Posted in Oxford Odditites

The Times It Turns Into A Horror Setting…

Somewhere on this blog, back in the beginning, I said that living in Oxford is as close to living in a fantasy world as a person can get while still kind of inhabiting real life and sanity.

Well, here’s a quirk of Oxford in the Spring and Autumn which you don’t tend to see talked about nearly enough; in the mornings the whole of the Oxford-basin area gets completely filled with this thick fog that hangs around and won’t shift until about 11am.  As the season for this weather is so short and comes around only twice a year, I always forget that it’s coming and so am always surprised anew when it comes seemingly out of nowhere.

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And what’s amazing about that is, because Oxford has such a high proportion of Gothic-style architecture and old trees, my walk to work in the morning immediately feels like I’m walking through the set of an old Universal Studios’ horror film, all black-and-white atmosphere. Growing up, I’d never seen anything like it, and as an adult experiencing it for the first time, I suddenly got in a way I never had before why fog is inherently terrifying to humans.

The way it deadens sound and people accidentally end up ‘jumping out at you’ (otherwise known as ‘innocently turning a corner’) without warning because you couldn’t hear or see them coming.

The way that you absolutely know that there’s a huge set of buildings just on the other side of that wall, but you can’t see any trace of them. But you know that they’s there, right? They must be. You’re sure that they were there yesterday…

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It’s mornings like this when I think of old stories I was told as a child, and even older ‘ghost stories’ written down in medieval saints’ lives.

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The Anglo-Saxons held a belief that there was this world, a world of humans, and logic and natural law, where up was up and down was down, and another world, a world where monsters and demons and magic lived. A world separate from ours, for the most part, but held so by major landmarks and physical things which you could clearly see and touch and know to be true. You know that the next village over is just past that tree and turn left. You know, that tree there, that you can see.

But in the heavy fog, or at night, when you can barely seen four foot in front of you, is that tree still there? After all, you can’t see it. No, of course it’s there, you know it’s there! But… But it’s not there. Not that you can see, anyway.20190214_085043

It reminds me of the stories of vanishing villages, of which Brigadoon is the most famous. The legend of Brigadoon, for the uninitiated, is the story of a village in the Scottish Highlands, which became enchanted centuries ago to remain unchanged, stuck in time, and invisible to the outside world except for one day every hundred years when it could be seen and even visited by outsiders.  Growing up in Cumbria, which has lots of little villages tucked away in between mountains and lakes, it always seemed far pretty plausible that one of two could get … lost in some magical mishap.

Oxford in the fog gives me that same feeling, of areas that have been lost, stuck in time perhaps, but also perhaps were purposefully hidden away for safety (ours of theirs?) and might, if one were not very careful, be stumbled into in the fog. And then what?

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With thanks to Parker Foye for  this photograph of Magdalen Bridge in the fog. You can (and should!) check out their writing here: (http://parkerfoye.com/)

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

Ghosts and Gowns Icon 4 - SmallChronicles In Creation - Banner (large)

 

 

 

 

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns

Duck and Cover

I know that this is a bit late for Halloween, but it seemed appropriate to resurrect not only the dragons, but the ghosts too! Please enjoy the latest joys of the Devon College’s antics. This story has a dedication, but it comes at the end, so as not to spoil anything!

Ch.9 - Duck and Cover

“MARGARET!”

The cry echoed through the wall. It was followed shortly after by the Master of Devon College himself, with the icy blast of his spectral presence sending papers scattering.

“Oh thank heavens,” he continued as he caught sight of his secretary rising from her desk to glare at the slowly settling flurry of paper. “I see you’re in, Margaret, how fortunate.”

“Indeed, Professor?”

In addition to the raised eyebrow and cool glower, Margaret’s arms came to settle crossed severely in an Omen of Certain Doom. The fact that Professor Richards, Master of the College, was in no way put off by this tableau of vengeance gave Margaret pause however.

