La Fahyette (fahye) wrote,
La Fahyette
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History Boys fic -- director's commentary! [part 1]

Nobody asked for this one, but I had enough to say about it that I wrote it anyway :)

...holy shit, it is TOO LARGE FOR ONE POST. How embarrassing.

The fic itself is here.



I knew as soon as I finished watching HB for the first time that I'd end up writing fic about Dakin and Irwin; I just didn’t know what manner of fic I wanted to write. As with any desire to fic out a pairing, I wanted to see to what extent I could articulate my understanding of their personalities and extrapolate their interactions in novel contexts -- what I needed then was an appropriate context, and to be frank I didn't think much further than 'three years on, chuck 'em together, see what happens'.

when our falsehoods are divided

This is one of my favourite lines from 'The Sea and the Mirror', Auden's prose & poem commentary on Shakespeare's Tempest (and thus one of my very favourite poems, as this is my favourite Shakespearean play and Auden is one of my favourite poets). It also points out one of the most important themes of the story: deception/lying. Some of the most interesting moments in the film were those about truth and falsehood, both on the abstract scale (what's truth got to do with it? what's truth got to do with anything?) and the personal (Irwin's lying about going to Oxford) and the emotional.

...song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think up a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.

- W.H. Auden, 'The Sea and the Mirror'


I had to use this quote for the epigraph because of two lines: 'courage and come-hither eyes' and 'our wonder, our terror remains'. To my mind they say an awful lot about the Dakin/Irwin dynamic.

~

In the imperfect subjunctive the verb mentir becomes mentissions, its edges dragged out into alluring sibilants. First person plural, because Dakin knew that neither of them were ever completely honest; imperfect, because the past had never been anything but.

Lying, again. The fiddly semantic stuff here is a bit of pointless wordplay, but I liked the way it fell out, and I figure a small amount of wordplay is allowed in such an unashamedly erudite caron.

Dakin had never forgotten what it took for him to win that first look of true admiration. Subjunctive history: having stolen ideas from both Hector and Irwin, he mixed them together until he forged something that was original enough to hook their attention. The technique had served him well ever since -- you can mix just about anything if you do it with enough flair and a large enough vocabulary -- but he valued it first and foremost because it had made Irwin look at him with a smile that had no mockery to it.

Because that was the point, wasn't it, that sharp stone-in-the-shoe that was his embarrassing need for validation from the mouth of Tom Irwin. Even when he'd found out about the lies, they hadn't bothered him, because they'd just meant that Irwin was capable of being consistent within his own underhanded system: the system that got Dakin into Oxford.

First person plural, with all its suggestion of complicity.

I think this is one of my favourite lines.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts, Dakin thought, but life had never been that fucking easy. Memory wasn’t like history: it couldn't be rewritten, not even by the victors. The gaps and the blemishes remained.

That bit in italics is from the Prologue to Henry V, just to keep with the Shakespeare theme. And it's about performance, about forgiving actors their flaws, which becomes important later on.

~

"At least nobody's expecting you to come up with something that's never been said before on the subject of Dickens," Scripps was saying. Dakin tucked the phone under his chin and rummaged for the half-empty packet of biscuits he could have sworn was underneath his Theories of Civil Justice notes.

"You offering to swap, then?"

"Fuck off, I wouldn't touch your law books if you paid me."

SCRIPPS <33 Did I mention I could probably talk for an age and a day about Scripps. I had to include him in this fic or else he'd have insisted on having his own story, and I only wanted to write one HB fic. A Scripps-fic might be written at some point in the future, we'll see. In the meantime, he served as an excellent foil and grounding agent for Dakin's self-absorption, which I knew I'd need if I was going to pull off a long fic from Dakin's POV.

There was a comfortable pause. Dakin located the biscuits, shook some crumbs from a folder, and inhaled with studied carelessness.

"Oh, apparently Irwin's here in Oxford for a bit, did I mention?"

"You little shit," Scripps said then, sounding disgusted. "So that’s what this bloody phone call was for."

"What?"

"You made me sit through all that rubbish about your family and your readings and some new bike you're probably not even thinking of buying, you'd just run out of safe topics, because you want to talk about Irwin. Jesus. I thought you were over all that."

We all know that Dakin is incapable of living his life without an audience. Three years later, Scripps is still a large part of that audience; certainly the only part that can truly appreciate anything that involves Irwin.

