Thursday dawned bright and clear, an act of God which I took to be somewhat ironic, given the lack of clarity of my own thoughts. I had not slept well and, now that I was as fully awake as I could manage, I found my mind to be over-full with thoughts and remembrances of what had happened in the past week or so, reflections and recollections which did not gift me with any measurable degree of reassurance.
Like Milton's Lucifer, I had somehow fallen from grace, and my fall continued unabated.
Throughout my career, a career that I had considered to be marked by an aloof professionalism, I had conducted myself in such a manner as to be considered one of the few teaching fellows who was both free of the sin of committing of any improper misdemeanour with one of his students, and also free of even the hint of a suggestion thereof. Most of my fellows were less fortunate, academic gossip being what it was, academic temptation being an annually reinvigorated opportunity, and the resultant commission or suggestion of impropriety a frankly tedious cliché.
I had left academia with a unblemished record, and I had somehow considered to undo almost the whole of that tapestry of reputation and inclination in less than two months. In the course of a scant few weeks I had allowed myself to become embroiled in an increasingly complex web of relationships with my newly acquired students, relationships whose consequences and ramifications were spiralling out of all control, at least any control which I might have, and whose continuing evolution and metamorphoses were far in excess of my capacity for accurate and reliable prediction, my frustratingly libidinous and onanistic imagination notwithstanding.
Were I a younger man I would, perhaps, bemoan how unfair life was to have dealt me such a hand of cards, but, to continue the metaphor, I neither played cards nor gambled nor yet believed in fate, luck, or any of the one hundred and one faces which humanity gives to the caprices of our lives. I may have been naïve in my first meeting or two with Trudi, but thereafter I had nothing to offer in my defence save my vanity and that addiction that middle aged males have to the belief that someone we are still capable of being found attractive by women who are clearly and vastly younger than ourselves. I had not yet invested my savings in denim and an E-type jaguar, but perhaps it were merely a matter of the passage of more time before I surrendered myself to the inevitable decline into clichéd pathos.
Taking my second coffee of the day with me into the library, I sat down in my leather armchair, took a moment to inhale its reassuring aroma, and set to considering the situation I was embroiled in.
In inverse chronological order, I first turned my attention upon Miss MacQuoid. In her, I considered, was someone whose girlish playfulness might yet somehow be an interesting counterpoint to that of Miss Maclean in that where she was limited by her youth and lack of life's experiences, not to mention exposure to those of a similar inclination to herself who might inspire or encourage her to dare more, in Miss MacQuoid I felt a detected a curious tension between what adulthood said should not be done, and what her own inclinations said should. Hence her showing me the pictures of herself in her former line of work, something which, aesthetically pleasing as it may have been and even common as it might have been as a means of approaching a prospective photographer, Miss MacQuoid must have understood to be beyond the borders of normal behaviour, especially when meeting with someone for the first time. Consequently, she cannot have done otherwise than to have acted with knowing the likely interpretation of her actions, yet she persisted in acting as she did, eschewing propriety, to my own satisfaction not seeking some narcissistic validation of her beauty from me, but simply with no attachment to societal rules which did not serve her and whose breaking she pre-determined as not likely to cause either offence or any other kind of problem. Her approach, then, was a playfulness with what people consider to be 'proper' which, though a different proposition from Miss Maclean's girlish playfulness, was not altogether beyond comparison.
