It was said in the old days that evil spirits couldn’t walk the earth on Christmas Eve. I suppose that the coming of Jesus was such a holy time that no evil could stand it. Regardless, this gave rise to the tradition that Christmas Eve night was the time to tell your friends and family your very scariest ghost stories, and still go to bed safe in the knowledge that all the terrifying ghosts and ghouls you’d been talking about couldn’t get you this night.
I can’t say that this ghost story is especially scary, but I wanted to honour that tradition by giving everyone a new chapter of the Ghosts & Gowns series for you to enjoy!
If this is your first encounter with Ghost & Gowns, it may not make sense. Check out the first instalment – Life is Compulsory, Death is Optional.
The front quadrangle of Devon College looks very much like any other – it is a square of pale stone, lined with countless windows and doors leading to the wisdom of the ages (or food if one is luckier.) One wall is broken up by the sort of enormous ornate wooden door which could only have been sensible in some part of history when undergraduates were the size of giants.
Crenellations strive as ever to keep the world at bay and daily lose the battle to pigeons and – between the hours of two and four in the afternoon – to tourists. The squirrels are no longer considered invaders; they have taken to living in the ivy many years ago, and are by now quite immovable. All attempts to remove them are repelled with considerable force.
The centrepiece to it all is a lush square of pristine lawn, which is primped to the exacting standards of Morris, the head gardener. He is fortunately enough on holiday in Blackpool this week with his good lady wife, Bernadette.
This is fortunate because there is a photocopier marching with slow determination across the surface of this verdant carpet. It leaves behind it a trail of rejected paper dots from the hole-puncher like little snowy footprints. It is emitting a series of unnatural sounds, the occasional spark, and a small group of fellows are attempting to reason with it.
The Farthingbury Fellow had finally reached the end of his patience, it seems, as he bangs his fist sharply down on the top of the machine. “Honestly, Professor! This behaviour is childish and absurd. I insist that yo-“
The photocopier makes a crunching noise before spitting out pages and pages of illegible black ink squiggles. The fellows skitter backwards out of the firing range and huddle together protectively.
“Now look what you’ve done, Jim! You’ve really upset him now!”
“Well someone’s got to do something! The chap can’t go around hijacking the photocopier like this!”
“Good heavens! What on earth is happening here this time?”
The gaggle of fellows emits a collective sigh of relief. The Bursar has arrived, which means that the problem is no longer their responsibility to resolve!
This also allows those gathered the opportunity to properly enjoy the afternoon’s shenanigans from an appropriate distance, without the risk of being devoured by the photocopier…
“Morning, Bursar!” The Senior Tutor and the Academic Dean chorus with dual angelic grins.
The Bursar’s expression suggests that he is in no way taken in by this display of innocence. His narrowed eyes scan the herd of academics and with the ease of considerable experience he singles out the weakest individual.
“Dr Burrows,” he declares, advancing like an elongated hawk on the new Hemsworth Lecturer, fresh from his first three days in college. The cornered man clearly calculates his escape options, and finds them lacking. “Dr Burrows. I require a full explanation for this latest – this – this irregularity, if you would be so good.”
It is not a request.
“I, well, I mean.” Dr Burrows briefly falters before visibly pulling himself together. “The photocopier is attempting to escape, Bursar. It seems like there’s some sort of gremlin in its works?”
This last is less certain, and the Bursar sighs. Must he do everything? Could not some other fellow take on the role of explaining the Master to new members of the College?
“I see.” Is all he says, his mind already on the meeting which he cannot miss this afternoon. Surely this will all be done with by then? Even Richards couldn’t carry on like this for long, surely?
The Bursar turns to eye his Senior Tutor over the rim of his glasses.
“I take it that someone has informed the Chaplain that we require his assistance, yes?”
The Academic Dean bounces on his toes next to his colleague, hands in his pockets and grinning like a schoolboy with an unexpected day off. The Senior Tutor tries to subdue him with a sharp dig in the ribs, but he remains resolutely undimmed.
“He’s stoppin’ in the Chapel, Bursar! We told ‘im he’d need to do an exorcism and he legged it!”
“Martin! Will you show some decorum, for once in your career, for goodness’ sake!” The Senior Tutor eyes the back of the Dean’s head as if wishing to deliver a sharp whack!
The Academic Dean ducks the swing and continues his tale, merely dancing slightly out of the Senior Tutor’s reach.
“Anyway, he says he’s claiming sanctuary in the Chapel until it’s all over. Shall we tell him you’re takin’ over, eh Bursar?”
He continues to smile beatifically (and not without a degree of defiant glee) in the face of the Bursar’s withering glare. If the Academic Dean could be reduced to a cowering wreck by an irate Bursar, there’d be no hope for him in Governing Body meetings.