Dakin kicked at the leg of his desk and grinned. Good old Scripps. As willing as ever to take Dakin's bullshit, and as likely as ever to spit it back in his face. "Thought I'd give it another go."

"Why, for fuck's sake? You surely don't feel like you still owe it to him, or whatever mad justification you were waving around back in the day."

"Why not?" Dakin countered, shoving the tip of his pencil into his mouth.

This habit of Dakin's, the pencil-chewing one, is one that emerged without any conscious decision on my part. I like it, though.

Scripps groaned. "Don't make me start listing reasons, Dakin; you won't listen to them anyway, and that's not why you called."

"No? Why'd I call, then?"

"To gloat," Scripps said, "as per fucking usual. Though I really think you should just let it go, you obsessive wanker. That stuff, it's all in the past. It's history now."

"Yeah," said Dakin. "Exactly."

~

To Dakin's mind, the most irksome moments in the study of thinkers were those moments when someone from the past outlined your present faults, humbled you and brought you to task from behind their shield of years and printed words. Dakin was too bloody educated to consider himself unique, but it didn’t mean he appreciated feeling like an example of any of humanity's common failings.

Okay, I get smug about this paragraph, because it's a deliberate mockery of the most famous quote from the play/film; that oh-so-poignant scene when Hector tells Posner about moments of recognition in words written in the past, a hand reaching back and taking yours, etc. etc. how lovely.

Yeah, I decided to thumb my nose at that a bit :D So we have Dakin's irritation with anything that presumes to know him, to define him, to suggest that he is anything less than the awesome bastard he likes to think himself.


Striding against the wind with his hands in his pockets and a smattering of stage fright in his chest, Dakin passed Corpus and thought about the first time he'd set foot inside the place. On a mission. Nice to think that he'd known something was up, but he hadn't even suspected that Irwin might have been lying; he'd just wanted to find something, a clue perhaps, some indication of how Irwin had come into being. He'd wanted to ask questions, discover the forces that had shaped the man and then confront him the next time with a fuller understanding. That was what you'd needed, to win anything with Irwin: a fuller understanding.

Dakin recognised, without much rancour, his most human failing: the fact that he was accustomed to thinking of other people only in terms of what they could give him, how they related to him; objects in the convoluted sentence of his life, of which he was the only subject. And for a while Irwin had been the object that stood between him and universal approval, the object shaping him into Oxbridge material.

All of this stuff about contexts and subjects/objects is built on an idea that I stumbled across first in a letter from Ji and then got her to explain to me: Buber's I-thou relationships, the concept that instead of looking at people in terms of how they relate to us, we should try to think about them as whole human beings with many, many contexts and relationships; as much an entire and complex person as we ourselves. Try it; it's hard. Especially for those of us who play Mao with our social interactions.

But there had also been that new, driving need, and in trying to puzzle out why he should care so damn much about the opinion of one teacher, eventually Dakin had been caught on the idea of Irwin as a whole person; found himself curious about Irwin's contexts, the things he did that had nothing to do with Dakin at all. Visiting Corpus was part of that. And the itch remained: he wanted to know who Irwin had been and who he would become and how they'd managed to reach that one perfect frame of accord, one moment in history; Dakin wanted to know how any two people ever found themselves wanting each other at the same time. It seemed a fucking miracle. True and fleeting at best -- false and falsely extended at worst.

This last sentence is important because I use it later. One of the first things I decided when writing this is that I wasn't going to set up a Relationship of any kind,; Ji and I talked it over and decided that anything between Dakin and Irwin would either be fierce and brief, or on-and-off (mostly off) over the years, but nothing simple or traditional. Maybe (maaaaaybe) Irwin would be able to support that sort of thing, but Dakin? No. Certainly not at the stage of emotional development that he shows during the canon, and I don't think he'd have changed all that much in three years of undergraduate hedonism.

He'd planned something clever but it had disappeared once he'd wheedled Irwin's phone number out of the hotel, once Irwin had heard his voice and inhaled with enough sharpness to pull unrehearsed words out of Dakin's mouth:

"How about a drink?"

Pause. "A drink."

"Sometimes," Dakin had said, poorly affecting a German accent, laughing at himself as he did so, "a drink is just a drink."

I don't need to explain that one, right? What the hell, that's what a commentary is for: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Freud. Sometimes there is no euphemism. (Though honestly, I think Dakin had euphemism in mind; the flippant reassurance was intended to make it more likely that Irwin would show up.)

