There were eighteen of us around a long arrangement of formica-topped tables. It was October, the sky darkening outside the tall, school-room windows. The teacher was reluctant to have the lights switched on. She said we should buy a small notebook, keep it by us and jot down images, as though we were taking snapshots. Jotting in the notebook was a good thing to do and we should make a habit of it. She asked us to think back to a place from childhood, capture an image and then write about it.
I wrote about a knitted lion. It had an orange and brown woollen mane, two red circles made of felt sewn onto its cheeks and black embroidered eyes. I wrote that the lion appeared to be smiling, that the eyes followed me around the bedroom and that its face shone in the moonlight that streamed through the narrow window above a forest of fir trees. The moon made the lion turn its head and look at me. It's face was also moon-like and looked a little pale behind the red cheeks. It took me in and knew my thoughts, and though it smiled, because this was the expression that had been stitched onto its face, the smile carried menace.
You have a good eye for detail, said the teacher. This is well-remembered and really evokes the inner world of a child.
The lion was not, in fact, from childhood. It sat on a pillow in my bedsit. Someone I knew had made it and generously given it to me as a present because I liked it so much. And it carried no menace in its being, I made that up to lend a sense of drama to the scene. The teacher said she enjoyed the disturbing vision of the apparently innocuous knitted lion as threatening and able to read thoughts. I sensed that the other students were less impressed but they were, in any case, waiting for their turn to read. If each of us took five minutes that would amount to one and a half hours, and several people took much longer than that.
Eventually lights were switched on. They were fluorescent, made our complexions look green and gave me a headache. I understood why the teacher had waited so long. One person after another gripped their notebooks or pieces of lined paper torn from some old school book, and read their piece: the teapot that had belonged to a grandmother, how mother had always used it for special occasions and one day a bit of spout was chipped off; an actual photograph - portrait of the artist as a young Scout, ready to dib dib dib and dob dob dob, and all about the different knots he learned to tie. I didn't mean you to think of an actual photograph, said the teacher - but that's good, that's very good.
I know, said the student, looking crushed, but that was the image that came to mind. He thought she thought he was being stupid.
Yes, she said, and it's very good - I just thought I'd point that out in case others had misunderstood.
I didn't misunderstand, he said.
I didn't misunderstand, he said.
He was not the only one to refer to an actual photograph. There was a family holiday snapshot of a beach and another of a woman's father. The father was smiling in the photograph and a young child (the writer of the piece) sat on his knee.
He came into my bedroom most nights and touched me, and told me not to tell my mother. When I was fourteen he used to come and inspect my breasts, he -
You don't have to read it if it's upsetting for you, said the teacher
- tried to have intercourse with me. I will never forget the smell.
Sometimes, said the teacher, an image can hold all kinds of disturbing things. She looked at her watch and noticed that we had run overtime by almost an hour. Could the others perhaps wait until next time?
It was a mistake I would sometimes also make when I began to teach creative writing - holding work that students had written in class until next time. Already I was storing all this up for future use, taking stock of the situation: time-management was important; eighteen in a class was too many; everyone has something to say.