WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS
Chloe arrived for our meeting half-an-hour late.
Following all that happened afterwards, this unpredictable element was hardly surprising, but at the time I knew nothing much about her. Of course I’d taught her during her first two years on the psychology degree, along with a few hundred other undergraduates half my age. And yes, I was aware of the brighter students – Chloe had maintained an average A-minus coming into her final academic term and was well-positioned to gain first-class honours – but as I wasn’t her personal tutor, other contact had been minimal.
This was why I was surprised when she’d put in a request for me to supervise her dissertation. As far as I was aware, having checked out her latest module choices, she was interested in psychodynamic aspects of our subject – Freud and his devout followers – while I specialised more in the social realms of experience. But I realised that other issues were important when youngsters chose who they’d like to support them through this critical aspect of their courses, and that perceived compatibility was often uppermost among them.
When she entered my office that day, she looked a bit nervous, but, despite her good looks – long blonde hair, slender figure, fresh face which needed no makeup; in her early twenties, she’d surely never lacked others’ attention – I didn’t attach much significance to that. Indeed, I could remember my own first meeting with my supervisor twenty years earlier as an undergraduate. I realised this could sometimes become an intimate relationship, but, when conducted professionally, it remained only an intellectual engagement, a coming together of jaded old master and bright young thing. I’d been doing this kind of work for over a decade now – nearly as long as my solid marriage – and had never felt a need to tackle it in any other way.
At my invitation, Chloe sat in a chair opposite my own, a few yards from my paper-stacked desk under the only window in the room, which looked right across the city. At the heart of this informal meeting area was a small table bearing drink-making facilities – powdered milk, a bag of sugar, assorted herbal teabags my wife had bought in an attempt to wean me off my beloved brain-stimulating coke – but I rarely used them. Nevertheless, they’d always offered me an effective way of putting newcomers at their ease, using a little self-disparagement to lighten the tone.
“I’d make you a drink,” I said, lifting one of several cups from the table whose interior bore many brown stains. Then, smiling as warmly as I could, I showed this to my visitor. “But as you can see, hygiene isn’t exactly my forte.”
The young woman – as pretty as some flower yet to fully blossom, as if she’d grown up in the shade – eventually smiled back, raising one hand from a notebook, which, after sitting, she’d removed from a pocket of her serviceably smart dress.
“That’s okay. I’m not thirsty anyway,” she said, her first words to me tender and strained, the way I imagined someone easily hurt might communicate. But other than my experiences of growing up in a very different era, what did I know about youths? I had no children of my own, despite recent activity at home on my wife’s part to alter that crucial fact.
Distracted only briefly by non-work-related issues, I soon got down to business with Chloe, asking her about her research interests and whether she’d settled yet on a topic for her dissertation. During all my years as a lecturer, I’d always found this the best way to get to know a supervisee: simply stick to the reason she or he was here. If things clicked and it looked like the relationship was likely to work, everything else – private issues concerning personal lives – would be addressed if they needed to be. Sometimes they did, other times they didn’t. As far as I was concerned, I was happy to maintain respectful boundaries but also cool if students wanted to get a little closer.
Following a brief preamble about Chloe’s academic interests – despite finding his work difficult to read, she was a fan of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan – she started outlining a potential project, simultaneously consulting notes she’d clearly made before today’s first session. I was impressed – ordinarily students rolled up with a sheepish shrug but little else – and yet also surprised by her choice of subject matter.
“I live in a small village called Pasturn, just north of Leeds,” she explained, her former reticence lifting and her voice becoming enthusiastic – almost passionate. “My mum and I moved there about four years ago, after…well, after my parents’ messy divorce. Anyway, the point is that on one side of this place is some dense woodland, which appears to have attracted what we might call a…rural legend.”
I was intrigued, but not necessarily in my role as a tutor seeking to keep a student’s dissertation plans focused and realistic. There’s just something about such material – folklore, myths, and the like – that instantly grabs our attention, isn’t there? With no lectures to deliver that morning and extra time to spare, I leaned back in my chair and asked Chloe to continue.
“Well, it’s about a man who once lived in the woods and had all these weird children,” she went on, clearly now in her element. “He got them by seducing passersby – young women, I mean – and then snatching their infants once they’d given birth. He was supposed to have lived – oh, centuries ago, I think, but I’m not sure; I need to look into that yet. But what’s significant is the way he did it: brewed special potions and got the victims to drink them, which always made him look, instead of just a strange old man, like some kind of handsome prince.
“And the most important thing is,” Chloe said, with an air of finality, of driving home her points, “some residents think he still lives there, in those woods, along with all his ill-gotten offspring. The children’s spirits, I guess they mean. Their ghosts.”