“Thank you, Martin.” The Bursar’s tone is precisely as dry as his preferred sherry. “If you would be so kind as to inform the Chaplain that I would like to speak with him, I would be deeply grateful.”
“And you,” he turns on the photocopier with a whirl, causing some of the fellows to hide snorts of laughter behind coughs and in the crooks of their sleeves, “Richards, this really is too much! What possible reason could justify your occupation of such a vital part of the College’s administrative equipment? Really Professor, how can you expect the College Office to manage with the Summer School in full-force while their photocopier flees the site?”
The photocopier shudders a little in place, and then emits a series of incomprehensible noises.
“Richards, I cannot understand you when you’re in that box! Come out of there this instant or I shall be forced to ask the Chaplain to exorcise you, and it will be entirely your own fault, so I will hear no complaints from Margaret! I don’t care how used to you she is, she’ll just have to start getting used to a new Head of House! This is all utterly irregular as it is!”
“Bursar!” The cry comes from the gathering crowd behind him, shocked and horrified at the Bursar’s threat.
He waves a hand to quiet his audience. “I mean it! I will not stand for people commandeering our photocopiers like some kind of administrative armoured tank!”
As if in answer, one of the photocopier’s doors pops open in a strop, hitting the Bursar with pinpoint precision on his ankle bone, causing him to hop in an ungainly circle while exclaiming his dissatisfaction.
“That does it! Hasn’t someone got hold of the Chaplain yet?”
It is at this moment that the Reverend Lawrence Hargreaves has, with some considerable effort, finally been flushed from the depths of his vestry. The more kindly-inclined of the fellows watching would have denied that the Senior Tutor and Academic Dean are exactly frog-marching him, but no one can ignore the Chaplain’s obvious reluctance to participate in this latest college excitement.
The Bursar beckons imperiously to his colleagues and then gestures in frustration at the machine in his quad.
“Lawrence! Do something!”
The Chaplain blinks owlishly at the assembled crowd and then at the photocopier. He shakes his head in an apologetic manner.
“I’m terribly sorry, Bursar, but I’m not trained in exorcisms. I couldn’t possibly undertake such a thing without the correct certification and such.”
The Academic Dean makes a noise, which is quickly suppressed as the Senior Tutor treads heavily on his foot. Even the Bursar is momentarily stunned.
Very momentarily, mind.
“What do you mean, there’s training for this? I doubt that the unquiet dead have Health & Safety Regulations!” He blusters.
The Academic Dean is entirely unable to resist. “Oh come now Bursar, you forget yourself and your colleagues here! If Professor Richards got himself caught up in anything without proper regulation, you can be sure that he would endeavour to correct the matter immediately!”
There is a rumble of collective agreement at this assertion and the Bursar nods silently in agreement also.
“I take your point, Chaplain, Dean, but surely there are experts around who could be contacted in these situations?”
The Chaplain fumbles with his sleeves, muttering into his collar for a moment, before finally answering.
“Well, I mean, yes, of course there are, well in such situations, not that I feel we are truly in need of, I mean there are of course individuals who…” He trails momentarily into agonised silence.
The Senior Tutor moves to put a companionable hand on his shoulder, all silent solidarity. The Chaplain takes a deep breath and begins again.
“My understanding is that in such situations as merit a decent and correct exorcism, yes there are trained professionals in this as in all walks of life. All dioceses are required to have one, and I could naturally contact the Bishop and explain our requirements-“
The Bursar cuts him off at this and nods with due pomp and authority. “Well then Lawrence, be a good chap and give the man a call will you?”
There may be someone in Devon College more agreeable than the Chaplain, but nominations would be hard to think of.
This may explain the shock (of the Bursar) and the amusement (of the Dean) when the little man drew himself up to his full height and bristled like a wet cat.
Hands on his hips and all but stamping his feet, the Chaplain of Devon College advanced on the Bursar with such energy that the taller man backed away until the photocopier (still spitting out blacked paper with gusto) blocked his escape.
“No, Brian! I absolutely refuse to call up our Bishop to tell the man that we require a professional exorcist to deal with a malfunctioning photocopier! This is absolutely preposterous! The very notion that the Master of the College would spend an entire morning careening around in a photocopier is utterly absurd! The man’s never done anything of the kind before after all!”
There is a moment of silence while everyone eyes the photocopier speculatively.
“Does anyone actually know that the Professor’s in there, now that I think about it?” Someone wonders aloud from the back.
“Well, not that I know of, but it wouldn’t be the strangest thing he’s done.” Another answers.
