded fear that I would be in some sort of nameless trouble if discovered. I stayed until the restless pulse of my muscles became too maddening, and peeked around the corner. The room was empty: it was as though I had been the only person there the whole time. I felt unnerved and longed suddenly for company. As I hurried back through the rooms to find my classmates I concocted a story about having lost my way looking for the bathroom, but it was unnecessary; my absence had gone unnoticed. That’s not to say they were unfriendly, however, and in the comfort of the jostling chatter that now surrounded me I soon forgot the peculiar incident at the Anderson shelter entirely.

*

The last History lesson before Christmas, on the penultimate day of term, had a relaxed atmosphere. I had hardly thought of Julia since the museum. I took my failure there as a sign of fate, and instead of pining I resolved in my newfound freedom to complete 20 press-ups each morning and night to some unspecified end. My worriless mood was shared by my classmates, the promise of two weeks away from school giddily close. Being pupils we did not think of our teachers as existing outside of school, but they were also clearly in no mood to work – the television in Mr Baxter’s class that day must have been as much a reward for him as it was a relief for us.

Over the years I have thought of numerous possible explanations for Julia’s actions: perhaps she had become bored with her illicit activity; perhaps she mistook his brave hand on her knee for someone else and had to maintain her story even as she realised her error; or perhaps, as so many teenage girls do, she simply wanted to make a scene. Each of these is possible, but none has the solid ring of truth, and to this day I do not know for certain her motivation. In any case, this is what happened: Mr Baxter set the video to play, took a seat next to Julia at the back of the class (ostensibly to give himself the best vantage point for any misbehaviour), then within seconds Julia leapt up and shouted: “Eurgh, get off me you perv!”

This caused a predictable commotion, as the girls scrambled to get as far from Mr Baxter as possible, as though he were diseased; he, for his unfortunate part, backed himself up against the wall in a half-crouch, his arms outstretched to ward off any potential attackers (there were none, and his trembling hands were more of a plea than a deterrent). His face was riven with misery and he shook his head slowly, desperately, uncomprehendingly. It was the look of a man realising there is nothing but air below him. His mouth opened but any words were lost in the cacophony of shrieks, scraping chairs, and the sombre voice from the television intoning that “In the fight against the Nazi war machine everyone, even those unable to enlist, had a part to play.” Semi-encircled by his pupils Mr Baxter was wretched, a denuded gladiator begging his crowd.

This was the scene that greeted Mrs Ridley when the disturbance brought her bursting in from the adjacent classroom, out of breath and red-faced from even that short dash. By this point Julia was yelling, “He touched me! He touched me!” over and over again, and the other girls had dissolved into wails and sobs, presumably for arrogant fear that the lecherous beast who cowered before their 14-year-old selves might select them as his next prey.

In the face of such chaos, I must say that Mrs Ridley handled the situation remarkably well. She instructed Mr Baxter to go to the staffroom, then shepherded Julia away, reassuring her that she was not in any trouble. Then she shooed her class, who had gathered at their classroom door – not daring to step outside – back to their seats, before telling them to continue with their assigned work (no videos for them!).

She sat with us for the remainder of the lesson and the video. Her presence meant that immediate discussion between ourselves of what had just happened was impossible, and this was the day’s last class. But the next day it was the only topic of conversation. At first it was only spoken of in whispers and surreptitious giggles, but soon it was clear that the staff were as bewildered as we were, and by the day’s end it was openly and loudly talked about, crude rumours and unlikely gossip filling in the dearth of facts. Neither Julia nor Mr Baxter were in school for that last day of term, and on the Saturday letters to our parents arrived that mine, at least, read in hushed tones and would not let me see. It was possible, however, to guess at its contents – and it was no surprise that neither Julia nor Mr Baxter were seen at school again.

*

Above my writing-desk, beneath smiling holiday photographs of Ben, Lucy and Maria and letters from my GP, is pinned an old newspaper article. It has yellowed with time and is a little torn at the edges, but it remains perfectly legible. It reads:

Sex pest teacher told kids: think like a NAZI

Disgraced teacher John Baxter told pupils to imagine they were Nazis, it has emerged.

Baxter, 45, was last week jailed for 3 years after admitting sexually assaulting a schoolgirl on three occasions. But full details of his classes at Wyndham Manor School in Surrey are only now coming to light.

According to pupils at the school, Baxter showed his class a picture of a dying German soldier and asked them to imagine how a Nazi would feel.

‘Sickening’

The parent of one pupil, who asked not to be named, told The Sun: “It is sickening. How can our children learn the lessons of history if the Nazis had ‘just another view’?”

Conservative MPs have called for an inquiry into the scandal, and urged stricter background checks on older teachers entering the profession.

The Holocaust Memorial Trust called Baxter’s remarks “truly disturbing.”

Continued on page 4

It is typical of the hysterical journalism that surrounded the case that even after he pled guilty to three intimate experiences the insinuations and slander continued in this way. But even in the fevered schoolyard chatter there was no suggestion that Julia was pregnant; this was hardly the stuff of Nabokov. Throughout all of this Mr Baxter’s late entry to teaching was brandished as proof of his evil intent, his malice aforethought, when a moment’s calm consideration would suggest that this in fact only made him more vulnerable. A fresh-faced young graduate is close enough in age to see his pupils as children – and moreover, is at the height of his own attractiveness to his peers. In that way he becomes impervious to the inevitable teenage crushes.

Yet Mr Baxter – twice-divorced, as much of the coverage gleefully noted – had no such protection. He was ill-equipped to cope with Julia’s affections, and she herself was no waif but a September-born 15-year-old. It was, of course, in breach of the law, but the age of consent is an arbitrary if necessary barrier. To a man of Mr Baxter’s age a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old are barely distinguishable; from a great enough height all men look like ants. Yet we chastise the man who goes to bed with the former and praise the man who seduces the latter.

And as for the glib argument that this was some monstrous abuse of the teacher-pupil relationship – rubbish! While I have tried in this account to display the events as I recall them from my contemporary point of view, you have no doubt deduced that what I took as an signal from Julia was in fact directed towards Mr Baxter, and I can only imagine that it was she who initiated each of their three intimate interactions.

The first of these, to the best of my knowledge, occurred the day of the visit to the Imperial War Museum. This, I am sure, comes as no surprise to you, familiar with the importance of selection in storytelling as I assume you are. And indeed, a common exclamation among my classmates is “How did we not know?” whenever the matter is breached. Yet this is to mistake the present for the past: as we experienced it, that day was not nearly as significant. It is only with hindsight that it towers above other events of that time that I have left out of this narrative. Even the sound of the doomed couple leaving the scene of their liaison seemed inconsequential (but how they must have startled at the sound of my weary hand on the wall of the shelter!).

I have, on occasion, been tempted to contact Mr Baxter. But a name like John Baxter is common, and in any event there is no guarantee that he has not taken a new one for protection or the razing of the past. Without his or Julia’s testimony as to those few autumn months it is impossible to know precisely what happened, and neither seem to be forthcoming.

Among my peers I am, I think, the only one willing to construct any sort of defence for Mr Baxter. I do not mind that – and while I believe my conclusions are robust, it is certainly not impossible that I am mistaken. But in the absence of hard proof it is individual interpretation that can come closest to the truth.

And that is, after all, a matter of perspective.

Author’s note:

There’s something very alluring about writing an unreliable narrator, as Ian certainly is. Playing with memory and perception while keeping the story coherent is an easy tightrope to fall off, but I’m very pleased with how this came out.

This would also be a good point to note that the views of the characters are not necessarily those of the author’s.

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