Perhaps the matter really was Serious, after all?

“Margaret, there is an absolute crisis afoot! Marshal your resources, if you please, for we must at last mount our war of defence!”

“Indeed, Professor?”

Ch.1 - Life is Compulsory - smallWhere before Margaret’s tone had been one of imminent disaster, now there was a note of concern and uncertainty. For a moment she observed the Master pacing a foot above the carpet, clearly too agitated to remember his intention to ‘walk, as is appropriate for a Model of Student Behaviour.’ Horace Richards was a most prosaic man by nature and not at all given to the hysterics of the Bursar or the earnest fumblings of the Chaplain. If the Master felt so strongly that something was seriously wrong that he was prepared to risk her Filing and her ire then perhaps…?

“Indeed, Margaret! Don’t fail me now, I beg of you, we must Do Something immediately!”

Margaret took a deep breath. “And what is specifically the problem, Professor?”

Richards paused in the act of walking through the more comfortable of the office armchairs (for weeping students and especially polite Fellows) and blinked at her for a moment.

“But have I not explained, Margaret?”

“I am afraid not, Professor.”

“Just jumped straight into it mid-sentence, you say?”

“So it would seem, Professor.”

“Good grief! Not like myself at all, am I?” Richards took a deep (unnecessary) breath of his own and visibly Pulled Himself Together. “I do apologise, Margaret. Quite an Unforgivable Lapse for a moment.”

Margaret reached across the desk and patted him comfortingly on the hand. He floated down somewhat to settle into the armchair he’d stopped inside and blinked owlishly.

“I’m sure that it is quite understandable, Professor. Now, what seems to be the problem, and how may I assist you?”

The moment of peace was apparently over and Richards once again burst upwards from the chair to gesture more expansively.

“A veritable coup is underway, Margaret! I have no doubt that you are prepared for just Such An Eventuality, never fear that I doubt you in this-“ He inclined his head respectfully towards his secretary, who inclined hers back in thanks. “No, no I have faith that you shall quash the matter without delay, of course, but the outrage!”

Richards spun to a stop raised he finger to the ceiling to emphasise his point and declared furiously, “The Bursar is Rebelling, Margaret!”

There was a silent pause.

“Indeed, Professor?” This third iteration sounded more resigned than anything which had come before it. “Has he invited more than his allotted number of guests to High table again?”

Richards cast her an Aggrieved Look.

“Margaret! I don’t think you’re taking this seriously at all!”

“Professor. The Bursar is not plotting your imminent downfall. We have had this discussion.” Margaret bent to begin collecting up her scattered papers.

“He most certainly is, I tell you!”

“And what has the poor man done to alert you to his, I have no doubt, nefarious plot?”

The Master of Devon College stomped his foot through the floor with a huff. As his foot only just missed the paper Margaret was in the process of picking up, he earned nothing more for his efforts than a truly poisonous look.

“I am concerned by your sympathy for this, this underhanded deceiver, Margaret! He has been Behaving Uncharacteristically for some time, I will have you know, as if he were hiding something of Value. And naturally I made it my business to discover what it might be”

“Naturally.”

Despite concerted effort from the FitzMitchell Chemistry Fellow, there existed no ice more dry than Margaret’s tone. Richards shot her a glare but was met with nothing but a flat look in return.

“Your plan, Margaret, if you please?”

Whatever Margaret might have said in response to this will be forever unknown, as at the very moment, who else but the Bursar’s PA, Sarah, burst into the room with a brief knock. In a flash, Richards had dived to hide in the filing cabinets, a learned instinct which Margaret made a note to correct at some other, less fraught time.

“Margaret, you’re not busy are you? No? Wonderful; I hate to bother you with uncertainties, but the Bursar’s been behaving more oddly than normal recently.”

“Aha! Proof! From his own office, no less!”

The words burst forth, followed shortly by the ghost who veritably exploded from the draws in a whirl of plastic wallets, post-its and neatly-organised papers.

