‘The Present Tense’

A story

Hilary Mantel

‘Today we are going to have a nice lesson,’ I say.

Twenty-nine faces, upturned: all dubious. I think, you don’t know how nice it will be, compared to the nasty lessons ahead. Next year is Cambridge Certificate, and we will have The Mill on the Floss till our brains bleed.

I look around the classroom. ‘Today my question is – what makes a good story? Have you any ideas?’

If this were another country, and I were someone else, a luckier kind of teacher, they might say, ‘Suspense. Characters we care about. A cracking pace. Not too much description. Touch of humour. Smart dialogue. A twist in the ending.’ But I am here and me and no one says anything.

‘So,’ I say. ‘Shall we take –’

‘Five minutes to think about it?’ Moses suggests.

He knows the routine. If his grin is weary, so perhaps is mine. This is Form 4B. Average age 18. Open questions are a novelty. It is understandable they should be guarded. Every day since they first sat in a classroom they have taken dictation, copied from the blackboard. By these means they have gained their Junior Certificate, they have satisfied the examiners. No one ever asked their opinion, or said they could speak, or thought them worth listening to.

‘Scribble away in your rough books,’ I say. ‘Any ideas that come to you.’

Tebogo puts her hand up. ‘Full sentences, Madam?’

‘You need not use full sentences. No.’

The whole classroom echoes, as 4B revs up to write. The chair legs are metal, the floor is polished cement, and every movement causes a squeal at a pitch to make you wince. Every rolling pencil clatters and bounces, every cough is like gunfire, and there is a constant hum, a low murmur. What I accept as ‘silence’ is only a diminution of this. The students scrape their chairs and grunt as they lean down and fish in their bags for erasers. They are keen on erasing, having been punished habitually for mistakes. Down they go, dark heads ducking. Up they come, sniffing, sighing. Madam, my eraser is forgotten! My ruler is stolen! Someone has burgled me! Those from 4C are raiding in my schoolbag! Thieves abound! Madam, how can I write?

Susannah has sneaked out her knitting and with expert speed she is casting on. I used to try to stop her. I thought it was disrespectful to the texts under discussion. She explained placidly that her income from bobble hats paid her boarder’s fees. ‘Otherwise I must sell my body.’ Today’s hat will be striped. She holds up the wool for my approval. Joel nudges Iqbal – I see him do it from the corner of my eye. Iqbal’s jotter flies from his hand. It flops heavily to the floor, skims three rows forward and stops dead under Tebogo’s chair. ‘Tebogo,’ I say, ‘could you –’

She simpers in reply – her answer is no – and snorts gently. Swift, I move to arbitrate. Knitting I have agreed to overlook, but we have just one Muslim pupil and he is sensitive to pig insults. Yet they never called him a pig, till I was musing one day on the very worst things you can say to people. And the meaning of the proverb, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

Tebogo has kicked the jotter out of reach, so I kneel myself on the red-brown cement and extract it from the tangle of legs, chair and human. I see Tebogo’s shins before I rise. Pale circular scars, the size of an old-fashioned sixpence, fleck the dappled brown.

‘Iqbal, here is your book. Sit down now.’

He looks petulant. Takes the book. ‘My book it is spoiled.’

‘Just a scuff.’ I take it back. ‘Here, let me rub it off for you.’

‘Madam,’ he whispers, ‘you spoil your jersey.’

I whisper back, ‘Never mind.’ I give him a pat. I am fond of him. I am fond of them all. They know it. ‘Hush,’ I say. ‘Let’s concentrate.’ They bend their heads over their books. There is a faint rasp as Tebogo scratches the dry shin by which I knelt. Eunice blows her nose into a sheet of lavatory paper. There is a sound of moaning from the direction of the headmaster’s office, which could be anything at all.

There are moments, few, precious, when a kind of lull soothes us, a space to listen: to attune to the distant town going about its business, to far-off traffic, to the thump and rumble of a plane landing at the airstrip, to the train from the Cape that is still an hour down the track. A moment to listen to the body’s inner music, to its discreet expectation of lunch: to the soft sigh of my sandals as I walk the rows, to my own heartbeat. The children breathe heavily, as if pulling loads. They draw circles in their books.