He could have said anything. Irwin was always going to say yes, because it wasn't often that any historian got the chance to tread over dead ground.

I love love LOVE that description from the canon, of the recent past as 'dead ground'.

A tentative rain was beginning to fall as Dakin stepped inside the pub. Irwin was easy enough to spot, his pale blue shirt and long limbs silhouetted against the dark brick of the wall as though he were lounging outside a Parisian café instead of surrounded by friendly pub din. A magazine was spread out in front of him but he wasn't looking at it; as Dakin watched, he spun a pen slowly in one hand and cast a glance at the door. It was clearly an automatic action -- his eyes passed over Dakin, drifted to the magazine, and then snapped back again as though on elastic.

Dakin shrugged his coat off as he wove his way to the table, and Irwin did four things almost at once: put the pen down, closed the magazine, stood up, and let his face fall into a smile. He looked exactly the same.

"Dakin." He held out his hand and Dakin took it; considered laughing at the formality, but the firm touch of Irwin's palm against his was actually a comfort in a way. Something familiar. A good place to start.

Familiar, because they shook hands...twice...in the film. Once after the subjunctive history convesation outside the school, and once at the celebration of the Boys getting places. Er. You really don’t need to know how many times I have watched the film.

"Can't really call you sir, now, can I?"

"Call me Irwin, I suppose. Or --" a sharp dip of his head "-- Tom. Considering the circumstances."

You know how hard it is to track down their first names? HARD. I have a copy of the shooting script and I still had to get 'Tom' from IMDB.

"Yeah?" Dakin smiled, releasing his hand. "And what are the circumstances?"

"I see you haven't lost your knack for layered questions."

"I see you didn’t answer my question."

Irwin's mouth quirked. "No. What'll you have to drink?"

"They do a good German Pilsener here, I'll have one of those. Thanks."

Irwin nodded and moved towards the bar, fast. Dakin watched him go. Another plan that'd been swallowed by Irwin's voice: he'd wanted to be the one doing the buying, it was the role that came the most easily to him and he thought it might have helped when it came to keeping control over the evening. He made sure a question was sliding off his tongue as soon as Irwin sat down again.

This is one aspect of their dynamic that I definitely wanted to play with: the constant shift of Who Has The Power. it's so deliciously complicated: there's Irwin's 'master' status and the fact that Dakin is desperate for his approval, but there's also Dakin's inarguably stronger personality and the fact that Irwin is, especially when it comes to what Dakin thinks of him as a person, extremely insecure. Dakin obviously couldn't define this fluidity with such exactness as we can (being outside the emotional flux) but he's definitely aware of a need to grasp the reins of their interactions. Because he's used to being the one who could walk away from a relationship with the greatest ease, and this relationship upsets that part of his self-image.

"What're you doing in Oxford?"

"Giving a talk." Irwin pushed one of the lagers across. "Perspectives on the events preceding the Treaty of Paris. Nothing really good or exciting, but apparently it's being recorded for radio."

We have no idea of the timescale of Irwin's career, but I like the idea that he fell into television via other kinds of media exposure. Starting with dodgy little radio shows that nobody really listens to :)

"Your usual creative interpretation of the truth?"

"No point. I'm not trying to stand out from hundreds of other talks, and I've been given instruction to write for a general audience." He gave an dismissive flicker of one hand and then used it to lift his glass. "What about you, what have you been doing with yourself?" A quick glance, like a dare. "Sports? Theatre?"

"Debating."

Srsly. He would.

"Oh, I bet you're good at that," Irwin murmured, almost lost in the ambient noise.

Dakin smirked. "Trained well, wasn't I?"

"Hector's classes?" That, there -- the first flash of a lie, even though it had barely been more than careful false modesty.

"Yeah, and yours." Anything was fair play from here on in, Dakin reckoned; Irwin'd started it. Dakin held his gaze and leaned in far enough to run a finger around the rim of Irwin's glass. "Couldn't have done it without you. You'd have liked this debate I was in last month -- I talked about Kneeshaw."

Heheheheh. Okay, I needed an excuse to bring this incident up, because it amused me and intrigued me in equal measures: all we hear is Dakin's anger and retrospective embarrassment, we don't hear Irwin's explanation for why he let Dakin do it. I have my own theories, obviously. As we will see!