I sipped my coffee, still warm, and moved on to consider Miss Oksana. Though she had been both an intellectually and also an aesthetically engaging addition to the seminars she had attended, with her fellow classmates, in my office, I had but little to base any real misgivings upon. Her studiousness and dedication to obtaining as good a degree as possible spoken of a sobriety that contrasted her much with my other students. However, there was the manner in which she seemed to consider the notion of transacting sex for grades to be both accepted and acceptable, a somewhat chilling cost-benefit analysis that I felt lacked a certain insight into potential emotional consequences at some later point in her life, knowing as I did how much the young of her age consider themselves to be so long-lived as to be practically immortal from their perspective. Moreover, I knew enough of her position to know her to be struggling financially and wondered, not entirely without vanity, if she might seek to 'save' her monies by 'paying' for her lessons in less conventional currency. I knew myself to be taking her monies as a token in order to motivate her, but might, perhaps, the chances of Miss Oksana taking me into her bed act, instead, as a motivation for me, inspiring me to teach her to the limits of my capabilities – something I prided myself that I would do regardless – so that I might find her company in bed almost as regular as her lessons with me might be. I might ask whereof my professionalism, but whereof it if I were teaching her to my limits? Surely that should be the only consideration, especially given that I taught not for academic validation or approval, but for the far more personal but none the less important combination of diversion, habit, and tobacco monies. Was I talking myself into accepting her offer, were it to be made again? And if it were not, why did I find that curiously ... disappointing?
I decided I needed a moment to clear my head and so, after clearing my coffee cup into the kitchen, I filled my pipe with a good packing of latakia, and retired to my study, hoping that surrounding myself with books of great worth might inspire a little less of an over-heated imagination.
As I lay back in my seat and settled into a moment of perfect comfort, almost unbidden, my mind turned next to the quandary that was none other than Miss Sherrod. In her quest to experience as quickly as possible whatever it was she imagined she needed to experience of life as an adult in order to write about adult issues, she had, under some degree of coaxing from Miss Maclean, taken it upon herself to first send me explicit yet also charming images of various of the more intimate parts of her young body, and had then dared herself into exposing her vulva to me at the climax of our first lesson. In this itself she was both promising and delivering as much self-exposure as did Miss Maclean, a matter which I felt could not be ignored for the fact that her nude body was an enticement in and of itself, but which also led down the path I was already taking with Miss Maclean, namely exposing myself to greater and increasing personal risk should any of their activities come to light. Where this gave me greater potential concern was how Miss Sherrod was intent upon creating her literary works in such a way as to be derived from her personal experiences, and I found myself wondering how well she was able to separate event from person so as to give sufficient distance from her writing. Were she, to take a trite and obvious example, to write a piece featuring an older man and a younger woman or, even more damning, a seduction between teacher and pupil, I could see no way in which I would not be implicated. On this alone I felt I would need to have a discussion with Miss Sherrod. What was yet more concerning was the sheer drive and determination Miss Sherrod was showing in seeking to become a playwright, risking parental disapproval with all that might entail so as to be in a position to be able to follow her dream. If the approval or disapproval of her parents were not sufficient to temper her, then what hope had I to act as some kind of brake on her teenage enthusiasm. Whilst I might, and certainly would seek, to trade upon my professional credentials as a way of seeking to gain her attention and thence her respect for my opinions, I remained unconvinced that this, or anything else, might dissuade Miss Sherrod from going where she felt her muse to be taking her. All I could do, for now and until I had a better idea of what to do and how to achieve it, was to pray that that muse was not carrying me into the arms of 'Big Jock' and a life sentence as 'posh candy' in some Victorian institution of Her Majesty's Pleasure.
Having sufficiently shaken myself, there remained, of course, Miss Maclean.
The unintentional though not exactly innocent architect of my fall from the lofty heights of academic professionalism to a Satanic position of loss of that which I had previously believed – or told myself – should be sacrosanct. Her own exhibitionistic explorations and escapades were difficult enough to bear, her personal beauty notwithstanding, but now it seemed that she was acting as some kind of orchestrator or procuress in authorising and encouraging her friend, Miss Sherrod, to reveal as much of herself to me as had Trudi. Regretful as it was to my ego, my libido, and my middle aged need for validation from the next generation at some level, I knew I had to act and to act swiftly lest Trudi become some manner of corypheus and hasten the pace at which I was falling into a positon which was both unrecoverable and also incapable of other than a tragic ending, at least for me.
It was, I resolved, not only time but also high time that Trudi were taken to task.
