Am I Red Pen?

“He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru. You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan… Designed and directed by his red right hand.” Nick Cave

One suitcase, one rucksack and one day: these are the parameters, the boundaries I’ve set myself for packing up and shipping out of China.

All is going relatively well and speedily. I’m striking a healthy balance between thinking of what I need and not thinking of what I want. There are heart-wrenching moments: we can’t take my eldest daughter’s guitars, we can’t take her vinyl collection. There’s a moment when I go cold. I find the birth tag of my youngest daughter, showing her name, weight, the date of her birth and “name of mother”. I find the wedding ring – the joke one, not the real one – that Mrs Whats bought for me. We’d planned to be married by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Pride in 1994. We’d only known each other for three months but we were already terrified of losing one another.

I scan the bookshelf. Novels belonging to the kids and my wife (most of my books are on my Kindle) and a textbook that I’d got for Christmas. A textbook. Would I need it where I was going? A thought arose, a little Leviathan and I got lost in it for a moment, refusing to give it words.

We are almost packed. There’s Nanshen, the plush Waldorf doll that has occupied my youngest daughter’s bed for the entirety of her life so far. There’s my cherry red DMs. I’d left a pair in Prague and determined not to keep leaving cherry reds in every country I have ever lived. Interestingly, an American colleague in Prague called them ‘Oxbloods’ – I’d liked the sound of that. Oxbloods. The metallic taste of ritual, a pleasingly guilty indulgence in my masculinity.

Before leaving, I make the mistake of giving the cupboards a final scan. There are bags, brollies and coats that I’m resigned to never seeing again. There’s a box of red Uniball Jetstream pens.

It’s a box of ten. I love these pens because I’m left-handed and the ink dries before my left knuckle can smear it across my students’ work.

I don’t need these pens. I don’t need to take them. I can buy pens wherever I go. I…

The little leviathan rises up again, pushing up against the membrane of my diaphragm. I must not put this into language…

What if I am not a teacher anymore?

The question is shocking. I am standing before the open cupboard, looking at a box of red pens.

What if I am not a teacher anymore?

I push back against the thought, try to smother it with competing thought, but it is thought into the air between me and the box of pens. It’s too late.

Silly boy. I know. There are fish so much bigger to fry than my sense of a loss of professional identity. But those pens. Not needing red pens? I can’t pretend that I love marking, but to never mark again? What would I be? What would I mark?

I imagine myself illicitly marking pieces of writing in public places: posters, planning notices, lost and found posters. I think of lost pet posters and look down at my two cats. They can’t possibly know that I’m leaving, can they? And that I cannot take them with me.

A textbook, a box of pens and two cats. They say it’s healthy to let things go, to cultivate detachment. But what if you love some things? What if your identity is bound to what you do and what you love to do and who you love?

I look at the cheap ring we bought for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. My two daughters and my wife are zipping closed their cases and rucksacks. The taxi will be here soon.

I was a teacher and I may yet be a teacher again. I remain a husband and a father. I was an owner of pens, textbooks and a keeper of cats.

The common denominator connecting all of these things, living and non-living, was and is always love. And I keep that love, between us, in abundance.

Was it something I said?

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