The two women glared in silence for a moment, while the fluttering sheets slowly settled around them.

“Good morning, Professor,” Sarah sighed.

She didn’t even look startled anymore. Margaret’s advice had clearly been paying off, and equally clearly Richards needed to start thinking of new tricks.

“Sarah, you came to see me with some concerns?” Margaret made a valiant effort to get the conversation back on topic.

Sarah nodded. She spoke uncertainly of mysterious appointments in which the only voice heard was the Bursar’s. She explained that he was keeping increasingly odd working hours and refusing to allow her inside his office unless pressed very hard, and even then he would hover around and usher Sarah out as soon as he could.

“Perhaps he has documents detailing his plans for conquest and he fears that you would assist our rebellion, Sarah?” Richards was perhaps a little more invested in this notion than was good for him?

 At the very least, Sarah seemed cheered by the idea, and by the confidence he had in her. “Thank you, Professor. I should of course assist as was appropriate.”

Margaret simply sat at her desk, her fingers steepled and listened closely. Whenever Richards looked as if he would interrupt, her grey eyes flashed over the tops of her green-rimmed glasses and he subsided quickly. Finally Sarah was finished and Margaret sat in silence for a long moment, thinking.

“While I do agree that this is strange behaviour – yes, even for the Bursar – I am reluctant to consider it a matter for concern. Like many gentlemen occupied with financial matters, the Bursar is perhaps a little,” she paused, delicately, “highly strung? I may be that he only needs time to settle down again and that our interference would only make things worse.”

Sarah nodded, and even Richards could think of no rejoinder.

“Well then, I thank you both for coming to express your concerns to me, but we shall all have to just keep an eye on the situation and see what developments unfold.”

And that, for a time was that.

Richards certainly did not sulk as Margaret shooed him out of her office with a pointed glare at the detritus he’d caused to be scattered all over everything. Nor at her utter refusal to destroy the Bursar on demand.

He most certainly did not.

*

Ch.4 - A Crisis of Faith - small“Isn’t that the Bursar talking to the Herriot Fellow again?”

“It would appear so, Professor.” Margaret didn’t even look away from her task of affixing conference signs up on the notice board in the Porters’ Lodge. As the Master of the College, Richards was Assisting by holding the rest of the posters in a neat stack.

Richards scowled at her lack of attention, but continued on undaunted. “But they never speak to each other! They haven’t said two words together since The Lobster Incident back in ’13. The Bursar even declared that he’d see the Herriot Fellow trampled by his own research before he’d admit him onto the Charity Board, remember?”

Margaret straightened at last, and frowned, considering. “I do remember, Professor. However, I should like to remind you that the Chaplain has been very keen on the teachings regarding the reconciling of enemies and laying aside of anger this year. Perhaps he has succeeded where the rest of us have failed?”

Richards opened his mouth to decry the idea of the Chaplain (or indeed, of anyone) persuading the Bursar to do anything, but then reconsidered. After his own experience of a meeting with an eager and inspired Chaplain seeking to provide Solace and Succour, he supposed that a similarly beleaguered Bursar might agree to anything to end the suffering too.

“Perhaps that is it, Margaret. Perhaps that is it.”

*

“Margaret, he’s stealing all the bread rolls again!”

“Indeed, Professor?”

“Indeed! This lunchtime alone he made off with four – four, mark you! – with four bread rolls!”

Margaret blinked. “I see.”

The expression Richards bore suggested that rather more had been expected of her, and Margaret preferred to give satisfaction where possible.

“I shall make note of it. Please let me know if there are further developments, Professor.”

Richards puffed himself up slightly and bustled out again. “Indeed I shall, Margaret. Indeed I shall!”

Margaret resumed writing the minutes for tomorrow’s meeting of the Fellowships Committee.