Emboldened by my resolution earlier that morning, with my pipe smoked, tapped out, and put away, it was at 3:30pm and not 4:00pm that I arrived at the door of Miss Maclean, ringing the doorbell in as brisk and business-like manner as I adjudged it possible to ring a doorbell and drawing, as always, an answering bark from Eighty whom I could see running the length of the hallway, door to kitchen to door again, as he entreated his mistress to answer. In a moment of literary and grammatical introspection, I suspect that, had he been not a dog but a person, he would, I was sure, have been possessed by rather redundant manners in his speech and writing, the kind of person who not only dot the 'i' and crosses the 't' but who does so with a draughtsman's precision.
As it was, my thoughts were displaced as I watched through the frosted glass the mime-show that was Miss Maclean's surprise as she recognised my own pixelated image, her recovery from her shock, and her attending to the details of escorting a reluctant Eighty through the kitchen and into the garden that lay beyond. Pausing briefly to re-arrange herself in the hallway mirror, a suitably confused but nonetheless immaculately presented Miss Maclean opened the door to me, uttering the situationally predictable greeting of, "Simon? You're early?"
"Indeed," I observed with what I congratulated myself to be perfect objectivity; I hoped that I would be able to retain such during our conversation.
"Oh-kay. Er, come in?" Trudi asked, her tone further betraying her confusion as she stood aside to allow me surprisingly more than sufficient space through which to 'squeeze past'. The earliness of my arrival had truly prompted a most profound attack of discombobulation, one which I hoped would endure sufficiently to allow me to take advantage of, I being more than suspicious of how well I might be able to conduct myself were Trudi to regain her composure or, more threateningly to me, her confidence.
"Thank you," I said as I entered, standing a little towards the stairs and waiting, patiently, until Trudi realised what it was I was waiting for.
"Oh. Oh! Right, yes, uhm, living room okay?"
"Indeed," I concurred, the living room being a sufficiently acceptable combination of the comfortable with the business-like in that we had, previously, held class there. I tried not to remember the rest of what had transpired therein, pushing the memories of those first snatched glances down Trudi's blouse as far to the back of my mind as possible given the fact that I knew, with the merest hint of encouragement, those beguilingly pale areolae would be revealed once more.
"Oh-kay, er, this way... ," Trudi said, leading before me, her steps, I noted, rather lacking of their customary theatricality and almost, in fact, and I surmised from the unexpectedness of my arrival, on the verge of teenaged clumsiness. She was, it seemed, utterly and almost literally wrong-footed by my early arrival and taciturn approach. It was also a chastening reminder that, no matter how else she might present herself, Trudi remained, in some ways at least, still a child.
As we entered the living room, Trudi took a moment to look around, emphasising her confusion, before she turned back to me and asked, "Er, can I get you something to drink?"
I shook my head in negation of her offer. "Thank you, but later, perhaps. First, we need to talk. Shall we sit?" I suggested, seeking to secure and maintain the superior position in our upcoming exchange.
"Oh-kay," Trudi said as she sat on one sopha, and I on another, opposite to her. "Er, am I in trouble... ?"
"To a degree, yes."
Trudi's whole demeanour fell; this was not how we normally engaged. "About... ?"
I sighed. Obviously she was not yet thinking clearly, at least not sufficiently enough for my present purposes. I decided to make matters both simpler and also more direct, hoping a single word would suffice. "Jemma."
"Oh," said Trudi, the tone of her voice in her single word response informing me that, though she may not be clear of the details, she was at least clear of the outline of the problem, her involvement in it, and her responsibility for making suitable restitution.
"Oh, indeed, Trudi. Tell me, what were you thinking?" I asked, deliberately sitting not forwards but back, giving her the unconscious physical reinforcement that she had more than ample space within which to present her explanation.
"I, I guess I was thinking it would be fun, for you to see her, like that... ," Trudi answered, her certainty crumbling almost with each uttered word as she began, if not consciously, then at least by instinct to recognise that there was another, less favourable analysis, which she had failed to consider, at least until now.
"That it would 'fun'?" I offered.
"Uh-huh," Trudi said, nodding as though to make it more true by her affirmation.