He watched for it, the confusion melting into recognition. Irwin gave a startled laugh. "I can't believe you think that's worth bringing up, after all this time."

"I can't believe you let me mispronounce Nietzsche." Dakin shook his head. "And you my esteemed teacher, too."

"Oh, sod off," Irwin said comfortably.

"Kneeshaw. Jesus. That's when I knew."

"Knew?"

"That you were a bit of a right bastard, under it all. Letting me wank on and on about it -- why'd you do that, anyway? You were meant to be improving me, it wasn't like when you were being rude about my essays. At least that was useful."

Irwin looked down at Dakin's hand, which was now lingering in the no-man's-land between the two of them. Dakin quelled the twin urges to move it closer and to pull it away. "I know, it was my job to correct you, and -- I didn't. I don't know why."

For the longest time the 'I don't know' here was something a lot more specific, but Ji convinced me that there should be distinction between what WE know about characters and what they know about themselves. My theory is that this proof that Dakin wasn't as perfect and clever as he thought would it made have easier for Irwin (fighting his crush every step of the way) to hold onto his professionalism and also his ability to puncture Dakin's confidence.

Another lie, though God only knew what it was obscuring. Dakin raised his eyebrows. "But what if I'd slipped it into my interview? Mispronounced his name in front of the Magdalen panel? Very unprofessional of you."

"You would hardly have talked about nihilism at your interview, Dakin."

"I could have. That would've been daring of me, you'd have liked that."

"I'm only human." Irwin gave that asymmetrical smile he had, as though a memory had caught and amused him for a moment, surprised him into frankness. "But you, you were so sure of everything. It was like nobody had never said anything bad about you before I called you dull."

The memory that Irwin has awakened there is Dorothy telling him that the hardest thing for a teacher is to keep from telling your students that you're human. And yes, that bit about Dakin being sure of everything is that motive leaking out: Irwin's enjoyment of wielding power over Dakin.

"People said plenty of bad things about me."

"Bollocks. They were bad things you liked hearing. But hearing you weren't as clever as you thought -- that got under your skin."

This wasn't quite the kind of nostalgia Dakin was after. He drew both hands around his glass and found himself glaring; ruffled, already, and Irwin had barely had to try. "God, you really did get off on making me look a fool."

He'd been hoping to see the wording of that one hit a nerve, but Irwin just bounced it straight back. "Please, as if you weren't trying just as hard. Sitting there asking me questions about Auden and kissing students and all that, in front of the whole class. I was hardly the only one acting like a right bastard."

This is a clue to the fact that Irwin has grown, in the three years. He's not quite as easy to ruffle as he used to be.

Difficult to argue that one. Dakin faked an impressed look. "Admirable composure there, sir, on the word kissing."

Hahaha oh Dakin. Way to prove the point about being a right bastard.

Got him. Irwin glanced sideways, breaking eye contact, and took another gulp of his drink.

I was trying to work out where I'd used something similar to this, and I realised it was in the scene in Twelve Pater Nosters where Bruce finally finds the right emotional button to press: Rocked him. Rocked his world.

"I found out some more about Auden, actually," Dakin pressed. "Fell in love with a young creative type, then wrote spiteful poetry about the chap when he discovered that he'd cheated."

There was a whole lot of great stuff about Auden and Chester Kallman, and the effect that Kallman's betrayal had on the emotional subject matter of Auden's poetry, in the introduction to the copy of The Sea and The Mirror that I borrowed from the uni library. So I did the proper academic thing and pilfered it.

"Good poetry?"

"I suppose." Dakin tilted his body forward; a lesser step than the hands, but a reminder nonetheless. "Why?"

Irwin shrugged. "Talent and emotional distress are generally a good combination."

"I suppose," Dakin repeated. "But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is the fact that it was written at all." He stopped there, left the silence hanging like a promise.

This one Dakin has been planning. He brought this one with him, carefuly packed up behind the opening line about Auden, because he needed something new to hook Irwin's attention with.

The look Irwin wore as he finally looked back at Dakin was that of someone diving for a ball even though he knew that it was heading out of bounds and he'd ruin his chances at a penalty if he touched it. "Please," he said dryly, "do tell me why."

What? WHAT? I am allowed to talk in soccer metaphors when my POV character is an English bloke.