I am patient. Time is on my side. The school regime is relaxed. Lesson plans are not required, only evidence of progress. I know it is more comforting for the children to take dictation, to copy from the blackboard. But I try to make our lessons at least mildly interesting. I want them to contribute. I don’t mind if confidence, as it increases, makes them cheeky. I take it as a good sign. Each classroom … and here I should be drifting towards the past tense, but stay with me, if you will … each classroom, as I picture it now, gives on to an open rectangle of dust, known as the Quad. It is a boarding school, with a catchment area that comprises many hundreds of miles of scrub and bush. We are uninflected by modern life; our vocabulary is quaint and anyway, this is thirty years back, it is how things were then. The rooms were dark, I dare say they are dark still, shuttered against the heat. The heat does not change: even in winter, a wedge of sunlight blocks the entrance to the classroom, solid as a brazen door. The desks at the far wall are in black shadow. The middle of the room is striped with light; filtered between slats, it lies in bars, precisely ruled, across each labouring body. The girls wear white blouses. The boys wear grey shirts. The bold ones turn their collars up at the back, township-style. I am advised by the Head of English that I will regret my liberal methods, when I have been here a year. Maybe he’s right. I do not despise his experience. But I do not see how I can be proofed against regret. For three terms I am willing to follow where they lead. I maintain they need to learn to think for themselves: until next year, when I make them think about The Mill on the Floss.

Sipho punctures the mood, throwing his arms above his head. ‘Aieee, I have nothing to write.’

‘Nothing to write, or nothing to write with?’

‘Moses will borrow us a pencil.’

‘Moses will lend me …’ I begin.

Sipho looks at me from under lowered lids. He is teasing me. I smile. We like to mock the errors of the forms below us. I am walking by my feet. I am washing my body. In the present continuous I am doing everything, till my teacher makes me stop.

Five minutes are up. ‘Tebogo,’ I say, ‘you have not written much?’

‘No.’ She is a child keen to please: unless you are Iqbal. Now she looks desperate. ‘Madam, what we must do?’

‘Word order,’ I warn.

Tebogo blinks. She reforms her sentence. The second time, the desperation has gone out of it. She smiles at me.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ I say. ‘I just wanted your spontaneous thoughts.’

‘We do not have any,’ Moses says.

Eunice says: ‘Our difficulty is, we do not know if the story is good, until we hear it.’

‘But I want you to think about all kinds of stories. Good ones, bad ones, stories that work and stories that don’t.’

But I realise, even as I speak, how few stories they know. There is no television in the region. No cinema, this side of the border. On Sunday evening, hired films are projected onto stretched bedsheets in expatriate houses. At school at the end of term, a hired reel-to-reel projector is humped into the dining hall and we have a treat. The Christian Union students walk out in protest, as they do not approve of what they call ‘the Bioscope’. The students who remain fall silent, and as no one is shouting at them, some take the chance of sleep. Whites of the eye flicker, in the half-dark, but the gaze soon strays from the scratched, jumping image on the screen. It is as if there is a cinema in the head, an inward image more compelling than gangsters or showgirls or the posse riding into the horizon in a cloud of dust. We know all about dust here; we know nothing else. If the reels are in the wrong order, or the South African censors have chopped off the ending, no one seems to mind. Incident is enough to content us; no one demands plot. The kinds of stories my pupils have heard all their lives are tales in which animals play tricks on each other, and sometimes on humans who are simple or young. The tricks are not clever. The stories are not funny. The order of events appears random. The point, if there is one, seems deterrence. Do not idle about, chatting to animals. Or if you must, avoid the kind who chat back.

But now I address them, exhorting, saying what I most believe. ‘Stories are important,’ I say. ‘They can give us great pleasure and sometimes they make us think. Some stories are for our entertainment. For fun. Some are more fun than others. Why is that? Some stories are not to entertain us, they are to persuade us. Politicians tell us stories. Each candidate will spin you a line, to entice you to vote for them.’

Last term, we discussed elections. We learned the vocabulary: ballot, poll. When the students are old enough to vote, they will vote for the ruling party, because it represents the biggest tribe. And because, John Khumalo had explained to me, the president is the head of it. You should like to vote for that party, because the president is the most important man. You should not like to vote for other candidates, who are less important: what would be the use of that? And now – speaking shyly – he reinforces his point. ‘You do not cast for the president because he has the best story, Madam. It is because he has the best house.’

Moses speaks up. ‘Politics was then,’ he tells John Khumalo. ‘Now is story. Madam, maybe I could tell a joke?’

I feel we are getting somewhere. ‘A joke can take the form of a story. It need not, of course.’