"Indeed!" I barked, somewhat more harshly than I had intended but, from the sudden shock on Trudi's face, perhaps this was, after all, what was needed. Quickly, I pressed my point. "Fun, Trudi? Do I have to remind you, and it seems that I do, that your 'fun' would come to a very painful end if you, or Jemma, or I, were to be caught. You are more than intelligent enough to understand how devastating your 'fun' could be for me, but have you considered what it might mean for you, for your mother, if this were to be discovered?"
Trudi shook her head, her eyes wide, the suggestion of there being a consequence that might impact upon her mother clearly chastening her into sober attention to my words.
"For you, it would mean social ostracism, more bullying and humiliation than you have already had to endure, and possibly even the risk of being taken from your mother and place into institutional care. But for your mother, not only would there be the shame, but also the concern that her daughter was, perhaps, not the child she thought her to be. Parental trust, if lost, is almost impossible to regain, no matter what words and promises are made, and I don't believe for a moment that you would wish to lose that ineffable bond with your mother, would you, Trudi? But that might not be the worst of it in that, in extremis, you might find yourself taken from her care altogether and sent, if not to juvenile detention, then into the care system.
"So tell me, Trudi, do you still think it 'fun'?" I asked, thankful I had rehearsed my words beforehand so that, angry as I was at the risk she had taken with so many people, I did not go so far as to terrify the poor girl. She was, essentially, nothing more than an exuberant and uncharacteristic young woman, exploring herself and her sexuality, and forgetting herself in her enthusiasm.
"Oh God! Simon, I didn't mean-" she began, tears welling in her eyes and on the verge of being shed, worrying me that I might yet have gone too far, but also reassuring me – if that might be the word – that she was finally beginning to understand that there was a lot more at risk to everyone than simply the chances of discovery for my being in receipt of nude photos of a teenaged girl.
"Trudi," I said, sitting forward so that, unconsciously, we might be included together again as we faced this issue, my tone of voice deliberately softer than had been my words a moment before. "I understand. I understand you meant nothing by it, and I understand that you have no intention to put yourself, your mother, or even me at risk. But, Trudi, you have to be more circumspect. You cannot encourage-"
"But I didn't encourage Jem to do anything!" Trudi interrupted, her protestation obvious in its sincerity and truthfulness. Indeed, so forceful was her denial that her tear were wiped away with a dismissive sleeve such that I doubted, now, if she knew she had even been on the verge of shedding them.
"Trudi, I've spoken to Jemma already, as I'm sure you know, and I know that she acted on her own. But, Trudi, she would not have acted as she did, I believe, if you had not told her that it was 'okay' for her to act in such a manner. Did you tell her that?"
"Yes, er, well, er, not really, but, er, I guess," Trudi stumblingly admitted, her confession filled with regret.
I smiled as I asked, "Can you explain that a little for me, please?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Okay, I didn't tell her to do it, but I probably said a bit too much that I thought you wouldn't get her into trouble with her parents if she did, but I didn't say 'send them'..."
"I see. And how many others have you given this encouragement to?"
"None, Simon. I'm ... well ... there's only Jem at school who likes me, the rest either ignore me or hate me or bully me, remember, and ... well ... I just thought it would be fun for her and you to ... to ... er ... oh fuck it Simon! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" she cursed, her anger taking over, her anger tinged with the threat of returnéd tears.
"Tell me what happened?"
Taking a deep breath, Trudi obviously calmed herself before speaking again. "Simon, we talk, about everything, cause I've got no-one else to talk about, about me, about us, about everything. And we got to talking about you, and she was interested in you teaching her – first! – and then she asked about me and what I thought about you, and I told her I thought you were cool in an old-fashioned kinda way, and then she asked me if I flirted with you cause I guess there must've been something in the way I talked about you, and I said I did, and she asked what you did, and I said you were a gentleman and ignored it, and she asked me how I flirted, and so I told her about my first lesson in a bikini, and she thought that sounded fun, and she asked me if I thought you'd be cool about it if she did that with you too, and I said I didn't know but I guess so, and then we talked a lot more and I don't know why I told her but she's my friend and I love her and I trust her and so I told her that I sent you a pic of my tits and she laughed and asked if I thought you'd like to see her tits and I said I guess and so we did and ... and ... and..."