*

Ch.7 - The Ghost in the MachineBeatrice, the College Librarian, rarely left the sacred ground of the stacks for anything save the gravest on emergencies, so her presence at Coffee was a sure cause for concern. Margaret accordingly put the gingernuts back in her desk drawer and withdrew the chocolate-coated Viennese Whirls instead.

If there was a crisis to be dealt with, it could not be managed on the everyday biscuits.

Sarah, arriving late, took in Beatrice’s presence also and ran back to her office for the left-over cake from her daughter’s birthday. Margaret nodded in thanks before Addressing the Issue.

“You have something you would like to talk about, Beatrice?” She asked, kindly.

Beatrice sighed in relief of being asked, and took a second bite of her Whirl.

“You know, I shouldn’t like to mention it, in the usual course of things, and I don’t want to suggest, Sarah, that you might be slipping at all…”

She trailed off for a moment as Margaret and Sarah exchanged grim looks.

Sarah leaned forwards, clutching her coffee cup like a lifeline as her braced herself for the worst. “It’s the Bursar, isn’t it? Has he been behaving… oddly, at all?”

Beatrice nodded, taking one of Sarah’s hands in her own. “You knew?” she whispered.

Sarah nodded and sniffed quietly.

Margaret coughed gently. “May I ask what happened, Beatrice? We must know what we are facing, after all.”

Beatrice took a deep breath. “I’m afraid that the Bursar has been taking a large number of ornithology books out of the library… and not returning them on time.”

Sarah gasped and dropped her cake. “No! But he feels so strongly about the prompt returning of loaned books! He lectures the new students about it every Michaelmas!”

Beatrice looked pained. “I am aware. And yet he has run up – I’m sorry, Sarah, this must be very painful – but he has run up over £15 in fines already and if they are not returned tomorrow then he will owe more than £20!”

There was a pause as the shock was absorbed. Margaret refilled everyone’s cups, and passed cake and biscuits around again. After all, if caffeine and sugar cannot fix a problem then All was Surely Lost.

Finally Margaret gently took up the conversation again.

“Sarah, I assume that you have not seen any of these books in the Bursar’s office? Perhaps they may have been buried by the preparations for the Investments Committee tomorrow?”

Sarah threw her hands up in distress and frustration.

“And how should I know?! He still won’t let me in there and when I think of the mess he’ll have made of the ring bonders I set up for him-!” She broke off with an inarticulate noise of rage.

Margaret nodded again. “Quite so. Naturally when all of this is resolved, Sarah, I shall be happy to lend any assistance you require to set the room back to rights.”

Sarah calmed slightly, and nodded her thanks while accepting more cake.

Beatrice looked somehow even more aghast. “He won’t let you in his office? It must be worse than I thought!”

Margaret patted her arm while passing the biscuits over again. “Let us not lose hope at this stage. I’m sure it can only be a temporary lapse in judgement and he will be properly ashamed when he recovers himself. Beatrice, might you see your way clear to not mentioning the matter to the Master or the Dean? I shall see what can be discovered.”

Beatrice and Sarah both relaxed slighted and sipped their coffee.

“Thank you, Margaret.” Beatrice sighed, “I knew I could rely on you to set my mind at ease.”

Margaret smiled slightly, but internally, she was worried. Perhaps Professor Richards had not been over-reacting at all?

*

The final straw came two days later, when Sarah called Margaret in tones of such distress that witnesses reported seeing Margaret actually run out of her office and towards the Bursary, with Richards floating along rapidly behind her.

Before they had reached the building, however, they stopped dead (if you will pardon the expression) in their tracks, shocked at the scene they had arrived at.

Arrayed in front of them was a preposterous scene the likes of which had not been seen since the Gaudy Night of three years before.

The week prior to the return of the students was habitually the occasion for ten sturdy young men armed with an array of sharp and strong weapons to do battle with the college ivy. Although the war was an ongoing matter, after three or four days the green enemy was beaten back once more to its accepted boundaries and windows could once again let in light.

However, right now the fine men of the gardens department were being held at ransom, it seemed, by an irate Bursar.