‘For example, Moses is a joke,’ Sipho says. ‘But he is not a story.’

I am encouraged. I almost say, yes, that’s right. But I check myself and smile at Moses to show I am on his side. ‘Our lives are stories,’ I say. ‘We have to make sense of our lives.’

Tebogo puts up her hand. ‘Madam, shall I tell “The Crocodile and the Crow”?’

Well, well, I think, ‘The Crocodile and the Crow’. I haven’t heard that one. But I have an inkling of how it might go.

‘Madam does not know it,’ John Bothole says.

Tebogo is taken aback. ‘Why she does not? She is not ignorant.’

Susannah glances up from her knitting. ‘Crow is wise.’

‘But crocodile is bite.’ John Bothole is some way behind the other children: with diligence, he will catch up by the exam season.

‘You can write that fable in prep this afternoon,’ I say.

‘You are a fool, Tebogo,’ Joel says. ‘Madam does not know it, and here is proof. She asks us to write it for her. So how can she say if she wants to hear it, when she does not know it?’

Oowhee-eesh’, Tebogo says. She blows out her cheeks. She has taken offence. She flounces and drags her chair across the floor.

‘She is in high dudgeon,’ Sipho says, smiling.

Sometimes these phrases emerge from nowhere. From schoolbooks their grandparents had, if they had any. High dudgeon. Neither fear nor favour. Malice aforethought.

‘Look,’ I say, ‘I will tell a story. Perhaps that is best. I will give an example of a story, then we can discuss it.’ I pause to think. ‘Let us say, three friends meet. They decide to go out for the evening. They go to a bar.’ Susannah raises a hand. ‘They are men?’

‘Yes, they are men.’

Susannah settles back, reassured: if three women went to a bar, it would be a story about prostitution.

‘The three friends have a nice time,’ I say. ‘They don’t see anyone they know. They have two beers and one says, “It is late.” Then they go home.’

I wait. ‘It is not a very good story,’ I say at last.

They smile patiently. As if they think it is quite all right. Tebogo asks: ‘These three friends, what are their names?’

‘I hadn’t thought. You don’t really need to know their names.’

They look disappointed.

‘We could give them names,’ I say. ‘Moses. Sipho.’

Agnes says timidly. ‘They are black men? We did not know.’

I turn, friendly. It is unusual for Agnes to speak. ‘Can you imagine them?’ I say. ‘For instance, what they wear?’

‘Yes, Madam.’ Agnes drops her eyes.

‘You must say a third name,’ Joel reminds me.

I hesitate. ‘Let’s say, John Khumalo.’ I am satisfied none of the three belongs to the Christian Union. Choose the wrong name, and it could cause a walkout if I sent them to a bar, even an imaginary one.

‘I could make the story better,’ I say. ‘I could change it a bit. Listen. The three boys are in the bar and one of them says, “I see an old friend over there. I will go after him and ask how he is.” So away he goes. When he comes back –’

‘Word order!’ Tebogo says. The class laughs. ‘She says, “Away he goes?”’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it is a thing we do when we tell stories. Inversion. We turn things around.’


‘It is for rhythm. It is for emphasis. The storyteller can break the rules. She has a special role.’ Once again I hesitate, alert to my own choice of words; this is how misunderstandings start. ‘Not a roll. A role.’ I write the word on the blackboard. ‘It means a job. We can turn things around, and also, often we use the present tense. It is so we feel we are there, with the people as it is happening.’

‘We are in the bar?’ Susannah sounds faintly shocked.

‘As the storyteller speaks, she is picturing it in her mind, just as clearly as if it is happening now. She asks the listener to picture it too.’

Moses looks restless. ‘Who is the listener?’

‘You.’ I smile. ‘You are the listener.’

‘God is the listener,’ Joel says.

There is a murmur of assent.

Susannah clicks her needles. ‘Christ is our Redeemer. Praise to Him.’

I want to throw the blackboard duster at her but I do not do it. When you have been here a year, then you do it: or so I’m told. ‘Let us go back to the story. Let us try to improve it. John Khumalo spots his old friend. He goes off to seek him. He follows him outside. He is gone for ten minutes. When he returns, his head is on backwards.’

Aieee,’ say the listeners.

‘His head has been turned around completely on his shoulders. His eyes are looking at his friends as he walks towards them, but his feet are pointing backwards towards the door where he has just come in.’

‘Shame!’ Susannah fans herself with her knitting, an inch of lilac and brown.

