No, you’re not imagining it, readers who have patiently waited for this new chapter for months on end! It’s finally here!
If you’re coming to the Ghosts&Gowns series for the first time, there’s a summery page for everything that’s come before it here. Enjoy!
If one works in an office in a college for long enough, one acquires The Admin Face.
It is entirely blank and devoid of all expression. It has no cracks in its defences, no chink in the armour.
It neither bends nor breaks, no matter the Force of Nature that assails it. The Admin Face must endure all.
It comes very much in handy when explaining to the most well-read persons that if they were to perhaps read the third line of their committee papers again, they might come to the conclusion that their meeting is – and has always been – in another location.
It is invaluable when suggesting to the greatest minds in generations that, like most doors, this one will open should one turn the handle and push (or failing this, pull.) That there is no Key of Legend necessary, merely hand-eye coordination.
It is the expression firmly affixed to Margaret’s face as she silently surveys the figure before her.
“I think you will understand if I do not offer you tea?”
Thank you but no, Margaret Cl- Pink-rimmed glasses do not soften the flash in grey eyes as they narrow dangerously. The figure stumbles of its words for a moment before rallying slightly. No thank you, Margaret.
Margaret waits in silence for a moment further. The figure remains motionless too, but it is a studied stillness, that of one trying not to fidget.
Finally Margaret lifts one unimpressed eyebrow. “Is there something I can help you with this evening?”
I should like to meet with Horace Richards, Margaret.
Margaret’s crossed arms do not budge, but the fingers of one hand begin to tap out an irregular rhythm. The figure twitches slightly as if wishing to make her stop, but stays in place.
“I’m afraid that you do not have an appointment. I am sorry to disappoint you.”
Death does not require an appointment.
Margaret’s lips quirk upwards on one side. Cats did the same thing before they bit you, in Death’s experience.
“My understanding was that everyone has an appointment with Death, do they not? But only one such appointment. Yours was two months ago; not today.”
Death gave the distinct impression of eyeing the office wall. No lock, bolt nor key can keep Death away after all. Death could simply walk past her, perhaps?
“I’m afraid I must repeat myself. You do not have an appointment with Professor Richards.”
The standoff settled properly for a moment before a head poked through the wall.
“Who don’t I have an appointment with, Margaret?”
Professor Horace Richards, Master of Devon College maintained that his timing was one of the best-honed in the Known World.
He took in the figure standing opposite his Personal Assistant, and beamed a cheery greeting.
“Oh, hello there! Dropping in to see everyone are you, or is it business?”
The figure slowly nodded a cautious greeting, although it appeared to be keeping a wary eye on Margaret still, perhaps in case of attack.
“I regret that this is not a social call, Horace Richards. I have business in this place.”
Margaret made a stifled noise which in another woman could have been almost a snarl. Richards froze for a moment, a thoroughly stricken look on his pale face.
“Oh dear, I mean to say – Margaret, this is awful! Surely not?”
“Well, I mean really – it’s one thing when it’s oneself of course, but to see it happen to one’s friends! Awful is what I call it.” Horace fixed Death with a stern look. “You know I don’t like to tell a chap – or supernatural being in your case, I suppose – how to do their job, you know I don’t, but I really do think you ought to reconsider this a little.”
I should reconsider doing my job, you say?
Horace puffed himself up slightly before waving a finger in a reproving manner at the Grim Reaper.
“Indeed, I do! I mean, I’m sure that Margaret would be a veritable asset to whatever plain of existence she took up residence on, but the College is rather indebted to her and all, you know? Quote irreplaceable, our Margaret. I cannot, as the Master of the College, in good conscience allow you to take her from us without protest, you understand.”
For a moment which, had Richards been paying attention, would have seemed surreal in the extreme, Death and Margaret seemed to share a bewildered look, untied from conflict in the face of Horace Richards in full-flow.
“Professor,” Margaret attempted to intercede, before Richards patted her kindly on the shoulder and boldly forged onwards without a pause.
“No, no Margaret, you need never fear! I shall be quite prepared to fight for you! Such long and devoted service shall not be in vain! Why, I have half a mind to call the Bursar in on the matter, indeed I do!”
Horace turned on Death once more, and shook his head in a fatherly manner.
“I know that you came prepared to do battle for Margaret’s life, and I have no doubt that you have a great deal of experience in Such Matters, but I promise you, my dear fellow, that you are most certainly not equipped to do battle with the Bursar! There are, I suspect, few if any who can out-match him for persistence and technicality-wrangling…”
Richards spun and bustled out through the wall for a moment, before returning to call, “And no sneaking off with Margaret’s immortal soul until we get back, you hear?”
The two former-opponents looked at each other for a beat of silence. Margaret broke it with a resigned sigh.
“Would you care for that cup of tea now?”
Death sighed deeply for a moment, its shoulders slumped a little in the wake of the tempest known to some as Professor Richards.
Some tea would be most… reviving at the moment. Thank you, Margaret.
Margaret poured and passed Death a cup. The saucer clinked as bone fingers clasped it. After another beat of silence, Death spoke again.
I feel that this interview has been far less of a success than the last one I undertook with Horace Richards.
Margaret smiled at the slumped figure in a motherly way.
“It’s quite alright, my dear; the Professor often gets like this. You could not have been expected to explain once he properly got himself going.”
He is… very determined.
“In absolutely every matter he undertakes, I’m afraid. You may feel free to step out now if you feel it would be easier. I’m quite certain that there are many other things that you could be more profitably engaged in.”
Death considered it for a moment.
Thank you for the offer, but I feel that I must see the point through.
Whatever Margaret might have said in return was lost as the door flinging itself open and Richards bodily dragging the Bursar into the office, speaking all the while.