“Okay, hold on a moment,” I said, raising a forefinger to mark the pause. Then, once I had her attention – she looked at me with large blue eyes, sheens of fragile moisture occupying both – I added, “While I admit that all this sounds interesting, I guess I’m struggling to see how it might lend itself to a project drawing upon psychological theory and methods.”
She hesitated, looking at her notes, or maybe even through the pad on her lap. I didn’t get the impression that she was seeking further assistance from earlier thoughts, rather that she was trying to evade my gaze altogether. But then, after a brief twitch of her head like some kind of nervous affliction, she spoke again.
“I suppose I’m interested in why the community has chosen this particular person as its bogeyman. I mean, what is it about the village that makes that specific issue…” – she paused again, as if needing to draw in a breath, but only for as long as it took to take one – “…what is it that makes young women being exploited like this such a concern that it needs codifying in the form of a legend?”
I nodded slowly, now seeing how a project might emerge from this issue, but also realising how fraught with ethical considerations it could be. Chloe was possibly proposing a survey or even a series of interviews with Pasturn’s residents about this rural legend and how it played out in their daily lives. It could certainly be interesting, if tending towards the sociological side of academia.
But in truth just then, I was more intrigued by the reason for Chloe’s interest in this topic. In my experience, enthusiastic students, the ones who exhibited an engagement with their work similar to what she’d just demonstrated, usually had some personal reason for investigating particular topics. And I wondered what hers was here.
I didn’t ask her directly, however; it was much too soon for that, and perhaps always would be. We were tutor and undergraduate, and not therapist and patient, let alone father and daughter. Instead, I simply continued playing Devil’s advocate, putting up barriers for her to knock down. The brightest, most eager students always managed to do so.
“Okay, let’s say for a moment that you chose to carry out your crucial final-year project on the psychology of communal legends.” I looked at her fixedly, refusing to let her gaze stray from mine. “What sources of data would you plan to draw upon?”
Now Chloe seemed to be on firmer ground. “I’ve already spoken to several people in my street,” she said, the smile I’d spotted earlier resurfacing. “It seems that lots of folk living in the village are aware of this man, who’s called…uh, I mean, who was called Donald Deere.”
Something about the man’s moniker – those solemnly alliterative D-sounds, that ostensibly inappropriate term-of-endearment surname – made me feel uncomfortable for a moment, despite early autumn sunlight cutting in through my window. Perhaps it was the way my new supervisee now held my gaze, as if the power relation between us – if indeed this had been the basis of her previous reserve – had just been subtly inverted.
“Okay, so you have evidence from a number of neighbours,” I said, trying to regain control of the episode by using a lecture-toughened voice. “But you’ll need much more than a few anecdotal accounts to inform a solid study.”
“That’s only true of statistical survey-based work, isn’t it?” She looked at me some more, clearly knowing exactly what she was talking about, which was knowledge I’d been fishing for anyway. “With interview and documentary type research, don’t we go for depth rather than quantity?”
This was all good enough for me; having admirably defended her methodological approach – she clearly planned to conduct interviews with people carefully selected for inclusion in the project, as well as performing a review of associated materials – I decided that her idea might actually result in an original project. Indeed, allowing her to pursue what she was obviously enthused about would be a positive move. In the past, scorers of high grades under my tutelage had been those not only with ability but also with some stake in their research, a private agenda that made the work so much more enjoyable and compulsive for them – for me, too, if I’m being honest.
“Right, you’ve sold me,” I said, now dropping the interrogatory routine and becoming something like a normal human again. Toying with intellectually insecure youngsters was always quite wicked, but I was also here to nurture them. “It’s early days yet. Why don’t you go away and see what else you can find out about this topic, maybe pull together a few documents for us to review at our next meetings. Then we can think about how we might proceed.”
The prospect of further one-to-one supervision seemed to appeal to Chloe, whose face brightened as soon as I’d mentioned future sessions. During the first and second years of a degree, university was much like a school for adults, with many lectures and group discussions, but little personal tuition. This was why smart students tended to come on stronger in their last years: because they received the kind of individual attention from which every young person could benefit, if only they showed sufficient interest.
When Chloe rose to leave, she looked a lot happier than she had just after her arrival, as if I’d endorsed a furtive wish she harboured or maybe even shared one of her secrets. At any rate, that’s certainly my impression now, and you know, I even think it might have been back then, too. Within the space of twenty minutes, she’d moved from being guardedly glum and to being radiantly hopeful. Indeed, in light of what happened so soon afterwards, I’m sure her wide smile was based on more than what she added before exiting my office that day, leaving me alone with unusually disrupted thoughts.
“I’ve already made a start,” she said, snapping shut her notebook and clearly alluding to my previous comment about beginning to look into the case of the centuries-old philanderer Donald Deere. “In fact, I’m aware of somebody in the village who claims to have met him.”
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