Primordial eagle faced off against tree shepherds with such ferocity that Richards afterwards swore that he could actually see the feathers being ruffled. Surely at any moment the thin man would actually take flight and swoop for the men’s eyes?

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1Although too far away to make out the Bursar’s actual words, it could be interpreted by careful examination of various hand-gestures that the gentlemen of the forest wished very much to give the ivy covering the Bursar’s office windows a good trimming, and that the Bursar was at least equally keen that they should kindly bugger off and take their sheers and pruning equipment with them.

Richards wandered over to the amassed crowd of fellows, graduate students and various staff members to absolutely not snigger into the Dean’s shoulder at the scene, while Margaret attempted to catch Sarah’s attention through her window and signal for more details.

Through some carefully-used facial expressions and the barest hint of hand signals, Margaret and Sarah were able to ascertain that there seemed to be something hidden within the ivy, and as the Chaplain had now been summoned to bring Peace, Order and Forgiveness to the standoff, Margaret carefully slipped off her shoes, hitched up her skirt, and clambered across the ivy-provided climbing frame to discover what the source of the dispute may be.

“Oh!”

At her cry of surprise and possible delight (was Margaret ever delighted? Scholars would spend years debating the very thing) all noise in the West Quadrangle ceased abruptly.

“Margaret, get down from there this instant!” The Bursar turned his fury onto a new target, but any further expostulations were prevented by the Master of the College unceremoniously clobbering him with a nearby bicycle.

“Bursar, if you cause Margaret to fall from fright, I shall personally ensure that you are banned from every single Benefactors’ event for the rest of time!”

 “Miss, can we help you down from there?”

“Shall I bring you a ladder, Margaret?” Richards looked around for the very thing.

“Margaret, watch where you’re stepping for goodness’ sake!” Even Beatrice had been coaxed out by the racket, it seemed.

“Margaret, are you alright up there?” Sarah leaned out of her window, preparing to help her friend however she could.

Margaret turned slightly, waved a reassuring hand to her anxious would-be rescuers, and slowly began her descent back to solid ground.

“Is it treasure?” called one of the more excitable students. There was a general rumbling of excitement from the crowd. What had been found indeed?

Smiling, Margaret shook her head at the disappointed crowd, and gently asked the gardeners if they might possibly come back to finish the West Quadrangle next week? With much grumbling and some rather uncomplimentary language cast in the Bursar’s direction, this was agreed to.

Ch.5 - The Problem with Ghosts - small“Oh, don’t mind the Bursar!” Richards, now that his Margaret had ceased dangling from unstable foliage over the deep drop into the cellar-area, was in high spirits in the face of such a good morning’s entertainment. “He’s always like this when we haven’t aired his coffin out properly!”

The icy glare he received at this last would have felled another man, but Richards had not become the head of a college by being susceptible to affronted glares from academics, and he in no way meant to start becoming so now.

Instead he loftily called to Sarah to pull out “fresh supplies of the old AB negative, if you’d be so good, the poor chap’s had quite a morning of it!” And watched with great satisfaction as some of the more impressionable graduates ran from the back of the crowd to spread the word that the generally long-held belief had finally received confirmation.

One has to take one’s victories where one can, after all.

Eventually – the spectacle apparently being over – the crowd dispersed, the gardeners moved onto other, less fraught, walls in need of trimming and the Bursar was escorted firmly into his office by the Chaplain and the Dean with Richards following after a stern talking-to by Margaret on the Evils of False Rumour-mongering. Once assembled, with Sarah and Margaret ensconced in the available armchairs, all was revealed at last.

Ducklings, Bursar. Really?”

Perhaps it was his avian ancestry, Richards would later speculate which had led to the bursar adopting the mallards nesting in the leaves above his window? That he had done his best to keep the family a secret from all was only natural – Bursars after all not being a personality-type easily lent towards sharing in joys and wonders.

