Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

The Problem with Ghosts…

Nobody wanted to admit it for the longest time, not even to themselves. Nobody wanted to speak of the problem, for of course once you have given a worry words, you give it a shape to see it by. But in the end, there it was; somebody had to admit it – the Master may have gotten out of hand.

It had been fun at first; the novelty of having a ghost for a Master, of having doors helpfully open themselves when your hands are full, or some invisible force catching your mug before it smashed on the paving stones after you mis-judged the distance from the corner.

Oh yes, everyone had smiled to each other when the Bursar had been chased around the second quadrangle by a bike with no rider – all except the Bursar of course, who saw no humour in the event at all. Especially not after the third incident (Margaret being on holiday at the time, everyone agreed that the prank must be played for all it was worth.) Having one’s own ghost is marvellous … for the first few weeks…

Ch.5 - The Problem with Ghosts - small

The first sign of trouble (once one discounted the Bursar’s feelings on the subject) came in the form of whispers from the librarians in the Bodleian Library.

Devon College had taken the unanimous, if entirely undiscussed, decision to tell no one about Professor Richards’ … Alternative State of Being; it being so unusual a state of affairs that no one in truth knew quite how to broach the matter. It was not the sort of thing one announced in the papers, or circulated throughout the mailing lists after all, and what would other people think?

So we cannot be altogether surprised that the librarians were becoming increasingly, well, startled to lock up their reading rooms and stacks and stores with everything neatly organised and all the books away in their proper places… only to find as they came in come the morning to find piles and piles of books spread out across one long stretch of desk! They were spread out as if some researcher had been hard at work in a flurry of inspiration, but there had certainly been no one left in the building after closing time.

The librarians were completely perplexed! They searched the security footage, but could find nothing. They spoke to the security guards, but there was no sign of a break in.(Security had been very much strengthened last year after three students had gone mad with the stress of the Finals and had broken in for some last-minute cramming at two-in-the-morning, so they were Very Sure that they were sure of this!)

After a week or so of such puzzlement, they heard that other libraries had been experiencing just such a problem themselves. It became the talk of Oxford! And the people of Devon College knew only too well who was likely to be to blame for such industrious nights after dark, but they did not feel at all that they could say anything. No one wishes to have to explain to their colleagues that they have allowed their ghost to get out of hand, after all.

And besides, they all thought to themselves, and to each other, although no one uttered a word aloud in case of being overheard, Margaret would be back soon from her holiday. It was best to leave the Master in Margaret’s hands, after all…

*

The second sign of trouble was internal to the college, but this was not considered to be an improvement at all, as such things never are when we must endure them ourselves instead of through others.

Those of an uncharitable mentality might have thought to themselves that were Sarah, the Bursar’s PA, not so very prone to screaming, the Master would have soon tired of the game of striding purposefully out of the wall whenever she walked past. If she had not come into work laden with crucifixes and amulets and all sorts of paraphernalia which must have raised all kinds of Looks from the New Age shops on Cowley Road, Professor Richards would have had nothing with which to make wind-chimes to clatter around when no windows were open to stir a breeze in her office. Professor Richards simply did not Hold with such Newfangled Nonsense as charms, and seemed to consider the various paraphernalia of occult symbols as a personal insult.

Sarah felt that having a head poke out of her filing cabinet when she was trying to work was a professional insult. The feud was building at a rate not seen since the Holmes and Nottingbury Quarrel of ’64. The College Steward was giving serious thought to opening a book for the more sporting-minded.

The Chaplain however was a kindly man, and he tried his best to be A Comfort to her.

‘Sarah, don’t you think that you might be over-reacting a little to the Master? It isn’t as if he really needs to enter through the door these days is it? And it isn’t as though he could, or ever would,’ he hastened to emphasise when Sarah burst into tears again and Richards glared daggers at him from out of his hiding place in the filing cabinet, ‘hurt you in any way Sarah, please do calm down! The Master is only trying to get used to his New Outlook on the World and we must allow him to come to terms with everything must we not?’

‘It isn’t as though I would ever invade a person’s privacy or cross any boundaries! It was only a shortcut, and I even helped gather her papers after she dropped them!’ Richards muttered after dinner that night.

He was vaguely aware that he may be sulking… just a little bit.

Were the other members of the Senior Common Room to give their honest opinions, they might have at first expressed surprise that Richards had given the matter any thought at all. But after a moment’s reflection, they also would have acknowledged that this was unfair. Professor Richards was a man with a Vision, and in possession of his fair share of faults like anyone else, but regard for his fellow humans, care for the safety and well-being of all and dedication to welcoming as a many as he possibly could into his world-view (sensible or not) was a driving force of his life and, as far as they had seen, this strange time thereafter as well.