"Simon?" she responded, not really paying attention, her mind still on the events she was recounting.
"Trudi?" I repeated, my tone this time a little more insistent and a little less accepting.
"Yes, Simon?" said Trudi, looking clearly at me now and back in the room, at least mentally.
"Please, if you are in any way wishing for me to remain as your tutor, or for you to engage in your 'sport', you must, I repeat you absolutely must think more before you act. I do not know you well enough, yet, to know whether this impetuosity is merely a reflection of your youth, or whether it bespeaks a more general trait, but whatever the case may be, Trudi, you absolutely must cultivate and develop a deal more self-reflection before acting upon anything that you are contemplating, especially anything which involved the removal of clothing and/or the exposure of your flesh to the eyes of others, biological or digital. Do you understand?"
Trudi nodded glumly, clearly understanding she had, whatever the motivations, gone too far. "Does ... does this mean you're quitting as my tutor?"
I shook my head. "No," I said, to Trudi's obvious relief. "But you must understand, Trudi, without rules, there can be no freedom."
"Okay, Yoda, I get it," she said, a hint of a smile running the edges of her lips; such beautiful lips.
I nodded, and suddenly Trudi got up, and got down on her knees, looking up into my eyes, her expression devoid of irony and full only of sincerity as she said, "Mr. Armitage, please accept my full apology, one, for telling anyone else of what we do, and, two, for not thinking through all the things that might've happened, and, three, for not asking for your permission to speak of these things with someone else, even when I know I can trust them. I, well, I put you at risk, and I shouldn't, and Mum, and me too, and Jem and her family too I guess, and I won't do it again, Mr. Armitage, and I am truly truly truly sorry, Simon. Please? Don't quit me? As a student, or, er, as me?"
I shook my head. Quit Trudi? I sincerely doubted that I could, at least not easily, and I certainly never had any intention to do so over this. Taking her shoulders in my hands, I said, "Miss Maclean, your apology is accepted, and let this be the end of the matter, never to be discussed again. I shall, with your permission, mark it down to a combination of youth and inexperience, tempered with a willingness, I believe, to do something which you imagined would be to increase my happiness as well as to be fun and possibly even self-educational for Miss Sherrod too. Am I correct?"
"You mean did I do it cause I thought you'd enjoy seeing Jem's tits? Yeah! They're cool, huh?"
"Indeed," I agreed before I could stop myself, only then realising that I had, in that one word, told Trudi that I had indeed enjoyed all that Miss Sherrod had felt free to share with me.
"Did she really show you her pussy?" Trudi asked, her eyes once more asparkle with mischief yet tempered with a hint of disbelief.
"You ask that question as though you know the answer."
"Well yeah, I know cause she told me."
"So what are you enquiring, really, Trudi?"
Trudi shrugged. "I ... I dunno," she said, realising as she spoke that she did not really know.
"Would you like a moment to re-think your enquiry?"
"Oh-kay. Oh! I got it. Did you like her pussy?" Trudi asked, enjoying this quasi form of 'twenty questions'.
"I saw nothing to dislike..."
"Simon!" Trudi said in exasperation, sitting back on her haunches as she spoke.
"Was, was it ... better than mine?" she asked, her question betraying her situationally surprising lack of self-confidence.
"It was different."
"So it was better then?" Trudi asked, her tone demanding, threatening, and fragile all at once.
"Not at all, and that was not an evasion or politeness or any other of the social niceties. It was a simple expression of fact. I enjoy coffee, I enjoy tea, but the two are not the same and thus cannot be fairly compared. Your vulva and Jemma's vulva are equally charming in their appearances, but different and thus, consequently, not susceptible to comparison. Does that make more sense than my previous response?"
"So you like trimmed and not trimmed?" Trudi asked.