“Chap’s been settling down a lot recently though, you can’t deny that. And I can’t see how kidnapping a photocopier’d keep him entertained for this length of time…”
The debate is interrupted at this point by Chris, the young assistant from the College Office jogging over from the West Quad to address the gathered fellows. Once arrived, Chris regards his superiors with the carefully non-judgemental and expressionless face of one who has some very distinct and not-at-all complementary opinions of the carrying-on he has just been witness to, and is refraining from giving voice to such thoughts only for the sake of future employment.
“Sorry to interrupt, Fellows, but we – well, that is the College Office – you see, we wondered if we could have our photocopier back now? I mean, you’ve had it all morning, but we really need to get on with things and the Registrar’s getting a bit… twitchy, is all.”
The Bursar looks ready to breathe fire upon the unfortunate young man, but with the swift reactions of a long-held ambition, the Academic Dean slaps a silencing hand over his mouth and speaks over him.
“Oh hello there, Chris! Sorry about the hold-up, but that’s what we were wanting too, you know? For you to get your photocopier back.” He waves at the machine in question which twitches a paper drawer in acknowledgement. “But it looks like the Master’s got himself stuck in there or something, terrible shame and all, and we’re trying to get him out of it.”
Chris’s face clears instantly, and understanding dawns across his utterly blank features.
“Oh! Oh, I see!” He surprises his audience by shaking his head and gesturing back to his colleagues who can now be observed waiting for the outcome of the conversation. “Nah, that’s not the Professor, Dean sir! The photocopier just does that sometimes, is all. Nothing for you Fellows to worry about.”
The rest of the College Office have now reached the machine too, and together they all begin to shuffle the photocopier back towards the staircase entrance. It hisses in a dissatisfied manner, but the team has clearly got considerable experience in this act, stepping around the door when it attacks, dodging the drawers and slamming them back into place, and generally ignoring the crunching noise.
“What on earth have you all been doing this morning, going and stealing the College Office’s photocopier like that.” The voice comes from the shadows of the Chapel, where Professor Horace Richards, Master of Devon College and resident ghost, has been standing, a half-smile twitching his lips.
“Nobody look at him,” the Senior Tutor mutters in a horrified whisper. “If we don’t acknowledge he’s there then he can’t be.”
“Don’t mutter, Archie, it’s Unbecoming in a Senior Tutor in my view,” Richards continues as he advances on the group. “Now really, what in heaven’s name have you all been up to? Margaret and I really couldn’t make it out at all? Did you think the Wretched Contraption needed regular exercise or something?”
“You are familiar with the … item, Professor?” The Bursar’s words are as ice.
With jovial obliviousness, Richards nods happily. “Oh yes! Had a high old time tinkering with it when Margaret was away on vacation a month or so back,” Several Fellows, including the Bursar twitch in remembered trauma. Richards sallies merrily on without them. “Marvellous invention, but I’m afraid that my attempts were perhaps not as efficient as our Invaluable Team. Margaret requests that I leave them to it from now on, can’t be doing these young people out of good jobs, can one?
“I say, there seems to be something wrong with the Dean, are you quite alright there, Dean?”
“Yes, Professor,” The Academic Dean wheezes from where his face is stuffed unceremoniously into the Senior Tutor’s shoulder to muffle his – well, those sounds must be coughing, surely? “Just a sudden attack from the, ah, the ink fumes, I expect.”
“Goodness! And you’re standing around out here?” Professor Richards, there is no other word for it, bustles towards the Dean, ushering him away from the quad and towards his office. “You need to take better care of yourself, Dean, can’t have you coming down with anything serious, can we? You just wait, I’m sure I have something for soothing coughs somewhere, Margaret’s not had chance to Deal With my cupboards yet, I’m distracting her with a paper I’m delivering next month at the Royal- oh never mind, you can’t stand here listening to me go on while Unwell, now can you?”
Their voices fade away into the astonished silence of the crowded quad.
“Well did you ever!” The Trunbridge Fellow bursts out. “Do you mean to say that the staff just let us stand around making fools of ourselves all morning for absolutely nothing?”
“They did consider interrupting you earlier, Fellows,” says Margaret, mildly as she regards them all with motherly amusement. “But you all seemed to be having such fun that they thought it best to leave you to it. I’m terribly sorry that we had to spoil your fun like this, but they really do need to get started on the forms for next week, I’m afraid.”
The Senior Tutor apparently cannot hold the question in any longer. “Do photocopiers really just, just do that?”
Margaret raised a stern eyebrow. “The College photocopier is rather old and filled with character, Professor Biggins. I’m afraid that it does sometimes have its little moments, but so do many aspects of college life, do they not?”
No one seems to have an answer to this, but by now it is lunchtime, and there are more pressing matter to be attended to.
Enjoyed this story? Check out the rest of the series here.
Merry Christmas Everyone!