"Because it's not the things that happen that become history, but the things that are found out. If he'd never known of Kallman's infidelity then Auden wouldn't have written the poetry. The canon of our cultural imagination is built on the events that influenced our writers. And history's the same. It's just another layer of the subjunctive: what about the things that did happen, but have never been discovered? Or the narrative that history could have been if certain secrets had remained buried?"

Dakin gave another debater's pause: he inhaled, sipped his drink, and checked his opponent for any hint of triumph or frustration. Irwin didn't say anything, but his mouth did something ruefully pleased and magnetic.

This is the exact equivalent of the moment in the film where Dakin finishes his subjunctive-history spiel and there's a paaaaaause where Irwin stares at him and every fangirl in existence yells KISS! KISS NOW!

"I might have lied a bit, before," Dakin said immediately.

Dakin: *pounces triumphantly*

"Oh?"

"About the euphemisms. Or lack thereof."

"You -- still?" Irwin said, and then blinked, as though he hadn't meant to say that. "I mean --"

"You want more Auden? We must love one another or die."

Irwin shook his head; smiling, but only just. "Terrible. Terrible, Dakin, even for you."

Heh. I liked this part; Dakin's deliberately out-of-character sentimentality for the sole purpose of showing off, and Irwin's calling him out on it.

"How I've missed your scathing assessments of me, sir."

There it was again, that little stir of something in Irwin's face; Dakin had thought he'd imagined it, the first time. Dakin produced a Cheshire grin and, through force of academic habit, automatically extended his own metaphor as he spoke.

"Curiouser and curiouser."

Look, I can't help it, I write so much in speculative fandoms that as soon as I'm actually allowed literary references they just breed like bunnies.

"What is?"

"Nothing."

"Dakin."

You know exactly the tone of voice this was delivered in. Dakin. Ngggh.

"Got a bit of the old schoolboy fetish, do we, sir?"

The flush, swift, barely there but there, rose from Irwin's throat. "Don't be absurd."

It may be obvious at this point that 'Have I fuck blushed' is maybe my favourite line of Irwin's in the whole damn film.

"Would it have helped if I'd worn a tie?"

But he knew as soon as he said it that he'd yanked too hard. Irwin blinked twice and then stood, his body unfolding with surprising grace.

"I have to go."

"Bullshit you have to go." Dakin stood in his way without thinking about it, just doing what he usually did, using whatever advantages he thought he possessed. It took him a couple of unsettling seconds to refocus, to realise that meeting Irwin's gaze required him to lift his eyes.

"I have to go," Irwin repeated, more softly. "I have some notes to go over for tomorrow. But -- another drink. Same time. Friday?"

Irwin's thought process here is complicated. Enormously so. But Dakin hasn't managed to scare him off.

Simple proximity had never been enough to mess with Dakin's head before, but something was going on, because he couldn't work out whether Irwin's 'drink' had just been 'drink' or if it had been, well, drink, and he was damned if he'd ask for clarification.

"Good. Yes," he said, and stepped aside.

~

"What? You took him out for one drink and he didn't follow you home and ravish you immediately? How shall you live with the shame?" Scripps was using his declaiming-voice, composing dialogue as he spoke.

The annoying thing about Scripps, as far as Dakin is concerned, is that he says aloud the things that Dakin has secretly been thinking, and he says them in such a way that they stop being valid and become ridiculous instead.

"You can stop sounding so damn pleased with yourself," Dakin told him. "He had work to do -- I'm seeing him again on Friday."

"Yeah, I think I'd make sure I had work to do. If I were meeting you for a drink and I wasn't sure that I wanted anything else to happen."

OH SNAP.

"Scripps, you sly dog, I think that was a compliment. But he suggested the second drink, not me."

Silence. Dakin removed a mutilated pencil from his mouth and started drawing nonsense on the back of some case summaries, waiting.

The pencil again!

"D'you remember," Scripps said finally, "Le Dernier Métro? One of those endings we did for Hector, Posner doing Catherine Deneuve practically better than la grande dame herself, the final scene beginning with two characters trying to pick up where they left off years ago. One of them convinced it would work -- j'essayais de vous oublier, je n'ai pas pu -- and the other one saying no. That it was never anything real to begin with: une idée abstraite."

Oh man. If you only knew what I went through trying to get that French. My DVD of Le Dernier Métro has English subtitles only, and their translation misses a few things, so I had to keep replaying the final scene over and over (they speak so damn FAST) in order to catch what was actually being said. I really only wanted the stuff mentioned above, the bits relevant to the idea of meeting again after years apart, but I was lucky: I also managed to dig up the 'et pourquoi mentir?' line that I immediately appropriated for use in the service of my lies/lying theme.