I sighed. This was far from what I had intended us to be discussing, it was fast approaching the time for her lesson to commence, and I was not going to allow Trudi to seek to elicit from me any expression of preference in one way or another. "Trudi, please allow me to explain a little, and this explanation is between ourselves only and is not to be shared with Jemma. Do you agree?" Trudi nodded. "And please, sit back upon your sopha. I know you are younger and more supple than I, but there is no need to rub my nose in it, as it were," I said, waiting for Trudi to regain her former position before I continued. "You are each possessed of youthful charms. You are similar in some respects, but different in many others. Your bodies are different and delightful and, I admit, a joy for me to see, but they are not the same and I will not compare them. Your body and how you use it is an expression of who you are, and the same is true for Jemma. In you I see a young woman, leaving childhood behind her, and finding in your... 'sport' with me something of an opportunity to learn a little more of the woman you may or may not someday become. Behind that 'sport' and the way in which you are exploring yourself, I see someone who is gifted with intelligence and beauty, whom I know to be talented, and whom I believe will go on to have an entertaining and fulfilling life. In the meantime, on whatever level, you experience enjoyment and excitement by the illicitness of exposing your nakedness to me, something that other cultures and societies would view differently, but which twenty-first century Scotland would consider to be, at the very least, inappropriate. That I have not acted and continue not to act in such a way as to in any way hinder or discourage you should tell you that I find myself able to trust in your discretion, and that I derive enjoyment from your activities. Is that clear?" I asked, worrying that it might not be.
I should have known not to underestimate Trudi's understanding, and to expect her pithy summation.
"So, you like me to show you my tits, you trust me to show you my tits, and you're not gonna stop me as long as I don't mess it up? Right? Also, you think I'm gonna have a 'fulfilling' life? Right?"
I nodded at her précis.
"Cool. So, we're okay then?"
"We are, as you put it, 'cool', though I think I might suggest we abandon today's lesson. What we were to cover lies well within your capabilities, as I am certain you already appreciate."
Trudi nodded, blushing a little as she realised that I had caught her in appreciating her own abilities and that, on occasion, our lessons were as much a social dance between the two of us as they were a place for pedagogical exegesis. "So what're we gonna do instead?"
"As I understand it, part of your course this year involves the presentation of a short spoken piece, am I correct?"
Trudi's face darkened once more. "Don't remind me."
"When is this due to happen?"
"For me, just before Christmas. We all drew numbers, and I drew the week before Christmas."
"How ... pseudo-democratic," I observed, rather dryly. "Regardless of the timing, you know this leaves you only a few weeks to alight upon a topic, develop a monologue, and practice delivery thereof?"
"Yeah," Trudi acknowledge, betraying either a quickly expanding vocabulary or great skills at situational lexical comprehension.
"Then perhaps, for the remainder of today's time, we should discuss your options for a topic."
"Must we, Simon?" Trudi asked, a little of her former mock reticence emerging and reassuring me that I had not gone too far in chiding her for what, when all things are considered, was an unconsidered but unlikely to be ultimately destructive act.
"Trudi, I promise, this is not as difficult a challenge as you are anticipating."
"Really?" Trudi asked, sounding entirely unconvinced by my assurance.
"Tell me about your compositions for the recorder," I suggested.
Trudi shook her head. "Nuh-huh. They hate me enough for being different as it is. I'm not gonna give them more stuff to use against me."
"You are certain that this is the case, and that it would not help your position to explain to them, perhaps in terms they might better appreciate, what it is that you do, why you do it, and why it is not the aberration they misjudge it to be?"
"Trust me, Simon, no. They've never liked me since they learned I was so much better a player than they were, you know we all have to play recorder at school, don't you? Anyway, it was bad enough when I was just a lot better, but when word got out from a proud teacher I was really very very good and that it might be a way to get to university, that made it even worse. You know how kids are always picking on each other? Well, they've never thumped me for it, but they don't like me, I'm not popular, and they isolate me every chance they get. I did try explaining, when I was younger, when it started, but they, well, they didn't listen or didn't care or didn't understand, but anyway, the bullying just got worse. So, no. Okay?"