‘If you ask me,’ the Senior Tutor murmured to the Farthingbury Fellow the following day, ‘the man’s probably got a few bruised feelings from the way the woman keeps screaming at the poor chap whenever she sees him. Got to be a bit of a blow to the old feelings, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Undoubtedly. But on the other hand, it is rather unsettling when he comes right through a perfectly good wall when you don’t expect it,’ the Farthingbury Fellow allowed.

He had himself only just recovered from a nasty shock of the Master doing likewise to him only the day before. The Master had been trying to follow an interesting carving in the reused stones of the Old Library walls and inadvertently taken a left-turn instead of a right, leading into his colleague’s office. His unprepared host had stopped in the act of shelves some journals when movement caught the corner of his eye and in his surprise had flung his copy of the British Journal straight through the startled ghost’s head! The Farthingbury Fellow had a suspicion that he would be paying for that indignity for some time to come…

‘Yes, I understand that, I do,’ the Senior Fellow acknowledged, ‘but there’s been plenty of time to get used to him by now, I should think! One would think anyone who can deal with the Bursar on Governing Body days would find one ghost child’s play though, really one would.’

In the end, Sarah did become somewhat acclimatised to having an incorporeal colleague, but she would not forgive him so easily for the frights he had given her.

It was often the custom in the college, when one of the PAs went of holiday, for the other to cover her most pressing duties in her absence. The system had worked well over the years, although neither liked to impose on the other for very long. Nevertheless, although Sarah would consent to collect Professor Richards’ post and take his calls, she would do nothing else for him until he had made her amends,

‘Especially for repeatedly hiding in my filing cabinets simply to avoid the Bursar when he’s pressing you for a decision about the colour-scheme for the redecoration of the Harris Room. You know perfectly well that you are too old for this sort of childish nonsense, Professor!’

Richards himself was a very independent man, who disliked having another assist him in his work. Margaret did not count, of course, as she required little or no direction at all, and frequently gave the impression that she was not so much working with the Master as performing a strangely administration-focused conjuring trick to make files, forms and photocopies appear, disappear and reappear without any effort at all. Therefore when Sarah had made her declaration that he was to expect no assistance beyond what was necessary – ‘I can’t leave Margaret with any unpleasant surprises when she comes back after all, she’d never take leave again, poor soul,’ – Richards had been entirely unconcerned. He could look after himself perfectly well, and how hard could those tasks usually performed by Margaret be, after all?

The rest of the college, however, soon learned that concern can be experienced quite vicariously indeed…

*

Like many of the colleges in Oxford, Devon College had engaged EasilyInked™ to service and repair their photocopiers and printers. The contract was a simple one, and they were rarely called out more than three times a term.

For some reason the last two weeks had been one unending string of catastrophes.

‘What on earth happened this time?’ Eric wailed as he took in the electrical sparking, the wisps of smoke and the piles of chewed up paper strewn around the machine. It was a sorry sight, and Eric wasn’t very sure that he wanted to get any closer to it. He whipped out his camera anyway – the guys back at work needed to see this to understand his pain…

‘Well…’ Luke, the College Office Assistant who was usually the bearer of bad news to the copier engineers, tried to find the words, ‘it’s not really, I mean, there’s this new professor, well he’s not really new as such, he was here when I got here, but his assistant’s on holiday and-‘

He waved a hand helplessly at the carnage before them. ‘He’s trying to be self-reliant.’ Luke finished, looking a little out of his depth.

Eric sighed and got out his tool kit; this promised to be … educational.

‘Can’t anyone else do his copying for him?’

Luke shrugged. ‘He upset the other assistant who’s helping him and she refused for a while, and now he’s saying that he’s sure he’ll get the hang of it if he just keeps trying and he won’t let anyone else do it for him.’ Luke shot Eric another helpless look from under his fringe. ‘He likes learning new things, I guess?’

Eric rolled his eyes. ‘Any chance he could take up a different hobby?’

Luke flashed a grin full of schadenfreude.

‘He’s also getting very interested in computer coding. We had to send the whole IT office out to the pub before they resorted to violence.’

Eric snorted, then regretted it when the copier retaliated by spraying him in the face with ink.

‘His assistant’s back on Monday. We just need to keep him distracted until then.’

Eric plunged his arms to the elbows into the belly of the beast. ‘Give her my best. And don’t let her leave for a while.’

‘Fat chance of that!’

*

So, it was clear that something needed to be done, but the problem – as is often the case when there is a general problem and an unpleasant solution – was that no one really knew what to do.

It was of course lovely to see Professor Richards continuing to enjoy …life… to the fullest, but he had no need to sleep, and endless curiosity, and he played merry hell with anything electrical, and- and- and no one wanted to be the one to tell Margaret that an entire college couldn’t look after it’s Master.

The problem with complaining to people like Margaret is that they are very good at solving problems. All problems. Including the ones you didn’t actually want to be fixed.

One fellow had demanded (fresh from a sabbatical abroad and doubtless, in the minds of the Governing Body, feverish from some tropical disease) that the papers for college meetings must go out several days earlier for a meeting than was habitual. For greater efficiency of course.

