'Consider this. Just suppose I am living in time in the opposite direction to you.'
That one caught us off guard.
'Concentrate now,' she continued. 'For you, the past is yesterday, which you remember. Your future is tomorrow, which you may have planned but you cannot see what it's really going to bring. But I am passing through time the other way. Moreover, I am blessed with excellent foresight about what is going to happen in what you already know as the past, although sometimes my divinatory powers fail me and I am not always able to see what for me lies ahead. There are gaps. And I have the most terrible memory. Appalling. Nearly everything that I've said and done in my past, which is your future, is just a blank. I therefore can't tell you about it at all. A thick fog of amnesia. So everything appears to be the same for me as for you. But it isn't.'
It took us all a while to get our heads round that.
'The here and now, in case you should ask, is an ever moving cusp at which our trajectories meet.'
'There is a flaw in that proposition,' Miss Trimble said. 'What is it?'
It was typical Miss Trimble. Challenging, provocative, bizarre.
It was said that she had started the Copeland Society simply because no such thing had existed when she had arrived at the school and she thought it should. Nobody knew where the name Copeland had come from. For lack of any other explanation, the legend was handed down through the generations of pupils – or students as we must now call them – that it was the very aristocratic first name of a long lost love whose marriage proposal she had turned down. It was supposed that no-one else had ever asked her and so her lover's name was enshrined in this Sixth Form 'ideas' forum that met once a month squeezed into her front room on Albion Street – or Albinoni Street as she sometimes gave out as her postal address, on the grounds that the postcode should be able to cope or possibly that 'Miss Trimble' should be information enough. It was not a venue that would be allowed today, although it was precisely the dissociation from the school environment that made us all feel more adult than we really were and that our ideas could matter.
Ideas. That was what it was all about and all it was about ('Note,' Miss Trimble would have said, 'the subtle shift in perspective as one word moves'). It wasn't a debating society, an audience for visiting speakers or a place for opening your mouth before your brain was engaged. Attendance was technically open to anyone in the Sixth Form, but in practice the members were all invited, usually with a quiet word in the corridor or at the end of a class – how one imagines people are recruited into the secret services. It was an honour very rarely declined, a badge of the intellectual elite, school colours for excellence in thinking.
'It's wonderful,' she had said with a faint smile and a rather distant look. 'I feel younger every day.' It was of course a hint.
And now she was dying.
For a long time I have been, I suppose, in part an image of her. I can't say that Miss Trimble inspired me to become a teacher. I'm not sure that many people ever truly aspire to teaching as a profession, but she was undoubtedly responsible for my deciding to read English at university and for falling in love with literature to the point where there was absolutely no question of my ever giving it up to become an accountant, switch to law or find any place in the world of work that did not make Eng. Lit. the focus of my attention. So, yes, she was ultimately responsible for my falling into teaching. There came a day when time's wingèd chariot demanded a salary, so I held my breath and jumped.
Ever since leaving school I had kept up a termly correspondence with her – we are people for whom the year, like Gaul, is permanently divided into three parts – and she had always most generously replied. For many years this was by letter in her spiky handwriting with the Greek 'e' that from the age of fourteen I had plagiarised into my own style, and latterly to my surprise (although nothing about her should have surprised me) by email. Roughly once a year after her retirement we managed to meet for a simple lunch in town on one my visits to my parents. I didn't really notice how physically she was getting older, since her mind, unlike my father's as he quite perceptibly aged, was as searching and piquant as ever.
It was my mother who told me she thought she had heard that Miss Trimble was in The General. Had been there for some time apparently, although my mother had never thought to share her knowledge before I mentioned the curious lack of response to my having suggested another lunch date when I was next back home.
She took some finding, but after the experience with my father I was not an innocent regarding hospitals and how patients get moved around wards without notice and at the most peculiar times. You just have to remember that foremost in the mind of nearly everyone who works in a hospital is the idea of the bed rather than the patient. A bed is free or it isn't. Every new admittance needs a bed. Any patient who could go home but for the inability of the hospital and allied health services to sort out aftercare is 'a bedblocker'. Beds are constantly shuffled about to make one free in the place it's most needed at any particular moment. The patient simply goes wherever their bed goes. In some cases just moved out of the way, it seems.