It's a great film, by the way. I recommend it.


"How the fuck do you remember all that?" Dakin demanded, as though he didn't wake up with frustrating scraps of poetry swimming through his mind, even now.

"Words," Scripps said, tight. "I remember words. Couldn't tell you how Posner and Lockwood looked as they said them, or how they said them, but I remember what they said. Anyway. That's not the point."

"Do enlighten me as to the point."

"You know damn well what my point was."

"Hang on," because his mind was dredging something up, now, "Le Dernier Métro, I do remember. That twist at the end."

A wry laugh from Scripps. "I was hoping you'd have forgotten that part."

"Depardieu gets out of his wheelchair, Deneuve comes back onstage --"

"Yes, it was all a dream," Scripps drawled.

"An act." Dakin smirked at the desk, gazing down at his own doodles. "It was all an act."

WELL OKAY I JUST SPOILED THE ENDING FOR YOU. But the ending is only a tiny part in a complicated and interesting and very entertaining film, so you should watch it anyway.

"Well, you'd know."

A gentle dig at the fact that Dakin, to a large extent, is a performer in the fascinating history of his own life. Or so he likes to think. Really, you only have to watch any of the scenes in Hector's or Irwin's classes to know that all of the Boys (and Dakin in particular) are incorrigible performers.

Another of those silences into which, Dakin knew, they were both smiling.

"Abstract nothing. This is something I need to do," he said eventually.

"Yes, or it seems you'll be insufferable about it for another three years, God help us all." Scripps let his voice deepen. "My blessings upon you, my son. Now sod off and let the rest of us carry on with our own lives, tragically free of homosexual adventures though they may be."

"Does that mean you don't want to hear about it, when it happens?"

"Don't be an arse," Scripps said. "Of course I want to hear about it."

"I shall expect a full report." :))))

Dakin laughed and hung up.

~

"Where did we get up to last time? Oh yes: the prospect of something more than a drink."

Irwin paused with his glass descending from his lips. "You don't waste time."

"Wasted almost three years, didn't I?"

He doesn't mean that literally, obviously. He's being glib. But the reason he's here, now, is because a large part of him DOES consider the fact that he and Irwin never went for that drink to be a waste of opportunity, a waste of potential. Irwin is smart enough to realise this, but nervous enough to wilfully misunderstand:

"Listen to the boy. Three years at Oxford and he calls it a waste."

"Don't go changing the subject on me, Irwin."

Irwin's hands slid around the glass, his fingertips linking lightly on the side nearest Dakin. A few drops of condensation hit the barrier of his uppermost finger and began to build up, gathering the weight needed to fall off the glass and slide down his skin. Dakin realised that he was staring, and then realised that despite the invitation he'd not used Irwin to address him aloud before.

"Why are you still interested in -- this?"

The first version of this line included another sentence: the pause where Irwin decided not to say 'me' was audible. I decided that it was a bit too obvious; if I did my job right, then the pause indicated by the dash should convey the 'me' on its own.

Anyway, this is Irwin's intense insecurity (most canonically illustrated, when it comes to Dakin, by his need to enquire 'does it matter?' when Dakin found out about the lies) poking its head above surface again. Because Irwin is still -- still -- unsure why someone as attractive and can-have-anyone as Dakin should want him.


"Do I need a reason? You're an unsolved mystery. You're a dropped stitch -- oh, fuck off," in response to Irwin's raised eyebrows, "I had a girl who spoke fluent knitting, all right -- drove me bloody bonkers, but she kept making me gloves, that was handy; fucking freezing, Magdalen in winter."

I love that I can just picture this girl sitting on Dakin's bed knitting and chattering away while Dakin drapes his legs over her lap and reads a textbook.

"History's full of dropped stitches," Irwin said.

"Mine isn't," Dakin said bluntly; sure of this, if nothing else. "I only drop the things I intend to drop. Like Introduction to Jacobean bloody Literature --"

Again: Dakin's need to be the one in control. He doesn't like things to happen to him. He likes to happen to others; he likes to think of himself as his own agent.

"And people."

"You've caught me." He raised his hands, going for melodrama, speaking truth. "I don't do the long haul."

"Not yet, perhaps." It was too wry, too academic, to be an offer.