Margaret had not even flinched. She had not argued. She did not so much as frown, not even once.

That fellow now only dines at the very start or the very end of serving times in college, because his colleagues continue to blame him for being … encouraged… to write their papers a whole week before the meeting (to allow for collation and circulation before the five-day-deadline) or face the public humiliation of submitting A Tabled Paper. The Bursar had been heard to bemoan the fact that public pillories were now banned in the city, and was possibly still working on an exemption clause.

Still, someone needed to speak to Margaret; things could not continue as they were! She may only have returned one hour ago, but if they did not Broach the Matter soon then the window of opportunity would be closed!

The Chaplain refused to go without the Bursar; the Bursar refused to go without the Dean; and the Dean refused to go without at least two fellows, but at last the delegation was assembled.

‘Margaret?’ The Chaplain tentatively stuck his head around the office door. ‘I wonder if we might have a word?’

*

Lizzy McMeakins had worked at the Bodleian library for so long that despite the role of ‘Bodley’s Librarian’ belonging to another, everybody of any sense at all considered the wide-ranging estate of the Bodleian Libraries to be hers and no one else’s. Like all women of long, invisible and indispensable service, she had known Margaret of Devon College for years and their schemes, influence and friendship can only be imagined.

Lizzy was surprised when Margaret rang her before lunch to ask her if she would like to pop over for a cup of tea. It wasn’t that Margaret was unfriendly during working hours, but she preferred to have these little chats after hours, in a cosy café somewhere where they might take their time.

‘I’m sorry for the rush, Lizzy, but would you mind awfully coming over to my place?’

‘Not at all, I’d love to see how the garden’s coming along now you have the new gardener.’ That must be it, Lizzy thought. Something simple like that.

When she arrived however, Margaret lead her straight through her own office and into the Master’s study. Lizzy was not a fanciful woman, and she was not prone to hysterics, so her response to seeing Professor Richards’ pale floating form as it hung in a sheepish manner and avoided meeting Margaret’s stern glare was nothing more than a small gasp before dropping quickly into the chair provided.

‘Thank you for coming over, Lizzy.’ Margaret began, handing over her tea and eyeing Professor Richards over the rims of her glasses with considerable disapproval. ‘I understand that you have been having some difficulties these past few weeks?’

Lizzy was completely lost. ‘Difficulties, Margaret?’

‘Items moved around, total disorder in the index cards and printers with mangled paper or spewing ink, that sort of thing, was it not?’

Professor Richards was now looking in a considering manner at the windows, clearly wondering if he might make a break for it.

‘How did you know?’ Lizzy was amazed – Margaret hadn’t even been in town, this really had to be some new record for the old girl!

‘Hmm.’ Margaret inclined her regal head in an understanding nod. ‘Quite. I’m afraid that the Master has something to say to you.’ Her tone sharpened as she addressed the contrite spectre. ‘Doesn’t he?’

‘Yes, Margaret.’ Lizzy had never heard someone over the age of seventy sound so contrite. He looked at her very sorrowfully. ‘I’m very sorry for making a mess of your library, Mrs McMeakins.’

‘And?’

‘And I should have asked you before entering your library after hours. And when I ran into difficulties with your equipment I should have owned up at once and not left it for someone else to deal with.’

And?

Professor Richards flinched slightly but bravely continued, all earnest eyes which reminded Lizzy remarkably of her seven year-old nephew. ‘And I fully understand that the index cards are sacrosanct and that I will never meddle in your systems, no matter how sure I am that I understand them. I will ask for assistance like everyone else. I am very sorry for the distress that I have caused to everyone and have learned my lesson.’

Lizzy managed to hold in her smile as she accepted the professor’s apologies and assured him that the library would be very happy to assist the Master of Devon College in his research and that he could make arrangements for after-hours working so as not to disturb the researchers.

Professor Richards looked pleased and reassured, before shooting a tentative look out of the corner of one eye at his assistant. Margaret nodded.

‘Well done, Professor. Now off you go to your meeting with the Bursar, I understand that he will benefit greatly from your thoughts on the new decorations for the Quarrel Room, will he not?’

The Master’s shoulders sank briefly, before he pulled them back again, raised his chin and declared,

‘Yes, yes of course! I have been giving the matter some Considerable Thought, you know Margaret, and I feel that the Bursar will be very happy to hear them! Indeed, the poor man seems to have been quite Lost at Sea about the whole thing…’

He bustled out happily enough, still holding forth on the importance of a properly coordinated colour scheme and why one Simply Could Not cut corners with curtains and expect future felicity to be attainable.

Lizzy drank her tea in wonder; she would never doubt Margaret’s ability to train anyone or anything ever again…

Missed a chapter? First time you’ve encountered the Ghosts & Gowns series? Never fear! Find the whole series here.

Author:

Writer. Crafter. Nerd.

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