And I knew that sometimes you just have to tell a lie.
'Are you a relative?' When visiting the gravely ill and the dying, the question is sometimes equivalent to have you got a ticket?
I nearly said 'Yes' but Miss Trimble did not like outright lies. No cleverness in that.
I don't think Miss Trimble believed in God, but I do remember when Adrian Gaulby asked her, 'Do you believe in God, Miss?' He was a newbie. The 'Miss' was definitely un-Copeland. 'That depends upon who is asking,' she had replied. 'If it is God, the answer is most definitely yes.' She would have had a field day with my goddaughter claim. In the sense that it indicated a spiritual relationship, she might actually have approved – at least eventually, for she would have made me dissect and analyse all the implications first.
I passed the visitor test and discovered on the way that there appeared to be no known relatives. Well, she was pretty old now, had never married or had children (so far as any of us knew) and if she had had any siblings, they could well be dead. For all practical purposes she was, as she always appeared to have been, alone.
But now wizened, shrunk, skeletal. I had not prepared myself for that. The hands that she had so often and so vigorously waved about when explaining, disassembling and reconstructing arguments now rested curled up, emaciated and still on the turned down sheet, like dead spiders in the bath. The skin of her face seemed stretched tight on her cheekbones, ludicrously thin, while beneath her eyes and at her neck it sagged vacantly. She seemed to be asleep. Was she still there?
I placed my hand on one of hers. Warm, but she didn't wake.
The flaw. In order to get us thinking, she had once claimed that she was passing backwards through time, but as her experience of it was no different to anyone else's – she simply called our memory her foresight and claimed amnesia of our future – there was no proof. Just a change of vocabulary and a different faith. Outside of arguments that took only themselves as justification, her body had persistently clung to the unremitting forward march in which the rest of us were bound to keep step. 'I feel younger every day.' She had not said that she was getting younger every day. Perception versus reality. Interpretation versus fact. Theory versus evidence.
I very gently squeezed her hand. I felt anything like a normal pressure would just break her bones. There was still no response.
'Eleanora.' She had told me to stop calling her Miss Trimble the day I left school. It had seemed very awkward at first, not so much because of the age gap but because of the intellectual distance. I had yet to learn how very kind and generous Eleanora could be.
I tried again. Still no response. An idea came. Perhaps inside this fragile eggshell of a body her mind was a long way into her future, as my father's seemed towards the end to have retreated into his childhood.
'Miss Trimble.' A faint flutter underneath my hand.
A young man appeared with all the confidence of a doctor on home ground. He smiled at me in a slightly apologetic manner and then leaned over the bed, felt her pulse, looked under her eyelids, shone a light in her eyes and listened very closely to the breathing I could not hear – did what doctors do when there's nothing to be done.
'It won't be long now,' he said quietly, assuming I was in the know, which I was up to a point. The evidence was right in front of me.
Once he had wandered off, I started to tell Eleanora what I had been doing since the last time we met. No questions this time. No being picked up on any loose thinking. For the first time I had a one way conversation with the person who probably exerted the most profound influence on the choices I have made in life. I finished with the news I had been itching to tell her since I first found out, but had decided to hold back until she could see for herself. Having discovered her like this, I now deliberately kept it to the last. Perhaps I still wanted to surprise her. Perhaps it was the old childhood habit of leaving the scrummiest parts of a meal to the end, although to be honest 'scrummy' is not a word I would really use about this from my point of view. Too tiring for a start. Perhaps I just thought that she wouldn't, couldn't give up until I'd told her.
Then I dug my notebook out of my handbag and made a little sketch of her. My drawing skills are not great, but it was something to do, both to help preserve the memory and to pass the time. I hadn't come armed with a book. Stupid. Then I started to write. It won't be long now, the doctor said. How long is long in his perspective? And how does that equate to mine?
I'll stay. For however long not long is. My time is my own.
Five months pregnant, holding hands, I sit and wait for Eleanora to be born.