‘Today we are playing bridge’.
Oh how we longed to hear those five English words at the start of his class. And how much any one of us would have given for him to just walk through the green classroom door, put his briefcase on the desk and take out the shabby pack of cards he had bought in London ages ago. Because it was so different and so unlike Shakespeare’s murders and all those impenetrable passages from Beowulf.
In those thirty minutes that seemed to be over in a flash, he would not just painstakingly describe the bridge rules to every last dummy who probably didn’t know how to put a teabag in a cup, but also talk about matters we were all deeply concerned about. Girls. Sex. Relationships. And he would do so to a classroom that was only half boys.
It was not like he had a gambling problem, and there was one month, April I believe, when he never once took the cards out of his briefcase. And it was not like he could not recite huge chunks of Leaves Of Grass or give you the precise timeline of Ulysses. He could do all that with a fascinating lack of effort. But my God you should have seen him. You should have seen the nondescript brown briefcase that blended so well with the nondescript nature of this crumpled old man who sweated profusely and who was safely beyond sixty years of age. And you should have seen his car, the sorry enfant terrible of the college parking lot. He had sneakers, too, underneath his grey trousers that were no doubt ironed by hanging.
Imagine all that and you would never in a million years believe the talks he gave us. The very intonation, by turns warm and weary and confident, created the sort of carefree bonhomie that showed you how fickle and ignorant a teenager’s boredom actually was. The transformation was nothing short of magical, and it was all the more bizarre for the reason that he was clearly speaking from experience. And you just looked at him and asked yourself, time and time again: Experience, him? What experience? He spoke warmly, with a gentle warble to his voice, but equally I felt it was not done for us. It was done for someone else who may or may not have been in that classroom.
In particular, I remember the short talk he gave us on flirting.
‘Girls?’ he said, not replying to anyone but simply going by some distant memory or a particular recollection. ‘Take it from me, once you understand flirting – you understand the meaning of life. Okay, maybe not the meaning of life. Relationships’.
Which was precisely the sort of introduction that made your inner cynic commit suicide or at the very least fall into a deep coma. It made a highly uninteresting girl sitting to the left of you utter a short gasp that was almost erotic in its desperation.
'Let’s put it this way. There are two types of girls in the world. Those who say they flirt and those who say they don’t flirt. Naturally, you would think the latter are the ones you should go for. Take it from me, a worse mistake could not be made. Because the girls who say they don’t flirt are the ones who do it all the time without even noticing it. Why? They do it intuitively. And it's not like they cannot love. They can – but not before life teaches them a cruel lesson. Once it does happen and the lesson is fully taken in, believe me, you won't kiss lips that are more wet, and full, and curious’.
Shell-shocked but wanting more, oh inevitably, we listened on, forgetting about the game we were playing, hoping we would have a little less time to talk about Lady Chatterley's Lover that was too tame anyway and that could never describe a girl's lips as 'curious'.
‘As for the ones who say they flirt’, he continued, ‘they are the best. Because they can actually control it. Like once I dated this girl who told me she spent one whole year of her life doing nothing but flirting. And then snap – she stopped it. There are girls who flirt because they are bored and there are girls who flirt because they simply feel like it. But that’s okay. These girls will know love when they see love. They will quit flirting without ever looking back, losing every shred of skill they ever had!'
The girls seemed to be no less interested than we were, and they probably wondered, just like every boy in that class, what in God’s name that proverbial girl even looked like.
'Date girls who know how to flirt. The key word is 'know'. Because the secret of happiness is to never plunge into anything completely. Do not immerse yourself, you will get burned. For when you read a book or watch a film and get lost in it entirely – you will lose touch and the ability to relate to real people. Girls who are natural flirts will exhaust you, take it from me, because you will never be good enough. Equally, you should avoid all the extreme cases. Certain girls use flirting the way a hitman uses his gun. It's those girls who have a swimming pool but who only jump into the water on Wednesdays and Fridays that you want more than anything else in life'.
And that’s just one such talk, written from memory. Seconds later, he put away the cards and we went back to Lady Chatterley’s Lover but no one could really concentrate.
Hard to say how many of us took his advice seriously, later in life or even in their teenage years, but what I know for sure is that you took him seriously. And could hardly act surprised when at some point you saw him with a girl from your class, or just any other girl from school, getting into that ridiculous little car by an Italian café or a local cinema. One thing you asked yourself, though, was if he actually took them to his apartment and if so, what happened next. Because for all you knew, he could just take a pack of cards out of his briefcase and they could spend a whole night playing bridge.