I nodded. From what little Trudi had told me, I expected little different, but, nonetheless, I found it saddening to learn that someone with such an obvious talent should be ostracised precisely for that very talent.
An idea struck me.
"Trudi, if they are uninterested in what you do, is there something which interests them which might sufficiently engage you to present to them? A way of winning them over, perhaps?"
Trudi sighed, deeply, a touchingly heartfelt gesture. "Oh Simon, I'm sorry if I sound cynical but all they care about is soaps and reality shows and who's fucking who..."
I raised an eyebrow, halting her at once.
Trudi put her hand to her mouth. "Oh Simon, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say that, or to break ... oh God! I keep breaking your rules!"
"Simon?" Trudi asked, her voice quiet, afraid, even.
"Trudi. First of all, please, relax. Your accidental 'fuck' is both forgiven and understood as a reflection of the anxiety of your experiences of peer bullying. As is your smile at the expression of an 'accidental fuck'. Second, my aversion to cursing is less a rule and more of a guideline to help in what, I trust and I hope, will be a small technique to massage your vocabulary in ways which prospective universities will find more palatable. Finally, I would prognosticate that there is, in fact, nothing that your classmates find interesting which would engage your own interests?"
Trudi shook her head, slowly, but with a relaxed expression.
"In case of which, find something new, both to them and also to yourself, which you might use to distract as well as, hopefully, to engage them, if you will pardon the metaphorical oxymoron?"
My question, however, was not to be answered, as it was at that moment that Trudi's mobile phone began to ring.
"Mum?" Trudi supplied by way of an explanation to my unvocalised question of whom it was that was calling her, her answer, presumably, from some variation in the selection of ringtone.
"Please, continue," I said, manners dictating the polite expression even though common sense dictated that the decision, either way, was, of course, in Trudi's hands rather than mine.
"Hi Mum?" Trudi said, her voice indicating surprise, surprise that was soon to be followed by frustration. "You can't ... oh ... yeah, I understand ... no, I'll be fine ... I'll see you tomorrow? Okay. Right. Me too. Bye."
Trudi closed her phone.
"Is something the matter?" I asked.
"No. Yeah. Sorta. No, not really, just Mum's not coming back home tonight. He invited her ... to 'stay' ... and of course she said 'yes', then she told me. So. That's me, alone, tonight."
"Can I ask, er, will you keep me company, for a bit?"
"I have no other plans, but may I ask why?"
Trudi sighed. "With you telling me off – don't worry – I get it – I deserved it – but, after that, and now with Mum bailing on me, well, I'm not a happy girl right now, and I don't wanna be alone, not like this, not until this mood's passed, is that okay?"
"I can understand, of course, but given that I am the source of some of your distress this afternoon, might I suggest-"
"Don't you dare!" Trudi interrupted, much more forcefully than I had expected, catching me somewhat unawares.
"Oh Simon, I'm sorry, it's just, please, don't you bail on me too? Please?"
"In such circumstances, of course, Trudi, I shall not abandon you, but our time is almost up for today-"
"Stay for dinner?" Trudi suggested, pleaded, almost.
"You have an alternative idea?"
"Er, wanna take me for a pizza and a movie? I'll pay!"
"Would your mother approve?"
"Oh sure. She trusts you, me, us, er, whatever. Call it my birthday treat."
"Oh! I didn't tell you, did I? My birthday, it's this Sunday, and then I'll be fifteen."
"No, Trudi, you had not mentioned, and I did not know, but in case of which, firstly, my congratulations in advance and, secondly, tonight will be my treat, then, by way of a gift to mark this occasion."
"Oh, Simon, you're sooo sweet," Trudi said as she jumped up from her sopha to where I was sitting and hugged me, holding the hug a little longer than I might have judged appropriate, certainly breaking the pseudo-rule about humans having an inbuilt sense of a three second 'moment' but not in the least less than I adjudged to be enjoyable. "Give me five minutes to change?" she asked.