“I suppose that explains the stolen bread and the such interest in birds, eh?” Richards clapped the Bursar firmly on the shoulder, nearly sending the taller man into a gigantic and unstable looking pile of papers. “And there I was thinking that you’d been talking to the Herriot Fellow after the Chaplain’s influence towards reconciliation!”

Although the Bursar looked like the very idea pained him, the Chaplain’s smile was an incandescent thing to behold. Long years of practice ensured that all present had raised their hands to their eyes to shield them from the glow.

“Why, Professor, your continued faith in my influence is a constant comfort to me!”

“Think nothing of it, Lawrence!” Richards waved a hand, apparently not finished causing mischief today. “Now tell me, do you think the ducklings ought to be baptised? I’m afraid I’m not up on my feathered-faithfulness, and I’d hate to think that we might be caught out in providing appropriate pastoral care!”

Sarah made a noise which suggested either sudden and intense pain or smothered laughter, while Margaret mentally scheduled three extra and totally unnecessary meetings with the Vice-Chancellor in the coming week.

It wouldn’t do to allow the professor to have everything his own way, after all.

*

Dedicated to the many adorable ducks that nest in and around Oxford’s Colleges. You sometimes have really weird ideas about suitable nesting places, and you have no idea at all about how traffic works, but you bring joy to me every single year without fail!

Dedicated also to the Twitter of  may you forever keep quacking on!

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Enjoyed this story? Check out the rest of the series here.

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

Just Checking In

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!

Ch.8 - Just Checking In

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.

Ch.1 - Life is Compulsory - smallFinally 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?”

“Professor?”

“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.

Ch.5 - The Problem with Ghosts - small“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.

Ch.7 - The Ghost in the Machine“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 am.

“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.

Ch.9 - Duck and Cover“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.

“You haven’t?”

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.

Ch.6 - The Hero of the Hour - Part 1 - small“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.

“Well then.”

“Indeed, Professor.”

“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.”

“Perhaps, Professor.”

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.

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

The Ghosts Are Resurrected!

I write with good news!

After a heck of a break from the series, and bolstered by a lovely shoutout from The Orangutan Librarian, I’m happy to say that I will shortly be posting some new episodes of the Ghosts & Gowns series!

For those who haven’t read it yet, or for whom it was all so long ago you can’t remember it, I’ve set up links to all the various chapters below. I definitely recommend reading the first two chapters if you’d like to know what on earth’s going on in the next installment!

The basic premise of a ghost ending up running a (sadly fictional) Oxford College was just too much fun to let die, and I hope that you’ll have fun in sharing it with me!

Chapter 1: Life is Compulsory, Death is Optional – Professor Richards, Master of Devon College, knew he was dead when he woke up and found Death sitting by his bedside.

Chapter 2: Reactions  Reactions to the news that Professor Richards would not be allowing mere death to interfere with him living a full life were… mixed.

Chapter 3: The Joys and Hardships of Life After Death – Professor Richards, Master of Devon College despite having ceased to breathe some three days ago, had found that there were several benefits for life after death.

Chapter 4: A Crisis of Faith – Everyone expected the Chaplain to be the greatest issue about Professor Richards’ refusal to accept Death as a good excuse to stop working. They were correct in this belief, but not perhaps in the form events happened to take effect.

Chapter 5: 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.

Chapter 6: The Hero of the Hour – Part 1 – Something’s afoot in Devon College and it’s up to Professor Richards to save the day!

Chapter 6: The Hero of the Hour – Part 2 – It’s the morning after the excitement of the night before. How do you explain that your resident ghost now fights crime?

Chapter 7: The Ghost in the Machine – There’s something going on with the College’s photocopier, but is it really what the Fellows think it is?

Chapter 8: Just Checking In – In which Richards sallies forth to the rescue, and Death would just like this conversation to be over with…

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

The Ghost in the Machine

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.

Continue reading “The Ghost in the Machine”