“-why you simply must explain to them that Death may well be inevitable but that’s no reason to take Margaret away.”
The Bursar did not look at all thrilled to be in the presence of his inevitable fate but – presumably emboldened by the prospect of having to replace a long-term staff member and the loss of experience along with them – took a deep breath, adjusted his glasses with firm and concise motions and fixed Death with a Level Look.
“Am I to understand that you are here on business, er, Death?” He paused to flick a glance at Margaret, before asking, “Death? Mort? Grim Reaper? Sir?”
“I understand those are more titles than names, Bursar.”
The Bursar nodded, now on firmer ground. “Indeed.”
He cleared his throat again.
“Am I to understand that you are here on a matter of business?”
“I don’t suppose that we might, on behalf of the College, be able to negotiate some form of exception?”
Has this College not already done such a thing?
There was an embarrassed pause, which the Bursar broke with Customary Tact.
“Oh, you mean Richards? Well there’s no accounting for the madness of Horace, after all! Many fine men and women have tried to their downfall you know!”
“Bursar!” Margaret’s tone would have etched glass.
Richards simply adopted an expression of Mild Confusion and Curiosity, an omen which promised far-greater suffering at a time of his choosing.
The Bursar may have winced a little. Just a little. It may have been a trick of the light. Then he Gathered Himself.
“My larger point in this discussion, regardless of other matters, is that Margaret-“
But I have not come with a view to collecting the lady’s soul, gentlemen.
Death’s tone was infused with just a touch of desperation as the conversation threatened to run away from it again. The Bursar’s involvement in a matter tended to have that effect.
In a historic moment for the College and Oxford in general, the Head of the College and the Bursar were in Complete Agreement.
No! I merely wished to-
Richards clapped his hands in triumph. “Well that’s a relief then! Most gratifying, I should say, is it not, Bursar?”
He clapped the Bursar heartily on the shoulder and cheerfully continued as the poor man shivered in the cold sensation and Margaret passed him a Warming Beverage.
“Yes indeed, quite a weight off one’s mind and all that. Thank heaven and whatnot. I shudder to think what we should all do without Margaret’s Extensive Experience.”
Margaret gently cleared her throat, bringing Richard’s attention back to his visitor.
“Thank you for your concern, Professor, but the Grim Reaper wished to ascertain if you were still satisfied with your current position.”
Death shifted a little, as if uncomfortable. It started to speak and Margaret shot the figure a truly poisonous look, and it fell silent.
“Margaret,” Richards sounded as though he were trying for reprimanding but unable to follow through on the concept. “Kindly stop intimidating our guest, if you please.”
Margaret’s eyes widened into a picture of perfect innocence. The Bursar snorted and was elbowed into silence by the spectre at his side.
“The Grim Reaper wished to see you, Professor. I was simply explaining that you were about to Chair the Finance Committee at two.”
The Bursar started. “Oh my goodness, yes! We’ll be late starting at this rate! Come along, Master, there’s no time to waste!”
He waved imperiously at Richards and bustled out of the room.
“There’s still ten minutes until the meeting begins, Bursar, will you please settle down?” Muttered Richards after the man as he watched him depart.
No response came back, and he sighed.
“You shouldn’t excite him like that, Margaret.”
“Yes, Professor.” Perfect innocence.
“Quite.” Richards returned his attentions to Death. “So I gather that you are here for me once more, eh? Seems a bit redundant, doesn’t it?”
Death looked remarkably exhausted for an Eternal Force of nature.
I was concerned that leaving you here may have been… a mistake. I try not to leave, what is the term? Loose ends?
Richards’ expression as he regarded the personification of Death hovering in his secretary’s office was remarkably fond.
“Oh is that what was worrying you, old thing? Feeling like you’d left me behind or some such? Well worry no more! I’m perfectly content to keep bustling about the place, just as I expected. Aren’t I, Margaret?”
“You do seem to be quite satisfied by your situation, Professor. It appears to be presenting you with interesting opportunities and experiences.”
“Quite! No second thoughts to be found here, indeed no!”
Death appeared unconvinced.
It is untidy. Incompleteness is unsatisfactory. There may be consequences.
Richards did not appear to be swayed. “Nonsense, my dear chap! That’s life, after all! Or not, as the case may be. We must all resign ourselves to the decisions of others after all. Even the Bursar does, and he’s almost as inescapable as yourself!”
He is a man of considerable energy.
“Nicest thing anyone’s ever said about the man, isn’t it Margaret? Did you make a note of that?”
“I did, Professor.”
“Excellent! Anyway, you stop worrying yourself on my account, eh? Can’t be good for the health, even for you! I take full responsibly for the results of my own actions, you know?”
Death paused in the process of making another remonstration. You do?
Margaret’s head whipped around to stare at it, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. “I beg your pardon?”
Death ignored her. You will take responsibility for the consequences of this irregularity.
Richards held his head up high. “Indeed I do! I dare say between Margaret, the College and myself, we can manage any effects, whatever they may be.”
I see. Death gathered itself together. In that case, I shall leave you, Horace Richards and Margaret.
And with that the figure was gone.
The Master of Devon College exchanged a look with his secretary.
“Odd sort of person, Death. Seems a bit of a natural worrier, if you ask me.” He shrugged. “Mind you, I suppose when one is essentially the embodiment of The Worst Thing That Could Happen, it may be inevitable.”
Richards shook his head. “Ah well, not time to ponder such things now. Must be off to Chair that meeting before the Bursar goes Mad with Power.”
“That would be very unfortunate, Professor.”
“Indeed it would! Hold down the fort until I get back, won’t you, Margaret?”
“Very well, Professor.”
And that was, as they say, that.