Tebogo picks up her jotter and fans herself. ‘It is too much.’

‘It is a better story, though,’ I say. ‘At the sight of him, what will his friends say?’

Aieee!’ John Bothole suggests.

‘They are shocked,’ Tebogo says. ‘They will demand to know what has happened.’

‘And what will he tell them, do you think?’

Elijah speaks for the first time. He is a dignified boy of great intelligence. ‘Can this happen?’

‘In a story it can.’

‘Perhaps,’ Sipho says, ‘this is in a distant country, or days long past.’

‘But,’ Elijah frowns, ‘that cannot be, because you are named in it. You, Sipho – and you are present tense.’

I have no idea where he has come from, or why he has leaped into my head, this cartoon figure with his head on backwards. He is as grotesque and jolly as a giant on the edge of a map. His bare feet are as long as his calves, his toes are fat and he wriggles them as he walks; he is grinning from ear to ear, exposing blockish teeth like gravestones. I can’t help smiling myself. ‘It’s funny?’ I prompt. ‘Do you think it is?’

At this stage in the lesson, I do not let the pause extend. ‘Wait, I can make it better,’ I say. ‘Sometimes, we end a story in a way that no one expects. We wrong-foot the listener. He thinks it is going in one direction, when really it is the opposite. We try to create surprise.’

‘I think it is already a surprise,’ Sipho says. ‘It is a surprise to me. It is beyond nature.’

I laugh. ‘It is. But still, we can put a twist in it. Let us imagine – he leaves the bar, he is gone for ten minutes, he returns to the bar, he walks towards his friends, his head is on backwards, and they all exclaim, “John! What has happened to your head?” And John says, “What do you mean? Why are you staring at me? Have you all gone mad? Nothing has happened to my head!”’

Now, I feel, it is beginning to be a good story. I check my watch. Thanks to the incessant questions – which I promote, of course – our work takes much longer than I allow. At the end of every lesson, I have only minutes to bring it home.

Robinah puts her hand up. She is a large, motherly girl, who never speaks unless directly addressed; with detached sympathy, she has watched us all term. ‘Madam. This person, John. John Khumalo, as you say. He is not noticing that anything has happened to him?’

‘Seemingly not.’

‘He is not in pain?’

‘No,’ I say.

I will not qualify or expand. There is a rustle of consternation in the room, but I override it. I want to see where it will lead.

‘Then Sipho is right. It is beyond nature.’

‘I think it is witchcraft,’ Tebogo says. Her face is clouded. The bell rings. The lesson is over.


Next day when I come to class it is time for Shakespeare. We have been considering why Desdemona likes Othello: how the whole thing gets going. No one finds the topic comfortable, and it has been pointed out to me that over the border in the republic of South Africa, Othello’s behaviour would land him in court. The Head of English says, ‘Chin up, we’ve all been through it; we don’t choose our syllabus, it chooses us. They played old Bullock merry hell when he taught the Scottish play. Broke the fella’s nerve. That’s why he quit, and now we have you.’

I put down my pile of exercise books. Susannah dips into her bags and draws out naked needles; she must have finished the brown and lilac hat. ‘Some of you have made a good effort,’ I say. I glance around. ‘Do we know where John Khumalo is?’

No one speaks. There is a rustle, faintly disapproving. Susannah worms a hank of crimson wool from her pocket. She nips out the end with her teeth, and begins to wind it onto her hand. Then she says, ‘John is in the hospital, Madam.’

‘Oh dear,’ I say tranquilly. This happens a lot. Sometimes the children just want a break. Glancing around, I see one or two other gaps, though I am not at first sure who is missing.

‘His people have come for him.’ Joel sounds sulky. ‘To take him away.’

‘Why?’ I think, it cannot be fees unpaid, surely? Not so near the end of term?

‘They have come with a lorry,’ Joel says. ‘He cannot walk for himself.’

‘Not walk? What has happened?’

Robinah clears her throat. ‘John was crying out. The pain was too much for him to bear. They could not do it in ten minutes. They have done it in the end.’ Her syntax, I notice, is almost perfect. But then she has to go and spoil it. ‘John is screaming and begging,’ she says. ‘When they are twisting him, he is noticing they do it.’

Agnes says: ‘Tebogo was right. Only witches can keep him quiet. But when we are studying Macbeth last year, we did not pay enough attention.’ She nods and sighs. ‘Our lives are stories,’ she says.