"So everyone grows up and wants a cosy little partnership eventually, is that what you believe?" Dakin frowned. "How can you be a student of history and still believe in a shared human nature?"

This is actually what my GAMSAT argumentative essay was on. The existence or otherwise of a shared human nature. I was arguing on Dakin's side, for the record, though I was talking an enormous amount of attractive bullshit, that being all I could manage when I had only half an hour between viewing the topic and having to move on to the next essay.

"How can you be a student of history and not?" Irwin leaned forward, his face coming alive. "All these patterns we see repeated, all these conflicts and alliances and important events with their roots in such small, terribly, vitally human decisions. We can't learn from the past unless we accept that people will be brave, and people will be selfish, and people will keep tending to act like people."

"You're doing it again." Dakin found himself smiling.

"Sorry?"

"Teaching. Giving your passion to all the wrong things."

This, of course, is a callback to Dakin pointing out the discrepancies between the Irwin we see in the classroom -- articulate and challenging and fast -- and the person he becomes when touched too closely by emotional confrontation.

A quick smile, not quite comfortable. "I am a teacher."

"Not mine -- not here. You were my teacher." A satisfying moment in his mind, like the final note of a chord joining the others. The moment of delivering a strong argument; or something that sounded strong, which he knew that they they both knew was often the same thing. "What about your insistence on distancing ourselves from the recent past? Why shouldn't we be able to talk about it as easily as we talk about the inevitability of Caesar's assassination?"

Turning points. This is one of them, at least as far as this story's concerned. This is when Dakin knows he's won.

"You --" Irwin stopped. Began again. "You're determined to throw my own words at me until I agree to something, aren't you?"

"You know me." Dakin looked away and then back, warm and abrupt. "Give me the slightest prompt and I'll start rewriting les didascalies."

The conversation went something like this:

Me: I want to play with the fact that Irwin has a better French vocabulary than everyone else! Do you have an obscure word that you've been looking for an excuse to air?
Ji: YES I DO

And it is indeed a lovely word. I just needed some way to use it. Luckily, I had Le Dernier Metro on hand to provide the background both in terms of life-as-performance, and the use of French in the context of this theme.

...sometimes I wonder if I overthink these things just a tad.


Fuck, that hadn't been dropped as casually as he'd intended. Irwin gave him a knowing look, taking up the challenge.

"Stage directions. From the Greek διδασκαλια," he added, a hint of smugness creeping across his face.

"Fuck you," Dakin said, grinning. Jesus. As ever, impossible to win with Irwin if you played it on his terms; he'd have to cheat. "I've got a question for you."

What Dakin is trying to do there is compensate, years later, for the remembered sting of the Kneeshaw incident. His failure strings, but it does heighten his respect for Irwin even further.

"Of course you do."

"Was I the only one? Or just the first? Was I your first sip from the bottle, did you see me in other boys who took the piss in class and were too clever for their own good? Or was I a unique experience?"

The first time I typed that paragraph it had the words 'gateway drug' in it. But that seemed anachronistic or culturally wrong or something, so I altered it.

Interestingly, I haven't quite made up my mind about whether Irwin is meant to be presented as gay or not. Considering Hector it seems statistically improbable, if nothing else, and you DO get the impression that Dakin is a Special Case. Honestly I think Irwin's got a strong but severely repressed sex drive, such that it takes quite a lot of effort or stimulation for it to emerge. But when it does, it does so dramatically :D More on that later.

Dakin is nothing if not stimulating, certainly.


Irwin looked at him for a long time, more inscrutable than Dakin could remember him ever being.

"What?"

"Nothing." Irwin laughed the end of the word. "I'm trying to decide which answer would please your ego more, so I can withhold it."

This was one of the first exchanges I wrote. I remain fond of it.

"How about the truth? Dull and unoriginal though it may be."

"You weren't -- what I had expected." He was choosing his words with obvious care, back to taking refuge in caution. "I was prepared for lazy minds, faculty politics, an uphill struggle towards something I'd lied about ever achieving for myself. But not you. And in the end I managed to convince myself you hadn't meant it."

This is another section that I probably shouldn't have laid out as clearly as I did, but...it needed to be said, and as I wasn't touching Irwin's POV, it needed to be said aloud. The important part is the last sentence, because...

"Liar," Dakin said, pleased. Irwin hadn't answered the question, but then he hadn't really cared about the answer. This was better.