With a smile across her face betokening her happiness, Trudi left the room, almost skipping as she headed upstairs from whence I was able to discern a multitude of disembodied and sometimes confusing sounds before, not more than fifteen minutes later, I heard the sound of Trudi returning downstairs and re-entering the living room in which I had patiently awaited her.
The transformation she had effected in such a short period of time, at least to my judgement of such matters, was dramatic.
All traces of her school uniform had been banished, of course, but in its place Trudi stood before me dressed in black jeans, slight black heels, a check blouse, and with a black cashmere cardigan draped over her shoulders. She looked smart, well dressed, and not so overtly young as to problematize her being in my company.
Trudi twirled. "Okay, Uncle, do I pass?"
"Of course, but why 'uncle'?"
"So I don't have to explain who you are. I'm guessing you're not a pizza person?" Trudi asked, eyes a-sparkle.
I shook my head.
"Well then, an uncle, taking his niece, for a pizza and a movie, that's not so unusual, is it?"
"So ... we gonna walk there?" Trudi asked, seemingly having taken the opportunity afforded from her upstairs room to satisfy herself that I had not driven today.
"No, Trudi, we will not walk all the way there, but we shall need to walk as far as my house, and I could drive us from there," I offered.
"I've, I've never seen your place before..." Trudi said, making 'before' sound like 'yet'.
"And nor shall you today. My car is in my driveway, my keys are in my pocket, and we shall need to be sharp about it to make both pizza and a movie if I am to have you home at a respectable hour."
"What's a 'respectable hour' then, Simon?"
"As tonight is a school night, I shall have you home before 10pm, before 9pm if it can be arranged."
"Oh-kay, no late night partying with my Uncle tonight, then. Lemme get my keys and stuff, and we can go. Okay?"
"Of course," I replied, watching as Trudi found a small clutch-purse and dropped her essentials into it, save for her keys which she held back, locking the door as we left.
We had not yet made it quite to the corner of the road where she lived before Trudi asked, "Simon? Wanna take my arm?"
"Trudi?" I asked, not quite sure I could fully discern her motives.
"I've, well ... I've never had anyone hold my arm before, and you're the most gentlemanly man I know, so I figure, this is my chance to ask. You don't have to, you know, if you don't want to or anything, or, you know, if I'm still in trouble..."
"I would be honoured," I over-dramatised as I did indeed take Trudi's arm, weaving it with my own as we made our way down the three long and and two short streets which separated her home from mine.
It might have been my imagination, but I felt Trudi to be taking her time, somewhat, and not walking with the urgency I anticipated of a teenager offered the chance of pizza and a movie.
"Nice evening, Uncle," Trudi observed as we passed an elderly couple.
I chuckled. "Indeed, and so charming to be able to pass it in such company," I said, adding a box of eggs to the pudding and discerning her relative sedentary pace. She had, as advertised, never had the opportunity until now of walking arm-in-arm with someone and was finding the experience rather to her liking.
"Shall we dine well, Uncle?" Trudi asked as we passed a knot of teens of Trudi's approximate age, their expressions betraying surprise and jealousy in roughly equal measure.
"Indeed," I confirmed, surmising them to be other than her classmates.
"Are we nearly there yet, Uncle?" Trudi whined as we nodded to a dog-walker with a small pack of hounds.
"Just up ahead," I confirmed and, a minute or two later, we were indeed outside my home. Holding the door of my car for Trudi, I waited until she was secure within before taking my own place and heading us off for our appointed destination.
"That was fun," Trudi gushed, a little flushed, though quite why I did not, as yet, understand.
"Indeed," I observed, a tad coolly.
"Yeah. Never had someone walk me, in the street, arm in arm, y'know? It was kinda cool."
"So I deduced? Are you, perhaps, becoming a lady of old-fashioned sensibilities?"
"Maybe ... Would you like it, if I were?" Trudi asked, a curious edge to her voice.
"In truth, yes, but in part, that is because I believe the world would be a better place if everyone were more old-fashioned in their conduct and sensibilities."
"So ... not just me?" Trudi teased.