Irwin's flush returned, just enough for it to be visible. "Fine. I know -- I knew you meant it, but it was easier to think otherwise. I was fairly convinced you were offering out of -- intellectual curiosity, perhaps, or a misguided kind of pity, but the problem then was convincing myself to care enough."

...it shows a particular kind of deliberate doublethink on Irwin's part. He was lying to Dakin there, yes, but only because he uses that lie on himself. Most of he time he doesn't believe it (because Dakin made his interest very clear indeed) but he can't kill the lie. Because he has terrible self esteem. Because it makes the fact that he never looked Dakin up after the motorcycle accident -- and vice versa -- forgivable.

The stuff he says after the flush, that's the truth. Mostly.


"Enough to refuse?"

A nod.

"But you didn't."

"Oh yes I did." He looked amused. "You just kept pushing past it, like the cocky bastard you probably still are."

Dakin leaned in; delivered it like a checkmate. "And you said yes. You said yes to me once. And we've been talking around the topic for ages, now, but I notice you haven't ever redacted it."

"The lion's mouth," Irwin said, absent, as though a stray thought had escaped through his open lips.

I love that the characters in this canon are the type to do this; to have a thought awaken a reference and to get lost following it up.

"What?"

He started, a little; flushed again. Now they were getting somewhere. Dakin reached out and touched Irwin's forearm with his fingertips, a very deliberate action.

I haven't really talked about the physicality of this fic, which grew directly out of my obsession with the physicality of these characters in the film. In my many rewatches I kept analysing their body language, more and more closely, admiring how much the actors managed to cram into little things like smiles and inclines of the torso. I think I included more pendantic description of actions and body positions that I usually would, when writing this fic, because it seemed so important to correctly convey my very distinct mental images of how their bodies related to one another. How they fit into space.

This is why the fic became pornier than I expected, I'm starting to realise: for a fandom that puts so much stock in ideas and words, I was surprised at how much of their dynamic ended up needing to be illustrated through physical means.


"Go on," he said.

Irwin cleared his throat. "Auden again, since you seemed so fond of him. The Sea and the Mirror. Do you know it?"

"Not really."

"...but how
Shall we satisfy when we meet,
Between Shall-I and I-Will,
The lion's mouth whose hunger
No metaphors can fill?
"

Gnnnnghhgfhslkdj isn't that PERFECT? 'Between Shall-I and I-Will' is the best description of Irwin's hesitation I can possibly imagine. And the idea of a hunger that can't be satisfied by metaphor; it's that physicality again, the admission that for all their clever talk and intellectual banter, there's something less noble but more interesting at work. Some aspect to their desire that has nothing to do with scoring points or getting attention or being smart. This is the realisation that Irwin made three years ago, but that Dakin is still in the process of making now. It's the realisation that will make it impossible (in combination with the I-thou thing) for him to refer to anything related to Irwin as 'just a wank'.

"My, my, Professor Irwin. Hector would be proud." But Dakin heard the flimsiness of his own mockery. Irwin was watching him steadily and had been ever since he began to recite, his mouth supple and honest around the words. Hunger, yes -- Dakin knew how to elicit that. And he could recognise it, now that he looked properly: the familiar helplessness bleeding away into a keen awareness of distance. The impression not that Irwin would reach out and touch him, but that the space between them was so volatile as to be dangerous.

So. Yes. This is the beginning of that realisation...

Just silence, just observation, for the span of three breaths. And then something much smaller than history tipped over the balance and Dakin needed to know what it would take for Irwin's intelligent hesitance to shatter completely, what sounds he would make when it did, what he would look like unwound and uncautious on Dakin's sheets. Every tiny part of his body ached with the need to know. Hunger was exactly the right fucking word.

...and this is its first turning point. There's another to come.

I was quite proud of that phrasing, by the way, something much smaller than history. It shows that Dakin recognises this as a turning point and has also forgotten to think in grand metaphors; his reference point now is the confines of his own skin.

Also, adding un- to pretty much anything is the best fun ever. Uncautious! How good a word is that?


Dakin bit down on his own lip, hard, and then spoke.

"You want direct? No metaphors? Fine. Will you come home with me?"

A silence, not very long, and then --

"I will," Irwin said.

It had to be phrased that way. Obviously. This is the moment of moving from Shall-I to -- quite literally -- I-Will.

~

(part two)
Tags: the history boys, writing: commentary
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